Dec 31, 2007

Liturgy is Central at Mount St. Mary’s

Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 6: September 1999

Liturgy is Central at Mount St. Mary’s

by Father John DeCelles

"The Mount has a long history. It is the second oldest seminary in the country, established in 1808. Even its simplest sacred vessels reflect this history."

As an adult Catholic layman sitting in the pew, I was often bemused and confused by the examples of liturgical abuses and slovenliness that I encountered in parish churches. So when I began to discern my vocation to the priesthood, I also began a search for a seminary which honestly desired to be faithful to the true renewal of the liturgy called for by the Second Vatican Council and laid out by the Apostolic See.

By the grace of God and the kindness of the late Bishop John Keating of the Diocese of Arlington, I found myself enrolled at just such a seminary: Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Because of sound leadership under rectors Monsignor Kenneth W. Roeltgen (1988-1997) and the Right Reverend Kevin C. Rhoades (1997-present) "the Mount"1 currently enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a solidly orthodox seminary.

For Catholics used to liturgical innovations and liberties, Masses at the Mount evoke a response of relief and consolation. Visitors come away from Mass at the Mount with a renewed sense of reverence, awe and love for the Eucharist.

This in turn fosters fidelity and humility among the seminarians, a lived experience of Pope John Paul II’s exhortation:

Every priest who offers the holy Sacrifice should recall that during this Sacrifice it is not only he with his community that is praying but the whole Church, which is thus expressing in this sacrament her spiritual unity, among other ways by the use of the approved liturgical text. To call this position "mere insistence on uniformity" would only show ignorance of the objective requirements of authentic unity, and would be a symptom of harmful individualism This subordination of the minister, of the celebrant, to the Mysterium which has been entrusted to him by the Church for the good of the whole People of God, should also find expression in the observance of the liturgical requirements concerning the celebration of the holy Sacrifice. 2

The Mount has a long history. It is the second oldest seminary in the country, established in 1808. Its Masses reflect neither the modernist liturgical movement nor a "Tridentinist" approach. Rather, the seminarians and faculty simply represent most faithful Catholics today they embrace the Novus Ordo Missae as their own, but long to have it applied with consistency, a respect for tradition and the sense of the sacred built in to the provisions of the Council.

Chapel: "noble simplicity"

The St. Bernard Chapel, inside the main Seminary building, is noteworthy for its expression of this sense of sacredness and tradition through true "noble simplicity". Its dark wood pews and simple sanctuary with a traditional wooden crucifix and icons of the Blessed Mother and St. Bernard contribute to contemplative prayer.

The main freestanding altar of white and rose marble helps focus attention during the Mass on the wonderful sacrifice of the altar. Raised several steps above the presbyterium, centered against the wall of the apse, on a small bright white altar, rests the tabernacle, the focal point of the prayer life of this Eucharist-centered house.

Since the St. Bernard chapel is barely large enough to squeeze in all 150-plus seminarians, most of the Masses are celebrated in the larger, richly-designed turn of the century Immaculate Conception Chapel, which is shared with the Seminary’s parent institution, Mount St. Mary’s College. Its graceful carved wood pews, choir stalls, stations of the cross, marble statues and altar pieces including its elaborate white marble main, side and high altars complement the simplicity of the St. Bernard Chapel.

Unlike many renovated sanctuaries, the Immaculate Conception Chapel preserves the original high altar and reredos intact in the apse of the long sanctuary. Concelebrating priests sit in old wooden choir stalls that run the length of the sanctuary.

Even though there is a runway-style extension into the nave, this does not protrude so far as to seem to push the sanctuary into the congregation, and the pews remain a respectable distance from the steps of the sanctuary. (However, the Communion rails of the original design have long since been removed, and at one side of the runway is the choir, the organ and a piano, unhappily placing them in clear view at all times.)

Because of Mount St. Mary’s long history of service to the Church in America, we find in its sacristies, archives, and altars many beautiful sacred vessels, especially chalices and monstrances donated or acquired over two centuries. The most precious of these are not in everyday use, but even the simplest usually express the wondrousness of the sacrament they contain.

The vestments are a different story. If the Mount ever possessed many beautiful or elaborately designed vestments, they have long since disappeared from her closets. Those left are bland and uninspiring. Furthermore, the Mount doesn’t have enough matching chasubles for the normal number of priests concelebrating daily, so that concelebrants can seldom wear chasubles except 3 at Masses with few concelebrants or borrowed vestments. Efforts have been made in the last few years to upgrade the vestments for both priests and deacons, but much remains to be done.

Most Masses are celebrated with true reverence and respect for the norms; failures are seldom flagrant or intended by those who plan the liturgies. Still, only recently have chalice veils appeared regularly at Mass at the Mount in accordance with the clear provision of the norms. 4 Many priests fail to wear an amice or otherwise cover their Roman collars under their albs, and others fail to wear the required cincture. 5

What about abuses?

