Mass Distractions: The Less Is More Principle

by Jimmy Akin

in +Religion, Bible, Canon Law, Liturgical Year, Liturgy, Theology

question-markThis week at St. Anonymous the Ambiguous, there was a priest I hadn’t seen before.

He was a younger priest who struck me as sincere, earnest, and orthodox, so I was favorably disposed to him.

I was also grateful that he wasn’t the emotionally insecure, narcissistic priest who sometimes fills in and makes himself the center of attention by pacing up and down the aisle and into the transepts, sometimes going as far back as fourteen rows down the main aisle, so that he’s standing behind most of the congregation (and directly behind many of them) as he yells his scoldy, overwrought sermons into the wireless mic.

That guy drives me nuts.

So I was really glad it wasn’t him, and that automatically made me like the new guy.

This didn’t stop there from being some distractions, though.


Heart Trouble

Early in his homily, the new priest said the following (quoting from memory):

The heart of the gospel is the Sermon on the Mount
And the heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the Beatitudes
And the Beatitudes show us the heart of God.

I get what the priest was trying to do here. He wanted to say that the Beatitudes show us the heart of God.

But this is a case of less is more, because he should have just said that.

By introducing the statement the way he did, it popped me right out of the sermon, causing me to become distracted as I tried to figure out what he meant.

The heart of the gospel is the Sermon on the Mount? Really? Not Jesus? Not his death and resurrection? Not God’s love for man? Not something like that?

Also, the Sermon on the Mount is in Matthew 5-7, so it’s right near the front of Matthew’s Gospel, not at its heart.

And the Beatitudes are right at the beginning of Matthew 5, so they aren’t “geographically” at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, either.

One wouldn’t even want to say that the Sermon on the Mount is the heart of Jesus’ ethical teachings, because that would be the first and second great commandments, which aren’t discussed until Matthew 22.

So I was distracted by trying to figure out what kind of “heart” language the priest was using when the priest finally got where he was going: The Beatitudes show us the heart of God.

Homilists take note: Getting rhetorically fancy like this can severely distract your audience, so apply the K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Simple, Sir).


Ex Cathedra

A little later in the homily, the priest started to explain the term ex cathedra. (I’m not sure why.)

He explained (correctly) that it means “from the chair,” the chair being a symbol of a pope’s or bishop’s authority.

He explained (incorrectly) that the pope sits in a special chair when he proclaims a dogma.

At least, that’s what I thought I heard him say.

I may have missed a verb tense, and he may have said that the pope used to sit in a special chair when proclaiming a dogma.

But I have no evidence that that’s true, either. As far as I’m aware, the use of the phrase ex cathedra in connection with dogmas didn’t come about until the Middle Ages, when the term cathedra had already begun to be used metaphorically for a bishop’s magisterium or teaching authority.

I certainly can’t think of any dogmas that were ever proclaimed by a pope while sitting in his cathedra.

In reality, popes proclaim dogmas via special documents.

Since I’m not really sure what this had to do with the Beatitudes (the subject of the Gospel reading), I’m inclined to say this is another case of less is more. Omitting the digression about the meaning of ex cathedra would have let him make his point more clearly.


Becoming a Christian

Toward the end of the homily, the priest said something along the lines of:

When we become a Christian, we lose all fear.
When we become a Christian, we gain great confidence (or maybe he said “perfect love”).

Bang! Again I’m popped right out of the sermon.

The distraction in this case is that all of the baptized already are Christians, and it’s plain that they don’t lose all fear.

So I’m off thinking about 1 John 4:18, where John says:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.

But John is talking about being perfected in love–something that happens later in the Christian life, if it happens in this life at all, not when we first become Christians.

This forced me to wonder, “What is the priest is going for?” Does he realize he may cause scrupulosity among some who are present if they infer from their fears that they aren’t truly Christians yet? Doesn’t he realizes that he’s in a building full of people who were baptized as babies and therefore have no memory of a time when they were not Christians? Why is he saying something that would (at best) apply only to adult converts?

I could only conclude that he was trying to employ some kind of rhetorical flourish by stating things in hyperbolically absolute terms.

So once again, his rhetoric was getting in the way of his message.

So once again, less is more.


The End of Christmas

At the end of Mass, during the announcements, the priest said that we’re coming up on Candlemas, “which is the end of the Christmas season,” that it “comes back for a day” and then goes away.

This is false. According to the Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:

Christmas Time runs from First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after 6 January.

That means the Christmas season ends no later than January 13, which is weeks before Candlemas occurs on February 2.

It isn’t clear to me whether the priest thought that the Christmas season literally ends on Candlemas or whether he thought it “kinda-sorta” ends on Candlemas, since that day commemorates events in the Infancy Narratives.

If the former, he was simply wrong and does not know the details of the liturgical calendar.

If the latter, he knowingly misled the congregation, who is not familiar enough with the details of the liturgical calendar to be able to detect the “kinda-sorta” aspect of what he was saying.

Either way, people in the congregation will end up thinking that the Christmas season literally ends on Candlemas, and that’s false.

I have some sympathy here. I’ve been in situations where I’m pressed in public to give an answer I’m not 100% sure of, and I’ve made mistakes. (I’ve afterwards made scrupulous efforts to check myself and to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.)

However, this was not a situation where he was being pressed. It was a situation where he was volunteering something.

