Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Liturgical Abuse: Sweating the Small Stuff

I’m sure you’ve heard this one: “Rule Number One is, don’t sweat the small stuff. Rule Number Two is, it’s all small stuff.” 

No, really;
DO sweat the small stuff!
That may be a workable adage for earthly matters, but not for spiritual concerns. In the Kingdom, everything is turned upside down: the meek shall inherit the earth; when I am weak, then I am strong; we must die to self in order to truly live. In the Kingdom, sometimes the “small stuff” is the truly important stuff. And in the Kingdom, it’s definitely not all “small stuff”.

Concerning the liturgy, the “little things” spelled out in the rubrics or in Canon Law or in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) are all there for a reason, and the net effect of a correct implementation of each part is a more beautiful portrait of the Heavenly Banquet. In his book Worship as a Revelation, Laurence Paul Hemming states,

A further part of this textual character of the liturgy as a whole is the vestments the furnishing and ordering of the church interior, the shape and character of the sacred vessels, the materials from which all is made, its exact placing and so forth. Everything in a church intends a meaning, so that the whole of the liturgy, its chant, what is performed, by whom, and how, where, and when, form a whole textual complex with intricate significance. (p. 11)

It seems to me that the average Catholic – the one who goes to Mass on Sunday and maybe holy days of obligation (wait…is that really average any more?) – well, anyway, the average Catholic: a) doesn’t know what the rubrics say about how the liturgy is supposed to be celebrated; b) doesn’t care; and c) is fine with keeping things just as they are. “This is how we’ve always done it”, and they don’t want anything to change.

The result is that – at least where I live – we have Catholic parishes that look, act, and think more like Protestant churches: the focus of worship is more human-centered – it’s all about ‘us’. The music is “what makes us feel good”. The homilies are pablum (actually, a lot of Protestant homilists are serving meat, while many Catholic priests stick to cereal). We want to be “inclusive” and make people feel “comfortable”.  

The liturgy is too significant to take lightly or to meddle with unnecessarily: It is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10). It is the source and summit of our life as Christians (Lumen Gentium, 11). It is the earthly sign of the heavenly banquet and our communion with the saints: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims…” (SC, 8). What can possibly be “small” in such an important piece of our Catholic Christian identity?

Here’s a list of some of the “small stuff” that bothers me at Mass:

  • Sloppily attired altar servers
  • “Contemporary” music
  • Priest adding “Good morning” at the beginning of the liturgy, and “Have a nice day” at the end
  • Inappropriate items placed on the altar
  • Using the altar as a background for “seasonal” decorations

And here’s a list of some of the “big stuff” that makes me cringe:

  • Priest adlibbing the Lamb of God and/or any other prayers
  • Calling for “spontaneous” general intercessions
  • Inappropriate vestments
  • Lay ministers performing tasks that should be reserved to priests, deacons, or acolytes
  • Unvested lay ministers entering the sanctuary to receive Holy Communion
  • Acolytes and deacons performing tasks that should be reserved to priests
These are just a few examples, and you may agree or disagree as to whether they are “small stuff” or “big stuff”. To me, frankly, they’re all “big stuff”. These errors violate the sacred structure of the Mass, disdain tradition and apostolic teaching, and contribute to a general lack of reverence for the liturgy.  

The point is, in the liturgy, we need to sweat all of the “stuff” in order to make sure that the big picture is not out of focus.

But my view is not shared by many in the parishes I’ve experienced. An entirely different attitude prevails: one of casualness. One parishioner asked me in all sincerity, “Do you really think that stuff matters to God?” She also wondered aloud why my opinion on liturgical matters should matter more than hers or some other parishioners’. My explanation that it was not my opinion, but rather, what the Church demands of us for Her liturgy, fell on deaf ears. This parishioner – and she’s not the only one – has no concept of the authority of Church teaching, documents, or tradition. She doesn’t know the difference between an encyclical and an encyclopedia, or between the GIRM and the missalette (“Isn’t everything we need to know in the missalette?” she inquired).

Another parishioner told me didn’t understand why we should have to follow a bunch of rules about the way the sanctuary was furnished and how the altar was covered. “I think people should be comfortable when they come to church,” he said.

Yep. He's comfortable...
Sadly, this comment is probably the most telling of all. I would say that people are definitely “comfortable” in our Catholic churches. They are so comfortable that they feel free to traipse through the sanctuary at will, with a quick nod of the head toward the tabernacle. They feel comfortable enough to enter the sanctuary and stand right next to the altar to receive Holy Communion. The altar servers feel comfortable enough to slouch and yawn their way through Mass. The priests are comfortable enough to treat their role as one of talk-show host. Once, I suggested to a priest that if Jesus entered the room, we would all fall on our faces in adoration, not just greet him with a casual, “Oh, hi, Lord.” He laughed and said he would probably do the latter.

In truth, most priests probably do follow the rubrics quite well… or at least intend to. For most, any errors are probably due to oversight or ignorance, rather than willful disobedience. Busy parish priests may find it difficult to take the time to study the GIRM. However, shouldn’t this have been covered in the seminary?!

