Liturgical Police



[Editor’s Note: the following letters are in response to Mark Shea’s article, Unity, Liberty, Charity.]

Dear Mr. Shea,

Yes, but the liturgical abuses can be so egregious! I have often wrestled with what to do (usually nothing whatsoever). I go to the Cathedral of the Madeleine here in Salt Lake City, a church with very few liturgical abuses. And it's true: I'm not a Eucharistic policeman.

Even in my own mind I allow a few discrepancies at Mass. After all, they're priests and who am I? They have every reason to know what they're doing, and usually they do know.

But… when I travel! Last month in Portland, Oregon there was a priest who sat down for the entire Mass (but had walked in). Then there was one who changed the Gospel of the day to one that he wanted to preach about. And made us stand around the altar and hold hands, then administer the Eucharist to each other.

And in February I went to Monterey, CA where I found a large dog cavorting around inside the church, slurping holy water out of this and that font. And it turned out that he was the priest's dog and he's there every day!

Word changing, word changing, word changing wherever I go! Priests who leave out whole paragraphs and pages! Priests who insert whole paragraphs and pages! (Russian Orthodox prayers in one case.)

I earnestly ask you, what are we to do? Some of it, yes, liberty might be the right response. But basically the priest is just supposed to “do the words in red, say the words in black.” And they know it. So what are we supposed to do about priests who seem to regard Mass as a “free improv” exercise?

[You do realize that the abuses I have mentioned are only the "tip of the iceberg"? Priests who don't vest, ceramic or glass chalices and patens, not being allowed to kneel, priests who sit down while lay people distribute the Eucharist, Eucharistic bread that's leavened, etc., etc., ad nauseum.]

Please address this issue again in another column and point out where the line might be drawn. On a “Web of Faith” re-run recently, the priests were asked what to do about a priest who keeps goldfish in the holy water fonts, and throws unconsecrated hosts (Deo gratias) to his dog as snack food. They said to contact the bishop immediately — that the priest clearly had a screw loose!

Thanks for what you do. I always read your articles with eager attention and usually agree with you and/or profit from what you say. And you have a point to make here too. But there are so many Catholics who know very little about anything to do with the Church, aren't there?

Your sister in Christ,

Annette Wilcox

P.S. I'm a fellow convert (7 years), starting with non-denominational charismatic and passing through 18 years in the Episcopal Church where, if I remember correctly, no priest would even dream of varying the words. Of course I'm happy to be home in the Catholic Church, but why is there so much liturgical abuse?

Dear Ms. Wilcox:

I'm sorry for your experiences of liturgical abuse. For what it’s worth, I have experienced police brutality from self-appointed Liturgy Police who have, I kid you not, been physically threatening, verbally abusive, and just plain obnoxious. It's a problem that cuts both ways.

I make no excuses for genuine liturgical abuse. It should be opposed — wisely and prudently. My article concerned itself solely with quarrels over things the bishops allow as legitimately diverse.

Mark Shea


Dear Mark:

Thank you for this fine piece of work. I agree with you whole heartedly, and I say that as a traditionalist interested in apologetics and ecstatic over the election of what I see as a hard-line pontiff in Pope Benedict XVI. At the end of the day, the laity must be obedient to the Church. This is one thing that sets us apart from other Christian faiths, and something a lot of Catholics have trouble remembering. Of course if, a century from now, another pontiff from another generation backed by cardinals that no one knows yet begins to discuss female ordination and priestly marriage, gay marriage, and other wolves which we are now able to (sometimes just barely) keep on the other side of the door, things might seem very different. Then arguments over the Latin rite, or kneeling to receive, or communion on the tongue might take on a new glow of importance in the light of history. That is not exactly what you were talking about, but it is in many ways akin. I'm sure you know that for many, “the camel's nose in the tent” is a real danger with liturgical liberalism, with seemingly lots of camels around what may be an ever shrinking tent. But your points are very well taken, and very well stated. I hope Catholics everywhere can remember that politics stops at the Church door, and that inside we are all one Church, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Thanks for your great work,

Ryan McNabb

Ooltewah, TN

Dear Mr. McNabb,

Much obliged!

Mark Shea


Dear Mark:

I read your article with interest…guess you would probably consider me one of the “liturgical police”!

Many of us “cradle” Catholics who have been so concerned about liturgical practices through the years, however, lived through the “glory days” of the Church before the Second Vatican Council, so it's been heartrending for us to have to live through 40 years of watching our beloved Holy Mother torn asunder by those who misrepresented the real mind of the Fathers of the Council in regard to liturgical renewal.