Even minor abuses call for correction, especially when consistent and flagrant. As a 1979 Vatican Instruction for seminaries said,

The students should rememberthat liturgical services are not private functions but celebrations of the Church. Therefore the celebration of the liturgy in seminaries must be exemplary with regard to the rites, the spiritual and pastoral aspects, and fidelity to liturgical laws and texts, as well as to the norms laid down by the Apostolic See and the conferences of bishops. 6

Seminarians, eager to learn by carefully observing the example of priests they respect and trust, are still taught bad liturgical lessons in too many cases. "The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones." 7

One of the more serious abuses is the use of acolytes 8 as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion when ordinary ministers (i.e., priests and deacons) are present. When Communion is distributed under both species, acolytes distribute the precious blood while priests and deacons (deacon-seminarians either vested or attending as part of the assembly) look on. This is absolutely prohibited under the law. The argument that the law permits this practice to allow the acolytes to "exercise their ministries" in liturgical services 9 is a distorted understanding of their ministry which deprives the deacons present of exercising their ministry as ordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Moreover, it encourages the continued dissemination, through these future priests, of the widespread misunderstanding of the role of extraordinary ministers that the Vatican has so recently and forcefully attempted to correct. 10

A less serious practice is seen in the practice of inviting non-ordained staff, faculty or guests instead of installed lectors 11 to proclaim the readings at Mass. While this is, strictly speaking, permissible 12 it does not teach a proper understanding of the various ministries 13 , and undermines the important principle of the Second Vatican Council that "In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman should carry out all and only those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the norms of the liturgy". 14

Music an afterthought

Music remains a weakness at the Mount. Although constructive efforts have been made by many, musical training has been an afterthought, and the directives of the Second Vatican Council go unheeded:

The treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care. Choirs must be assiduously developed. Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries. To impart this instruction teachers are to be carefully trained and put in charge of the teaching of sacred music. 15

The music at most Masses is easy, and sometimes includes theologically dubious, contemporary hymns. Little emphasis is placed on training the seminarians on the practical aspects of singing, appreciation of sacred music (variety, contexts, options, history), or the theological-pastoral implications of the choice of hymns. Fortunately, the treasury of chant is not entirely absent, and is a favorite of most seminarians who valiantly attempt to join in the singing.

While Latin hymns are not absent from the Mount’s liturgies, for years (now decades) the use of Latin in the prayers of the Mass has been strongly discouraged. Moreover, contrary to the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, the seminarians are not required to have any formal training in Latin. Not only are they deprived of the historic language of their own Latin Rite, but also they are unable to read or make use of the Latin sources of the liturgical norms, decrees and historical writings. This lack, common to most seminaries, is an impediment to the full implementation of the Council’s liturgical reforms. 16

Signs of hope

There are signs of hope. For many years, the main community Mass has been celebrated in Spanish one Saturday a month. Two years ago this policy was extended to the Latin Mass (Novus Ordo), so that what was once virtually forbidden at the Mount is now required at least once a month. Furthermore, at the more solemn celebrations of feasts, solemnities, and Sundays, parts of the Mass are often chanted in Latin (Missa de Angelis). Hopefully these are signs of a new positive and open attitude to the clearly-stated will of the Council and the mind of the Church.

Most Masses at the Mount were noted for their simplicity. Rarely were elaborate ceremonies or options added (e.g., incense, sung prayers, elaborate vestments). Normally this is a reasonable practice, since most Masses in parishes will be celebrated simply. However, from the perspective of teaching the liturgy this creates a tendency to limit the appreciation of these various options of the Mass. 17

Most problematic was the fact that, since many seminarians have off-campus pastoral assignments on weekends, there was usually no regularly scheduled Seminary Mass on Sundays. Thus, seminarians rarely saw the potential of a beautifully celebrated solemn Sunday Mass. However, the regular morning Masses on major feasts and solemnities have been moved to the late afternoon, and a regular Sunday morning Mass has been added to the schedule. These Masses are celebrated with more solemnity (including increased use of Latin and chant) and are mandated for all Seminarians not otherwise excused.

Other improvements

There have been five areas of improvement in liturgies at the Mount: 1) tradition, 2) the relationship with the College, 3) finances, 4) the dioceses and 5) the state of the liturgy in the Church in general.

First, while the Mount has intended to be obedient to the liturgical norms, it (like most other seminaries) has historically relegated liturgical studies to the academic afterthought of practica and on the job training.

Fortunately, the addition of several faculty members with strong and varied academic and practical backgrounds in liturgy has brought great improvement. Dr. Pamela Jackson now teaches a wide variety of courses in the history and tradition of liturgy. On the practical side, Father Lee Gross, an Arlington priest with extensive experience in both Lutheran and Anglican traditions, brings a detailed knowledge of the rubrics, authoritative pronouncements and ancient traditions to practica instruction. In addition, the Seminary’s masters of arts program recently added a new specialization in liturgy within the systematics and history concentrations, and the Seminary will soon conduct a major review of its approach to liturgical formation.

Secondly, the Seminary is part of the larger institution of Mount St. Mary’s College. A recent change in personnel and a new eagerness to draw on the resources of the Seminary has reinvigorated the College Campus Ministry program, which had formerly been influenced by progressive trends.