Bottom line: If you aren’t sure of a claim, don’t make it.

Less is more.

If nothing else, it helps avoid distractions and makes your message clearer.

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Dorothy January 29, 2017 at 5:32 am

What a picky parishioner! It is good for us to pray beforehand, that the Mass give great glory to the ., and the Holy Spirit to open our ears to what we need to hear.

Michael Arch January 29, 2017 at 5:38 am

I think the author of this intolerant article tells us nothing about the Priest but a great deal about himself.

Bill912 February 3, 2017 at 6:46 pm

Please explain.

Beverly Sullivan January 29, 2017 at 6:26 am

Thanks Jimmy, I’m sure the priest will be mortified if he reads this article – BUT, I sure learned alot!!
Thanks for the clarity!

Anthony January 29, 2017 at 7:32 am

This is a prime example of knowing your audience. Not everyone in your audience is well versed on the scriptures, therefore to be an effective speaker you must be able to connect with the audience or much of your presentation will not be understood or forgotten.

John January 29, 2017 at 8:22 am

Great article filled with very good points Jimmy. Thanks.

Patricia January 29, 2017 at 9:41 am

Whew Jimmy! I took my tree down on the 22nd, so I guess I made it after the Christmas season and before February 2nd. However it still sits on my deck outside. So is my tree still up or down? Haha! 😊

Theresa January 29, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Hello! I belong to a Polish parish in Canada, and the Nativity scene was up till last Sunday, January 22.. Our pastor encouraged families to come up one more time to pray before the Nativity scene… Perhaps there is a custom in certain countries that carries the Christmas season till then, and these customs are kept in ethnic parishes…

Teresa marie January 29, 2017 at 6:58 pm

Wonderful job Jimmy, more or less! 😎

Mary Lou January 30, 2017 at 5:22 am

Sharing your knowledge in a humble and loving manner with the priest you are discussing would be more beneficial than sharing his errors on your website. You are an extremely gifted man. I love all of your videos and articles on Perhaps, striking up a conversation/friendship with this priest would help both of you.
Just a thought.

Nicholas Mazza January 30, 2017 at 9:14 am

Unfortunately the only individuals who can preach at the Eucharist are those ordained to priesthood or the diaconate. The church should allow non-ordained men and women trained as theologians or those well versed faithful in theology and spirituality to preach as well.

MIchael January 30, 2017 at 10:48 am

Actually, the priest’s comment about the Christmas season lasting until Candlemas is not totally without merit. True, liturgically the Christmas season ends with the Baptism of the Lord, but in Europe and elsewhere the celebration culturally continues on until Candlemas. Christmas decorations do not come down until Candlemas, etc. So Liturgically yes, culturally no. a little nosing around google will turn up this custom.

Susan January 31, 2017 at 4:50 pm

Totally agree with you , Jimmy. It is very distracting to have the priest walk around the church during the homily. It is also embarrassing when the priest preaches “off the cuff.” A well planned homily would be a welcomed practice.

Claire January 31, 2017 at 8:06 pm

Ouch! I don’t feel edified at all. I feel like you just wasted a lot of time nitpicking a young priest’s sermon. You’re a talented writer and a knowledgeable apologist. There’s so much material out there. Find a better topic. Or write about the issues you raise, but don’t make your article about the shortcomings of a “sincere, earnest, orthodox” priest!

Bill912 February 3, 2017 at 5:33 pm

OTOH, perhaps this priest, or other priests, will read Jimmy’s comments, learn something from them, and become better preachers.

Jenni February 1, 2017 at 12:12 pm

I had also heard or read that Christmas extended to Candlemas. I found this after doing a search. I believe my friends in Poland traditionally also leave things until Candlemas even though they follow the Novus Order vs TLM. Inhad also heard that the Vatican leaves its crèche out until today. So yeah, it’s a bit confusing….

In the older tradition (which is still kept in the liturgical calendar of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) Christmas lasts until Candlemas, or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of the Lord, which isn’t until February 2nd. This marked the end of a long 40-day “Christmastide” that corresponded to the 40 days of Lent.

Pam February 3, 2017 at 6:14 am

I just read your article, Jimmy, and then yesterday at an Opus Dei meeting it was mentioned that in South America Christmas lasts until Candlemas/Presenttion of the Lord and people bring baby Jesus from the nativity set to church to present Him. So, it may not be a liturgical practice but a folk practice. Was the young priest Hispanic?

Bill912 February 3, 2017 at 5:37 pm

In the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the variations of the prayers during Christmastide are used from Christmas until Feb. 2. Possibly it is the same in the Liturgy of the Hours? That may be the cause of the priest’s confusion.

Rob Flammang February 6, 2017 at 3:49 pm

Hi Jimmy,

Although in the mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours the Christmas season ends between the 8th and the 13th of January, as you correctly said, in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the last Christmas liturgy is celebrated at Vespers on February 2nd, the 40th day of Christmas.

I happen to know this because I mistakenly said my last Compline of the little office last Thursday night, after which I went outside and unplugged my Christmas lights. Only later did I discover that it should have been the first Compline of Ordinary Time.

Dom Prosper Guéranger in the second volume of his The Liturgical Year describes the Christmas season as a forty day period starting at Vespers on 24 December and ending at Candlemas. So apparently the duration of Christmastide depends on what exactly is being celebrated.

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