When I was studying at the Jesuit theological seminary in Woodstock, Md., in 1964, Vatican II was under way; and I had been invited to a “different” Mass in a tiny chapel on the grounds. Suddenly at Communion, the recently ordained celebrant, Jake Empereur, placed the host not on our tongues but in our hands! I still had three years to go before my ordination and the official introduction of changes in the Mass, but this celebrant was taking the initiative.
Most articles on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II have overlooked the creativity before and after the council’s liturgical reforms, which brought new intimacy to the Mass. This essay is not meant to be a 1960s-style protest but to serve as a time capsule, capturing a moment in history that should not be lost. The challenge in that new era was to bring the Eucharist to the greatest number of persons. With the support of five Jesuit universities where I worked and the local diocese of New Orleans, this included students and prisoners. All experiments, particularly in those years, are vulnerable to excesses. But I rejoice that the young priest put the host in my hands when he did.
At Woodstock each morning, in small chapels on the fourth floor, the Mass took different shapes. At one of these the celebrant distributed the roles of the Mass: one seminarian was to improvise the opening prayer, another a preface or the closing prayer, another was to preach extemporaneously. In another chapel the eucharistic prayer was a text from the Gospel of Luke or one of the letters to the Corinthians. Many wrote their own canons. John Mossi, S.J., editor of a collection of original canons from that era as well as ancient fraction rites (Bread Blessed and Broken, Paulist Press, 1974), told me recently, “We wanted a liturgy not translated from the Latin but in our own cadence, poetry and experience.”
When experimental canons were widely published (100 in Holland alone), America printed two (May 27, 1967): one by the then-Jesuit poet John L’Heureux, which begins, “Blessed are you, Father, in all the things you have made: in plants and in animals and in men, the wonders of your hands. Blessed are you, Father, for the food we eat; for bread and for wine and for laughter in your presence.”
At Fordham in the 1970s, three Jesuits often concelebrated a Mass for students on weekdays at midnight, where we sat in a circle on the floor to discuss the word of Scripture, then gathered around the altar for the eucharistic meal. For 10 years, students came to these—sometimes one, sometimes 20.
Liturgy must adapt to its context. In the 1990s I said Mass frequently in a New Orleans prison. A blind, black guitarist, an elderly nun who had once been held hostage in a prison riot and I had a maximum of 30 minutes to do our thing: wipe the breakfast slop off the steel table in the cellblock recreation space, with the sound of toilets flushing in the background; sing “Jesus on the main line, call him up and tell him what you want”; a Gospel reading and short homily; the Our Father, greeting of peace and Communion; a final prayer, hymn and blessing. In a moment I will never forget, a woman prisoner asked me to find and speak to her son. “Of course,” I replied. “Where does he live?” The boy was in this very prison, some cell blocks away. Jesus said, “When I was in prison you visited me.” Because there were so many prisoners and so few priests, it would be months before those men or women could be visited by Jesus in the Eucharist again.
Recently, on a visit to an old army friend at his lakeside home, we sat across the table from one another and I improvised some prayers. My thoughts shot back to Emmaus and to Jesus, recognized in the breaking of the bread.