|Father Edward McNamara Views the New Instructive
ROME, 16 MAY 2004 (ZENIT)
The new Vatican instructive "Redemptionis
Sacramentum" seems to tip the balance away from episcopal conferences in
favor of individual diocesan bishops to safeguard the liturgy, says a
That was one overview of the document offered by Father Edward McNamara, a
professor at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University who writes
ZENIT's weekly column on liturgy. Here, he expounded on the document.
Q: Some sources say that this document
brings nothing new. Is this true?
Father McNamara: In one sense it is true, the document has 295 footnotes
for 186 articles and such an abundance of references witnesses the fact it
introduces few novelties.
However, it does specify and clarify many norms, going more into detail
and giving concrete examples. It also clears up some questions of
vocabulary such as the proper term for extraordinary ministers of
One aspect of novelty is in tone which fluctuates between the exhortative
to the tersely juridical. On the one hand it motivates fidelity based on
the greatness of the Eucharist but also frequently invokes the rights of
the faithful to a truly catholic celebration, a fairly new focus.
On the other hand it juridically reprobates illicit practices, demanding
that they cease with all haste and so leaves no doubts that liturgical
law, is law, and not a series of helpful recommendations. Like any law,
its prescriptions are meant to be followed, and failure to do so should
have consequences for the offender.
Perhaps it has been necessary for the document to adopt this more severe
tone because so many of its predecessors have been widely ignored, and, as
Cardinal Arinze wryly observed while presenting the document, these abuses
are not banal.
Q: Some have described the document as a "call to order" to episcopal
Father McNamara: The instruction introduces no new legislation but
clarifies the limits to the authority of the bishops' conference, and
their liturgy commissions, by recalling that many of their actions have no
legal force unless confirmed by the Holy See.
Some abuses have been introduced or condoned by actions of episcopal
conferences which were acted upon before the Holy See had finished
examining the question.
The document also seems to tip the balance, so to speak, away from the
episcopal conferences in favor of the individual diocesan bishop by
strongly stressing his responsibility to safeguard the liturgy.
At the same time it bolsters his authority, affirming that all, including
members of religious congregations, ecclesial associations and movements
of any kind, are subject to his authority in all liturgical matters.
It also makes him the first step of the procedure to remedy most abuses
while appeals to the Holy See should be made only as a last resort.
Q: Does this document aim to roll back lay encroachment on clerical
Father McNamara: I think the document invites us to avoid a political
frame of reference and concentrate on the liturgy's central role in
building up the Church. Its paradigm is sacramental, which thus requires a
hierarchy of service and a distinction of roles.
Insisting on the distinction of roles and avoiding all "clericalization"
of the laity manifests the Church's divinely willed structure in which the
gift of the Eucharist transcends the power of the community.
Failure to do so can create a horizontal and human centered concept of
Church forgetting that the Church is essentially God-orientated.
At the same time the document confirms the important role of the laity in
the liturgy, to again quote Cardinal Arinze: "It is a question of being
fully alive to the great privilege that God has given them in calling them
to participate with mind and heart and their entire life in the liturgy
and through it to receive God's grace. It is important to understand this
properly and not to suppose that the instruction is somehow biased against
Indeed, as we have mentioned, the instruction strongly defends the laity's
right to a genuinely Catholic liturgy.
Q: There were rumors that the document would ban girl altar servers and
so-called liturgical dancing. Has this happened?
Father McNamara: The instruction certainly encourages the continued use of
altar boys and recalls that a great number of priests have come from their
But it makes no change in the norms that allow girls or women to be
admitted as servers, at the bishop's discretion. At the same time its
support for this option seems tepid at best.
The document makes no specific mention of dancing although it is probably
contemplated in the prohibition to introduce "elements that are contrary
to the prescriptions of the liturgical books," while not creating
confusion about some customs approved for some African and Asian countries
which might appear to be dance
— from a Western stance but which are not so conceived within the
Q: There have been some accusations that the document might harm
ecumenical relations. Is this true?
Father McNamara: The document says nothing that has not already been said.
In fact, clarity regarding basic principles is a prerequisite for
ecumenical dialogue and marking the limits of intercommunion clearly
demonstrates that we really believe what we say about the Eucharist.
Q: Is the permission given to priests to always be able to say Mass in
Latin, except in the case of previously scheduled Mass, a step backward?
Father McNamara: Actually, this permission is already found in canon law,
and the document merely spreads the news around.
It would appear that some priests and even bishops mistakenly thought that
a special permission was needed in order to celebrate in Latin. The
instruction removes any doubts. ZE04051620
Continued [from 06-01-2004]
Several readers asked about my comments on the new instruction "Redemptionis
Sacramentum," especially about the rights of the priest to celebrate Mass
The instruction states in No. 112:
"Mass is celebrated either in Latin or in another language, provided that
liturgical texts are used which have been approved according to the norm
of law. Except in the case of celebrations of the Mass that are scheduled
by the ecclesiastical authorities to take place in the language of the
people, Priests are always and everywhere permitted to celebrate Mass in
This right refers, of course, to celebrating according to the present
Roman Missal, not to the 1962 Roman Missal, the last edition of the
so-called Tridentine rite which requires specific authorization from the
The priest's right is not absolute as it does not include the right to
celebrate in Latin at Masses which "Ecclesiastic authorities" schedule for
Mass in the vernacular.
Thus, the local bishop could determine that regular parish Masses may not
be celebrated in Latin and a parish priest might not allow a visiting
priest to celebrate a previously scheduled vernacular Mass in Latin.
But the bishop may not forbid priests from saying Mass in Latin either
alone or for specific groups outside the regular schedules, even if he
personally holds that it is not pastorally advisable.
It seems rather strange that in one or two cases bishops have even gone so
far as to threaten to suspend priests for celebrating Mass in Latin.
Except in the case of a priest defying an order regarding scheduled
Masses, such an action would be a grave abuse of authority and contrary to
It is also very debatable whether an occasional or even regular Mass in
Latin is pastorally ineffective.
It is a point that cannot be resolved based on a priori judgments, even on
the diocesan level, and may be true in some parish contexts and false in
others. It can only be judged by the pastoral reality of full or empty
In the end, bishops and priests must do what is best for the good of souls
even if it means going against their personal preferences for or against
the use of Latin.
Some readers have questioned the real efficacy of the instruction, which
in the end will depend on the willingness of priests and above all of the
local ordinary to enforce its provisions.
Certainly, it is incumbent upon the bishops to supervise the liturgy in
their diocese and they should be vigilant including imposing canonical
penalties for grave abuses.
This duty does not spring from some administrative decision to
decentralize at the "Vatican." Rather, it stems from the Church's divinely
willed structure in which the bishop is High Priest and shepherd of his
flock whom he is called to lead to sanctity and communion with the
Bishops, like all human beings, have their strong and weak points. But the
human failings of a few prelates do not invalidate the principle of
hierarchical and sacramental order in governing the Church, which has
weathered the test of time.
As Cardinal Ercole Consalvi is reported to have asked Napoleon Bonaparte,
when the French emperor threatened to crush the Church, "If in 1,800 years
we clergy have failed to destroy the Church, do you really think that
you'll be able to do it?"
All the same, the instruction permits, albeit as a last recourse, for any
member of the faithful to lodge a complaint of abuses directly to the Holy
See (No. 184). That should serve as a prod for unwilling bishops who fail
to act to stem grave abuses. ZE04060122