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It’s Howdy Doody Time!

The jollying-up-by-dumbing-down of the liturgy bespeaks a clericalism that doesn’t trust the lay faithful to “get it” without bells and whistles. I’m sorry, but that lack of trust is offensive.

Three or four times each month, Father X (as I’ll call him here) celebrates the noontime daily Mass I regularly attend. I’m grateful for his homilies, which are almost always thoughtful. Thus in a recent commentary on Jesus’s debate with the Sadducees over the resurrection of the dead, Father X gave a lucid and moving explanation of the “communion of saints” and how it functions in our Christian lives.

The problem is not Father X’s preaching. The problem is – if you’ll permit me an AmChurch neologism – Father X’s “presidential style.” And then, boys and girls, it’s Howdy Doody Time all over again.

In his liturgical formation, Father X evidently didn’t get the short memo that reads, “Do the red and say the black”: that is, follow the rubrics in the Missal and don’t mess around with the liturgical texts. Or perhaps Father X imagines himself a better stylist than those who translated the third edition of the Roman Missal into English. But whatever the causality, Father X can’t seem to help himself – the temptation to jolly things up is an itch that has to be scratched.

Thus the Gospel is always announced by “A reading from the Good News as proclaimed by St. —-.” At the consecration, the institution narrative is changed so that the Lord passes the bread and wine rather than gives it. “The Lord be with you” is frequently prefaced by a “My sisters and brothers….”, with an emphasis on the “with” that rings up – you guessed it – the Howdy Doody Show and its opening jingle.

But Father X doesn’t limit his rhetorical and stylistic assaults on the liturgy to Fifties’ TV re-runs. His invitation to “Lift up your HEARTS!” (the last word zoomed so that it’s almost shouted) calls to mind an ecstatic radio announcer informing his Bay Area listeners that Steph Curry has won the game again by draining a buzzer-beater from six feet behind the three-point line. 

The Mass is the Mass, and we may thank God for the settled theological principle of ex opere operato, which assures us that God’s grace acts through earthen vessels, even priests who defy the rubrics and the proprieties. But Father X’s insistence on turning parts of the Mass into the children’s hour bespeaks several problems.

In the first instance, it suggests that the priest-celebrant is the master of the divine liturgy rather than its servant. In this case, that mastery too often turns Father X into a kind of ringmaster whose verbal antics, presumably intended to make the Mass more user-friendly, are a distraction from that toward which the Church’s worship aims, according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council: “The liturgy daily builds up those who are in the Church, making of them a holy temple of the Lord, a dwelling-place for God in the Spirit, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 2). Howdy Doody and Christian maturity do not go together.

Secondly, the jollying-up-by-dumbing-down of the liturgy bespeaks a clericalism that doesn’t trust the lay faithful to “get it” without bells and whistles. I’m sorry, but that lack of trust is offensive. The “full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations…to which the Christian people, ‘ a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ [1 Peter 2.9, 4-5] have a right and obligation by reason of their baptism” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14) is not advanced when those Christian people are treated as if they were dimwits, or five-year olds with short attention spans. 

There has been considerable progress made in the reform of the liturgical reform, not least by the restoration of sacral language to the Missal. As Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, reminds us, recovering a sense of the liturgy’s kingdom-dimension, its anticipation of the Lord’s return in glory, is the next important step. Taking that step requires celebrating the liturgy as if it really were a foretaste of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb described in Revelation 19, not a knock-off of the Howdy Doody Show. 

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About George Weigel 420 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).


  1. Priests I know who change and insert as the author describes are inserting themselves more so rather than validly improvising. It indicates a mind set of superior knowledge, independence, and frequently contempt. Pride underlies it and its future is detrimental for Laity who are taken in and for the priest.

  2. One typo: should read “ex opere operato” not “ex opera operato” — although it might be good to check the operatic tendencies of some celebrants too.

  3. You say that all comments are moderated to prevent personal attacks. This column is a rather personal attack. I’m surprised it comes from Mr. Weigel, who I respect a great deal. While abuses of the liturgy should be addressed, perhaps it could be done in a less specific manner, with charity.

    • It is not a personal attack. I hope you noticed that the priest is named Father X in the piece, and I hope you noticed that there is no real person named Father X. His identity was concealed precisely so that no one would be able to identify him. If you think people are going to jump on a plane and go follow Weigel around to find out where he goes to mass each day, and then imagine that the priest they find there on that day is necessarily the same priest, then I think you are wrong. Tha priests actions in abusing the liturgy certainly is a public act, witnessed by all. If someone should choose to call him on it, all the better. If he wants to write a reply, I am sure Catholic World Report would publish it.

  4. One has to wonder why Weigel bothers to write this. Does he think this priest is unique? Does he think his ordeal will be edifying for his readers? Where has Weigel been for the past 50 years? Oh, that’s right… He’s been shilling for the glorious council that led directly to the destruction of the liturgy. Like a badly broke clock, Weigel is right on time for exactly two seconds out of every twenty-four hours.

      • I wish that Catholic World Report were still part of Disqus’ comment system/menu.

        Well, all good things must come to an end. The Catholic Thing dropped out of Disqus last year.

        The good thing about the change is that a good many outrageously heterodox, and in some cases heretical, anti-Catholic comments have been removed from previous CWR articles in the process.

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