Vol. I, No. 2
How to Address a Liturgical Abuse
Challenging Liturgical Practices While Respecting Authority
by Lou Bruno
If you believe that you must defend the teachings of the Catholic Church in a parish or diocese that may seem hostile to them, where do you begin? How do you address liturgical abuses in a way that respects the office of those in authority, while effectively challenging them on issues where their teaching or practice is in error?
After three years of prayer and persistence and with the invaluable counsel and help of many, we succeeded in having the inclusive-language Lectionary and Sacramentary removed from our local parish.
Since victories like these seem few and far between, some suggestions that helped us may help others to achieve even greater success in defending the teachings of the Catholic Church.
First, become involved in your local parish, especially the liturgy committee. Our parish had a Lectionary and Sacramentary that had been pasted over with inclusive language, as I learned when I became a Lector. I would never have been in a position to do much about it had I not served as a volunteer on the liturgy commission for five years.
Second, if you believe that a liturgical abuse is taking place, verify that your suspicion is correct, and seek advice on how best to proceed. For example, consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Canon Law, or reliable authorities to make sure your claims are valid and backed by official documents of the Catholic Church.
Third, put your concerns in writing, using the following principles:
A. Stick to the facts; keep emotions to a minimum.
B. Your opening paragraph should begin by clearly and simply stating the liturgical abuse in question, and should end by suggesting the action you want taken to remedy the situation. For example: "Dear Father John, The purpose of this letter is twofold: 1. To bring to your attention the fact that St. Mary’s Catholic Church is currently using a Lectionary which is not approved; and 2. To request that you remedy this situation by purchasing a Lectionary which is approved."
Using this method provides immediate answers to two of the most important questions your reader will have. That is, "What is this person’s problem?" and "What am I expected to do about it?"
C. Follow the opening paragraph with documentation that supports your claim. Use authoritative published sources, not hearsay or secondhand reports.
D. You have the full weight of the authority of the Church behind you. When copying your documentation, always include a copy of the cover of the book (i.e., Canon Law) or magazine that the pages come from, and take the time to use a high-lighter to emphasize the key points. This is extra work that pays off. It is one thing to write a quote in a paragraph stating that "Canon Law says 1, 2, 3." It’s a whole different picture when you document this by including a copy of the cover of the Canon Law book, along with a page or two with key sentences highlighted.
E. Your closing paragraph should begin with one-sentence bullet points (1, 2, 3, etc.) that briefly summarize the key points that substantiate your opening claim. It should end by restaing the action you want your reader to take.
The end result should be a letter that leaves no doubt as to where you are coming from, how you got there, and where you want the reader to go with it.
Your written proposal should be hand-delivered if possible, and followed by a request for an appointment to discuss your concerns in person.
What if the situation is not conducive to a letter, or you find yourself in a public forum and you must defend the faith on your feet in front of a group? I would suggest you prepare and use the same principles described in the letter above, and have your documentation with you at all times.
Fourth, remember that official Church documentation is the key. You will most likely be challenging someone in authority. Begin with a simple opening statement like, "Here is what I have read on this subject. It is based on Canon Law number … on page number … and it is on this documentation that I have formed my opinion." This is a disarming statement. It is no longer you against them. It is now them against Church teaching. You just happen to be the messenger who’s bringing it to their attention. You don’t have to defend your position. You have stated it clearly and simply, and you have documented it. They must now defend their position, or admit their error. My experience has been that demonstrating quiet confidence in the midst of their fumbling attempts to justify their error goes a long way towards settling the issue.
Fifth, be patient. Chances are that whenever you discover an error, you will want to change it "yesterday". All things are possible (naievete can work to one’s advantage), and you should certainly feel that way, but don’t expect to make one phone call or write one letter and have it be done.
Sixth, try to work with one major issue at a time, and stick with it to conclusion. Inclusive language, lack of reverence for the Eucharist, First Communion before Reconciliation, sex education in Catholic schools … the list of potential battles is dizzying. You can’t fight them all, simultaneously. Choose the one you are best prepared to pursue, stick with it, and win. Have friends work the other issues.
I realize this may not be practical for everyone, especially if you find that you are the only one in your parish that sees the problem. But look at it this way: don’t start anything you don’t intend to finish. One battle completed and won is worth far more than five smoldering battles with no hope for conclusion.
Another benefit of staying focused on one issue is that you have a greater chance of being taken seriously when they know that you won’t let go of the issue until the error is corrected. This is much better than being in a position of walking into the parish office very other week with a new complaint, before any of the old ones are brought to conclusion. Be a problem solver who helps the parish better follow Church teaching, not a complainer.
Seventh, when the error is corrected, thank and compliment parish authorities on their wise decision to follow Church teaching. Don’t fight battles that burn bridges. Keep the door open for the next opportunity.
Finally, if you have a healthy perspective on what your role is, there is a greater chance that you will be able to persevere. God may be asking you to point out error and state the truth. This is tough enough. Don’t add more weight by expecting that you will be the one to effect the change, and that this is a pass-fail test for you personally. This is the Lord’s battle. You are just a soldier. The Holy Spirit will do the rest.
(See also How to deal with liturgical abuse at the Catholic Liturgical Library.)
Lou Bruno of Orlando, Florida, had been a member of his parish Liturgy Committee for five years when this article appeared in December 1995.