I also understand that priests are faced with “parishioner pressure” – those pillars of the local parish community who tell the priest, “But this is the way we’ve always done it”. And certainly, re-catechizing such parishioners can be a daunting task. In my own little parish, I have had unfruitful conversations with others regarding liturgical issues.

But I think priests and bishops are making a big mistake by “going with the flow” in their parishes and dioceses. If they are not moving toward greater liturgical excellence, then they’re going backwards. And they are doing a disservice to the faithful.

When priests and bishops dismiss liturgical abuses as insignificant they do two things: First of all, they allow the faithful to persist in their errors, and hand these errors on to the next generation of parishioners (“that’s how we’ve always done it”). They dilute our Catholic identity.

Second, they cause scandal. When a faithful Catholic discovers the truth about the liturgy, he’s bound to wonder why the shepherds of the Church have failed to teach it. When a faithful Catholic begins to see the beauty, wisdom, majesty, and pure depth of Catholic tradition, he is bound to wonder why the shepherds of the Church have hidden it.

And he begins to wonder if those shepherds are really wolves in sheep’s clothing. That is not a good thing.

Personally, I’ve been maligned by the pastor of my own parish (and beyond) because of my orthodox views, and my willingness to insist on liturgical correctness. I’ve been censured by an acting bishop. So what I see is that the leadership of the Church cares very little about the liturgy, but very much about popular opinion. And since my “opinion” is not popular, they don’t care about it.

It doesn’t bother me that the powers-that-be (or even my friends, family, and fellow parishioners) don’t care about my “opinions”.  Sometimes, I don’t care about theirs, either!

What bothers me is that they are so quick to dismiss what the Church has to say about the liturgy and how it should be celebrated. This is not a matter of opinion, and shouldn’t be dismissed as such. It is a matter of truth.

When people say the rubrics are optional or don’t matter for some reason or another, what they are really saying is that their opinion should hold sway! And they tell me I’m too “rigid”.

To them, I offer this thought from Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:

The life of the liturgy does not come from what dawns upon the minds of individuals and planning groups…[It] becomes personal, true, and new, not through tomfoolery and banal experiments with the words, but through a courageous entry into the great reality that through the rite is always ahead of us and can never quite be overtaken.

Does it still need to be explicitly stated that all this has nothing to do with rigidity? (Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 168)


  1. Great post Dr. Jay!

    The "big stuff" you've cited certainly makes me cringe too.

    Not to make light of PTSD, I think there should be a new class of conditions that fall under the broad heading of post-liturgy stress disorder, the symptoms of which include: an uncontrollable urge to leap up to the pulpit and proclaim a holy war against liturgical abuse; a desire to unplug the sound system so heretical preachers and goofy songs are somewhat muted (or calling for an act of God to smite the sound system); an urge to burn the felt banners and crappy "art" in the new fire at the Easter Vigil (or on the occasion of the Nativity of Saint John-The-Baptist), or on any day of the week; etc.

  2. Wendell - you are so right! Only I think I would call it "pre-liturgy stress disorder". I find the symptoms intensify the closer it comes to Mass time.

  3. Good post, Jay. I'm right with you on all you said. It's more than a little overwhelming to me, frankly. To tell the truth, I have a very hard time getting myself to the relatively conservative (ha) local Catholic church for Mass. Every single item you listed, both big and small, are routine at that parish also and it's a challenge to pray at all during the Mass.

    Actually, that's not entirely the fault of liturgical abuses. The Novus Ordo Mass in its essence, even offered "correctly" is not conducive to true prayer. I've been a regular Traditional Mass goer for about 10 years now, but am now in a physical condition that I can't drive so am forced to walk to the local NO parish. I had become so wondrously accustomed to the ancient Mass that going to the NO was quite a shock, truly. It really is Protestant and it doesn't allow for prayer! It's absolutely baffling to me that this is what these people want.

    If I may...not criticizing you, of course, just a sticking point for me when you mentioned the lay ministers doing this or that. I totally agree with the horror of what you mentioned, but I really take exception to the use of the word "minister" for a member of the laity. Maybe it's technically correct, but I personally think it adds to the deep-seated confusion amongst the laity of their role and what isn't their role. For example, the Extraordinary Minister of Communion (ugh), what a disaster.

    Well, I can tell I'm on the verge of getting overwhelmed again. One could go on and on! Great post, as usual. Thanks, Jay.

  4. Elizabeth - I agree that "minister" is an unfortunate choice of words, but it's probably more because of what the word has come to mean to us in the current times. In the EF, there can still be an "extraordinary" minister, but that would generally be a deacon! Sigh. I totally relate to your dismay at having to drag yourself to a NO Mass on Sundays. I generally feel like I haven't been to Mass. I guess all we can do is focus on the fact that Jesus is still present there!

  5. PS - Elizabeth, it's really okay to "criticize" anyway - or certainly to disagree. I'm certainly not error-free!


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