Nov 15, 1998

Can We Untangle Mass Confusion?

Online Edition – November 1998: Vol. IV, No. 7

Can We Untangle Mass Confusion?

Mass Confusion by James Akin
[Catholic Answers, Inc. 244 pp. 1-888-291-8000]

reviewed by Mark Brumley

Mr. James Akin has done his fellow Catholics a huge favor: he has written a straightforward book on the do’s and don’t’s of Catholic liturgical worship called Mass Confusion.

Certainly, few topics are more practical and within the range of most Catholics’ experience than this. The vast majority of Catholics know little about the liturgy today, probably as little as they do about Catholic doctrine in general –which is to say, next to nothing. I say that not to belittle anyone, only to point out the grim reality. Many people operate with a mere “grade school” grasp of Catholicism that extends to their grasp of the liturgy if in fact it reaches that far.

What makes matters worse is that those who should be their teachers pastors, catechists, adult educators though better trained than the congregation at large, are nevertheless often only somewhat less bewildered about the liturgy than those they seek to serve. One major reason: the seemingly incessant flux of liturgical change. Just about the time you get one thing down, the “experts” get to work revising it and a whole new set of guidelines or norms are sent out to confuse the issue.

Then there is also the difficulty of knowing where to find out what, exactly, the Church has legislated regarding the liturgy. Yes, there are documents such as Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II, the Code of Canon Law (which only tangentially treats liturgical matters), the Missale Romanum (including the General Instruction of the Roman Missal or GIRM) and various other norms from the Holy See. These are helpful if you can find them and know how to read them. And we must not forget the various documents from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (with varying degrees of authority). Add to these documents devised by diocesan offices, some of which are (how shall we put it?) of doubtful utility and even less authority. Top all this off with the “modifications” of the parish liturgy committees and perhaps pastors themselves, and where are we? At sea.

From parish to parish, from week to week in the same parish or even from Mass-to-Mass on any given Sunday the liturgy is reshaped, reworked and otherwise “monkeyed with” in ways that fall well outside the range of legitimate diversity and available options. So you cannot always be sure of what you will get at any particular parish. At the 7 a.m. Mass, for instance, Father Garcia offers a straightforward expression of the Roman Missal: nothing zany, just the Mass as Paul VI envisioned it. But pop in at the Noon Mass and Father Bob will show you a “good time.” Lay people sometimes give the “homily,” members of the congregation gather around the altar for the Eucharistic prayer, hold hands and sway together at the Our Father and generally do whatever the parish liturgist directs them to do, whether or not it fits with the rubrics. (We will not even mention the shenanigans at the Sunday evening “youth” liturgy.)

Of course, Akin’s book will not single-handedly end liturgical abuses such as these, but it will help to do so. At least it provides a handy place for the Catholic-in-the-pew to look for what is supposed to happen at Mass, as well as helpful hints on what to do when it doesn’t.

Mass Confusion is not merely a springboard to rant about abuses, nor a handbook for giving your pastor headaches. More than a “point-and-click” guide to spotting liturgical abuses, the book explains how the liturgy is supposed to be celebrated for the sake of what it is the source and summit of the Christian life.

Even so, the “don’ts” of the liturgy are explained as fully as the “do’s.” And there are plenty of the former crying out to be addressed these days. Take, for example, the issue of proper postures in the liturgy. It is not uncommon to find parishes today where people have been told to stand during the consecration. Sometimes it is claimed that the liturgy itself authorizes this. Yet, as Akin shows (quoting the GIRM, no. 21), the liturgy requires that the people “kneel at the consecration unless prevented by the lack of space, the number of people, or some other good reason.”

“But what if the church has no kneelers?” someone might object. “Don’t liturgical norms allow for standing under that circumstance?” That is the “out” those who reject kneeling at the consecration sometimes try to use. Some pastors have even deliberately installed pews or seats without kneelers in their churches to justify or so they supposed standing during the consecration. Liturgical law, they (rightly) insist, does not require kneelers. But this overlooks the main issue. As Akin writes:

Church law does not require the presence of kneelers, but it does require the practice of kneeling. It is simply a question of how comfortable the parish wants to make the parishioners while they kneel in accordance with the Church’s liturgical law.

