Monday, February 25, 2008

"Jenga" Mass, part three: The priest's reply

This is the reply from Fr. X. to my letter from November. I copied the content of the letter exactly, except in the following cases: brackets [...] were turned to parentheses (...) so as not to be confused with my comments; a person's name was abbreviated; I left out the priest's name and his carbon-copy attribution to a third party; bolding and [comments] are my own.

Dear Jeff,

Thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts about the Liturgy we shared a while back. I have been thinking about your letter and whether I should respond, and if so, how. As you can see, I have thought it best to respond, mostly because I feel some responsibility for the fact that you spent so much time at that Liturgy counting my faults, [I won't deny that I was paying attention to what the priest was doing during Mass, nor that I noticed many things I considered abnormal (based on my knowledge of the liturgy). I was uneasy from the get-go: the priest asked out loud whether he should put on vestments.] which must have been a distraction from your full, active and conscious participation. [It certainly was.] Being the kind of person I am, I have organized my response and will present it rather formally, but I think it is important that I make myself clear and understandable. So please forgive the formal presentation.

  • One of the things that one learns when studying Church documents, which I am sure you already know, is that they are written as Roman law, not English-based law. When I say "Roman" I mean that these laws are written from the point of view accepted as the one which the official Church in the Vatican has as its stance, not based on the old English form of common law. Roman law is seen as a goal to be achieved (and not always realized); English law express what is expected at the moment. Americans, in the English tradition, think that the law should be observed to its particulars. One most interpret Roman law as Roman law, recognizing that the English attitude is somewhat inappropriate, and may even be misleading. [Does this mean the Church puts forth laws without expecting them to be followed? That's probably an over-simplification, but seriously: if the Church puts forth a liturgical law, what's stopping a priest or bishop from carrying it out in a pastorally-sensitive manner?]
  • Of course, you have taken into account the principles of interpretation of law of Pope Urban VIII. [No, I haven't. I don't know what these are, and my initial research online has not yielded any results.]
  • The praxis ecclesiae is another factor that must be included in any serious thought about Liturgy, as you know. That praxis involves an awareness of what the Pope and the Bishops do at Liturgy, a point to which I will return later, as well as the praxis of the people. [But sometimes they also do things they aren't supposed to, although it's not always their decision.]
  • I am also aware of my role in the Eucharist. It is my responsibility, when I am the principle celebrant, to create an atmosphere in which people can come together in their worship of the Father. It is the task of the Assembly to enter into the Liturgy in a spirit of openness to the even as it unfolds within them and around them. All of us need the kind of humility that supports us in letting go of our own individual preferences [a point to which I will return later] so that we may enter into the pattern left us by Jesus and shaped by the Church.
  • Of course, liturgical law, like all other law, exists in a hierarchy of importance. The law against murder is more significant than the law of Stop signs. [Unless running a stop sign results in vehicular manslaughter.] The use of bread and wine is much more important than a manual gesture. One needs to see the elements of the Liturgy, like the parts of life, in perspective.
  • Before Vatican Council II Liturgical law was the province of canon lawyers. The books of Liturgy for Mass stated up front that the Liturgy was in accord with the decisions of the canonists. The Vatican Council II made a very profound and fundamental change in things when it took the Liturgy away from the canonists and made liturgists responsible for the process of changing the Liturgy. [What does he mean by this? Is he referring to the Consilium that implemented the Constitution on the Liturgy? Or is he saying that even today liturgists are in the process of changing the liturgy as they see fit? Who are these liturgists? Do they adhere to the "hermeneutic of discontinuity" or the "hermeneutic of reform" as Pope Benedict calls them?] There are some who have not realized this shift made by the official Church in her most solemn teaching (the documents of an ecumenical council) and are still working at Liturgy as if it were simply a matter of doing ritual according to some precise legal standard. [Does that include the people in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments? They publish documents on the proper carrying-out of the liturgy and their official interpretations of the regulations of the liturgy.] The Liturgy, like our God, is a living thing. It exists in different communities, in different cultures and societies, in different kinds of buildings, in differing levels of awareness, in different Assemblies. Liturgy is the worship of real people, expressing their real self gift to the Father in union with Jesus the Lord in the power of the Spirit.
