Keep Your Change
�We should move the organist and cantor up front where they can lead the people in the singing. In fact, we should get rid of the choir loft altogether so no one can sit up there.� �We should have different instruments besides the organ -- like a synthesizer or guitar. Maybe the younger people would participate more.� �We should bring the altar out into the main part of the church and place the pews in a semi-circle.� �I really like it when the servers go out into the congregation to greet the people during the �Sign of Peace�.�
All of these sentiments were expressed at our recent �Parish Project Night�. Other innovations have surfaced in parishes from time to time. We�ve heard an influx of new Eucharistic prayers and occasional improvisation in the text of the liturgy, including inclusive language. Some parishes have allowed forms of liturgical dance. Then, there is the renewed emphasis on expressing symbolism, such as moving the baptismal font to the entrance of the church to symbolize that Baptism is the point where you enter the Church, I guess.
When given an opportunity to tweak the liturgy, Catholics come up with many ideas. Some are good and some not so good. Some may sound appealing, but bring undesirable results. Some are just plain bad. Our Church has been around for 2000 years. We have two millenniums of Holy Spirit-guided insight into the workings of God. That�s a long time and it is surpassed by no other Christian community in the world. By now, one would think our form of liturgical worship would be perfected. But we continue to think we can improve it. When are liturgical changes justified and who should be making these decisions?
Theology is infinitely complex, though God Himself is a simple being, and therefore, unchangeable. No created being will ever fully understand the uncreated being, so even the most advanced theological study is always a work in progress. Within the Church itself, we have laity, deacons, priests and bishops who are all at various stages of understanding in their journey of Faith. Some bishops have spent their lives tapping the rich scholarship of those that have come before them. They are responsible for guiding the one Church established by Christ to make certain it remains pure, true, and in unity. Imagine how difficult that task must be when they have all of us theological pre-schoolers interjecting our liturgical ideas.
The unity of the Church is especially important. In what we sometimes call the �high priestly prayer� (John 17), Jesus prays to His Father as His ministry here on earth is nearing its end. Beginning about verse 11, He prays for His disciples, the first bishops of the Church, to be one as He and the Father are one. And at verse 20, He extends that desire to us. �I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. �And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.� (Jn 17: 20-23 NAB)
Clearly, Jesus wanted the members of His Church to be united as one. How do we share this unity as members of the Mystical Body of Christ? We have unity in doctrine, unity in Church government, and unity in the Liturgy. It is vitally important that this unity be maintained. It�s one of the great treasures we Catholics have. But how far do we have to go in maintaining our liturgical unity? Is it alright for our priest to change a few words in the liturgy here and there? What�s the harm in standing during the Eucharistic prayer? Other churches do it. Isn�t it nice when we all hold hands during the �Our Father�? What about moving the altar?
Paul warns the Church at Corinth of the dangers of people doing their own thing. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he says, �I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. �For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe�s people, that there are rivalries among you. �I mean each of you is saying, �I belong to Paul,� or �I belong to Apollos,� or �I belong to Kephas,� or �I belong to Christ.� �Is Christ divided? Was Paul Crucified for you? �Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? �I give thanks [to God] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say you were baptized in my name.� (1 Cor 1:10-15 NAB)
If fissures were already occurring when the Church was in its infancy, how can we possibly expect to maintain our liturgical unity today with more than a billion Catholics from a multitude of cultures? I can�t help but think of people today who might say, �I follow Father John. He�s more liberal.� Or, �I follow Father Mark. He�s more conservative.� Or, �I follow Father Fleger. He�s not afraid to stand up to the Archbishop.� Or, �I follow Father Wathen. He doesn�t believe in the Novus Ordo Mass.�
A priest doesn�t have to be a heretic to cause a division. Every time a priest allows his personality to manifest itself in the Mass, he produces a situation where parishioners will either like, dislike, or be indifferent to his innovation. The change may be harmless or even an enhancement, but it creates the potential for causing a hairline crack. Am I saying priests should behave like robots made on an assembly line? Of course not. Obviously, personalities always come into play, especially in homiletic style, and people will develop preferences. Care should be taken, however, to ensure that everything that happens during the essential parts of the Mass is proper and universal. With so many Catholics from so many cultures, how is this possible?
In terms of a governing body, we have the continuous lineage of popes, from Peter to John Paul II, in union with the bishops, forming the Magisterium which we rely upon for the development of doctrine which defines our Faith. Without the Magisterium to guard the deposit of Faith, we are relegated to self interpretation of the Scriptures, and divisions are inevitable. We have a Catechism to serve as a guide for our behavior in the Faith. And to maintain Liturgical unity, the Church gives us the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), an instruction book for worship.
The Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass is at the core of our Faith. It unites us as Catholics with the Body of Christ. It is of utmost importance that a Catholic can walk into any Mass anywhere in the world, and recognize immediately what is happening on the altar. We should be able to focus our attention on Our Lord without much worry about posture or conforming to local custom. When local customs are an option, the GIRM specifies such allowances. To maintain liturgical unity, it is essential each priest in every parish in the world maintains conformity with the GIRM.