We've seen the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass become just a “community meal”; we've seen the end of Forty Hours Devotion each year in every parish in America; we've seen Masses for children celebrated with clowns and balloons in hopes of making the re-presentation of Christ's death on the cross relevant to the little ones! We've seen Stations of the Cross, Benediction, even the rosary belittled and dropped from parish devotional life. We've been subjected to contemporary “hymns” that call attention to us rather than lifting our hearts and minds to God and His majesty and glory! We've seen Gregorian chant completely disappear from our musical memories! We've seen Communion-in-the-hand and altar girls introduced in defiance of Rome and then finally approved by Rome only after many attempts by the American catechetical establishment to justify those practices as already being a “tradition” in the US Church!

We've had our children taught in CCD or in Catholic schools that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was like a birthday party! We've seen our children grow up never being taught (except by us!) about modesty, chastity, purity and the utmost necessity in order to protect those virtues of avoiding all occasions of sin! We've seen our children taught that it was okay not to attend Mass on Sundays or on Holy Days if they didn't “feel like it”!

We've seen the Tabernacle removed from the center of our churches to at best a side altar and at worst to a chapel completely set apart from the main body of the Church. We've seen our beautiful statues of our favorite saints and our inspiring stained glass windows removed from our “updated” churches… and have even been subjected to “in the round” churches with no kneelers!

Us “old time” Catholics, Mark, are deeply grateful for the hundreds upon hundreds of Protestants who are “coming home” to the Church these past 15 or 20 years or so and for the zeal for the Faith and love of our Lord that you bring with you, but it would be wonderful if you could all be a bit more compassionate and understanding of those of us who have lived through these 40 years in the liturgical and catechetical… and, yes, moral desert! I know you've heard the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi. It is true, Mark. How we pray affects how we believe or, what we believe affects how we pray!

That's why we believe it is so crucial that the rubrics be followed! Did you know St. Teresa of Avila said: “A rubric, a rubric. I would give my life for a rubric”? She understood what we've all come to understand, Mark!

All I want… and I know I speak for many of my generation… is the Mass celebrated in accord with the mind of the Church as it was articulated and intended by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council! If you've been reading anything at all about Pope Benedict, you must know that it is his greatest desire to bring just that conclusion about, praise God!

We have, really, Mark, lost two generations of young Catholics to the Faith because of all the craziness we've been subjected to these past 40 years. My hope, however, is that all these wonderful young JPII priests and the more orthodox bishops who were appointed during John Paul's pontificate will help bring about the “springtime” for the Church that JP envisioned! Just as God's Chosen People in the Old Testament wandered for 40 years in the desert before being brought into the Promised Land, so His Chosen People (His Church!) of the New Testament will soon leave the desert of these past 40 years and be brought into the true renewal He called for at the Second Vatican Council!

May God continue to bless your efforts to bring others to that “pearl of great price”, the Catholic Faith, that you have found!

In His Love,

Estelle (Mrs. Irv) Wisneski

Dear Mrs. Wisneski:

I'm sorry for the things you've suffered over the years. Please do note that I confined my remarks only to quarrels over matters the bishops have approved — or have not outlawed. I am not trying to make excuses for real liturgical abuses, nor to criticize those who struggle to stop them. My sole concern is with the tendency to elevate quarrels about things which are legitimately diverse over the catholicity and unity of the Church.

Thanks for writing. May God bless you and yours through our Lord Jesus.

Mark Shea


Dear Mr. Shea,

I think your article on liturgy wars will create confusion, although I believe it is well intentioned.

You don't do enough to distinguish between what is real liturgical abuse that needs correcting, and what is a matter of preference that should not be overblown.

For example, I went to a mass in Spanish in which the words of the Eucharistic prayer were changed from: He took the bread and gave it to his disciples, to: He took the bread and gave it to his male friends and female friends. The Last Supper — the institution not only of the Eucharist but also of the priesthood — this changing in the wording implies we should have women priests. It is the direction we are being thrust in. I don't consider this a matter of opinion, I consider this thoroughly un-Catholic and it is necessary to address it as such.

On the other hand, I won't get bent out of shape if some people choose to hold hands during the Our Father. I choose not to, and I wonder if others are theologically motivated in their actions or simply following along, but I won't comment on our different preference.

Conclusion: I think your article encourages peace and tolerance without properly distinguishing the line past which changes in “worship style” cannot be tolerated.

Love in Our Lord Jesus Christ,

Charles Rodriguez

Dear Mr. Rodriguez:

Thanks for writing. I thought I was perfectly plain: “We want to look at Jesus, not feel an icy stare on the back of our heads if we enact gestures or say words that bishops have approved but that self-appointed Liturgical Police have rejected as inaccurate renderings of the rubrics.”

I hold no beef for real liturgical abuse. I am speaking here of parishioners who appoint themselves as micro-bishops and complain about things that real bishops permit.

Mark Shea

Senior Content Editor

Catholic Exchange




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