  • This kind of legal approach becomes extreme in what I will call Neo-Phariseeism. [I am not surprised this came up. I agree with what he says here, but I don't think my attitude in this case is the one he describes.] Such a person would see Liturgy as a set of rules and regulations to be accomplished with mechanical accuracy. [I see the liturgy of the Mass as the public corporate worship of the Father by the Church. As such, it does have rules and regulations, but they are there to guide us in orthopraxis and to prevent aberrations and falsities from entering into our worship.] They would pay lip service to the values and meaning of Liturgy, but would evaluate it only in terms of rubrics. [I don't do this, but I do acknowledge that a poorly celebrated Mass can diminish its perceived meaning and even foster incorrect attitudes.] Such people, as their scriptural ancestors were accused by the Lord, would tie up burdens of exactitude and do nothing to help others bear these man-made burdens. [I don't think I am requesting anything more than the Church requests (or demands, rather) of its priests. I am also more than willing to help!] I would imagine that the Lord Jesus feels the same about the Neo-Pharisees as he did about the originals.
  • I find another particularly subtle but equally dangerous dimension in the comments of some people who criticize the present Liturgy. A danger of being excessive about the details of liturgical law is that it suggests a kind of magic to me. Magic is a way of gaining power over a supernatural being (God included) by a ritually repeated action accompanied by the repetition of the proper incantation. The living Liturgy can never fall into this foolishness, since it responds to the people, the place, the occasion, and doesn't slavishly repeat the ritual action and speak the prayers with the exactitude that is akin to magic, to gain power over God. True worshipers believe that God is present among us because of God's choice to love us unconditionally, not because we have "forced" God into compliance with our wishes by accurate repetition of ritual and precise repetition of words. [But at the same time, the Church recognizes that the Sacraments have a proper form: e.g. baptism "in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier" is not valid. In place of the point of view whereby adherence to rubrics gives rise to magic, I see it as lex orandi lex credendi.]
As you know, and as I am sure you have done, there are a variety of source that you must be aware of when thinking about what happens at Liturgy. I repeat them here for my own sake, so I can be clear about what I think about when I make decisions about the Liturgy.
  • The document of the Vatican Council II on Liturgy. [That's Sacrosanctum Concilium.]
  • All the documents [including some of the ones I quoted in my letter] of the Church, both Roman and of the American Bishops, consequent to the Council. [What of the documents that preceded the Council?]
  • The documents in the front of the Sacramentary [such as the GIRM] and the Lectionary [I don't have a personal copy of the Lectionary, but I looked at one and noted it has documents pertaining to the meaning of the Liturgy of the Word, its proper carrying-out, etc. They mention the priest or deacon reading the Gospel, and the things done before and after the Gospel is read.].
  • The history of the Liturgy from the Early Church thru the ages, the history of the various books used in the Liturgy, perhaps with a special eye on the relevant documents of the XX Century (including those of the people who were studying the Liturgy with Roman approval and working on and experimenting with permission on changes in praxis) that helped shape the mind of the Church that prepared for the Council.
  • Following Urban VIII's principles, I had the opportunity in the past to speak viva voce with Bishops who were at the Council, including a member of the Committee that actually wrote the document. I am sure you have read enough of the work of such people to have the sense of their mind when they did the writing of the document.
  • It is very important to include the writings of recognized commentators on Liturgy, people whose opinions and suggestions are accepted in the living out of the Liturgy of the Church. Of course, that doesn't include every unqualified individual or axe grinder who opposes the Liturgy that is the living expression of the faith of the Church.
  • The praxis of the Pope, the Bishops, and the Church celebrating Liturgy. For example, blue is not one of the liturgical colors. But there are photos of John Paul II in America celebrating in blue vestments. [Yes, but was it his decision? There are pictures of Pope Benedict XVI in very tacky blue and yellow vestments as well. Then again, now that Archbishop Piero Marini is no longer the Master of Papal Ceremonies, we'll see things more in line with the constant praxis of the Church, not someone's innovation.]

