Protecting the Eucharist from Distortion: A Serious Duty for All

Redemptionis Sacramentum was issued in 2004, on March 25th (Annunciation), by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments to correct liturgical abuse — that being the blunt American way of putting it. In Rome’s more diplomatic language it was to “establish certain norms” by which earlier liturgical instructions are “explained and complemented” and refers explicitly to Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the 2003 encyclical of John Paul II.

Yes, This Means You

The first thing we need to understand about Redemptionis Sacramentum is who is being addressed. If we lay Catholics think that it is an instruction merely given to bishops and priests, then we might consider the implementation of it to be “not my job.” John Paul II addressed Ecclesia de Eucharistia: “[t]o the bishops, priests and deacons, men and women in the consecrated life, and all the lay faithful.” And Redemptionis Sacramentum (RS) is likewise addressed to all:

It is not at all the intention here to prepare a compendium of the norms regarding the Most Holy Eucharist, but rather, to take up within this Instruction some elements of liturgical norms that have been previously expounded or laid down and even today remain in force in order to assure a deeper appreciation of the liturgical norms; to establish certain norms by which those earlier ones are explained and complemented; and also to set forth for Bishops, as well as for Priests, Deacons and all the lay Christian faithful, how each should carry them out in accordance with his own responsibilities and the means at his disposal (2, emphasis added).

Back to translating into blunt American speech for a moment: The Holy Father wrote some instructions on this a year ago. We have other instructions on the celebration of the Eucharist that were in force even before that. And guess what, folks? They are still in force. Many of us seem to have trouble appreciating them. So in order to assure a “deeper appreciation” — i.e. to leave us no excuse for ignoring the directives — they are writing yet another document to explain them once again. So let's all listen and pay attention this time.

This instruction did not say responsibility for correcting abuse rests only with the clergy. RS (183) extended responsibility for ensuring a properly celebrated Mass to “everyone.” It asked that “everyone do all that is in their power” to protect the Eucharist from “irreverence or distortion” and to ensure abuses are “thoroughly corrected.” This effort was called a “serious duty incumbent upon each and everyone, and all are bound to carry it out without any favoritism.”

The Road to Abuse Is Paved with Good Intentions

What abuses were named for correction by Redemptionis Sacramentum? (And, yes, “abuses” is exactly what the document calls them.) We need to read the document to completely answer that. But some examples can be noted and categorized as follows:

Abuses of liturgical prayers:

• Eucharistic prayers are recited by a lay person or a deacon (RS 52).

• Eucharistic prayers are said which are not found in the Roman missal or approved by the Apostolic See (RS 51).

• The text of the Sacred Liturgy is altered (RS 59).

Abuses by lay people:

• A lay person proclaims the Gospel (RS 63).

• A lay person gives a homily (RS 64).

• For no serious reason, and as a regular practice, the preferred time for a lay person to give instruction or a testimony is within the Mass (RS 74).

Abuses during distribution of Communion:

• Extraordinary ministers of Communion are called upon when a priest is able to distribute Communion (RS 158).

• A brief prolongation of Mass is used as a reason to call upon extraordinary ministers of Communion (RS 158).

• The Communion plate is omitted (RS 93).

• People are denied Communion because they are kneeling (RS 91).

Miscellaneous abuses:

• The sign of peace is given to people other than those “who are nearest” and in a non-sober fashion (RS 72).

• Sacred Ministers celebrate Mass without sacred vestments (RS 126).

• Children are given first Communion without first penances (RS 87).

• The Sunday celebration customarily excludes “true and…sacred music” (RS 57).

The Mass is not the property of any person (RS 18). It belongs to the Church. No one has the right to meddle with it or make it his own property by deviating from what liturgical laws have prescribed. There is room for “creativity” in the Mass. But this is a controlled creativity within the confines of the options outlined by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the norms of the Magisterium.

Intentions may be good (RS8). Applauding parishioners may be clamoring for yet more novel creativity. But for every Catholic clamoring for creative novelty one will likely find another Catholic in profound distress. RS 11 instructs us that

The Mystery of the Eucharist is too great for anyone to permit himself to treat it according to his own whim, so that its sacredness and its universal ordering would be obscured….

