Reform the reform (part 2)

Pope Benedict XVI

Last week, I reflected on post-Vatican II changes on the liturgy. In particular, I looked at the revival of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Latin and the official support for it.

This week I will conclude this topic, covering some of my personal hopes and reasoning. It is my wish list for the “reform of the reform” – to correct excesses presumably done in the “spirit” of Vatican II. In short, my hopes are for increased reverence which is rightly due the sacred liturgy and for the renewal and strengthening that will accompany it.

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. Precisely to bring out more clearly this deeper meaning of liturgical norms, I have asked the competent offices of the Roman Curia to prepare a more specific document, including prescriptions of a juridical nature, on this very important subject. 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.

Ecclesia de Eucharistia 52
Pope John Paul II

With that in mind, my first hope is that all priests would faithfully follow the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. The GIRM is not a list of “best practices” – it must be strictly followed as written. There are places where the presider may say things in his own words. The GIRM is very clear where that is allowed. Other parts must be presented precisely as described with exactly the words provided. This is very important (see Sacrosanctum Concilium #22, Canon 928, Inaestimabile Donum #5). It is also important that the priest never forget that the Mass is not about him, but solely about Christ.

I am not referring to mistakes and oversights that are completely understandable by our over-worked priests. We are blessed by their dedication and long hours that make occasional errors a reality of their humanity. I am referring to purposeful, intentional changes.

On a related point, use of inclusive language (e.g. “man” changed to “person”) is a serious liturgical abuse. No bishop, priest, deacon or lay reader has the authority to change any text of the Mass to suit what they personally feel it should have said.

It would undoubtedly be controversial, but a lot would be gained in changing from versus populum to ad orientem (from “towards the people” to “the east”). That is, the sacrifice of Mass with everyone – including the priest – facing God. It is something of a mystery why priests currently face the congregation. The GIRM itself implies otherwise. Some priests are making this change (really, a correction). I wrote about one’s experience previously. No doubt, some would decry this as “undoing Vatican II” so catechesis would be needed. Maybe some heavy narcotics too.

Mass is not a performance but a connection to the Last Supper and Calvary. It is exceedingly inappropriate for applause during Mass.

Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.

The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 198
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

There are a number of areas in the distribution of the Holy Eucharist that could be improved. It is not uncommon, for instance, for an army of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (EMHC) to be used. This is done because it saves time and many people like serving in this ministry. It is also directly contrary to the conditions specified in Redemptionis Sacramentum 154-160 and Ecclesia de Mysterio article 8 for their use. Ideally the faithful would receive the Eucharist only from the priest or deacon – at least far more often. Speed of distribution is not of paramount importance.

In the United States, we have been dispensed to ALLOW communion in the hand and have somehow effectively made (although did not and could not formally make) it the norm. The universal norm in the Latin rite is communion on the tongue. There is much more abuse resulting from in the hand and it is less reverent. Priests and EMHC are forbidden from denying communion to anyone wishing to receive on the tongue. Fr. John Hardon observed “Whatever you can do to stop communion in the hand will be blessed by God.”

Kneeling to receive is similar although slightly different. The USCCB (per Eucharisticum Mysterium) has chosen standing as our norm. However, any communicant remains free to receive kneeling per the universal norm (see Protocol No. 47/03/L which explicitly overrides any USCCB claims of kneeling as illicit in the US). As much as a priest or EMHC might be annoyed, they are forbidden from denying communion to anyone who wishes to follow the universal norm. When I was growing-up in my Protestant church, we had communion rails and received kneeling there. I would be thrilled if this came back in the Catholic Church.

In most US dioceses, those not receiving communion are invited to approach for a blessing. This is misguided in a number of ways, contrary to canon law and instructions from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (see Protocol No. 930/08/L, November 22, 2008).