With all this in the active background, let me comment on your specific observations.
  • Since the Mass was informal, and not a parochial Mass with an assorted Assembly in attendance, I felt free to adapt the Mass to the situation. You do not know whether I started with a kiss to the altar, hardly an essential element to the celebration of the Eucharist, which we need to see in perspective. [Kissing the altar is a sign of reverence to that which represents Christ, the altar on which he becomes present in the Most Blessed Sacrament. While it may not be "an essential element", I don't see the justification for its omission... perhaps the sake of informality?] You will also find [where?] that there is such a thing as the Rite of Welcome which can replace the Penitential Rite. And again, we were in an informal setting. As for C. [a layman] reading the Gospel, that is something I would not do at a regular Mass. [Because it's not permitted.] However, following the principle of ¶ 14 [I'll replicate this later] of the Council document on the Liturgy, I think it is a matter of freedom in some limited situations. [Whence in ¶ 14 does he derive that "freedom"?] I also know it is a practice [that doesn't make it licit!] in such informal Liturgies [Why must they be informal? What is the harm in a "formal" Mass? Doesn't a "formal" Mass allow for "active participation" without a layman reading the Gospel?], for the reason given in ¶ 14. [What reason is that?] The purpose of the Liturgy that night was not to set up situations in which people could ask questions. That would be totally improper. The Liturgy is for the worship of God the Father by the self-gift of those who are there. If questions come, fine. But Liturgy is not supposed to have other purposes.
  • As for standing around the altar [nevermind the Notitiae from the Congregation for Divine Worship], if you check the text of the Second Eucharistic Prayer in the Sacramentary, which was written by Pope Hippolytus [not exactly: EP II is based on the anaphora found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus] in the second century [my research says the third century (AD 215), but whatever] and has been a treasure of the Church thru the ages [although since replaced in the Roman Rite (and probably every other Rite as well), until it was resurrected and revamped after Vatican II], it says clearly, and I quote, "We thank you for counting us worthy to STAND in your presence and serve." (p. 550 of the Sacramentary, emphasis mine) [The context from the original prayer is missing from EP II. More on that later.] As you know, standing at prayer is an act of profession of faith [yes, but in the Roman Rite, the proper posture of the faithful during the EP is to kneel] in the ANASTASIS. In so large a chapel, it seems better to have a small number of people close to the altar to enhance their participation (¶ 14 again) [How does he derive that from ¶ 14? than to keep them at a distance [of 15 feet, which is where we had been seated]. And there is a second point here. It is the official teaching, and the advice of commentators, that the unity which the Eucharist sacramentalizes is shown by the words and postures of the Assembly. This is specifically cited in reference to the posture and actions at the reception of Communion, but is a value thruout the Liturgy. Therefore, as a sign of unity, everyone should be standing when the group is standing, otherwise the experience of unity is lessened. [I think he is referring to two things here: 1) that since the priest was standing, it was proper for all of us to be standing, and 2) that I should not have knelt during the EP and after the Agnus Dei since no one else did. Point 1 is irrelevant; to point 2, the priest did not ask or tell us to remain standing throughout the EP, so I don't know why the others did not kneel. If he had asked us, I suppose I would have uneasily stayed standing, though he has no place asking people to stand for the EP.]
  • You're correct that you wouldn't be asked to hold the paten and offer yourself as part of the gift at a regular parish Mass. So? [So it was an illicit addition that he decided to introduce.]
  • I would never agree that the people join their prayer to mine in the Liturgy. [Maybe the priest didn't understand my point (from Mediator Dei). The presidential prayers belong to the priest to pray; the EP is one such prayer. We join our personal prayers of self-offering to the prayer of the priest (the EP).] The Liturgy does not belong to the priest, but to the Church. The Assembly is not a group of spectators, but the Body of Christ, the Church! I am a minister, a servant of the Assembly, with my role to play. But the faithful play a very important active part of the Liturgy.
  • I am sure you know that the basic word musterios is not best translated by "mystery" (in the usual American sense of something unknown) but rather the opposite, a revelation of divine truth. The word in Latin to translate it is sacramentum [Except when it is translated as mysterium, such as in "mysterium fidei". I see in the writing of Pope St. Leo the Great, the two words are interchangeable at times (here and here); there's also Trent XXII where sacramentum is translated as "mystery". But that's besides the point, as I mention below.]. I do not use the word "mystery" because I think it is misleading. [What about "the kind of humility that supports us in letting go of our own individual preferences"? I'll talk about mysterium fidei below.] There is nothing hidden or unknown about our salvation [but we celebrate the "sacred mysteries" (Sacramentary, Penitential Rite: p. 360, option C -- which happens to be the first/only option in the Latin) at Mass] - it has been lovingly and unconditionally given by God to us all in response to the self-gift of Jesus in his passion, death, and Resurrection. (I suggest Ephesians 1:3-14 as an interesting text on the word musterios.) Nor do I suffer the belief that the words of the Sacramentary have to be reproduced exactly. [What a relief!] Twice in my life I have been in situation in which someone complained that a priest (and it wasn't me) had changed the words of the Eucharistic Prayer. In both situations, the person that was called in to comment on the case was the diocesan head of the Liturgy Committee. In both cases, these officials approved of the changes in words and found no fault in the reasonable flexibility of the celebrants. There is another principle operative in the mind of this celebrant, called the principle of proportion. A daily Mass should not be celebrated with exactly the same solemnity as a Sunday Eucharist, nor are the Ordinary Sundays of the year supposed to be celebrated as we do Easter or Christmas. This is an application of our awareness of hierarchy - some days are more solemnly celebrated than others. The celebrant, musicians, and other ministers, should show this variability in their ministry. Small group Liturgies aren't the same as Sunday Liturgies in a large church. [Well, I'm not sure I follow this. Certainly, there are degrees of solemnity in the liturgy: solemnities, feasts, memorials, and ferials. But I don't see why fewer people present should mean that we render our worship to the Father with less solemnity and reverent gusto.]
  • Your footnote 7 (interesting in a "letter") is not to the point. [That was the footnote that explains that it is not appropriate for priests to use non-approved Eucharist Prayers, nor to change the approved texts. It was to the point, I thought.]
  • Your final accusations that I am "care-free" in my attitude to Liturgy and "disobedient" is, if I may be honest, very offensive. [I apologize for using those terms. I was giving my perspective on the situation.] Be careful when you become judgmental - the Lord Jesus says that you will be judged as you judge others.

