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The 11-minute Mass and the Book of Kells

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 30, 2010

During our vacation stay in Ireland, Leila and I took a short walk to the local parish church on a Saturday morning to attend Mass. The experience was a revelation.

The priest said all the prayers at such a breakneck speed that I could not make out the individual words. The congregation matched his pace with the responses. I could barely keep up the recitation of Lord’s Prayer. The readings were a blur. There was no homily. Mass was over in 11 minutes.

We tried the same parish again for Sunday Mass, but we had not read the bulletin carefully. We thought we were arriving 5 minutes before the designated time; actually we were 25 minutes late. Sunday Mass had already ended!

Fortunately there was another parish nearby, where the Mass was celebrated at a comparatively sedate pace. But the frantic rush to finish the Eucharistic liturgy as quickly as possible was shocking.

When I mentioned our experience to Irish friends, they reacted with only mild surprise. An 11-minute Mass was somewhat extraordinary, they conceded. But in Ireland the liturgy is regularly celebrated on an accelerated schedule. The faithful like to “get Mass” quickly, and will avoid a parish where the priest takes too much time. During Lent, my friends told me, one Irish priest had earned widespread acclaim for trimming the weekday Mass down to under 10 minutes, so that it would be easier for the faithful to attend daily 

Ordinarily I have no strong opinions about the tempo of the liturgy. Some people talk faster than others; there is no single “right” speed for public reading or communal prayer. Still there are reasonable limits. When the Mass is celebrated at a lightning pace, with never a spare moment for reflection, the result is spiritually enervating.

The Scriptures have something to say to us, every day. Yes, we may have heard the readings before, but if we listen carefully and mediate on the Word, we can gain new insights— but only if we have time to hear and digest the words. The Eucharistic Prayer is a great catechesis, a reminder of the holy Sacrifice that is taking place. The words of the Mass should inspire reverence and awe. But they cannot have that effect if we are speeding headlong through the text. By rushing through the liturgy at a pell-mell pace, that little congregation—which, I gather, was not atypical of the Irish Catholic experience—was risking a mechanistic approach to the Mass: an attitude that the liturgy is something we want to get through as quickly as possible.

Christians are under a solemn obligation to honor the Sabbath. Is it realistic to think that a family will organize its day around an event that occupies just 25 minutes? During Lent we are called to make special sacrifices. Is a pastor really encouraging spiritual growth if he shortens daily Mass so that parishioners can attend without making any sacrifice at all?

The Eucharistic Sacrifice is an act of love. A love that is always expressed in a rush, with an eye on the clock, is a love that will soon grow cold.

Have Irish Catholics always been inclined to speed through the Liturgy? I doubt it. Moreover, I can produce strong evidence to the contrary.

Later in our stay we visited the library at Trinity College in Dublin, and saw the Book of Kells. The lavish care that Irish monks put into that work, the profuse illustration on every line of the Gospels, the meticulous attention to the smallest detail—all testify to a very different attitude. These illustrators approached the Gospels with reverence, with love, and with a willingness to spend as much time as necessary—a lifetime, indeed—to encourage greater appreciation for the Word of God.

The Book of Kells is a work of art, to be sure. But it is not ordinary artwork—not the work of detached illustrators. Every page bears witness to the monks’ desire to accentuate the message of the Gospel, and to savor every word as they did so. There is a staggering richness to the text, conveying a message of deep faith that is unmistakable nearly a millennium later.

Today’s Irish Catholics need not read the Sunday Gospel from the Book of Kells. But at a time when the Church in Ireland needs a fresh infusion of zeal, they might profit from the example of those dedicated illustrators, and learn to take time reflecting on the Word, in the Scripture and in the Eucharistic liturgy.

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Show 13 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: pvanderl7463 - Aug. 08, 2010 8:30 AM ET USA

    People will "vote with their feet" concerning Mass. In my working town community, 7 AM daily Mass of 15 minutes was FILLED with prison guards on their way to work. Yes, they walked out after Communion but we are not on a time clock with God. They worshiped, period. At 12:10 Mass during the lunch hour, Mass was filled with salesclerks, etc. for a 15 minute Mass. And yes they walked out after Communion to get back to work and bolt their lunch. The point to me is the Church was relevant. Liturgists

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Aug. 04, 2010 8:52 AM ET USA

    garedawg, I read that book many years ago, and I now remember what you're talking about. Because the Irish have been so dominant in the US hierarchy, this tendency continues today where there are large Irish-American communities (Boston, New York, Philly, Chicago, etc). My own Irish heritage parish in suburban Boston illustrates this tendency. The parishioners practically run over themselves trying to exit Mass after receiving Communion. We don't always have "microwave Masses", but often do.