One of the prerogatives of the diocesan bishop is deciding if female altar servers will be allowed. Even if they are, priests can not be compelled to use them. As the father of a daughter, I have to admit that this is a topic I have mixed views on. When I consider only what is best for the Church however, I conclude that it should be male only. This is a function which uniquely gives boys closer exposure to the priesthood as a vocation. For some it will be the seed that later leads them to discern it for themselves. When boys and girls are mixed the dynamics change. The experience of some parishes shows that participation of boys drops when girls also serve.

On the topic of Mass and the Liturgy, here are some of my miscellaneous wish list items:

  • more homilies should include at least a brief portion on our beliefs
  • sanctus bells at every Mass and incense on all solemnities would be great
  • altars should never be lower than most of the congregation
  • the tabernacle should always be close to the altar (many churches I have visited have it elsewhere necessitating “find the tabernacle” confusion when genuflecting not to mention a lack of prominence)
  • choirs should be in lofts where available so that they do not become the focus
  • no more orans posture, at least no attempt to require it
  • be sure everyone understands that Mass is not for socializing!
  • since 2002 (GIRM 146), we are all to stand after the Orate, fratres (“Pray, brethren…”) before responding “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…”; I don’t think everyone got the memo

Finally (whew! this is turning out to be much longer than I thought it would) some general hopes:

  • fasting for only 1 hour before receiving the Holy Eucharist is almost the same as not fasting at all – this should be more of a real fast as it once was
  • the Sunday obligation should be met on Sunday; Saturday vigil, while meeting the obligation, is just not the same
  • holy days of obligation should not be dispensed simply because they fall on a Saturday or Monday
  • Friday abstinence should be clearly restored where it is in doubt
  • there should be much more adult catechesis – offered and aggressively promoted
  • the scandal caused by high profile individuals receiving communion when in open opposition to Church teaching should be addressed
  • the scandal caused by Catholic intuitions (hospitals, universities, religious orders) in open opposition to Church teaching and the episcopate should be addressed

The bottom line is not that the liturgy of the Mass and other practices is wrong, broken or less sacred. It is that post-Vatican II “spirit” changes made in haste and/or with questionable authority should be reversed to restore greatest reverence. That is the point of reforming the reform.


  1. (I am posting this for Ruth Ann. Please let me know if you have any problem posting a comment.)

    It will take generations before your wish list materializes, if ever. I am a firm believer in having options. So, I hope you get your wishes, but I hope others who like the vernacular, the priest facing the people, communion in the hand, and lay participation will have that as well. Why not?

    George, the way you describe the reform of the reform sounds like you want to put people (priests, especially) in a straight jacket. It's almost inhuman. And, although God is the Supreme Being, we are his children and he understands us better than we even understand ourselves. He loves us—yes really loves us—in our humanity, and even in our brokenness. No, that fact does not give any excuse to be irreverent, but it's not necessary to be wooden soldiers marching in lock step either.

    One thing we can both agree on, though, is the need for reverence. That is an area that I'd wish would be emphasized regardless of the Rite used for Mass. Reverence can be encouraged by externals, like the clothes we wear and the care with which we perform the Mass responses and gestures. But it actually is a thing of the heart. If it doesn't flow from the interior disposition of the believer, it is simply empty gestures and rubrics.

    When we love God above all things it becomes natural to want to be reverent.

  2. Ruth Ann makes a good point about choice and I would be fine with that personally. It would have the effect of raising awareness of the true nature of the Mass and that is an important part of the battle.

    I don't necessarily agree about putting priests in a straight jacket. They have a huge amount of freedom in the homily and selection of options. Expanding beyond that to make the liturgy their own has led to problems, some very serious. The fact is, those who take liberties do so in violation of Church authority and that is wrong on several levels.

    I also agree with Ruth Ann on reverence vis-a-vis interior disposition, but believe the conduct of Mass helps form that disposition.

  3. I don't think everyone got the memo

    Um . . . I guess I didn't. Oops.

    Thanks for letting this recent revert know, George!

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