Say What You Mean; Mean What You Pray

In one of his characteristically rich catechetical addresses at a general audience in September 2012, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the rule of Saint Benedict in respect of the psalms.1 Mens concordet voci, says the Father of Western Monasticism to his sons: the mind must accord with the voice. This, the pope bearing his name taught, reminds us that in the recitation of the psalms words must precede thought. Indeed this is the purpose of the pause indicated in most psalters by an asterisk or a colon. Drawn from the Hebrew selah, it provides a liturgical “moment” in the midst of the psalm verse, to pause and to allow the mind to catch up with the beauty of the truth that has just been proclaimed.

When sung, and the practice of pausing in the recitation of the psalms is perhaps most apparent when they are set to chant, the pause not only provides a mental rest, but one in which the sound is allowed to resonate through its acoustic, and then to fade. The words and the chant of course are not two distinct things; they are one. In the liturgy the words and chant exist as a unitary whole, perfectly accompanying each other.2 The text of the psalms therefore rises with the music, and so in this moment of respite in the midst of the verse it is as if the words also hang in the air, before coming to rest in our minds and being absorbed there.3

In conversation with one another we are taught to act in a very different way. “Think before you speak” is the common refrain of parents and teachers alike. To pause with a thought in the mind before speaking is said to be an indication of intelligence, maturity, even sophistication. The art of conversation requires the interlocutors to be virtuous, thoughtful in what they say and in how they say it. Good, polite conversation demands (among other things) prudence, compassion, and charity. Yet this approach — think before you speak — is necessary primarily because in conversation with one another we are engaged in a dialogue between persons who are not perfect. In these circumstances we must allow our better judgment, and even grace, to perfect what we might otherwise unthinkingly say. Human beings might also speak to God this way, not so much holding things back — the Lord knows the secrets of our hearts — but tempering our language, and thereby acknowledging our inadequacies before the throne of grace through the tenor and tone of our words.

But things are very different when God speaks to us, as is the case in the psalms. In their recitation in divine worship, the psalms are the words, music, and voice of the Church. As J.M. Neale puts it, drawing on the poetry of Adam of Saint Victor: “the trumpets of the tabernacle have given place to the psaltery and the new song of Christian ritual.”4 The psalms are put on the lips of the Church, on our lips, so that She might proclaim the praises of Her God as He has prescribed: O Lord, open thou our lips; and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise (Ps. 51:15). The text of the psalms is given to us, we are recipients of their treasures and so learn our identity through praying their texts.

What we can say here of the psalms, we can also say more broadly of the whole of the Church’s worship in the sacred liturgy. Pope Benedict teaches in the same address: “In the liturgy, the opposite is true, words come first.” Indeed as he goes on to say, it is not just words but the Word, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ that comes first. The One Who is before all things precedes all things (Col. 1:17). In the creation of the world the Lord God “spake, and it was done” (Ps. 33:9). So also in sending His only-begotten Son, the new Adam and source of the new creation, He sent forth His Word to heal and to save those wounded by sin (Ps. 107:20). The Word becomes flesh in Jesus Christ; the same Christ Who is the head of the body, the Church; the same Church that is joined for ever to His perfect oblation; the same oblation that continues even now in the worship of the Church and in which we participate “whenever we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments” (CCC 1139).

This truth is realized juridically in the special attention given to the regulation of the sacred liturgy by the authority of the Church. Pope Pius XII states as much in Mediator Dei: “Since, therefore, it is the priest chiefly who performs the sacred liturgy in the name of the Church, its organization, regulation and details cannot but be subject to Church authority. This conclusion, based on the nature of Christian worship itself, is further confirmed by the testimony of history.”5 The correlation this shows between the governing, teaching, and sanctifying functions (munera) of the Church means that the fidelity of the sacred minister to the words of the liturgical texts is not simply a matter of legalism — neither unswerving rigidity, nor a mere concern for simply pronouncing a valid sacramental formula — rather, it is a testament to the virtue of religion: a manifestation of the Church, and each of us, giving to God that which is properly His due. As Pope Benedict concludes: “God has given us the word and the sacred liturgy offers us words; we must enter into the words, into their meaning and receive them within us, we must attune ourselves to these words; in this way we become children of God, we become like God.”

