The availability of the sacraments is one appealing aspect of residential life at Notre Dame. Many students cherish the opportunity to take a small chunk of time out of their busy days to attend Mass or go to Confession. These sacraments are not only available within the beautiful walls of the basilica; priests-in-residence are happy to hear confessions upon request, and every single hall offers its students the chance to attend in-house Mass at least twice a week. Some dormitories offer Mass as many as five or 6 times a week.

In Dillon Hall, where I live, there is a “come as you are” dress code for Mass: one fellow regularly wears giant Pikachu slippers—and to my bemusement, is occasionally asked to lector. A relaxed, fraternal atmosphere permeates Mass, especially during the exchange of peace, which tends to resemble a good-natured mob’s “bro bonding” and to raise the chapel’s decibel count significantly.

On weekdays, dorm Mass is often even more relaxed.  Chairs are replaced by carpeted floors or pillows. The smallness of the congregation invites liturgical alterations for intimacy’s sake. Different dorms gain repute for their different styles of liturgy and for their regular presiders, whose own styles and personalities attract clumps of devotees to particular Masses.

I made a goal early this academic year to attend Mass in every residence hall on campus. Sampling the various chapels and Masses provided me with an awareness of the modes in which Mass is celebrated across campus. It has also made me aware of a troubling feature of residential Masses: the way in which deviation from a standard celebration, even for the sake of intimacy, community, or a relaxed atmosphere, can interfere with the reality of the Mass.

In my chapel travels, I have happened upon some interesting celebrations. In one female hall’s Mass, the dorm dog joined the congregation. Crawling beneath and between the legs of humans and chairs alike, it occasionally fell asleep on one of the pillows strewn around the floor between the congregation and the altar. At another hall’s Mass, the congregation circled the altar for the duration of the liturgy of the Eucharist; most ended up far behind the back of the celebrating priest as he consecrated the Eucharist. Elsewhere, small tables took the place of the altar as the site of the consecration. Occasionally a priest celebrated the whole Mass without standing up, except during Communion.

What struck me most about these celebrations was not that the Mass was somehow celebrated improperly or that the priest was doing something wrong.  What struck me was how difficult it was for me to focus on the Mass. I found myself less able, or unable, to really enter into the Mass and its central event, the Eucharist. I left Mass feeling strangely dissatisfied, as if I hadn’t really just received the sacrament which the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the source and summit” of our faith.

Having been directed to texts about the celebration of Mass by some Holy Cross priests, I discovered that my chagrin was justifiable. Each priest answered me by saying that, as a Catholic, I have a right to the Mass celebrated in the manner the Church prescribes.

In the United States, the Roman Catholic rite of Mass is celebrated according the third typical edition of the Roman Missal, first promulgated  by Pope Paul VI following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and revised, a third time, in 2002 by Pope John Paul II. The translation of that Latin text was approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and confirmed by the Apostolic See most recently in 2008. The liturgical implementation of more faithful English translations of the Latin texts was enacted this past Advent season.

The Roman Missal offers instruction to the priest on every aspect of his celebration of Mass. It also emphasizes that the Mass is not something arbitrarily arranged according to the spiritual inclinations of a given generation or community, but rather is a celebration rooted firmly, and indeed reenacting, Christ’s celebration of the Last Supper two millennia ago.   For this reason, the Mass belongs neither to the community nor to the presider but to the Church, which defers to Christ as its ultimate foundation.

Fr. Ronald Vierling, MFC, rector of Morrissey Manor, affirmed this understanding beautifully in an email to the Rover.

“I am not the creator of the Roman Rite, nor the author of the rubrics or the text of the Roman Missal. I do as the Church does and celebrate Mass as liturgical law prescribes,” he wrote. “My only conscious choice is simply to obey the Church and subordinate myself to the rite.”

Fr. Ralph Haag, CSC, rector of St. Edward’s Hall, agrees.

“You can only do so much because at the end of the day, the Mass doesn’t belong to the presider,” he said.  “The Mass isn’t the Mass of Father so and so or the Mass of so and so Hall. The Mass belongs to the Church, and thus, it needs and has to be celebrated according to the stated norms.”

While many students enjoy and appreciate the more relaxed nature of dorm Masses, especially when celebrated in close quarters on weekdays, this very quality can lead the participants away from the true heart of Mass, which is Christ, and towards each other.

“[This informality] is certainly a danger.  Liturgy is the bridge that leads us out of time, away from what is mundane, and lifts us toward contemplation and conversation with the things of heaven,” Fr. Vierling explained. “Informality means the focus becomes the community, and not focusing the community on God.  It breeds a closed circle in which the community turns in on itself and celebrates its supposed virtues.”

In addition to texts detailing the priests’ role, the USCCB has published documents prescribing the behaviors of the congregation.  One such document, Postures and Gestures at Mass, states that “postures and gestures are not merely ceremonial. They have profound meaning and, when done with understanding, can enhance our personal participation in Mass. In fact, these actions are the way in which we engage our bodies in the prayer that is the Mass.”

The importance of standing and kneeling—especially during the entire Eucharistic prayer—is addressed in this document, as are other physical acts that serve to unite our whole selves in Christ: “When we stand, kneel, sit, bow and sign ourselves in common action, we give unambiguous witness that we are indeed the Body of Christ, united in heart, mind and spirit.”

I certainly do not wish to deny that these residential Masses contribute a special element to residential life at Notre Dame. Fr. Vierling agrees that to “offer Mass daily within the hall possesses tremendous value.  The goal of residential life at Notre Dame is to build Christian community.  The celebration of Mass, which makes present the entire paschal mystery of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, empowers us to do just that.”

Fr. Haag takes into consideration students’ desire for an intimate Mass experience and draws attention to the importance of a more relaxed style of preaching at dorm Mass.

“I try to do that not so much through ‘celebrating an informal Mass,’ [but through] trying to acknowledge this through my preaching,” he said.

The Church alone determines the proper celebration of Mass, a life-giving and beautiful tribute to the greatest sacrament of our faith. There is not a single element of the Mass that does not serve a spiritual purpose. As I began to notice this fall, something is always lost in deviation from the prescribed celebration of Mass on the part of any of its participants. But as this Lenten season of self-reflection begins, we at Our Lady’s University can take a moment to reflect on the true meaning and beauty of the Mass as safeguarded by the Church. Residential Masses serve all of those who participate in them, for, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “liturgy is not liturgy unless it remains above the manipulation of those who celebrate it.”


Michael Bradley is a sophomore philosophy & theology major who is grateful for the priests of his hometown parish of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in South Bend: Msgr. Mike Heintz and Fr. Jake Runyon. Contact him at