What is a “Liturgical Abuse”?

One of the things we stress at The Laity is that you have to know the Mass in order to know when something has gone terribly wrong in the Mass.  It’s also an unfortunate reality that most Catholics in the pews don’t recognize when the Mass has gone off the rails. So how can we spot a liturgical abuse when it occurs, and what should we do about it?

Defining liturgical abuse

Simply stated, a liturgical abuse occurs when the priest intentionally deviates from the norms of the Mass, substituting his private alterations for the liturgical norms and rubrics of the Mass, as set forth in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the GIRM). 

Most errors are minor and can be overlooked, and forgiven.  The priest may forget to open the Mass with the sign of the Cross, or may forget to include the Kyrie.  While these minor errors may detract from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, they do not render the Mass invalid or illicit.  Accidents do happen, and even the most reverent and careful priest may make a mistake during the course of the Mass.  While we should expect piety and reverence from our priests, we should not expect perfection, even in the celebration in holy remembrance of the Lord’s most perfect sacrifice.

The Liturgy is sacred and sacramental.  It is also a public, communal celebration in accordance with the entire Church, a “sacrament of unity”.  It is not a private act of the priest in which he is the celebrant and we are merely observers. We are active participants in the Mass. When abuses occur, everyone – the priest, the congregation, and the entire unity of the Church – is harmed.

All liturgical abuses are, by their very nature, serious offenses against the Body and Blood of Our Lord.  As Pope St. John Paul II observed,”Fidelity to the rites and to the authentic texts of the Liturgy is a requirement of the Lex orandi, which must always be in conformity with the Lex credendi. A lack of fidelity on this point may even affect the very validity of the sacraments.” Apostolic Letter VICESIMUS QUINTUS ANNUS of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II.

The Church states in Redemptionis Sacramentum:

In this regard it is not possible to be silent about the abuses, even quite grave ones, against the nature of the Liturgy and the Sacraments as well as the tradition and the authority of the Church, which in our day not infrequently plague liturgical celebrations in one ecclesial environment or another. In some places the perpetration of liturgical abuses has become almost habitual, a fact which obviously cannot be allowed and must cease.

The harm caused by liturgical abuses ought to be self-evident; at best it detracts from the sacramental nature of the liturgical celebration.  At worst, it destroys the sacrament, rendering the Mass invalid or illicit.  It is a cause for confusion and grave scandal in the Church.  It causes the laity to lose understanding and appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and has caused untold thousands to abandon the Church, for if Christ is not present on the altar, the pew sitter’s perceived “needs” can just as easily be fulfilled by the local non-denominational church down the street. 

This article draws no distinction between the Novus Ordo (Post-Vatican II or New Mass) and the Tridentine Mass (Traditional Latin Mass) and is not intended to be an argument for or against either. The members of The Laity attend one or the other, or both, as befits their preference for the celebration of the Mass.

How to spot and take action on liturgical abuses

First, become familiar with the Mass.  Every Catholic church has missallettes in the pews.  The missallette contains the actual word-for-word structure of the Mass and is easy to follow, beginning with the Entrance Procession and proceeding through the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and ending with the Concluding Rite.  Pick up the book and follow along. Eucharistic Prayer 1 is usually used on major feast days, 2 is the shortest and usually reserved for daily Mass, 3 is preferred for Sundays and holy days, and 4 is the lengthier version that includes a fuller summary of salvation history. This site is a great resource for understanding the Mass.

Second, actively participate in the Mass.  Learn the prayers, learn the sequence of the Mass, and gain a greater understanding of what you need to know as a full participant in the sacred liturgy.  The USCCB has some good resources on understanding the meaning of each section of the Mass; better yet, attend a “teaching Mass” or explanatory Mass”.  If you can’t find one, ask your priest to do one, usually in conjunction with an RCIA class.

Third, if you see something that doesn’t follow the rubrics of the Mass, or something just seems out of place, then you have every right to ask your priest for an explanation.  If you don’t feel comfortable talking to the priest, then ask a fellow parishioner.  Unless/until you absolutely know something is wrong AND you know there can be no other explanation, never accuse the priest of a liturgical abuse.  Not only may it have been an honest mistake (many priests are horribly overworked), but there may be a good explanation.  For example, if the priest neglects to purify the sacred vessels after the Liturgy of the Eucharist, you may ask, “I couldn’t help but notice that you did not purify the vessels at the end of Mass. Is there a reason why it could not have been done during the Mass?” (In some dioceses, the local bishop may permit a priest to forego the purification during the Mass, particularly if the Mass needs to be shortened or if it was a long Mass with many vessels to be purified, as long as it is done immediately after the Mass).