  • Posted by: deacon2476427 - Aug. 02, 2010 5:31 PM ET USA

    When I was growing up in the 1950's we had a monsignor who would say mass, in 10 minutes flat, and we had another guy who took almost 45 minutes to say the same mass. We called the first one, the express, and the second one the local.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Aug. 01, 2010 4:25 PM ET USA

    In the Tridentine 1950's a young Jesuit chaplain at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, celebrated weekday Masses in 12 minutes flat---great for those of us with limited lunch hours. He read every word audibly and with utmost reverence. That included Communion for the (handful) of faithful---which, if you recall, included repetition of the Confiteor &c---but, of course, no homily. If anybody questioned his speed he would reply, "A Sacrament is in no way intensified by being prolonged."

  • Posted by: niall - Jul. 31, 2010 8:48 AM ET USA

    The priest mentioned did not "trim Mass" down to 10 mins during Lent.He didn't cut anything out of the Mass,so it wasn't trimmed down.Also,10 mins is an exaggeration and even the media never made such an exaggeration:it was 15 minutes long-not odd for a weekday Mass with no homily (which is recommended but not ordered during Lent).Also,its popularity was not due to its length,but because the priest changed the time from 9:30 to 7:30 to encourage those who would ordinarily be at work at 9:30.

  • Posted by: Swarbrick - Jul. 31, 2010 5:13 AM ET USA

    You are so right Phil but this 'informal' and rushed attitude during the Sacred Mysteries is, in many ways, an insult to the Almighty. As a priest of the 19th Century (Father Faber(?) commented: "The Mass is the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven". After 'The Year for Priests', surely a good resolution for all priests might be to examine their Consciences on this central Act of Worship when they are acting in 'Persona Christi'

  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Jul. 31, 2010 1:00 AM ET USA

    About 20 years ago I was a bench-warming Catholic; still, I thought Father was rushing through Sunday Mass at bit too much. Even for me he seemed mechanical, as though he just wanted to get through it and get out. A couple of months later I learned he had been transferred to some facility for evaluation. Speed praying the Mass borders on sacramentalism. No human is readily able to absorb the mystery occurring at such a pace. God never skimps on us - why should we on Him?

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Jul. 30, 2010 10:41 PM ET USA

    Garedawg, an interesting point you make about how persecution eventually led Irish Catholics to speed up the mass. It's similar to how illiteracy led most Catholics to be less into The Bible than our separated brethren have been historically. Years of not having Bibles available led to a "mass only" kind of involvement. Then too, a huge part of Protestant motivation to learn The Bible was to find all the Catholic "mistakes." Circumstances & necessity can have a profound effect on all of us.

  • Posted by: tholomk - Jul. 30, 2010 10:12 PM ET USA

    I have to report the opposite extreme since I married a US citizen and moved here from Ireland. Sunday Mass at 1 hour 20 minutes and weekday Mass at 50 minutes is excruciating. The sermons are memorable only for their length and the Church is a hive of ushers, readers, singers all busying up the service and detracting from the sense of solemnity. All this with (yes) 5 minutes for the Eucharistic prayer. I was used to 40 minutes of reverence on a Sunday, 20 on a weekday. Now it's bustling tedium

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Jul. 30, 2010 9:33 PM ET USA

    Mass at my home parish takes one hour. I will be in Ireland for a week next June and have soooooo looked forward to worshiping in such a very Catholic country. It would distress me greatly to find a Mass such as the one described in this article. I must pray to Our Lady that I be allowed to find another church there.

  • Posted by: RC - Jul. 30, 2010 7:57 PM ET USA

    From what I've read, a custom of quiet Low Masses developed in Ireland during the persecution; perhaps they were hurried as well.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jul. 30, 2010 7:10 PM ET USA

    If you haven't, read the book "Why Catholics Can't Sing". According to the author, the Irish were inclined to rush through Mass with a minimum of music, because Catholicism was outlawed in Ireland for so many years and it was often done in secret. The Irish bishops brought that tendency to the States, and when the liturgical upheavals begin in the late 60's, the faithful in the US did not have a strong musical tradition in their collective memory to counter some of the excesses.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Jul. 30, 2010 6:35 PM ET USA

    This is a very sad post. I wonder if these same Irish Catholics bolt their meals down in ten or fifteen minutes? What could be more important than spending 30-60 minutes with the Lord, if one really loves Him and is grateful for His saving work?

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