Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 3: May 1999
Liturgical Abuse: A Question of Fatherhood
When Priests Bend the Rules, Is It Really a Kindness?
by Father Jerry Pokorsky
During my first year as a priest, I had between 30 and 40 homebound parishioners whom I would visit every month. One first Friday, one of the ladies asked me to speak to her son, who was sad because his dog died. He wanted me to celebrate a funeral service for his dog. Instead, I offered to keep him in my Mass intentions, that he might soon overcome his grief. But he insisted that I celebrate a graveside service. After about 20 minutes of conversation, I departed. He wasn’t happy with my decision.
When I reported the episode to the pastor over lunch, he responded, "Oh, it would hurt for only a moment." Several weeks later I opened the Metro section of the Washington Post, and I was surprised to see my parishioner in a wheelchair with her son, at a graveside in a pet cemetery. This particular moment had been captured for all of posterity on film. I showed the picture to the pastor and reminded him of his words. The Post reported that the family spent $10,000 for the burial of the man’s dog. The man didn’t tell me whether or not it was a Catholic dog. (True story: I saved the picture to prove it.)
How many times have priests agreed to something silly, or some kind of liturgical aberration because it would please somebody and "hurt for only a moment"? With the flush of warm feeling that comes with affirmation, a precedent is set. In time, the practice becomes institutionalized.
For example, the Holy See has reminded us time and again of the true role of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. But everyone knows that few pastors today require a rectory full of priests to assist with Holy Communion, presumably in order not to upset the lay volunteers.
It’s not surprising that the proposed revision of the Sacramentary by ICEL [International Commission on English in the Liturgy] attempts to institutionalize this practice. (The revision has been approved by the US bishops, but not by the Vatican.) One of the proposed adaptations to the revised Sacramentary attempts to prohibit priests and deacons from emerging from the sacristy at the time of Holy Communion to assist with the distribution. Why? Because the clergy are not participants in this particular celebration; lay extraordinary ministers should be preferred.
Allowing eulogies during funeral Masses provides another example of a "kindness" which can cause harm. Although permitted by many bishops and priests well before the release of the revised ICEL funeral ritual that allowed them, eulogies have often proven to be inappropriate or even shocking. But the demand for eulogies is great and very difficult for pastors to resist. Remember Cher’s eulogy of Sonny Bono at a Catholic funeral liturgy where she tearfully reminisced about her teenage affair with him?
When "Being Pastoral" Isn’t
Most priests have similar stories to report, even if they are not as high profile as the Sonny Bono funeral. I know I do. What was once considered a "pastoral" accommodation is now considered the norm. I wonder if the abuse of liturgical dance during Mass began with pastors reasoning that it would "hurt for only a moment"?
Since my parish assignments have been close to Arlington National Cemetery, I’ve celebrated many graveside services there. The military ritual is solemn and grand; options are few. These traditional procedures even in the smallest detail are what everyone expects. I’m not aware of anyone arguing about them, nor do I hear anyone complain that any of these traditional details is "irrelevant" or "not meaningful".
Humility is the essential element that allows Christ to speak through the Liturgy. Humility requires self-reflective criticism, self-control and accountability. The Liturgy is something we receive, not something we create. If this is understood in secular rituals like military funerals, it shouldn’t be difficult to apply to the Mass.
Yet some among our people seem trained to second guess almost everything in the ritual or to question the legitimate decisions of the pastor. I believe we’ve encouraged a consumer mentality in recent years, partly by commission but mostly by omission. So liturgical accretions abound, often in the name of "inculturation." And in our attempt to give people what they want, we may be impoverishing the Liturgy.
Crisis of Fatherhood
I think an analogy can be found in the crisis of fatherhood we can find in our culture. Over the years, I’ve noticed that even in some of our best families, fathers often leave the disciplining of children to their wives. I believe this is a pronounced cultural pattern. For various reasons, including the pervasive sitcom portrayal of the passive, buffoon-like male too many fathers are no longer willing to administer "justice with mercy" to their children.
The result is a whole generation of children who are accustomed to getting what they want. When there’s a spoiled child, the child is never to blame. Somewhere along the line, a parent — usually a father — has abdicated legitimate authority through the neglect of the just application of discipline.
The crisis of fatherhood has affected the Church as well. The lack of confidence unleashed by the notorious priestly "identity crisis" of the 60s and 70s has given rise to a highly bureaucratized priesthood of the 90s. Bureaucracies tend to disperse responsibility and accountability, providing cover for a lack of confidence or lack of will to act decisively. The lack of confidence and willpower by the "fathers" of the Church is thought to be compensated for by an overabundance of Church documents, a multiplication of words.
The effect of a bureaucratic appeal to satisfy everyone particularly in liturgical matters has been inconsistency, liturgical abuse, division, and widespread dissatisfaction. Pastors of souls have too often allowed an indulgent consumer mentality (oftentimes under the banner of "inculturation") to invade the sanctuary. Consequently, we have a new generation of Catholics who look upon the Church as a sacramental K-Mart.
But priests of God are here to serve by proclaiming the Gospel in its entirety and celebrating the sacraments with integrity. This is why we don’t need more liturgical documents to advance liturgical reform. The authoritative documents we already have need to be implemented.
Greater Fidelity Needed
A couple of years ago, an American archbishop wrote in his diocesan newspaper that among the most serious problems facing the Church today is "rubricism" too much adherence to the liturgical rules [rubrics]. I disagree. We continue to have widespread and chronic liturgical abuse. Priests and even bishops distort the Sacramentary; omit necessary prayers and gestures; invite the faithful to gather around the altar during the Eucharistic prayer; direct the faithful to stand during the Eucharistic prayer; the list goes on and on.
Despite my dissatisfaction with many of the contemporary revised translations of scriptural and liturgical texts, I’m one of the few priests I know who consistently proclaim the ICEL translation at Mass in its totality. In my experience, many priests add a word or two here and there, or make changes for "inclusive language" or other purposes. Some priests have even engaged in wholesale rewrites of the Eucharistic prayers.
Liturgical promiscuity has got to come to an end. Let us all resolve to celebrate Mass with an attitude of humility, obedience and reverence. If we begin by cultivating a true reverence for the liturgical legislation governing the Mass, we reverence the Subject of the Mass, Jesus Christ.
This is not a question of needing another Church document; it is a question of responsible fatherhood.
Father Jerry Pokorsky is a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, founder of CREDO, and a member of the executive committee of Adoremus. This essay originated as an address to a meeting of the Common Ground Initiative in March.