May the Lord Jesus draw us ever deeper into the humble gift of self that makes us one with him in worship of the Father.

This is n. 14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium:
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.

Yet it would be futile to entertain any hopes of realizing this unless the pastors themselves, in the first place, become thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy, and undertake to give instruction about it. A prime need, therefore, is that attention be directed, first of all, to the liturgical instruction of the clergy. Wherefore the sacred Council has decided to enact as follows:
So that's what the Church said: the means to achieving the "full and active participation" of the people is "the necessary instruction in all ... pastoral work". Not "letting them read the Gospel".

I have a post I'm working on for this blog about the Second Eucharistic Prayer (the shortest one, and the one the average parishioner hears most, I'd bet) and the anaphora found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. Let me spill the beans here. The anaphora (which Hippolytus said was a model) was not used in the Roman Rite (at the latest) since the adoption of the "Roman Canon" (which was, at the latest, during the reign of Pope St. Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century)... until it was modified and injected into the new order of Mass in 1969 (even though Vatican II did not call for more Eucharistic Prayers to be rediscovered and polished -- like EP II and IV -- or created -- like EP III). In the context of the Apostolic Tradition, the anaphora is used by a bishop at the Mass of his ordination, not by a priest every day of the week. The part about being worthy to stand in the presence of the Lord and serve Him demands some attention. Here is a translation of that part of the anaphora:
Therefore, remembering his death and resurrection,
we offer to you the bread and the chalice,
giving thanks to you, who has made us worthy
to stand before you and to serve as your priests.
Compare that with the corresponding section of EP II:
In memory of his death and resurrection,
we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup.
We thank you for counting us worthy
to stand in your presence and serve you.
See the difference? It is my understanding that the anaphora spoke of the bishops and priests serving in the ministeral priesthood and standing at the altar, not of the entire assembly in the royal priesthood of all baptized believers.

