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Fidelity to Liturgical Law and the Rights of the Faithful

Above: “Loving God, rock with us as we roll with you. Affirm us, so that we may affirm others. Sing your song in us, that we may sing it with others,” the masked priest prayed. (From the report last year by NC Register. Photo credit: Novus Ordo Watch.) 


I was recently asked by a number of people: “When ought one to point out liturgical abuses and endeavor to correct them?” My interlocutors had been confused by a number of partial truths. Let us, then, exclude several erroneous answers.

A balloon Mass.

“To correct an abuse, you need to have perfect charity and disinterested motives.” 

No man can know if he has perfect charity, and none of us has totally disinterested motives – nor should we. The reverence and beauty of the liturgy directly affects our spiritual well-being. Therefore, we have a vested interest in its being done properly. In order to offer fraternal correction, one needs to have charity, that is, love of the other, for God’s sake (which means willing the other’s good – including the good of abiding by Church discipline), and a willingness to forgive, but by no means does one need to have perfect charity. It is already an act of charity to attempt to correct a deviation identified as such by the Church.

Some abuses are, of course, worse than others, and less able to be tolerated. One must have both knowledge of liturgical law and some degree of prudence to navigate these situations, and if one is lacking either, one should not hesitate to seek advice from others before deciding on any course of action. Knowing what to correct, and when, and how, is a matter of discretion, which St. Benedict calls “the mother of virtues.”

“To correct an abuse, you need to be in a position of authority.” 

Also incorrect, since every lay person, according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, has the right, and sometimes the obligation, to express opinions, to point out problems, and to request solutions. Everyone has, moreover, a basic right to receive the word of God (obviously not distorted by heresy) and the sacraments (obviously celebrated correctly).

Can. 212 – §1. Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.

  • 2. The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.
  • 3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

Can. 213. The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.

Can. 214. The Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescripts of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors of the Church and to follow their own form of spiritual life so long as it is consonant with the doctrine of the Church.

Note that Can. 214 supports the right of the faithful to worship God in the usus antiquior, since the availability of this form to all the faithful who desire it has been required by Pope Benedict XVI, a legitimate pastor of the entire Church, as codified in Summorum Pontificum. Moreover, no one can dare to argue that traditional Catholic spirituality is not “consonant with the doctrine of the Church”; therefore, any Catholic has the right to follow it.

“It’s more humble for Catholics to just tolerate evils rather than striving to correct them. It shows that we are patient and meek.” 

Pope Leo XIII teaches us in his encyclical letter Libertas Praestantissimum that toleration of evil is permitted only when the common good clearly demands it and when an evil cannot be overcome in any reasonable manner; that any evil so tolerated may never be approved of, because it is harmful to the life of the community; and that the more a community is driven to tolerate evils, the farther it is from perfection.

Adapted to the ecclesiastical sphere, one would have to say toleration of abuses is never a good in itself and is always only temporary or pragmatic and not a matter of principle, and that the extent of evil tolerated is the extent of the corruption of a society. Hence, those who actually love and care about the Church will strive, with all the reasonable means at their disposal and with prudent gentleness, to root out such evils as they can. A default position of toleration is not and can never be Catholic.

A lightsaber Mass.

“At the end of the day, don’t sweat the small stuff. Our Lord, after all, is still present in the Blessed Sacrament, no matter which form, or what style of music, or what particular customs a community follows.” 

This is one of the most pernicious of all errors. Apart from the deeper problem of a gross metaphysical minimalism at work here, which reduces the heavenly splendor of the divine liturgy, the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into our lives, to a binary-switch “validity” and a ticket-punching “licitness,” we may simply ponder the fact that how we treat the liturgy is how we treat Our Lord, for it is the great King’s clothing, His throne, His audience chamber, His entrustment of Himself into our hands, for good or for ill.

The way we honor and receive Our Lord in public worship redounds to our credit or disgrace. We can sin against the Lord, venially or mortally, by how we celebrate His sacred mysteries. And, all things being equal, we owe it to God to worship Him as solemnly and beautifully as we can. Our failure to do this when we could do it is an offense to Him and harmful to our own souls.

