The Ten Most Common Liturgical Abuses
And Why They're Wrong
This article, which appeared in the January 1999 edition of Catholic Answers, is reprinted with the kind permission of the production manager, Jon Sorensen.
Before Vatican II there weren't any surprises when it came to the Mass.
Now in many parts of the United States you'll find priests improvising as they go along.
Even archbishops issue pastoral letters directing things at odds with liturgical regulations.
As Pope John Paul II noted in a 1998 ad limina address to the American bishops of the western states, not all of the changes in the liturgy "have always and everywhere been accompanied by the necessary explanation and catechesis; as a result, in some cases there has been a misunderstanding of the very nature of the liturgy, leading to abuses, polarization, and sometimes even grave scandal."
"Scandal" is a word much in the news these days, but it doesn't really mean a shameful or sexual misdemeanor.
"Scandal" in the Church's vocabulary means just what it means in the Bible: a stumbling block, something that obstructs a person's way to the faith [Matt. 18:6-9].
When the Mass is presented as something casual, entertaining, or improvisational, the whole point of it disappears.
If the priest conducts himself as if Christ were not truly present in the Eucharist, why should the lay people in his parish think the Eucharist means anything?
Why should they bother to go to Mass at all?
Although census figures report that the Church in America is growing, only twenty-five percent of Americans who call themselves Catholic attend Mass regularly (down from seventy percent before the liturgical reforms following Vatican II).
Worse, close to two-thirds of American Catholics say they don't believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist — and many of those are among the twenty-five percent who still attend Mass.
A strong argument can be made that the loss of structure in liturgy caused an erosion of faith that in turn dealt a near-mortal blow to the American priesthood. Religious vocations, always sufficient in this country, began dropping off as the new order of the Mass was imposed without the necessary explanation and catechesis.
Now many parishes have priests of other nationalities; we have become virtually a missionary country.
In an atmosphere of free-form liturgy, it's up to the laity to know the laws about texts, gestures, the sacred objects used, and the proper conduct of the Mass; to obey those laws; and to see that the clergy obeys them, too.
It's up to us to call our priests back to due reverence when it comes to matters of taste that aren't covered by law.
It's also important to know the difference between matters of law and matters of taste, because you have to know when you can insist and when you have to persuade.
But by and large the laws binding on all priests are enough to bring back the reverence that is all too often missing.
If you question some liturgical practice at your parish, go to your nearest Catholic library or bookstore and have a look at these texts: the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM); the Code of Canon Law (its acronym, CIC, is derived from its Latin title, Codex Iuris Canonici); the Ceremonial of Bishops (CB); and the Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (CMRR).
The Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979 (DOL) published by the Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minnesota, includes many kinds of regulations in a single volume; so does The Liturgy Documents: A Parish Resource by Liturgy Training Publications at the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Check the directives from popes and Vatican congregations, particularly the Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship (CSDW).
The Congregation publishes the answers to questions of interest in a periodical called Notitiae.
These reinforcements of law are binding on all the faithful, and they go into greater detail than the laws themselves can; but mostly they repeat that the laws must be followed in this and every other instance.
Pauline Books & Media publishes many of these documents in inexpensive editions.
And if you have a computer, check the Internet.
You can easily find the complete texts of just about any Church document, free, including a good many articles from Notitiae.
Above all get a copy of the Order of Mass approved for use in the United States.
Unfortunately, it's hard to find the Order outside of huge altar books, which are expensive, or missalettes, which aren't always accurate.
Pangaeus Press in Dallas publishes an affordable edition of the Order.
When you have the applicable laws, write to the offending priest, citing the law, chapter, and verse and quoting it in full.
Be objective and charitable; if you can, phrase your concerns as questions.
An errant priest simply might not know what he's doing, but whether he's negligent or willful he might get obstinate or try to save face when his error is pointed out.
If you get no satisfaction after a reasonable exchange, repeat your concerns to the priest in writing and send a copy to your bishop.
It might end up being a longer and less pleasant process than you'd think.
So be prepared to repeat the process and to keep the focus on the exact issue and the exact laws that it violates.
As frustrating as the process might get, never lose your sense of charity.
If your complaint comes to a successful conclusion, don't crow about it; you haven't won anything.
The law has been fulfilled.
The Blessed Sacrament has won.
Here are the most common abuses that you find in American liturgies today, with a few references to the laws that prohibit them.
Check out those references and you'll probably find laws on similar problems in your own parish.
1. Disregarding the prescribed text of the Order of Mass.
This particular abuse is perhaps the most widespread.
You might think that the mere existence of a prescribed, official Order of Mass would be enough to show priests that they're not to change or improvise, but it isn't.
It's not uncommon to find lectors eliminating male references to God in the Scripture readings or using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (or other inaccurate and unapproved ones) for the readings.
You sometimes hear priests changing the words of the Nicene Creed — omitting the word "men" in "for us men and for our salvation" is the most common violation — or omitting the Creed altogether; saying aloud the prayers to be said quietly; or generalizing them, saying, for instance, "Lord, wash away our iniquities and cleanse us of our sins" (instead of "my" and "me").
You hear priests changing the tense and thereby the sense of phrases like "pray that our sacrifice is acceptable" instead of "may be acceptable" or "the Lord is with you" instead of "the Lord be with you."
You hear them inviting the congregation to join in prayers specified as the priest's alone.
On occasion you even find priests winging it during the Eucharistic Prayer.
And beyond the improvised words you'll find a lot of flippant practices like using blue vestments for Marian feasts or gingerbread for the Eucharist at children's Masses.
All of this is unlawful: "Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 22, repeated in documents like Sacram Liturgiam; Tres Abhinc Annos; CIC 841, 846; and many other laws and regulations).
Deviations from the Order are illicit, and when done intentionally they're a grave offense both against the Church and the faithful who have a right to an authentic liturgy (Inaestimabile Donum, CSDW, April 3, 1980).
2. Interrupting the Mass.
The priest has no more right to interrupt the Mass from the sanctuary than you have to interrupt it from the pews.
At the conclusion of Mass the lector or priest may make general announcements for the information of the parish; that's specified in the Order.
But no one may stop the Mass to make announcements, give financial reports, or make pleas for funds (Inter Oecumenici; Inaestimabile Donum).
No one may stop the Mass for extra homilies (CSDW, Liturgicae Instaurationes 2(a)) and certainly not for other activities that are themselves unlawful, like skits or "liturgical dance."
3. Omitting the Penitential Rite.
This one is often misunderstood.
A priest may choose to use the rite of blessing and sprinkling as given in the Order, in which case he must omit the "Lord, have mercy."
But a priest can never omit the penitential rite altogether, and he cannot give a general absolution during the penitential rite of the Mass as a substitute for individual Reconciliation (nor can he do so during a communal penance service [CIC 961]).
There are other options available to the celebrant elsewhere in the Order.
The sign of peace, for instance, is optional (GIRM 112).
If he includes it, though, the priest is not allowed to leave the sanctuary to exchange it with the congregation (GIRM 136).