As for mysterium fidei, the context of these words in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is during the consecration of the wine, becoming the Precious Blood: Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni testamenti: mysterium fidei: qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum. That is: "This is the chalice of my blood, the new and eternal covenant: the mystery of faith: which is shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins."

Pope Paul VI wrote this in the opening of his 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei: "The Mystery of Faith, that is, the ineffable gift of the Eucharist that the Catholic Church received from Christ, her Spouse, as a pledge of His immense love, is something that she has always devoutly guarded as her most precious treasure, and during the Second Vatican Council she professed her faith and veneration in a new and solemn declaration."

No matter what the theological interpretation of what the "mystery of faith" is in the Eucharistic Prayer, the fact remains that the Church translates mysterium as "mystery" in this instance, and so "mystery" must be said.


benedictgal said...


This sounds like something one of the Presidential candidates would have written to explain away some of her stuff.

I worked in the Legislature for 12 years and drafted my share of bills that became laws. I have to admit to using some double-speak so that my member could get his legislation passed. But, when it comes to the Church, those games are dangerous and should be avoided.

For what purpose, pray tell, do the Holy Father, the Magesterium and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments exist? As Cardinal Arinze says, the Church's sacred treasure, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is too important to not be governed by rubrics.

He makes absolutely no sense whatsosever. I think he's come down with the virus called the "Spirit of Vatican II" and reads things into the text than reading what the actual texts have to say.

Is he saying that St. Hipolytus's words are superceding the Church's rubrics? That's a real stretch.

Thanks for sharing this letter.

Moonshadow said...

Small group Liturgies aren't the same as Sunday Liturgies in a large church.

How is it he had such a bad pastoral read of your small group? I'd say he misjudged based on your age.

You needn't answer this publicly, but were there any candidates for the priesthood among you? Could his inclusive approach to the liturgy be seen as an encouragement to vocational discernment?

His reply to you is orderly. If only his celebration of the Mass were equally orderly in the first place, well ...

japhy said...

moonshadow: I don't think anyone in our group is discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life (apart from myself... I think I'm being called -- several years down the road -- to the permanent diaconate). The group exists for two purposes, really: to re-incorporate young adult Catholics (in their 20's) who are feeling a little left out of the Church (because they're on their own, or they don't know other people their age), and to bring us together in prayer to support one another.

I would say that anyone discerning a call to the priesthood (in line with the "hermeneutic of continuity") would have been a bit put off by his manner of celebration. I remember one time, about a year ago, I attended a Saturday morning Mass at a parish nearby, on my way to Allentown, PA. I had my Liturgy of the Hours with me, and was praying it before Mass started. That Mass also had some liturgical aberrations, but nothing as drastic as what I saw in November. After Mass ended, as I was leaving, the priest asked if I was in the seminary (perhaps because of the breviary I had and my demeanor during the Mass); I responded that I was just a man in need of prayer. I couldn't help but thinking that, if I was in the seminary, Mass done in an abnormal way would not be a help for my liturgical formation.

Expectant Father said...


I am always encouraged when I meet or read about Catholic young adults who take their faith seriously. The fact that there are people such are yourself and the other members your group has kept me motivated during difficult times at the seminary (coincidentally the same one your brother attended, where he taught one of my preaching classes, and where I just saw him a few hours ago).

