Bishop Joseph OSEI-BONSU, Understanding the Mass: Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Liturgical Perspectives. New York: Paulist Press, 2017. 220  pp. $27.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8091-5302-2. Reviewed by Nathan R. KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY, 14618.


Bishop Osei-Bonsu of Konongo-Mampong, Ghana provides us with a text that is definitive in its statements and detailed in its descriptions of what should happen at Mass. Every gesture, every word, every movement, every person, every article of dress and furnishing present at a Mass is listed, described, provided with an historical background, a listing of biblical verses pertinent to it, and a doctrinal  background. The liturgical rules are clearly referenced and interpreted. He does this in seven chapters with an eighth titled Conclusion which is actually a list of dos and don’ts for “good liturgical practice.” A brief history of the Mass is  provided in chapter one with the second dealing with the assembly and its ministers, third, providing the reader with a review of the necessary furnishings for the  Mass, and a fourth dealing with the proper required postures and actions for legality.  The last three chapters deal with the Introductory Rites, the Liturgy of the Word, and the Eucharist with its concluding rites. It is a clear and accurate description of how current, episcopal thought is on how the Mass is properly “said” and organized – from the top down, of course.  My guess is that it fits an intellectual need for information, rules and security that many current devout American Catholics have. It is well written with a good index and an adequate bibliography.

For an older Catholic like me, who also has a degree in liturgical studies and has written extensively on similar topics for encyclopedias and dictionaries, the book sounds more like pre-Vatican II Canon Law and rubric set of descriptions of how to say Mass.  But, at the same time, as I understand it, that is what “liturgy” is today. This is a long way from generations past when we were trying to celebrate the Eucharist as a community rather than get it right according the rule books.  The final chapter of seventy six dos and don’ts makes a great check list for any bishop, priest, deacon, or lay person who wants to make sure a “good liturgy” has occurred – and , if it hasn’t, send a list of misdeeds to Rome. But I wonder if concentration on the parts of the Mass rather than the whole makes us a more a ritualistic rather than a celebratory people?  Whether demanding the participants of a ritual understand what the ritual meant to those communities 500, 1000, 2000 thousand years ago rather than be enlivened by what they mean today, will lead to growth or decline? A ritual, after all, is understood only by doing it not reading about it.