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Watch Out for Liturgical Abuses

What are liturgical laws for? And how much does it matter when they're broken?

Detailed instructions about the celebration of Mass are given by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in addition to the texts and rubrics (set actions) of the rites themselves, and this has the force of (liturgical) law. Some liturgical issues are also covered the Code of Canon Law.

Pope John Paul II was extremely worried by the issue of liturgical abuses. So he added to the above resources Inaestimabile Donum (1980), On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Laity in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest (1997), and Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004).

It is sometimes said that John Paul restored order to the liturgy, and certainly some of the wilder liturgical abuses of the 1970s, such as the use of invalid, homemade cookies for consecration in Mass, did come to an end. However, on many issues, law and practice were reconciled by changes to the law, not changes to practice.

For example, the first rules allowing the distribution of the precious blood alongside the host to the faithful at Mass specified that it should be for small, homogenous groups, and only for “particular” occasions (Sacramentali Communioni [1970]). Nevertheless, the bishops of the USA were permitted to allow it on Sundays in 1984, and restrictions on it become rather vague in later documents.

The same story can be told about the use of females to serve the altar, and the reception of Holy Communion in the hand. On still others, practice contrary to the official rules is so widespread that Catholics could be forgiven for regarding it as normal. Examples would be the routine use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, the priest leaving the sanctuary to take part in the Sign of Peace, the saying of the Lavabo prayer aloud, and lay people cleansing the sacred vessels after Holy Communion.

The situation is unsatisfactory, to say the least. John Paul’s documents condemn laxity on liturgical law in the strongest terms, but ultimately, they failed to curb it. Their failure was symbolized by Pope Francis washing the feet of a non-Catholic woman on Holy Thursday in 2013. The law was not changed to allow the washing of women’s feet until 2016, and the new rule still excludes non-Christians from the rite. Pope Francis was certainly making a telling, symbolic, point: the battle over liturgical law is over, and the legalists have lost.

There is clearly no point in doing what some did under Pope John Paul: to insist on adherence to liturgical law just because it is liturgical law. If bishops, seminary rectors, parish priests, or laity are going to argue for closer adherence to the law, they need better arguments than that. Naturally, the Holy See had reasons for all of its legislation, but some of these reasons are stronger than others.

The most powerful reason for a liturgical law is to ensure the validity of the sacraments. Such matters are, in fact, still widely taken very seriously: the Arizona priest, for example, who used an invalid formula for baptism rightly resigned from his position, though it is regrettable that he was not stopped for a quarter of a century. Ministers of the sacraments must not change sacramental formulas or accompanying actions (pouring water, laying on of hands, etc.); the faithful have a right not only to valid sacraments, but to complete confidence in their validity.

At the other end of the scale, reasons for liturgical laws can be much weaker. In 1955, the Holy See decided to tweak the symbolism of the Holy Thursday Mandatum (the washing of feet) away from the idea of serving the poor and toward the service of Christ to his apostles. Pope Francis has tweaked it back again. A lot of liturgical laws are like this, and we should not allow disputes about them to disturb our own worship of God.

Then there are intermediate cases, where liturgical abuses can rise to the level of sacrilege: the wrongful treatment of holy things. A dog receiving Holy Communion, for example, does not endanger the validity of the sacrament for others, but is an objective, grave offense on the part of whoever allows it, causes serious and justified upset to onlookers, and potentially undermines the doctrine of the Real Presence.

It’s not clear if this has ever happened: internet references to it usually turn out to refer to Episcopalian services. But short of this obvious outrage, there are practices that of their nature conflict with the teaching of the Church—not only on the Real Presence, but on the priesthood.

Readers will be able to think of many examples of inappropriately casual treatment of the Blessed Sacrament. Ask the question: is this what we would do if we really believed that the host and the precious blood contained the body and blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, our God and Savior? Many historic liturgical practices serve to emphasize this reality; their abandonment does the opposite, effectively contradicting it.

To give just one example, consider the practice of “self-intinction”: when someone receiving Holy Communion carries the host to where the chalice is being offered and dips it into the precious blood before consuming it. I hope most readers can see that lay people should not be wandering around carrying a consecrated host in their fingers, nor should spillage of the precious blood be risked in this way. Once we start thinking on these lines, we can take a view on the importance of the “act of reverence” called for, but often not given, before receiving Holy Communion—the manner of receiving Holy Communion, the use of lay people to distribute Holy Communion, the use of pottery or glass sacred vessels, and so on. What confirms and what undermines the doctrine of the Real Presence?

An example of a practice that undermines the Church’s teaching on the priesthood is the saying of the words of consecration by members of the congregation along with the priest. Those who promote this practice, if not necessarily all those who do it, must intend to minimize the role of the priest and to conflate it with the quite different priesthood of the baptized.

If we recognize why this practice is problematic, we should be able to extend the principle to other issues: the way the celebrant can appear to be surrounded by lay people at the altar; a priest’s failure to wear proper vestments; and lay people taking on all kinds of priestly liturgical roles, from preaching at Mass to putting the Blessed Sacrament back in the tabernacle after Holy Communion. Everything that blurs the distinction between the priest, and his role, and the laity, and theirs, undermines in a practical way the Church’s teaching that a priest is not merely a convenient representative of the community, but someone able to act as Christ in Mass and in the sacrament of penance (confession), due to the ontological change made to him by the sacrament of holy orders.

Without creating pointless conflict, the Church’s more fundamental liturgical principles remain things priests and people should keep in mind, to keep the Faith clear to themselves and others.

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