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Why priests should stick to the Mass texts

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 Contents - Oct 2004AD2000 October 2004 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Addressing the shortfall of priests - Michael Gilchrist
Today's non-practising young Catholics: are Church conservatives to blame? - Michael Gilchrist
News: The Church around the World
Society: US bishops call on Catholic institutions to oppose culture of death - Patrick Reilly
University: International Movement of Catholic Students Australia - Aaron Russell
Liturgy: Why priests should stick to the Mass texts - Bishop T.J. Paprocki
Books: Be Not Afraid: Cardinal George Pell's new book to be launched in November
Society: Why marriage should receive greater government support - Michael Casanova
The Pope's Encyclical on the Eucharist - Sr Mary Augustine OP
Letters: Pastoral letters (letter) - Charles Francis, AM
Letters: State Aid (letter) - Alan A. Hoysted
Letters: Liturgical abuses (letter) - George Simpson
Letters: Graham Greene (letter) - Thomas A. Watkin
Letters: Come As You Are? (letter) - Brigid P. McKenna
Letters: Ghana: help needed (letter) - Name and address supplied
Letters: Year of the Eucharist (letter) - Fr Glen Tattersall FSSP
Letters: Catholic Doctors' Association of Victoria (letter) - Dr Dominica Ho
Books: The Ceremonies Of The Roman Rite Described, Fortescue,O'Connell, Alcuin Reid - Msgr. Peter J. Elliott (reviewer)
Books: The Organic Development of the Liturgy, by Alcuin Reid OSB - Msgr Peter J. Elliott (reviewer)
Books: The Two Wings Of Catholic Thought, edited by D.R. Foster, J.W. Koterski SJ - Br Christian Moe FSC (reviewer)
Books: More new titles from AD Books
Reflection: Our Lady, Fatima and the 'annihilation of nations' - Anne Lastman

Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki is an auxiliary bishop in Chicago. He has doctoral degrees in civil law from DePaul University and in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He served as Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1992 to 2000. He also teaches "Canon Law for Civil Lawyers" at Loyola School of Law in Chicago and is co-author of the 'New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law', published by Paulist Press in 2000.

This is a shortened version of what was first published in 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review'.

The clearest and most direct answer to the question, "Why stick to the text?" is found in canon 846, §1: "The liturgical books approved by the competent authority are to be faithfully observed in the celebration of the sacraments; therefore no one on personal authority may add, remove or change anything in them."

The law of the Church clearly prohibits altering the prescribed texts in the approved liturgical books, although it must be noted that the rubrics themselves occasionally allow for licit adaptation, e.g., introducing the penitential rite in "these or similar words."

Thus the question might be reformulated in this way: Why follow the law? Moreover, since a correct understanding of the underlying rationale of a law helps foster observance of it, a further question might be: Why is it that no one on personal authority may add, remove or change anything in the approved liturgical books?

There are several reasons why a person should follow the mandate of this or any other law of the Church. First of all there is the virtue of justice, and since the law seeks to do what is just, even if it does so imperfectly at times, there is a moral obligation to observe laws, at least insofar as they are not unjust or contrary to divine law (see canon 22).

A person baptised or received into the Catholic Church voluntarily assumes the obligation to observe the laws of the Church. Canon 11 stipulates, "Merely ecclesiastical laws bind those baptised in the Catholic Church or received into it and who enjoy sufficient use of reason and, unless the law expressly states otherwise, have completed seven years of age."

Canon 12, §1 further provides, "All persons for whom universal laws were passed are bound by them everywhere." Among the listing of the obligations and rights of all the Christian faithful in Book II of the Code of Canon Law, canon 212, §1 states that the "Christian faithful, conscious of their own responsibility, are bound by Christian obedience to follow what the sacred pastors, as representatives of Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or determine as leaders of the Church."

The obligation of obedience is even more pronounced in the case of priests and deacons, who make a promise of obedience and respect at the time of their ordination. This is specified in canon 273: "Clerics are bound by a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and to their own ordinary."

The fact that the Supreme Legislator, the Holy Father, wants the law of the Church to be followed is clearly stated in the Apostolic Constitution of Pope John Paul II, Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, promulgating the 1983 Code of Canon Law: "Finally, by their very nature laws are to be observed. The greatest care has therefore been taken to ensure that in the lengthy preparation of the Code the wording of the norms should be accurate, and that they should be based on solid juridical, canonical and theological foundation ... I command that for the future it is to have the force of law for the whole Latin Church, and I entrust it to the watchful care of those concerned in order that it may be observed ... I therefore exhort all the faithful to observe the proposed legislation with a sincere spirit and good will ...".

Thus the Pope makes observance of the law a command, but knowing that for some a command is not enough, he also makes it an exhortation for the ultimate good of the Church, the salvation of souls.


In most legal systems, another very practical reason to follow the law is the threat that violation is punishable with appropriate sanctions. The law of the Church is no exception, though certainly the application of penalties in the Church is different from that of civil society. In this regard, canon 1384 provides that "one who illegitimately carries out a priestly function or another sacred ministry can be punished with a just penalty."