It is a work of great charity – a spiritual work of mercy – to instruct the ignorant and correct the erring. One does have to “play one’s cards” wisely and recognize that one may fail, regardless of one’s good intentions, demonstrated knowledge, and legitimate complaints. Still, in today’s world, where the Council of Nice has replaced all the ecumenical councils, we are far more likely to err on the side of timidity and complicit silence.

As a partial cure for such psychological inhibitions, I shall conclude with the best excerpts I have found in Church documents concerning the genuine rights of the faithful and the urgency of calling out and correcting liturgical deviations. The most important document is Redemptionis Sacramentum of 2004, which is why I shall cite it first.

Congregation for Divine Worship, Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (March 25, 2004)

4. [I]t is not possible to be silent about the abuses, even quite grave ones, against the nature of the Liturgy and the Sacraments as well as the tradition and the authority of the Church, which in our day not infrequently plague liturgical celebrations in one ecclesial environment or another. In some places the perpetration of liturgical abuses has become almost habitual, a fact which obviously cannot be allowed and must cease.

5. The observance of the norms published by the authority of the Church requires conformity of thought and of word, of external action and of the application of the heart. … The liturgical words and rites, moreover, are a faithful expression, matured over the centuries, of the understanding of Christ, and they teach us to think as he himself does; by conforming our minds to these words, we raise our hearts to the Lord. …

11. The Mystery of the Eucharist “is too great for anyone to permit himself to treat it according to his own whim, so that its sacredness and its universal ordering would be obscured”. On the contrary, anyone who acts thus by giving free reign to his own inclinations, even if he is a Priest, injures the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, which ought to be vigorously preserved, and becomes responsible for actions that are in no way consistent with the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people today. Nor do such actions serve authentic pastoral care or proper liturgical renewal; instead, they deprive Christ’s faithful of their patrimony and their heritage. For arbitrary actions are not conducive to true renewal, but are detrimental to the right of Christ’s faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition and discipline. In the end, they introduce elements of distortion and disharmony into the very celebration of the Eucharist, which is oriented in its own lofty way and by its very nature to signifying and wondrously bringing about the communion of divine life and the unity of the People of God. The result is uncertainty in matters of doctrine, perplexity and scandal on the part of the People of God, and, almost as a necessary consequence, vigorous opposition, all of which greatly confuse and sadden many of Christ’s faithful in this age of ours when Christian life is often particularly difficult on account of the inroads of “secularization” as well.

12. On the contrary, it is the right of all of Christ’s faithful that the Liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations as prescribed in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms. Likewise, the Catholic people have the right that the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass should be celebrated for them in an integral manner, according to the entire doctrine of the Church’s Magisterium. Finally, it is the Catholic community’s right that the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist should be carried out for it in such a manner that it truly stands out as a sacrament of unity, to the exclusion of all blemishes and actions that might engender divisions and factions in the Church. …

31. In keeping with the solemn promises that they have made in the rite of Sacred Ordination and renewed each year in the Mass of the Chrism, let Priests celebrate “devoutly and faithfully the mysteries of Christ for the praise of God and the sanctification of the Christian people, according to the tradition of the Church, especially in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation”. They ought not to detract from the profound meaning of their own ministry by corrupting the liturgical celebration either through alteration or omission, or through arbitrary additions. For as St. Ambrose said, “It is not in herself . . . but in us that the Church is injured. Let us take care so that our own failure may not cause injury to the Church”. …

169. Whenever an abuse is committed in the celebration of the sacred Liturgy, it is to be seen as a real falsification of Catholic Liturgy. St Thomas wrote, “the vice of falsehood is perpetrated by anyone who offers worship to God on behalf of the Church in a manner contrary to that which is established by the Church with divine authority, and to which the Church is accustomed”. …

183. In an altogether particular manner, let everyone do all that is in their power to ensure that the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist will be protected from any and every irreverence or distortion and that all abuses be thoroughly corrected. This is a most serious duty incumbent upon each and every one, and all are bound to carry it out without any favouritism.

