Feb 15, 2006

Bad Habits: Can we correct liturgical abuse in religious communities?

Online Edition – February 2006
Vol. XI, No. 10

Bad Habits:
Can we correct liturgical abuse in religious communities?

by The Rev. Vincent Capuano, SJ

I have a dilemma and some questions I wish someone would help me with. This article does not attempt to answer questions so much as to pose them. Nonetheless, I will, toward the end of the article, suggest some tentative solutions. Let me explain the situation that I am in and why I set myself to the task of writing this essay.

1) I am not a right wing, fundamentalist, extremist.

I am a Jesuit priest of the Maryland province of the Society of Jesus. I work as a missionary on the Andean plateau in Argentina.

A canon lawyer once told a friend of mine that at 500 kilometers from the sea and at over 1000 meters of elevation above sea level, canon law does not apply. While I think that Jesuit friend was just trying to be, well … Jesuitical, I think it does contain a grain of truth. Working in situations where the reality is crude it is not convenient to be exquisite.

I have celebrated Mass in prisons that would make your skin crawl, in impoverished chapels, and in places where the people don’t even have a chapel but just gather to worship God. I have celebrated Masses on the back of a pickup truck with a picture of the Sacred Heart propped up against the cab. I have celebrated Mass where one member of the congregation was a goat. Once for the Easter Vigil we had to use a coffee can and a coat hanger to do the incensing.

I have had to ad lib and make do out of pastoral necessity on many occasions. I understand very well the importance of adapting to cultural circumstances and pastoral necessity. Our archbishop, who is the chairman of the liturgical commission of the Argentine bishops conference, promotes this type of flexibility, but at the same time encourages that the sacred liturgy be well-planned, thought-out and done with solemn simplicity according to the norms of the Roman Church.

We should give our best to the Lord. The holy people of God understand this. It is quite moving to observe the simple poor preparing the altars in their homes, making ready the images for processions, and ornamenting the church with the best they have, giving out of their meager resources, like the widow in the Gospel. Everything may not be liturgically correct in the eyes of the most scrupulous, but the widow’s mite, flowers, and tablecloths are very precious in the Kingdom of God.

2) Where I am now and what motivates this essay.

During the past six years I have lived as a priest celebrating Mass in places where the liturgical norms are generally observed in spite of hardships. This September I began a phase of formation that Jesuits call tertianship and have returned to living in a formation community.

Tertianship is like a third year of novitiate that is done after the Jesuit has completed his 10-15 years of studies and done some years of apostolic work. The objective is to fuel the spiritual fervor that tends to cool off after so many years of reading books. I am now in Salamanca, Spain doing this course.

After suffering eleven years of liturgical abuses in formation houses before ordination, I was not hopeful about the liturgical practices to be found in tertianship. I have to say that the celebration of the Eucharist is not as bad as I have experienced in other formation communities. We have men here who come from all over the world and pray with fervor during the Mass. This is not to say that it is licitly celebrated according to the norms of the Roman Catholic Church.

One would suppose that the liturgical norms apply even during religious community Masses. However, many Jesuits — and, I suppose, religious of other congregations — take liberties in the privacy of a community Mass that would clearly be unacceptable in a public Mass and bring unwanted attention from the bishop. For example, in religious houses it is not uncommon to find (not all these abuses are found here in Salamanca, and some, in fact, would be repudiated strongly by the community):

a) healthy persons celebrating the entire Mass seated even during the parts when it is prescribed to stand or kneel

b) healthy priests celebrating or concelebrating the Mass seated

c) priests not concelebrating when they are present at Mass

d) priests not vesting with a chasuble when they are the principal celebrants (and there are chasubles available)

e) priests not vesting with an alb and stole when they are concelebrants

f) priests making intentional changes in the prescribed prayers

g) priests changing the Scripture reading for some other type of reading

h) the practice of “shared” homilies, where any member of the assembly is permitted to comment on the scripture (or often anything else that crosses his mind)

i) prolonged liturgies of the Word in the form of “Faith sharing”

j) the use of a non-consecrated space when there is a consecrated chapel or church available (and even the barbaric practice of coffee table liturgies)

k) the use of glass or pottery chalice and paten

l) the use of strange bread-like substances

m) the use of grape juice in place of wine

Who are the perpetrators of these liturgical abuses? I look around the room at my brother Jesuits here in Salamanca and I see a man who puts his life on the line every day in Timor, another ministering to Indians lost in villages in the Andes, another ministering in Mozambique.

