By Father Edward McNamara
Rome, 20 October 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Our parish was assigned a new priest a year ago. Father Kevin (not his real name) is a presentable, polite, caring person, well received by the greater majority of parishioners. He speaks clearly when in the nave or in the sacristy. However, during weekdays, he goes into a fast-forward speaking mode when celebrating Mass. Several of us senior citizens have not understood his sermons because he speaks far, far too fast. The usual 30-minute Mass is shortened to 20 minutes, max. He gives the impression, "Let's get this over with." Several people spoke to him about this, but to no avail. Is there not something in regulations to guide priests in the performance of this holy rite? — L.B., Ontario, Canada
A: There does not appear to be any specific laws that determine how long Mass should take, although there is a longstanding custom that daily Mass should take about 30 minutes. Classical moral theologians, such as St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori (1696-1787), were of the opinion that it should last this long, and that less than 15 minutes could even constitute a grave sin.
It is true that these opinions specifically refer to the extraordinary form, which always uses the Roman Canon and has other longer prayers not present in the present rite. However, I believe that the ordinary form also has some new elements, not contained in the older form, which would make daily Mass roughly the same amount of time, or between 25 and 35 minutes if celebrated with all due fervor and respect for the rubrics.
Some of these factors are optional on weekdays; for example, in the time of St. Alphonsus preaching was usually omitted during Mass. Today, in many places there is a brief homily even on ferial days. Other optional factors which are new or restored from ancient times are the Prayer of the Faithful and the sign of peace.
While much of the extraordinary form is celebrated in a silent manner, the ordinary form recommends several brief pauses for silent prayer such as after the introduction to the penitential act, after the “Let us pray” of the collect, after the Gospel or homily, and after communion before the final prayer. The ordinary form also recommends more frequent singing, even for daily Mass, especially of the Alleluia and some of the proper parts such as the Sanctus.
The variation in the daily readings — quite short on some days, quite long on others — can sometimes notably change the duration of the Mass. The most notable case being the long reading from Daniel 13 relating the trial of Susanna on Monday of the fifth week of Lent.
The choice of Eucharistic Prayer can make some difference in the duration of Mass but perhaps less than imagined. One venerable cardinal I know likes to use the Roman Canon daily, and he said it added no more than four minutes to the Mass compared with Eucharistic Prayer II. The ordinary form also has a rubric that the words of the consecration be pronounced "clearly and distinctly, as the nature of these words require." This effort naturally implies slowing down the rhythm.
Until relatively recent times Communion was generally not distributed to the faithful during the celebration of Mass itself. Today, Communion is habitually received during the Mass itself with the number of those receiving affecting the duration.
The priest's full awareness of the central importance of the Eucharist is also vital to the care taken in celebrating the rites. Thus, the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum exhorts priests in many ways to celebrate the celebration with care and attention. To wit:
"30. The office 'that belongs to Priests in particular in the celebration of the Eucharist' is a great one, 'for it is their responsibility to preside at the Eucharist in persona Christi and to provide a witness to and a service of communion not only for the community directly taking part in the celebration, but also for the universal Church, which is always brought into play within the context of the Eucharist ….'
"31. In keeping with the solemn promises that they have made in the rite of Sacred Ordination and renewed each year in the Mass of the Chrism, let Priests celebrate 'devoutly and faithfully the mysteries of Christ for the praise of God and the sanctification of the Christian people, according to the tradition of the Church, especially in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.' They ought not to detract from the profound meaning of their own ministry by corrupting the liturgical celebration either through alteration or omission, or through arbitrary additions. For as St. Ambrose said, 'It is not in herself ... but in us that the Church is injured. Let us take care so that our own failure may not cause injury to the Church.' Let the Church of God not be injured, then, by Priests who have so solemnly dedicated themselves to the ministry. Indeed, under the Bishop's authority let them faithfully seek to prevent others as well from committing this type of distortion.
"32. 'Let the Parish Priest strive so that the Most Holy Eucharist will be the center of the parish congregation of the faithful; let him work to ensure that Christ's faithful are nourished through the devout celebration of the Sacraments, and in particular, that they frequently approach the Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance; let him strive, furthermore, to ensure that the faithful are encouraged to offer prayers in their families as well, and to participate consciously and actively in the Sacred Liturgy, which the Parish Priest, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is bound to regulate and supervise in his parish lest abuses occur.' …
"33. Finally, all 'Priests should go to the trouble of properly cultivating their liturgical knowledge and ability, so that through their liturgical ministry, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will be praised in an ever more excellent manner by the Christian communities entrusted to them.' Above all, let them be filled with that wonder and amazement that the Paschal Mystery, in being celebrated, instills in the hearts of the faithful."
Likewise, Pope Benedict XVI, in No. 23 of his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis also stresses the importance of the priest's role in the celebration:
"As a result, priests should be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in first place, but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the center of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord's hands. This is seen particularly in his humility in leading the liturgical assembly, in obedience to the rite, uniting himself to it in mind and heart, and avoiding anything that might give the impression of an inordinate emphasis on his own personality. I encourage the clergy always to see their eucharistic ministry as a humble service offered to Christ and his Church. The priesthood, as Saint Augustine said, is amoris officium, it is the office of the good shepherd, who offers his life for his sheep (cf. John 10:14-15)."
Therefore, when all of these factors are taken into account I would say that the traditional duration of approximately half an hour for daily Mass is still a valid guide.
Apart from his personal fervor a priest has to take pastoral considerations into account when determining if he should aim for a briefer or longer celebration. It is one thing to celebrate a midday Mass in an urban setting where people are sacrificing most of their lunch break to attend daily Mass, another thing to celebrate a 9 a.m. Mass in a suburb where the faithful might be less pressured by time constraints and would profit from a thoughtful daily homily.
Finally, it is important to pronounce clearly, not just the homily, but all liturgical texts. A homily which is not understood by the hearers fails on the most basic level in that it does not communicate the message it seeks to transmit.