Liturgical Norms: Our Keys to Spiritual Nourishment, Evangelization and Unity

Recent decades have spawned an “anything goes” mentality in our culture.  Like cancer spreading through the body, this mentality has spread into every corner of our culture doing damage.  This “anything goes” mentality is dangerous because it can lead us to ignore moral laws and consequences for our actions. 

It is disconcerting but true that this “anything goes” mentality has crept into some corners of the Church.  This mentality has given birth, here and there, to “anything goes” Masses.  These Masses ignore liturgical laws and are designed to attract us to the Church by “spicing up” the Mass or entertaining us.  But the path to spice and entertainment at Mass is also the path to liturgical abuse.  The playing of non-sacred music at Mass on Sunday, the emergence of “liturgical” dance, and the phenomena where lay people supplement homilies with their testimonies have all led to habitual abuses. 

The intent may be good.  Redemptionis Sacramentum (RS) 9 tells us “abuses are often based on ignorance, in that they involve a rejection of those elements whose deeper meaning are not understood… As one who has occasionally queried the good-natured initiators of these non-liturgical efforts at Mass, I know that for the most part the stated intent of these efforts is to “enhance” the liturgy or to “evangelize.”  But here comes some magnificent news — an umbrella under which we can unite.  A reverent Mass, prayed in perfect accord with liturgical norms does evangelize!  

Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has addressed the “Role of Liturgical Norms in the Eucharistic Celebration.”  According to Cardinal Arinze:  “Liturgical celebrations well carried out not only nourish the faith of practicing Catholics, but can also awaken the slumbering faith of the negligent, and attract people to the Church” (Adoremus Bulletin Vol. XIV No.3 May 2008, p.3-4 (AB)).

bread.jpgWhen we follow the norms of the Mass, the Mass draws us away from earthly things and up towards the things of heaven.  A Catholic Mass prayed in accord with liturgical norms is a majestic sight to behold and thus by its nature is a light for others.  And we don’t have to add anything of our own making!  Cardinal Arinze has assured us that the “celebrating community does not have to re-invent the sacred rites in every age” (AB).

RS 7 states “not infrequently, abuses are rooted in a false sense of liberty.  Yet God has not granted us… a liberty, by which we may do what we wish, but a liberty by which we may do what is fitting and right.”  To ignore the norms of the Mass is to sow seeds of discord and division.  To invent our own liturgies is to separate ourselves from Holy Mother Church and walk the path of disobedience.  This path of disobedience may attract others for its novelty.  But it cannot and will not attract others for its holiness.  And we are called to be holy.  We are called to be saints. 

That is not to say we are to approach Mass with some stuffy air.  The saints were not stuffy.  They were loving, interesting, and independent people.  But a deep humility and a profound obedience to the will of God and thus to Holy Mother Church and her authority permeated everything they were and did.  If we truly want to pray the Mass with devotion, we can follow Saint Padre Pio who stated: “If you want to assist at Holy Mass… keep company with the Sorrowful Virgin at the foot of the Cross on Calvary.

To properly pray the Mass, we must see ourselves as servants of the liturgy, not masters over it.  We can effectively elevate our souls in prayer by approaching Mass with a loving heart toward God and Holy Mother Church and a humble obedience to her liturgical norms.  From that love toward God and Holy Mother Church can flow a true and deep love for our friends in Christ.  From the depth of that love can flow an authentic evangelization and enduring unity which will stand the test of time because it has been built on a firm foundation. 

To deliberately attract our brothers and sisters in Christ to actions and gestures outside liturgical norms, and to present such actions and gestures as desirable, is to dress disobedience up in tempting garb.  Drawing others toward our own disobedience is not love but deception.  To practice such deception is to build on sand.  When the novelties crumble, as novelties inevitably do, so too will the fruit of our efforts. 

Liturgical norms are a gift.  They are our carefully woven safety net.  They protect us from falling into irreverence.  Ignoring liturgical norms is like taking a knife to that net, and once the net is sliced there can be no end to just how far we can slide down the slippery slope of liturgical abuse. 

The Mass is not about “tweaking,” “enhancing” or “inventing” something on our own.  The Mass is about receiving a loving gift from God.  As Cardinal Arinze stated “It is to be remembered that the Eucharistic Sacrifice and indeed the sacred liturgy as a whole are not something that we make or invent or put together on our own.  They are gifts that we receive, keep, treasure, celebrate and for which we are grateful.(AB)

The good news is that there is a cure for the “anything goes” mentality that has crept into some corners of our culture and our Church.  This cure is Jesus Christ.  The path that will take us to Him is the path of loving obedience to the teachings of Holy Mother Church.  May we humble our one billion different opinions and embrace those teachings.  Through that embrace, may we at last unite in peace on this precious path to Christ as one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The most common questions on liturgical norms (answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontirical Athenaeum) are addressed at:

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal for the United States can be found at

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