I see a Pole who tries to keep the faith alive in the midst of the vertigo of change in his country. I see Brazilians fighting against the oppressive poverty and fragmentation of culture that robs their people of their hope and faith. I see Italians, Spaniards, and Portuguese worried sick about the growing secularism of Europe and throwing all their efforts into stemming the tide. I see real men of prayer and service. I see kind, generous priests who want to serve Christ.

It is too simple to put all those who abuse the liturgy in the same barrel and condemn them. We must recognize that we live in an imperfect world and in imperfect religious communities. These imperfections manifest themselves most clearly in the liturgy. Weeds grow among the wheat.

One of the things that attracted me to the Society of Jesus was that Jesuits talk about the devil, spiritual combat and how the Good Spirit and evil spirit are present in the world and in our hearts. I consider this essay as an exercise in “discernment of spirits”. Ultimately, we must look for spiritual causes of liturgical abuse. It is the Good Spirit that sows the seeds of virtue and the evil spirit that sows seeds of vice.

Liturgical abuse is now a cultural problem, the product of bad habits — vices, if you will — that have become part of a sub-culture of the Church and of religious communities in particular. In a sense the perpetrators of liturgical abuse are themselves victims of the formation they received and the subtle temptations of, as Saint Ignatius says, the “enemy of our human nature”.

Peter Kreeft would say, “they are our patients not our enemies”.

So this is my dilemma: living in a religious community, where genuinely good men do not respect liturgical norms, what is a religious to do?

3) Why do these abuses happen?

After having explained the dilemma that I and many other religious find ourselves in, now we must ask: why? As far as I know, no one has tried to explain why liturgical abuse occurs within religious communities. Let me explain my theory.

The first reason is poor formation. Jesuits, for example, although we study a lot, are woefully prepared for sacramental and liturgical ministry. Our formal liturgy classes are nasty, brutish and short and there is little or no liturgical apprenticing during the course of studies.

Our schools of theology are not seminaries and are not geared to the formation of priests for three reasons:

1) The faculty think of themselves as belonging to a theological think-tank and think their principal task is investigation and generating new theories. They do not think their task is the transmission of the orthodox faith for the formation of future priests.

2) There are many laymen who take classes in these centers, so the focus is on generic “ministry” and not specifically on priestly formation.

3) Some superiors don’t have a clue as to what a Roman Catholic priest should be like. The reason for this is that there exists such a plurality of theological and moral viewpoints that general theological and philosophical confusion reign in these schools.

The ambient heterodox theology floating in these schools and in formation houses is a contagion that breeds “heterocultic” (lit. “different worship”) liturgy. Teachers and superiors who are interesting and stimulating personalities in the classroom often serve as bad models when they celebrate Mass because they transpose their dissenting ideas into dissenting liturgy. This is not a frontal attack — it is done with smoke and mirrors, dissimulating orthodoxy. While some are disingenuous, the majority really think that what they do is okay.

The students assimilate these practices without realizing their heterocultic nature basically because they don’t know better and are at the mercy of their teachers and superiors who are supposed to be masters of the religious and priestly life.

We also lack apprentice training. During the ten years before I was ordained a deacon I never once served Mass as a vested acolyte! It just was not done. I don’t think my experience is rare.

The second reason I see goes back to Adam and Eve: the sin of pride. Jesuits, before we were called the Society of Jesus, were known, along with some other orders, as the “reformed clergy”.

Ignatius of Loyola was quite conscious of the need to reform the clergy of his day, starting with the personal formation of the members of his own order. New congregations and communities are always more demanding, fervent and austere than established orders and diocesan clergy. Even today there is an attitude of superiority among some members of the Society of Jesus, in spite of the fact that other institutes and many other clergy are often more austere and more fervent.

Many Jesuits think that our “different liturgies” are somehow a manifestation of “reform”, and that we know better than other clergy, the bishops, the Vatican and those “ignorant conservatives”. Since “we know better”, we impose our liturgical will on the Holy People of God — in one of the worst forms of clericalism that there is. It is here we can see the tail of the serpent.

All that I have said here is based on my Jesuit experience, but I suppose these things can be applied to other congregations and communities. The result is a sub-culture of liturgical neglect and willful abuse.

4) Internal diversity of religious communities.