As I stated in an earlier message, a tendency to tinker with the form and posture of the Mass has existed since Vatican II. Some priests, even those conservatively orthodox, will occasionally improvise language or liturgical structure. For those of us who have studied the GIRM, it is probably impossible to attend any Mass without spotting some form of liturgical abuse. Is this a problem? Well, it can be.
Language is delicate. The most subtle change can affect meaning. Even without changing words, the message can be altered merely by varying vocal inflection. I recently saw a demonstration using the text, �I never said you stole money.� If you say that six word sentence six times, each time placing emphasis on a different word, you convey six different ideas. When wording in a text is changed or improvised, a shift of the original idea being expressed is almost inevitable.
In the universal church, we also encounter the problems of translation. Church documents are issued in Latin and then have to be translated into the vernacular. This may not sound like a difficult problem, but it is. You cannot take a Latin to English dictionary and translate the document word for word. The goal is to convey the meaning of a thought or idea. My copy of the Catechism is filled with revisions that came out later to clarify meanings not conveyed ideally in the first printing.
If every priest were allowed to improvise his own language, it is almost certain that subtle changes in meaning would occur. If every church were allowed to improvise its own liturgical form, new ideas would spread from church to church. In the worst case, parts of the Mass could eventually become unrecognizable. In the interest of maintaining the unity that Christ desired, the rubrics of the Mass are quite specific in terms of language and form. Priests should recognize their responsibility in maintaining conformity and fight the well-intended temptation to vary from the text, even if in doing so, he elevates the spirituality of the moment. As Paul said to the Corinthians, �For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.� (1 Cor 1: 17 NAB) If the gospel is inspired by God, and the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, why would anyone be so presumptuous to think they can somehow add to the Sacrifice of the Mass?
While many of these little liturgical innovations may go unnoticed by most of the congregation, they can be a distraction to those familiar with the rubrics. Violations of the GIRM are described as illicit, but do not render the Mass invalid unless they are severe. At most every Mass, you will hear one of four Eucharistic prayers including the Roman Canon, the only Eucharistic prayer allowed until 1965. There are actually ten approved Eucharistic prayers in the United States. Some are reserved for special circumstances and are seldom used. Two are for Masses of Reconciliation, three for children�s Masses, and one rarity called the Swiss Canon. Regardless of which approved prayer is used, the celebrant should stick to the exact text.
An interesting article titled The Mystery of the Swiss Synod Eucharistic Prayer by Father Jerry Pokorsky and Helen Hull Hitchcock, addresses problems with the proliferation of Eucharistic prayers in the Church. The article was published by the Adoremus Bulletin in 1997.
The authors make the point that a multiplicity of optional language does not necessarily make it possible to serve the pastoral needs of the parish better. They go on to explain that the word �canon� comes from the Greek word meaning rule, measure or standard, and because the canon is the heart of the Mass, the maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi, (the law of prayer is the law of belief) applies to it. In effect then, changing the canon is changing the rule or standard of worship. So what�s wrong with changing a rule once in a while?
The authors state the following: �St. Thomas Aquinas warns that even when a human law needs to be changed, there is danger of reducing the binding power of the law as a consequence of the change. Hence, laws should not be changed unless the existing law is �clearly unjust� or its observance �extremely harmful�.� �Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the laws is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished.�
We have seen this happen many times. For example, Catholics were bound to refrain from eating meat on Fridays under pain of mortal sin prior to Vatican II. No good practicing Catholic would ever eat meat on a Friday. But when the bishops decided to allow us to substitute some other form of penance on Fridays, the binding power of the rule diminished immensely. Few Catholics today even think about the necessity of doing penance every Friday.
Catholics used to receive Holy Communion kneeling at a railing, hands covered by a cloth so as to prevent accidentally touching the Eucharist unworthily, and with a paten held under our chins to catch any crumbs that might fall. With the rule came great reverence for the Sacred Host. When the rule was changed to allow receiving Body of Christ in-hand while standing, the binding power diminished and the reverence was lost. Now we seldom see the paten used. Our parish recently held an outdoor Mass using homemade bread that was very �crumby�. The meticulous cleaning of the Eucharistic vessels that used to be done at the altar immediately after communion is now often set aside until later, and sometimes delegated to an extraordinary minister, also an abuse.
The authors, Hitchcock and Fr. Pokorsky, go on to speculate about whether liturgical changes may contribute to the breakdown of the rule of faith. While reluctant to make that leap, they do see a correlation between the �breakdown in the �law of belief� and the evident breakdown of the �law of prayer��. They point out that Pope John Paul II evidently believes there is a connection, indicated by his message to several American bishops reminding them of their responsibility to make available �exact and appropriate translations of the official liturgical books so that, . . . they may be an instrument and guarantee of a genuine sharing in the mystery of Christ and the Church: lex orandi, lex credendi . . .The arduous task of translation must guard the full doctrinal integrity and, according to the genius of each language, the beauty of the original texts.�
If those so far advanced from us on the journey of Faith teach the importance of textual accuracy, how could anyone less advanced feel qualified to make modifications? When we get the urge to change an established practice, we should heed the words of St. Thomas Aquinas and resist unless the continued observance is �clearly unjust� or �extremely harmful�. What about the suggestions made at our Parish Project Night? As far as I�m concerned, in most cases, they can just keep their change.