Since canon 846, §1 makes it illicit for anyone to "add, remove or change anything" in the "liturgical books approved by the competent authority," anyone who does so may be said to be carrying out a priestly function or another sacred ministry illegitimately and therefore subject to a just penalty.

This would be especially true in cases where the abuse not only renders the Eucharist illicit, but also invalid, such as changing the words of the institution narrative in the Eucharistic prayer from "This is my Body" to "This is a symbol of my body."

This would indeed be grounds for removing a pastor (parish priest) from office since such an abuse could be said to be "a way of acting which is detrimental or disturbing to the ecclesial community" (canon 1741,1¡) as well as "grave neglect or violation of parochial duties which persist after a warning" (canon 1741, 4¡). Other office holders such as associate pastors (parochial vicars) would similarly be subject to removal for "grave reasons" (canon 193).

Having looked at the question of why one should simply obey the law, observance of the law may be enhanced by further inquiry examining the underlying rationale of canon 846, §1.

Why not add, remove or change anything in the approved liturgical books?

The principal reason why no one on personal authority should add, remove or change anything in the approved liturgical books is to avoid heresy. Liturgical language is based on theological definitions, and it is far too easy for the theologically unsophisticated to fall into making doctrinally unsound or even heretical statements in the effort to be original and creative.

A second reason not to vary from the approved liturgical books is to preserve communion. History has shown that the even the seemingly slight difference between saying "The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son" versus "The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son" can be the source of schism.

A third reason to remain faithful to the approved liturgical books is to preserve tradition. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "I congratulate you ... for maintaining the traditions exactly as I passed them on to you" (1 Cor. 11:2). "For the tradition I received from the Lord and also handed on to you is that on the night he was betrayed ..." (1 Cor. 11:23).

A fourth reason to use the texts as provided in the approved liturgical books is to respect the right of the Christian faithful to pray according to the authorised rites of the Church. Canon 837 is a reminder that "liturgical actions are not private actions but celebrations of the Church itself, which is 'the sacrament of unity,' namely, a holy people assembled and ordered under the bishops ...".

Liturgical actions are to involve the "active participation" of the Christian faithful (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 27), and this is hindered if the celebrant is not adhering to the ritual or is making up texts as he goes along, making it difficult if not impossible to know what to expect next. Thus, canon 214 provides that the "Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescriptions of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors [Holy See or bishops] of the Church."

The reforms of the Second Vatican Council as later reflected in the 1983 Code of Canon Law gave national episcopal conferences the authority "to prepare translations of the liturgical books into the vernacular languages, with the appropriate adaptations within the limits defined in the liturgical books themselves, and to publish them with the prior review of the Holy See".

The Apostolic See retained the authority "to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, to publish the liturgical books, to review their translations into the vernacular languages and to see that liturgical ordinances are faithfully observed everywhere" (canon 838, §2; see Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36; Pastor Bonus, 62,64 and 66).

Individual diocesan bishops (and in some cases local ordinaries) were given the rather limited authority only to attest that reprints in whole or in part of liturgical books as well as reprints of their vernacular translations "correspond with the approved edition" (canon 826, §2); they can give permission for the publication of prayer books for the public or private use of the faithful (canon 826, §3); they are "to see to it that the prayers and other pious and sacred exercises of the Christian people are fully in harmony with the norms of the Church" (canon 839, § 2); and they are to "be watchful lest abuses creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially concerning the ministry of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and devotion to the saints ..." (canon 392, §2).

Beyond this, there is only the rather vague reference that it "pertains to the diocesan bishop in the Church entrusted to him, within the limits of his competence, to issue liturgical norms by which all are bound" (canon 838, §4). However, the "limits of his competence" are severely restricted for the diocesan bishop by the competencies of the Apostolic See and the episcopal conferences enumerated in the preceding paragraphs of the same canon.

Given the rather circumscribed authority of an individual celebrant of the liturgy regarding variations to the texts of the approved liturgical rite, what can a celebrant do who is dissatisfied with the approved translations or believes that they can be expressed more meaningfully or aesthetically?

The answer is provided by canon 212, §3: "In accord with the knowledge, competence and preeminence which they possess, [the Christian faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have the right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard for the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons."

ICEL translations

In recent years, the English-language versions of liturgical texts have come under considerable criticism. However, the specific criticisms of ICEL translations are beyond the scope of this article. The point to be made here is that there is an official forum for airing these differences of opinion. It is not up to the individual celebrant to decide on personal authority to revise a text or translation, but to bring any legitimate and learned concerns to the proper forum.

The lively and spirited discussions of the American bishops debating liturgical texts in the meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are well known. We can all learn a lesson from them by noting that they do not go home from these meetings with different translations for their respective dioceses. They respect the process at arriving at a common text. Individual celebrants should do likewise.

In summary and conclusion, it is the law of the Church that no one on personal authority should add, remove or change anything in the approved liturgical books. The underlying rationale for this law, in short, is to protect the integrity of the liturgy, to preserve apostolic tradition, to maintain ecclesial communion, and to respect the right of all the Christian faithful to pray according to the authorised rites of the Church.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 17 No 9 (October 2004), p. 8

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