Dec 31, 2007

Beyond Rubricism

Online Edition – Vol. IV, No. 9: February 1999

Liturgical Question Box: Answers to Common Questions about the Modern Liturgy, by Peter J. Elliott. [1998. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 189 pages, paper.]

In reading Monsignor Peter Elliot’s Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, one gets the sense that the author has much more to say but limited himself for the time being. His latest book, Liturgical Question Box: Answers to Common Questions about the Modern Liturgy, confirms this suspicion. Whereas in Ceremonies he restricted himself to a simple (yet thorough) explanation of the rubrics, in Liturgical Question Box he deepens our understanding of the liturgy with practical advice, historical explanations, and theological insights.

Born from real questions submitted to his column in Christ to the World, Liturgical Question Box follows the question/answer format, enabling Monsignor Elliot to address common problems and to do so more thoroughly than a guide or manual to the liturgy would allow. As the title suggests, the book is not a systematic treatment of the liturgy but a collection of questions and answers organized according to category. Monsignor Elliot addresses queries about almost every aspect of the liturgy: from Mass ad orientem to liturgical dance, from concelebration to funerals.

As for the questions in Liturgical Question Box, the title refers to them as “common”. Indeed, most of them are: Should we hold hands during the Our Father? Should the priest use “Good morning!” to begin Mass? Should the chalice veil be used? The reader may find himself nodding in agreement with many questions: Yeah, I wondered about that.

But only in our present situation could some of the questions be considered common: Can a priest omit the Creed during Sunday Mass? Should the Precious Blood be poured down the sink after Mass? What should we do when we find consecrated hosts in the hymnals and pews? That these and other such questions should even arise indicates how desolate is the liturgical landscape.

As for the answers, Monsignor Elliot provides instructions (always with citations), advice, warnings, and humor. To each question he gives a good, thoughtful reflection on and explanation of the issue at hand. His greatest contributions are the detailed answers he gives that rise above mere rubricism and deepen the reader’s understanding of what is to be done and why. It should be noted also that Monsignor Elliot’s responses are always according to the mind of the Church and cannot be pigeon-holed as “conservative” or “traditionalist”. He does not discuss rubrics alone. He not only says what must be done; but also what is the best thing to be done.

Monsignor Elliot is at his best, however, when he addresses the hot-button issues: Is liturgical dance permitted? Must a pastor permit altar girls? Must a priest celebrate Mass facing toward the people, or may he celebrate ad orientem, facing with the people? May a priest celebrate Mass alone? Monsignor Elliot avoids both trendy and superficial answers. Realizing that one must not only know the correct answer but also know why it is correct, he takes the time to explain at length the historical, theological, and pastoral factors involved.

The appearance of first Ceremonies, and now Liturgical Question Box, indicates a growing desire for uniform and correct worship. Of course, one can immediately hear the objection that such efforts will lead to the dark days of “rubricism” (which once indicated a “slavish” adherence to rubrics, but now means any adherence at all).

Why all this attention to details? Shouldn’t love be first and foremost? Of course. But love seeks to express itself in definite forms and manners. In our human relationships there is a proper and improper way to demonstrate and express love: although he loves them both, a man kisses his wife but not his secretary. So also, in our relationship with Christ and His Church, we must seek to express our love properly. Much as a nervous girl might ask how to conduct herself with the boy of her dreams, so we ask ourselves how we are to show our love for Christ in the liturgy.

As such, Monsignor Elliot’s book serves three different groups in the Church. First of all, as a defense against those who deliberately distort the Church’s greatest act of love, it is a powerful weapon in the hands of a laity tired of having the liturgy ridiculed by dissent, disobedience and general foolishness. Monsignor Elliot thoroughly documents his instructions and explains the limits of valid options. Anyone acquainted with the abuses addressed in Liturgical Question Box now has solid answers for fighting them.

But Liturgical Question Box is more than a defensive weapon: it is also an aid for the devout but ignorant, for those who often fall into the trap of sincere silliness. These may ask, “How can we be wrong when we’re so sincere?” But we have seen too much well-intentioned silliness to think that the prayerful and pious are always liturgically proper. Monsignor Elliot recognizes that piety is no substitute for knowledge. In fact, parts of the book reveal a difficulty, not with disobedience or irreverence, but with true devotion and reverence improperly expressed. He thus provides good, clear instructions for those who desire to worship God in spirit and truth but do not know how to pray as they ought.

The third group served by Liturgical Question Box is perhaps the largest single group in the Church: liturgical minimalists. Here Monsignor Elliot proves his true love for the liturgy. He reveals the deep meaning and sacramentality of such things as books and veils, incense and vestments. He explains not only what ought to be done (and avoided), but also and more importantly why it ought to be done. On more than one occasion he warns against stingy efforts in the liturgy and encourages giving our best in worship. He in fact proves himself an enemy of rubricists, those who carry on in the liturgy without a thought as to what the gestures, words, or objects mean.

As did Ceremonies, Liturgical Question Box helps tremendously in the quest for liturgical sanity in the Church. The range of questions submitted to Monsignor Elliot reveals how broad the liturgical disaster is and how desperately needed is a corrective. His book supports both ambassadors to the liturgically challenged and soldiers of the Liturgical War.

The only problem with the book is that it does not answer all questions indeed, it stimulates many new ones. For the answers to those, it appears we must wait for Monsignor Elliot’s next book Liturgical Question Box II?

Father Scalia is a priest of the diocese of Arlington,Virginia, and a frequent contributor to AB.


Father Paul Scalia