Next he quotes a ruling of the Holy See to the effect that “the absence of kneelers is not a sufficient reason to remain standing or sitting”, because “[t]here is nothing to prevent the faithful from kneeling on the floor to show their adoration, no matter how uncomfortable this may be.” Of course, if kneeling is not possible, one is obviously not obliged to do so. Nevertheless, “a deep bow and a respectful bearing are signs of the reverence to be shown at the time of the consecration and Communion.”

Moreover, argues Akin, “the Church does state that the places where the faithful sit should be set up so that people can easily assume the different postures the liturgy requires” (cf. GIRM, no. 273). This seems to rule out deliberately excluding kneelers for the purpose of forcing people to stand.

Kneelers, of course, aren’t the only piece of church furniture we should be concerned about. There is, as pastors who have recently tried to renovate or build a Catholic church know, a widely touted document called Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) which is frequently but erroneously invoked as supreme liturgical law on the subject. Published in 1978, EACW is renowned for its austere, minimalist and, some would say, aesthetically repellent approach to church architecture and design. Generally not known is the fact that the document lacks the approval of the full body of U.S. bishops, being, as Akin points out, only “the publication of a single committee [of bishops] and … not law any more than a bill that had only been passed by a lone committee in the U.S. Congress would be a U.S. law.”

Akin quotes Monsignor Peter J. Elliot, who in his authoritative Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (Ignatius Press), criticizes EACW as unsound and dated in many respects. Then, to clinch the argument regarding the document’s non-binding character, Akin cites Monsignor Frederick R. McManus, the “dean” of liturgical lawyers, who in a 1996 article published in The Jurist, conceded that EACW “lacks, and there is no suggestion that it has, juridically binding or obligatory force, for which both two-thirds affirmative vote of the [U.S. bishop’s] conference’s de jure membership and the recognitio of the Apostolic See are required.” [The Jurist is the publication of the Canon Law Society of America, edited by Monsignor McManus. Cf. “Of Apostleship & Bureaucracy” AB October 1998 Ed.]

But Mass Confusion is not just a highly readable exposition of liturgical norms; it also provides readers wise counsel on what to do when those norms are violated much of which is valid for other forms of abuse within the Church. Step One pray for guidance, humility and charity. Step Two make sure what appears to you to be an abuse is in fact an abuse. Step Three determine whether to take action. Step Four approach the one committing the abuse. Step Five appeal to higher authority. And so on. Akin includes the addresses of the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio in Washington and the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to facilitate appeals, should they prove necessary.

Mass Confusion contains three valuable appendices: the U.S. Bishops’ Guidelines for Receiving Communion, the Holy See’s norms for translating biblical texts and a table listing some commonly raised liturgical issues, their status vis-à-vis liturgical norms and the page number(s) in Akin’s texts where each issue is addressed.

Some illustrative examples from the final appendix: Under “Changing words” of the liturgy, Akin lists, “Priest addresses people as ‘My brothers and sisters’ and varies wording of admonitions to the congregation in the penitential rite and before the Lord’s Prayer”. He then gives the U.S. status of the practice under liturgical law: “Permitted.” For the practice of women having their feet washed at Holy Thursday liturgy, the status is “Prohibited” a norm which many perhaps well-intended but misinformed priests violate every year.

Lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of prayer is the rule of belief. The liturgy is, most assuredly, about more than rules; it is about communion with the Father through the saving mystery of Christ in the Holy Spirit effected by means of sacred words and sensibly discernible sacred signs. But it is precisely for this reason that the Church takes liturgical norms seriously, and why Vatican II declared, “No person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the Liturgy on his own authority” (Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 22).

A ready-reference work on the liturgy, Mass Confusion spells out clearly what those norms are and why. For this reason, every parish should have a copy. It is the ideal gift for a pastor, even or perhaps especially if his observance of liturgical law is less than meticulous. Pastors themselves might purchase copies for the parish staff or members of the liturgy committee, for use alongside Monsignor Elliot’s aforementioned Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (1996) and his recent The Liturgical Question Box (Ignatius Press, 1998).

Mark Brumley is Managing Editor of Catholic Answers magazine.


Mark Brumley