[A]nyone who acts thus by giving free reign to his own inclinations, even if he is a Priest, injures the…unity of the Roman Rite, which ought to be vigorously preserved.

One school of thought holds that novel creativity during Mass attracts people and thus unites the body of Christ. The truth is that it divides us. It shifts our focus away from the Eucharist. It shifts us from a mindset of entering into the Mass to a mindset of being entertained by it. This entertaining, “feel-good” mentality sparks separation. It prompts us to mimic the behavior of our Protestant brethren who frequently find themselves “church-shopping” for the most pleasing church. What’s wrong with that?

Church-shopping isn’t Catholic. In their book Surprised by Canon Law Pete Vere and Michael Trueman point this out:

Now some people “church shop,” looking for better music, a prettier worship space, or perhaps a priest who conducts the liturgy and preaches in a gratifying way. Some pastors even encourage people to register in a parish in which they do not reside. However…Canon 518 explains that a parish is “to be territorial, that is, it is to embrace all Christ’s faithful of a given territory.” Thus the law provides a structure in which every Catholic belongs to the parish by virtue of residence.

Faith of our Fathers

The Mass is our ancient rite, in which the Church professes the Faith first received from the Apostles. The gestures, music, songs, signs, symbols, words and actions of this rite are rich in meaning and sacred tradition. We need to teach these meanings to our children.

How does “creativity” in Mass impact little boys destined by God for the priesthood? Let’s say little Johnny is blessed with the best of Catholic parents. Momma says to Johnny: “See Johnny, the homily is so sacred and special that only a priest or deacon can give a homily at Mass. And the Eucharist is special, too. The priest is the only one who can change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. He was given that power by God when the bishops laid hands on him. He represents Jesus during Mass. These are the exact prayers he must pray for the bread and wine to turn into the Body and Blood of Christ… No one can add to or take away from these prayers…”

Momma gives Johnny the prayers to the Mass, so he can follow along in church. Johnny thinks he might like to be a priest. He starts to practice the prayers at home, and making up his own homilies, he pretends to be a priest. He is careful and exacting not to change the prescribed prayers, just like Momma said.

Then comes the Sunday Mass when the priest decides to “enhance” the liturgy by changing the prayers. Momma cringes. Johnny is confused. The following week a lay person gives the homily at Sunday Mass. The Sunday after that, there is no homily and the church shows a videotape. Johnny’s shoulders slump. He is deflated. Suddenly, neither the Eucharist nor the priesthood seems so sacred. Can one expect Johnny to give his life to the priesthood when the Mass can change in accord with anybody’s whim? How can Johnny trust what his mother says about the Mass? How inclined will Johnny’s mother be to instruct him further in the mystery of the Mass?

Pope John Paul II directed us to prepare our children for martyrdom. Where will we get the fortitude to die for the faith, when we lack the fortitude to follow instructions prescribed for the Mass? How do we surrender our lives to God, when we can’t even surrender our Sunday prayers? And how can we expect our children to do these things, when we adults can’t do them ourselves — when we can’t seem to lead them by our example?

We Catholic parents are the primary educators to our children. We have a right and responsibility to pass our rich traditions on to our children. Whimsy at Mass displaces tradition. It cripples us in our ability to exercise our teaching responsibility before God.

We can talk “social justice” until we turn blue. How will we bring peace to the world when it seems that we can’t bring peace to the Mass by uniting ourselves with Rome? There are those who believe that Catholic orthodoxy is boring and ditto for an orthodox Mass. The truth is that a Mass celebrated in union with Rome draws us in and challenges us to grow deeper in our faith. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”

In truth and charity, the lay faithful have the “right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff…” (RS 184).

The road to heaven is narrow. And so is the road to a properly celebrated Mass. We have been given the best roadmap for the Mass in the magisterial norms and laws of the Church. If we want to follow Christ, should we not seek to follow them?

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13).

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Mary Anne Moresco writes from Monmouth County, New Jersey.

Mary Kochan, Senior Editor of Catholic Exchange, writes from Douglasville, Georgia. Her tapes are available from Saint Joseph Communications.

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