This is especially true when the Church gathers to celebrate the Eucharist, the ‘summit and source’ of the Christian life (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 10), the celebration of which should be marked by a noble simplicity.
This desire for noble simplicity is particularly significant when the Bishop presides over liturgical celebrations as the Bishop of the Diocese, especially in his Cathedral Church. These liturgies should serve as models and examples both to parishes and diocesan instrumentalities and to the public at large. To that end, these liturgical celebrations should be prepared and celebrated with great care and due regard for the liturgical tradition of the Church.
And that is where the role of the Master of Ceremonies comes in.
At the heart of the role of the Master of Ceremonies (MC) is an intimate knowledge of the liturgical tradition of the Church, particularly its finer and sometimes more obscure parts. But the role of the MC is not about being the liturgical police, though some people might perceive them as such, but about fostering and enabling the noble celebration of the very thing that marks the Church out as the Church.
The role of the Master of Ceremonies is mentioned in the liturgical books of the Roman Rite as follows:
For a liturgical celebration, especially a celebration presided over by the bishop, to be distinguished by grace, simplicity, and order, a master of ceremonies is needed to prepare and direct the celebration in close cooperation with the bishop and others responsible for planning its several parts, and especially from a pastoral standpoint.
The master of ceremonies should be well-versed in the history and nature of the liturgy and in its laws and precepts. But equally he should be well-versed in pastoral science, so that he knows how to plan liturgical celebrations in a way that encourages fruitful participation by the people and enhances the beauty of the rites.
He should seek to ensure an observance of liturgical laws that is in accord with the true spirit of such laws and with those legitimate traditions of the particular Church that have pastoral value.
(Ceremonial of Bishops, 34)
It is desirable, at least in cathedrals and in larger churches, to have some competent minister or master of ceremonies, to see to the appropriate arrangement of sacred actions and to their being carried out by the sacred ministers and lay faithful with decorum, order and devotion.
(General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 106)
The focus of the ministry of the MC is, therefore, the service of the worship of the People of God, particularly when the ‘whole Church’ is gathered, i.e. the People of God with their Bishop surrounded by his Priests and Deacons. Attention to detail, combined with what some might consider arcane knowledge of obscure parts of the ritual books, are very much at the heart of the life of those who are appointed to such a role.
The MC’s role is, as I’ve said, one of service – both to the worshipping community and to the liturgical tradition of the Church – but it is also one that is rooted fundamentally in prayer. Since liturgy is, of its nature, an activity of prayer undertaken corporately by the People of God, so too is the preparation of liturgy and the coordination of the celebration of that liturgy. As the MC attempts to give voice and structure to the pastoral needs of the People of God who will gather to celebrate a particular liturgy, they themselves will be delving into the very mystery that will be celebrated in a particular place at a particular time.
As anyone familiar with the Church’s liturgy will quickly identify, the component parts of the liturgy – words, actions, symbols, etc – have meaning and significance that needs to be carefully orchestrated so that they constantly proclaim the truth of the Church’s faith.
It is always easy to recognise when something doesn’t quite fit the expected nature of a liturgy. I suspect we’ve all experienced one of those liturgies at some point of time when we’re certain something wasn’t quite the way it should have been, even if we can’t always put our finger on the specifics. This is where the role of the MC can help to minimise these kind of experiences, ensuring that a liturgy fulfils the purpose that it was intended to have by paying attention to the language of the liturgy, the use of symbols and actions, and the way in which all of these are brought together into a coherent whole.
At its very heart, the role of the Master of Ceremonies is not about saying ‘no’ for the sake of saying ‘no’. It is about saying ‘I see what you want to convey, here’s how we might best do that’. It is about bringing all the skills, the experience, and the knowledge (even the arcane and obscure) to bear on the liturgical celebrations of the People of God, for the sake of the People of God as they gather to worship the God who has claimed them all.
Above all, the role of the Master of Ceremonies is about the worship of God with the grace and noble simplicity that is at the heart of that worship.