Even better, before speaking the priest, go to another Mass with him and see if the same thing occurs.  If so, you have a greater basis to engage with the priest on that issue.  Don’t be a part of the problem: always act with charity towards the priest – his hands have been blessed by the bishop, and even in egregious circumstances involving an allegation of liturgical abuse you must not act without charity, and always with the hope of correcting the abuse. This is not about being right or winning arguments. If the priest can’t or refuses to explain, and does not correct the abuse, accurately note the circumstances and contact the bishop.

Remember, it’s not just priests who can commit liturgical abuses.  Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, deacons, lectors, altar servers, and even the choir are fully capable of ruining a Mass.

What are some prime examples of liturgical abuses?

Many of us at The Laity have seen our fair share of liturgical abuses, and most of us can name three or four that we’ve seen repeated many times in the course of our lives.  The most common liturgical abuses include:

  1. Turning the Mass into a personal theatrical performance. At least one priest in the Archdiocese of Hartford breaks the Eucharist with his arms extended over his head, then slowly brings them down in a circle to meet over the paten.  Meanwhile, pieces of Our Lord are sprinkled liberally over the altar in this “performance”; some may even end up in his hair or on the floor.  Others take performance to a different level:  You would be hard-pressed to believe this is a Catholic Mass.
  2. Changing the Eucharistic prayers.  This is not as rare as you might think. A visiting priest at St. Alphonsus in South Glastonbury actually typed out (or had a small book) and brought his own prayers with him, laying them on top of the Lectionary as he gleefully read them to us. (Not a valid Mass). Another priest at a different church told us that he “prided himself on memorizing the Mass” and then proceeded to completely butcher the wording of the Eucharistic Prayer to the point where the Mass appeared invalid.
  3. Omitting sections of the Mass. We’ve seen some priests who have skipped entire sections of the Mass, one even laughingly stating afterward, “I forgot to say [the penitential prayers]. Oh well.”
  4. The Happy Clappy soliloquy.  “I’d like to thank the choir for that wonderful rendition of On Eagle’s Wings (claps).  And the ushers (claps).  And we couldn’t have done this without our lectors (claps).”  A priest in another church interrupted his homily to explain, apparently “moved by the spirit”, “I’m feeling real good. Let’s all sing a song. ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands (clap clap)…'”. All the way through. Yes, this really happened. And the “audience” (perhaps 90% who knew no better) clapped and sang along.
  5. Refusing to administer the Eucharist except in the hand, or refusing to give the Eucharist to those in a kneeling posture.  This happened to yours truly at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, in this case by an extraordinary minister of the Holy Eucharist.  I was so shocked and embarrassed I accepted it; I would have a different response today.
  6. Requiring postures not set forth in the GIRM.  There are churches in the Archdiocese of Hartford that do not have kneelers. While yours truly was not told to stand with the other parishioners during the times we are all supposed to kneel in adoration of Our Lord, it was clear that kneeling at any point in the Mass was highly discouraged.
  7. Administering the Eucharist to those the priest knows are not eligible to receive.  This most often happens during Christmas, Easter, funerals and weddings. “Prudence” is often given as the reason why the priest knowingly administered the Sacrament to non-Catholics (don’t want to cause a scene), but there comes a point where the priest must prevent scandal and keep the Holy Sacrament from being profaned.  Unfortunately, and while we are not aware of this occurring in this Archdiocese, there have been occasions where the (non) recipients have complained to the bishop, and the bishop threw the priest under the proverbial bus.
  8. Permitting (or arranging for) extra-liturgical celebrations during the Mass. Liturgical dancers… Enough said.
  9. Permitting or encouraging non-liturgical music at Mass. It’s not about taste in music. Music is liturgical, or it’s not, and non-liturgical music has no place in the Mass.  Sacred music must embrace our communio with God in Heaven, not with each other.  As Fr. Paul Scalia has noted in an erudite article on the subject, today’s modern music is merely a self-centered conversation about us: “He humbles Himself to dwell among us under the form of bread and wine, while we ignore Him and sing about ourselves and to ourselves.”
  10. Homilies that do not address the Gospel.  While it is permissible to address the homily to any part of the readings, and it’s also permissible to omit the homily (only during a daily Mass, or on other days for extraordinary circumstances), and it’s also permissible to give a bad homily (not every priest can be St. John of the Cross), it’s not permissible to give a homily that ignores the readings altogether. “By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, during the course of the liturgical year; the homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself.” (Constitution On The Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium). Father, we understand that you want to get folks to show up for the parish picnic and get some hamburgers and hotdogs, but first feed your lambs with the Word of God.

We hope this article gives you food for thought.


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