We must remember that religious congregations are not monolithic rational actors, but groups of individuals who share some common objectives, some common ideas, and some common values. Hopefully there is a common vocation and charism; but undeniably there is great diversity and not much agreement among the members of institutes on some very fundamental issues, including the liturgy.

The result is that some segments of religious communities impose their liturgical views on the community and often their opinions do not coincide with the authentic liturgical practice of the Roman Church.

Not all members of religious communities like the heterocultic liturgies to which we are subjected. As a priest, if I don’t find a community Mass agreeable, I can always say a private Mass. While not optimal, this is still better than an intentionally illicit or invalid Mass. This, however, creates other problems.

A religious often has to decide if he wants to worship in communion with the Roman Catholic Church or in communion with local religious community members with whom he lives and works. I often follow the practice of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who out of devotion celebrated a daily private Mass and later assisted in the conventual Mass; I say a private Mass that I am sure will be licit and valid out of devotion, and later assist at the community Mass, which may or may not be licit or valid.

The non-ordained don’t have the option of celebrating a private Mass and many students and nuns suffer community Masses that are heterocultic. Many religious accept liturgical abuse in a manner similar to how a wife will often accept spousal abuse — from a false sense of charity and tolerance. It is not that the perpetrator of abuse is completely evil, he often possesses many virtues and admirable qualities. The victim of liturgical abuse, like the victim of spousal abuse, wants to be forgiving, wants to practice tolerance, wants to be charitable. The abuser takes advantage of such desires and sentiments and continues to abuse.

Nuns are often in a worse position. Not only do they have to deal with the heterocultic preferences of some of their community members, and the weakness or ineptitude of superiors who do not correct abuses, but they are also at the mercy of the priest that makes the supply call. Quite often they do not have many options, and an illicit Mass is still better than no Mass.

5) Some interesting questions arise:

Given the dilemma I have described and the observations I have made, eight questions occur to me. This is certainly not a definitive list.

1) If Roman Catholics have a right to have the Mass celebrated according to the Roman rite, does a religious give up his rights upon entering a religious order?

2) Do the norms of the Roman rite apply always and everywhere the Roman Catholic Mass is celebrated or are religious houses a canon-law-free zone during non-public community Masses?

3) Is a religious obliged to attend or concelebrate an illicit or invalid community Mass when he knows beforehand that it will not conform to the norms of the Church?

4) When one does not have foreknowledge and is concelebrating and the congregation or principal celebrant begins to deviate from the norms is it acceptable to leave the chapel or church? Is one obliged to continue participating in the illicit or invalid celebration?

5) Is a religious obliged to accept the liturgical abuses of the members of his community?

6) If the superiors accept abuses or are unwilling to discipline the perpetrators what options does a religious have?

7) For the sake of “charity” should a religious participate in — and thereby validate by his presence — the practice of liturgical abuse?

8) Is a religious obliged to report liturgical abuses? If so, to whom should they be reported? Can the local bishop intervene to correct liturgical abuses in community Masses of “pontifical institutes”?

6) What possibilities are there to correct liturgical abuse in religious communities?

I would be remiss as a writer if I only described a dilemma, asked questions and did not even attempt a response. Let me make a few more observations and then suggest very tentatively some practical possibilities.

What will not work:

Exhortation will not work. Because religious orders have members with a plurality of theological and liturgical viewpoints, it is virtually impossible to achieve a consensus. Exhortation will not have much effect, especially when superiors don’t think liturgical norms are important. Not only Jesuits, but other religious too, can be recalcitrant when it comes to implementing reforms. The 1990 Apostolic Constitution on Higher Education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, for example, has not been a booming success.

Asking superiors to enforce Church norms will not work. Sometimes the superior is part of the problem and really thinks that he knows better than the hierarchy about the nature of authentic liturgical worship. Sometimes the superior understands the problem, but given the difficulties of keeping order in the community, liturgical abuse is not a priority and attempting to correct it would kick up a lot of dust. Sometimes the superior is just bullied by the liturgical anarchists.

What might work:

The problem is cultural, that is to say it has to do with group habits, virtues and vices. The perpetrators of liturgical abuse are not our enemies but our patients. We are the nurses and Christ is the physician. Christ will heal the patients if we as nurses can get them to meet Christ in the liturgy.

First, we must keep in mind the dogma of original sin.