184. Any Catholic, whether Priest or Deacon or lay member of Christ’s faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. It is fitting, however, insofar as possible, that the report or complaint be submitted first to the diocesan Bishop. This is naturally to be done in truth and charity.

The remaining documents will be taken in chronological order.

Congregation for Divine Worship, Liturgiae instaurationes (September 5, 1970), §1

Liturgical reform is not synonymous with so-called ‘desacralization’ and should not be the occasion for what is called the ‘secularization of the world’. Thus the liturgical rites must retain a dignified and sacred character. The effectiveness of liturgical actions does not consist in the continual search for newer rites or simpler forms, but in an ever deeper insight into the word of God and the mystery which is celebrated. The presence of God will be ensured by following the rites of the Church rather than those inspired by the priest’s individual preferences. The priest should realize that by imposing his own personal restoration of sacred rites he is offending the rights of the faithful and is introducing individualism and idiosyncrasy into celebrations which belong to the whole Church. The ministry of the priest is the ministry of the whole Church, and it can be exercised only in obedience, in hierarchical fellowship, and in devotion to the service of God and of his brothers. The hierarchical structure of the liturgy, its sacramental power, and the respect due to the community of God’s people require that the priest exercise his liturgical service as a “faithful minister and steward of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1).

 Pope John Paul II, Dominicae Cenae (February 24, 1980), §12

The priest … cannot consider himself a “proprietor” who can make free use of the liturgical text and of the sacred rite as if it were his own property, in such a way as to stamp it with his own arbitrary personal style. At times this latter might seem effective, and it may better correspond to subjective piety; nevertheless, it is always a betrayal of that union which should find its proper expression in the sacrament of unity. Every priest who offers the Holy Sacrifice should recall that it is not only he with his community that is praying but the whole Church, which is thus expressing in this sacrament this spiritual unity, among other ways by the use of the approved liturgical text. To call this position “mere insistence on uniformity” would only show ignorance of the objective requirements of authentic unity, and would be a symptom of harmful individualism.

Code of Canon Law (1983)

Can. 846, §1. The liturgical books approved by the competent authority are to be faithfully observed in the celebration of the sacraments; therefore, no one on personal authority may add, remove, or change anything in them.

Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus (December 4, 1988), §13

Side by side with these benefits of the liturgical reform, one has to acknowledge with regret deviations of greater or lesser seriousness in its application. On occasion there have been noted illicit omissions or additions, rites invented outside the framework of established norms; postures or songs which are not conducive to faith or to a sense of the sacred; abuses in the practice of general absolution; confusion between the ministerial priesthood, linked with ordination, and common priesthood of the faithful, which has its foundation in baptism.

 Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia (April 17, 2003), §52

It must be lamented that, especially in the years following the post-conciliar liturgical reform, as a result of a misguided sense of creativity and adaptation there have been a number of abuses which have been a source of suffering for many. A certain reaction against “formalism” has led some, especially in certain regions, to consider the “forms” chosen by the Church’s great liturgical tradition and her Magisterium as non-binding and to introduce unauthorized innovations which are often completely inappropriate.

I consider it my duty, therefore, to appeal urgently that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity. These norms are a concrete expression of the authentically ecclesial nature of the Eucharist; this is their deepest meaning. Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated. The Apostle Paul had to address fiery words to the community of Corinth because of grave shortcomings in their celebration of the Eucharist resulting in divisions (schismata) and the emergence of factions (haireseis) (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-34). Our time, too, calls for a renewed awareness and appreciation of liturgical norms as a reflection of, and a witness to, the one universal Church made present in every celebration of the Eucharist. Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities which conform to those norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church. … No one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands: it is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and its universality.

From a L.A. religious education congress.

Originally published in July, MMXVII

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