The combined College and Seminary has always operated under severe financial constraints, and the College has tended to provide for its own needs before the Seminary’s. Without proper funding, the Seminary has been unable to purchase new vestments or pay new liturgy professors. While there are positive signs that this situation has changed in the last few years (e.g., the funding of Dr. Jackson’s new position in liturgical studies), one thing is not likely to change. The rector and faculty must meet the various demands of the approximately 35 bishops who send their men to the Mount. (The Archbishop of Baltimore is the ex officio Chancellor of Mount St. Mary’s, and is responsible for formation, but the Mount is not the official seminary of Baltimore. Ed.)

Finally, abuses here simply reflect the state of liturgy in the Church in America today, exemplifying two fundamental problems: most priests are not as well trained in liturgical law and theology as they should be, and those who try to learn are often overwhelmed by the confusion forced upon the liturgy by the "experts" complexities in the law itself. As a result, even orthodox priests sometimes become frustrated and dismiss even the simplest observation of norms as "mere insistence on uniformity" versus the "faithful and humble subordination of the minister to the Mysterium which has been entrusted to him by the Church". 18

Overall, the Mount’s liturgies are orthodox, reverent, traditional, and inspiring. Fidelity to tradition and humility toward the hierarchy and papacy permeate not only academic and spiritual formation, but the liturgies as well. With all the imperfections it shares with other seminaries, there is a deep love for and spiritual appreciation of the liturgy among faculty and seminarians. Many important strides have been made in recent years, and the continuing willingness of the administration and faculty to improve is a source of strong hope for the future.

Father John DeCelles is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington and a 1996 graduate of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.



1) Mount St. Mary’s Seminary is part of Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary. When I use the term the Mount herein I refer specifically to the Seminary.

2) Dominicae Cenae, 12, Pope John Paul II, February 24, 1980.

3) See General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) 161.

4) See GIRM 80.c. Also, Notitiae 14 (1978) 594, no. 16.

5) See GIRM 81, GIRM 298 and Ceremonial of Bishops 65.

6) In Ecclesiasticam Futurorum Sacerdotum [IEFS], 16 [An instruction on liturgical formation in seminaries], Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, June 3, 1979.

7) Luke 16.10, 11.

8) Acolyte is the ministry held by a seminarian immediately before being ordained to the diaconate. He is officially installed by the Church on a permanent basis in order to aid the deacon and to minister to the priest [at] the altar [Ministeriam Quaedam VI, Pope Paul VI, August 15 1972]. When necessity requires he may assist as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

9) IEFS, 13.

10) See Instruction On Certain Questions Regarding The Collaboration Of The Non-Ordained Faithful In The Sacred Ministry Of Priests, a joint instruction of eight papal dicasteries, August 15, 1997 (released November 13, 1997). For example, #4: "avoiding the abuse of multiplying "exceptional" cases over and above those so designated and regulated by normative discipline, is extremely necessary. Pastors will promptly employ those means judged necessary to prevent their dissemination and to ensure that the correct understanding of the Church’s nature is not impaired. In particular, they will apply the established disciplinary norms to promote knowledge of and assiduous respect for that distinction and complementarity of functions which are vital for ecclesial communion."

11) Lector is the ministry held by a seminarian immediately before being installed as an acolyte. He is officially installed by the Church on a permanent basis for a function proper to him, that of reading the word of God in the liturgical assembly [Ministeriam Quaedam V].

12) See Code of Canon Law, Canon 230.

13) See IEFS, 13: The seminarians should have concrete experience of the mystery of the Church as hierarchical, namely, as having an ordered variety of members and distinct ministries. To this purpose, it is helpful that in the seminary there be deacons, acolytes, and readers who are imbued with the spirituality of their own offices and who exercise their ministries in the liturgical services. Thus the proper office of the ministerial priesthood will be clear to all the students, as well as the offices of deacon, reader, and acolyte.

14) Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) 28. Notice that Canon 230 allows lay persons who are not installed on a stable basis to the ministry of lector to fulfill the function of lector. These lay people do not receive the ministry or office of lector, and as such it is illicit and contrary to the will of the Council for them to carry out those parts (fulfill the functions) which pertain to a minister who is present i.e., a seminarian who is an installed lector.

15) Some argue that this practice is acceptable at the Mount because the Pope himself sometimes allows it at his Masses. Still, we must remember that what the Pontiff allows in certain specific situations is not necessarily called for in others: in an institution founded and maintained to train men for public ministry it seems ludicrous to prohibit them from exercising that ministry, especially during major institutional celebrations. Vatican City was not founded for this specific purpose it has no seminary inside its walls but the Mount was founded specifically to teach the proper office of the ministerial priesthood as well as the offices of deacon, reader, and acolyte so that these offices will be clear to all the students, and it should practice what it teaches.

16) SC 114, 115.

17) See SC 36.1: "The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites". See also Optatam Totius, 13: "Moreover they [seminarians] are to acquire a knowledge of Latin which will enable them to understand and make use of the sources of so many sciences and of the documents of the Church. The study of the liturgical language proper to each rite should be considered necessary"; Code of Canon Law, Canon 249: "The program for priestly formation is to make provision that the students are not only carefully taught their native language but also that they are well skilled in the Latin language".

18) See IEFS, 17.



Father John DeCelles