Human beings tend to sin and think that they can get away with it. As Psalm 36 says: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated”.

That means that the Church should account for such a tendency and establish a system of transparency, accountability, checks and balances. It is not sufficient to write pretty documents.

I think that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life need not only to draft some clear guidelines, but also give them teeth. For example, protecting the identity and rights of individual religious who file complaints would be a start. Then establish a system of checks and balances that promotes transparency and honesty in liturgical practice. Think of it as a type of whistle-blower’s act.

There has to be clarity as to who checks and who balances. Who has the jurisdiction and responsibility? The bishop? A liturgical compliance commission? If the religious institutes have to police themselves nothing will change.

There also has to be some consequence for non-compliance. Any nurse knows that quite often the patients are not cooperative. One possible consequence I can think of would be suspension of the privilege to celebrate private community Masses. That is to say, that during the probationary period a particular local community could only celebrate Masses open to the public and at established hours so that their liturgical practices would be more transparent.

Second, it might be wise to give religious institutes the opportunity to develop at the congregational level liturgical norms for community Masses, subject to approval by the Congregation for Divine Worship.

This would not be a new practice. The Dominicans and the Carthusians, for example, have had their own approved rites since medieval times. This would be an opportunity to impose some order on liturgical reform, curbing the idiosyncrasies of local communities and individuals.

During the Synod there was some talk about developing orientations for small group Masses. Now would be a good time to deal with the small group dynamic of religious community Masses. Perhaps establishing recognized “levels of solemnity” and rules for each level would be an option to consider.

Third, something has to be done to repair the woeful liturgical and sacramental ministry formation. Again the principle of checks and balances, together with the principle of the Vincentian canon, could be applied. Saint Vincent of Lérins, talking about the criteria for accepting certain dogmas and rejecting others, held that “it should be considered as true that which has been believed by all, always and everywhere”. This principle can be applied to liturgy as well as to dogma.

If the liturgy is the liturgy of the whole Church, the formation of the ministers of the universal liturgy of the Church should not be left in the hands of any one group. Letting religious orders form their own students in liturgy too often results in unhealthy inbreeding. The bad idiosyncratic habits that we see today could be prevented if we could think of some creative ways to promote accountability, checks and balances in liturgical formation.

Perhaps local bishops should be called upon to supervise the liturgical formation in their dioceses. Liturgy is too important to be left in the hands of liturgists. Liturgy classes at seminaries and theology schools should be team-taught and the bishop should name an experienced, no-nonsense parish priest with a reputation for good presiding skills as a co-professor. The bishop should also mandate the number of course hours and credits along with supervising course content.

Liturgical training means more than just formal classroom education, it means that religious groups should help one another form their priests and ministers by cross-celebrating and cross-apprenticing.

An example of cross-celebration would be that in a particular city one might see: on Tuesdays and Thursdays a Legionnaire of Christ celebrates Mass for the Jesuit novices and on Mondays and Fridays a Franciscan celebrates for the Juniors of Incarnate Word, while on Wednesdays and on Saturdays a diocesan priest celebrates for the Dominican theology students.

An example of cross-apprenticing would be that on Sundays as a Jesuit priest makes his rounds saying Mass, an Opus Dei student would accompany him as an acolyte, or at the Legionnaires of Christ parish a Redemptorist student would serve as assistant sacristan and acolyte.

I have attempted to describe the dilemma of religious who suffer poor community liturgies, because these religious institutes exercise an influence on the universal Church disproportionate to their actual membership.

The questions I have asked — and some possible practical solutions I have proposed — will, I hope, lead to fruitful conversation and insights on the subject, which may open the way for needed reform.

Saint Ignatius tells us that the Christian life is spiritual combat between the Good Spirit and “the enemy of our human nature”. The evil spirit is like a Don Juan who tries to seduce an honest woman. He does not want his unseemly propositions to be revealed to her husband or father. The saint says that when the evil one is uncovered, he flees.

The first step in reform is identifying and naming the evil spirit. The first places where we need to look for him are in our own hearts and in our own communities.


Father Vincent Capuano is a priest of the Society of Jesus. He was ordained in 1998 and is a native of Pittsburgh. Before entering the Jesuits, he was the head basketball coach at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. During his Jesuit formation he worked as a regent at a high school in Osorno, Chile.  Father Capuano did graduate studies in Granada, Spain.


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The Rev. Vincent Capuano, SJ