I am sorry that you had to suffer such a travesty as you described in your original post. I can certainly sympathize: imagine what it's like for us who formally study the Church's liturgy and carefully practice how to celebrate it as the Church asks, to the honor of God, and then have to endure all sorts of abuses! At least it makes us hunger for ordination all the more!

If I may transmit some advice that I received a few years ago: the best way to put an end to abuse and inanity in the liturgy is to present something better; that is, present what the Church asks for in a way that is clearly, if not irrefutably, better.

Liturgical abusers rarely are convinced by liturgical law, unless the abuse is unintentional due to error or ignorance, and often (a minimal charity prevents me from saying always) suffer from the (dare I say arrogant) perspective that they know better than the 2000 years of Church teaching and tradition. The way to reach them is to show how beauty, intimacy and humility are best manifested in the proper celebration of the liturgy. Unfortunately, some have hardened their hearts, and it is up to the Holy Spirit to prick them back into life (although pointing them to 2 Samuel 6:1-7 migh help!). Let us pray for all the Fathers "Bill".

On a positive note, priests being ordained today are much less likely to commit intentional abuses such as those you described. I believe none of my classmates would even think about doing what you described. Please pray that we will remain always faithful and obedient to the Church's directives for the liturgy (and everything else).

God bless you and your lovely wife.

japhy said...

Expectant Father: Thank you for your words of encouragement. I'm blessed to have "a father for a brother", especially one who takes his vocation so seriously and celebrates the Mass faithfully... and his homilies are always insightful and enlightening. :)

I am glad that in your trials you are growing firmer in your resolution to respond to God's call (your growing "hunger for ordination") rather than becoming discouraged and leaving us behind.

The chapel where our group attends Mass once a month is a beautiful one: it faces the east, it has a high altar with a beautiful tabernacle, a sanctuary with six or eight minor altars facing north and south, a "people's altar" with baldacchino dedicated to Our Lady of Miraculous Medal, gorgeous stained-glass windows depicting various saints and popes, and pews arranged antiphonally. I'm working up the courage to ask one of the priests at the chapel to say Mass in the Ordinary Form ad orientem... maybe even at the high altar... maybe even in Latin! (It could be a learning experience.) It could be a private Mass. I wouldn't mind being the only one in attendance. I just think it might be good for my soul, and I would ask for it to be offered in reparation for liturgical abuse.

But I also need to concentrate more on worshiping God during Mass; I haven't been letting myself focus on Him as much as I know I should.

Thank you for your comment, and may God bless you and your fellow seminarians. I will pray that the Lord will grant you wisdom and grace to be faithful to His Church and offer Him the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in a fitting and humble manner.

charles pinyan said...

to the "expectant father" -
I enjoyed joining the community for Evening Prayer today, and if you saw me, I guess I saw you too (although I don't know who you are)!
The seminarians are in my prayers!

Tim A. Troutman said...

What a narcissistic priest. Jeff - thanks for taking the time to respond to this and for taking the effort to let him know his abuses aren't welcome even if it falls on deaf ears.

It is clear his heart is in the wrong place and so his body (ears) wont be able to hear what you have to say.

I don't think he grasps the amazing power of the mind to convince a person to do/believe something utterly irrational (like the things he's saying).

Tim A. Troutman said...

Jeff, I also responded here. I think I finally understood what the priest is trying to say.

Gretchen said...

Thanks for the post. I am heartened by your faithfulness, and I think, in general, we may be seeing a distinct turning back to the 'old paths'. But it takes men like you to fight the good fight. Again, my thanks.

Anonymous said...

God bless your perseverance! What drivel from him; it's called rationalizing.
Philomena from CAF

Anonymous said...

All you really needed to do was agree with the others in the group not to invite this priest again, pray for him, and move on. In other words, vote with your feet. If enough people never invite him back, he may begin to get the message.

This exchange of letters was bad for both of you. For you, it presented the danger of pride and lack of charity. For him, an opportunity to solidify his position and have a ready answer the next time he is challenged.

No clear winner here, except the forces of evil, perhaps.