Deviations in Holy Week

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Deviations in Holy Week

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. 

Q1: The past two years at our parish the liturgy for Good Friday has been changed in the following manner: The pastor and other readers begin the liturgy by reading a part of the account of the Passion. Then, they stop about a fifth of the way through, and the readers respectively proceed with the first and second reading. Then, the pastor and readers resume, reading another fifth of the Passion, after which the general intercessions take place. Another fifth of the Passion is read, after which the veneration of the Cross takes place. Again, another fifth of the Passion is read, and then Holy Communion is distributed. After Holy Communion is distributed, the final fifth of the Passion account is read and the liturgy ends. Obviously, this ordering of the liturgy does not follow the rubrics. Since the Good Friday liturgy is not a Mass, does the following statement from Sacrosanctum Concilium still apply, since the Good Friday liturgy is, indeed, a sacred liturgy: "Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop …. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority" (22.1, 2)?

Q2: [Last] Lent, during the Sundays leading up to Palm Sunday, our pastor and his assistants employed the following changes when reading the Gospel: The priest and another layperson(s) read the Gospels very much in the same manner as the Passion is read, by multiple readers, on Palm Sunday or Good Friday, that is, the priest reads the part of Jesus, and the other readers read the parts of the blind man, Martha, Mary, the Samaritan woman, etc. In addition, the music minister invited the congregation to sing a response throughout the Gospel. So, at different points during the Gospel, either the priest or the layperson would cease reading, and the entire congregation would sing a response, very much in the same manner as the psalm is recited. I am concerned that this is taking place because, according to Redemptionis Sacramentum: "[I]t is not permitted for a layperson, even a religious, to proclaim the Gospel reading in the celebration of Holy Mass, nor in other cases in which the norms do not explicitly permit it" (63). While the lector did not read the entire Gospel, is it still right to be concerned that a layperson read parts of the Gospel? It seems to me that the liberty taken by making this change is a liturgical abuse. — E.R., San Clemente, California

Q3: I am not so sure that my country is unique in trying to "re-create" the liturgy of the Easter triduum, but I've seen and heard enough to imagine that perhaps our clergy are not so familiar with either the rubrics or the meaning of the paschal triduum. My question is, basically, how far can a priest go before what is celebrated is no longer, legally speaking, the Easter triduum? Some examples from televised liturgies: [One] Good Friday, a Liturgy of the Passion was shown from County Kerry. The only Scripture reading was from Matthew's Gospel (it seemed to be an edition of the Good News Bible) and dramatized by mime. I think the remainder of the liturgy was more or less per the liturgy. Then the Easter Vigil from the same parish was structured as follows: Fire blessed (outside), clergy came inside and began the Old Testament readings. After the last Old Testament reading, the Easter candle was prepared in the usual way, people's candles were lit, Exsultet sung and then the Gloria. The remainder of the liturgy was as per usual. — F.R., Dublin, Ireland

A: These are just a selection of many inquiries about blatant reordering of the liturgy in general and the Easter celebrations in particular. Why these things happen and why some priests are deluded into thinking that this is a more "pastoral" approach than following the prescribed rubrics, remains a mystery.

I remain convinced that the best and most effective pastoral policy is to offer Christ's faithful the rites that his Church proposes. This is what has stood the test of time and of widespread use. Our personal tinkering can only impoverish and weaken their effectiveness.

From the legal standpoint, all of these initiatives violate Sacrosanctum Concilium 22's basic principle of liturgical law quoted by our first questioner. This norm is not restricted to the Mass but to the entire liturgy, including all celebrations of the sacraments and also the sacramentals. In the case of the sacramentals and the Liturgy of the Hours the official books themselves occasionally allow for greater leeway in choosing texts and modes of celebration, provided that certain core criteria are always met.

As our first correspondent observed, they also explicitly violate many other liturgical norms. This is the case in Q2 where, effectively, the only occasions when laypeople are allowed to read the Gospel along with the priest is Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The other exception, foreseen in No. 47 of the Directory for Masses with Children, does not apply to Masses celebrated for the whole parish community.

With respect to Good Friday I would say that even though it is not a Mass it is one of the most ancient and important celebrations of the year and merits the maximum degree of adherence. The Congregation for Divine Worship's circular letter on the celebration of these feasts is very explicit:

"64. The order for the celebration of the Lord's passion (the liturgy of the word, the adoration of the cross, and Holy Communion) that stems from an ancient tradition of the Church should be observed faithfully and religiously and may not be changed by anyone on his own initiative.

"66. The readings are to be read in their entirety. The responsorial psalm and the chant before the gospel are to be sung in the usual manner. The narrative of the Lord's passion according to John is sung or read in the way prescribed for the previous Sunday (cf. n. 33). After the reading of the passion, a homily should be given, at the end of which the faithful may be invited to spend a short time in meditation."

Regarding the Easter Vigil the indications are similar:

"2. The Structure of the Easter Vigil and the Significance of Its Different Elements and Parts

"81. The order for the Easter Vigil is arranged so that after the service of light and the Easter proclamation (which is the first part of the Vigil), Holy Church meditates on the wonderful works that the Lord God wrought for his people from the earliest times (the second part or liturgy of the word) to the moment when, together with those new members reborn in baptism (third part), she is called to the table prepared by the Lord for his Church, the commemoration of his death and resurrection, until he comes (fourth part).

"This liturgical order must not be changed by anyone on his own initiative."

Thus these rites have an inner spiritual logic that is broken when the rite is not respected.
Some of the manipulations described by our reader are so egregious that one could say that the rite is no longer that of the Catholic Church.

* * *

Follow-up: Deviations in Holy Week [4-3-2012]

In connection with deviations in the prescribed rites of the Easter triduum (see March 20), there are a range of questions regarding the washing of feet on Holy Thursday. Few rites have been subject to such confusion over the last few years regarding who and how many people can have their feet washed, who can do the washing, and whether parts of the body other than the feet may be washed. And all this mayhem about a rite that can be omitted completely!

We have written on this subject several times: on March 23, 2004, and April 6, 2004; March 28, 2006; and April 12, 2011, and May 3, 2011.

Another reader asked about a pastor who instructed the faithful to sit during the reading of the Passion.

This option is not mentioned in the official missal. I have occasionally seen it inserted as a rubric in privately published hand missals but without any apparent authority.

While an elderly person, or anybody experiencing physical difficulties, can always opt to sit if standing or kneeling is especially burdensome, I do not think it is appropriate — spiritually, legally or pastorally — to invite the whole assembly to sit during the Passion reading.

People in all age ranges seem to be able to stand in line for hours, even days, in order to buy tickets to hear the latest teenage warbler, to be present at a sports event or to be among the first to obtain the ultimate version of a gadget they probably don't really need anyway.

Is it really too much to ask Catholics to stand for 25 minutes or so at the foot of the Cross, in the company of the Blessed Mother, and unite themselves to Christ who dies for our redemption? Is sitting really an appropriate gesture at this moment?

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