In this approach, the words of the sacred liturgy as they are actually found in the Church’s liturgical books offer the priest a certain freedom. It is not the freedom of creativity: no person, even a priest, may change anything in the sacred liturgy on his own authority.6 Indeed, such creativity is no freedom at all, constraining the priest constantly to find something new to say, to find the “right” words, to rely on his own character, intellect, and ability.7 Instead, fidelity to pronouncing the actual words given in the liturgical rites offers the priest the true freedom of being what he was ordained to be: completely and unequivocally a minister, a servant, and a priest of the Lord. For a priest is no more a priest, no more a servant of the Church, no more a man conformed to Jesus Christ, than when he is standing at the altar diligently to carry out this “sacred action surpassing all others”; the work of the Church, in liturgical prayer.8

This is especially true in the Mass, but it is also true in the praying of the divine office which in the life of the priest, through the promises made at ordination, holds a privileged place of honor. As the psalmist says, “Offer unto God thanksgiving: and pay thy vows unto the most Highest” (Ps. 50:14). Speaking faithfully, deliberately, and thoughtfully the words of the liturgy as given, then, whether the introduction to the penitential act or the words of a sacramental formula, is always and equally an act of humility in service of and love for the Church: for the person of Christ, for Her sacred rites, for Her institution and authority, and for the Christian faithful entrusted to us, who have a right to expect from their priests the Church’s — and not the priests’ own — liturgical prayer: “liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it.”9

Even where the liturgical books permit the priest to speak “in these or similar words,” the prayerful formulation of a written text in advance bespeaks not only a respect for the liturgical rite and the faithful who will be gathered for worship, but also of the priests’ own reliance not on his own wisdom but that of the Church. A beautiful and humble example of this is seen in the frequent use by none less than Pope Francis of the homily printed in the Roman Pontifical at the ordination of priests. Indeed many of the published texts prepared for the liturgical celebrations of the Holy Father provide material for clergy in pastoral ministry in precisely these “ad libitum” moments.10

These words of Pope Benedict, from Sacramentum caritatis, conclude well these thoughts:

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 centre 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. Jn 10:14-15).11

  1. Benedict XVI, general audience, September 26 2012 (English translation), accessed at on May 9, 2020.
  2. Cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 39-41.
  3. On the idea of cantillation in liturgical music, see: Andrew Wadsworth, “Towards the Future — Singing the Mass,” Adoremus Bulletin (Online Edition) 17, n.3 (May 2011) accessed at on 9 May 2020.
  4. J.M. Neale & R.F. Littledale, A Commentary on the Psalms (London: Joseph Masters, 1884) 2. Neale here cites the Sequence for the Dedication of a Church by Adam of Saint Victor: Quarum tonat initium / In tubas epulantium, / Et finis per Psalterium.
  5. Pius XII, Mediator Dei 44. This is taken up at the Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium 22.
  6. Sacrosanctum Concilium 22.
  7. On this, see the homily of the Most Rev. Michael Olson, Bishop of Fort Worth, TX, at the Chrism Mass for his diocese in 2012. Michael F. Olson, Homily for the Mass of Chrism, 27 March 2018, accessed at on 9 May 2020.
  8. Sacrosanctum Concilium 7.
  9. Sacrosanctum Concilium 26.
  10. The website of the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff publishes the various texts of the rites celebrated by the Holy Father here:
  11. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, 23.
Rev. James Bradley, J.C.D. About Rev. James Bradley, J.C.D.

Rev. James Bradley, J.C.D., is a Priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham (UK) and Assistant Professor of Canon Law at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. He is currently a doctoral student in Liturgical Studies at the University of Vienna.


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