Obedience to a Priest


Obedience to a Priest

ROME, 19 JULY 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: In a certain church in New York state a priest told parishioners they could not kneel during the consecration. He also told them they could not say the rosary in front of the Blessed Sacrament. The question we have concerns obedience. Are the laity obligated to obey a priest when it comes to liturgical practices or devotional practices? Is it a sin not to obey the orders of the priest? — M.A.E., Rochester, New York

A: There are several questions here and several levels of obedience.

First of all, both priest and faithful owe obedience to Christ and his Church in matters of faith, morals and liturgical discipline.

Neither the priest nor the faithful are lords and masters of the liturgy but must receive it as a gift through which, by actively and consciously participating, they enter into communion with Christ and the Church, and benefit from an increase of grace.

This fundamental obedience of the assembly to Christ and the Church is the basis for the other forms of mutual obedience within the assembly. In a way, the priest owes obedience to the faithful in that he has a solemn mission to lead them in prayer and worship according to the mind of the Church. And the faithful have a corresponding right and duty to pray and worship in communion with the universal Church.

This also leads to a proper understanding of the faithful's obedience to their pastors. They should be docile in accepting his guidance in all that touches on the mind of the Church.

Thus, with respect to the liturgy, the priest is called to direct the faithful in the Church's liturgical worship. The faithful, in turn, have an obligation to obey him insofar as his direction corresponds to Church's mind as expressed in the liturgical books or in the dispositions of legitimate Church authority.

With respect to acts of private devotion, the priest, as teacher, is called to guide the faithful to a solid spiritual life. In this he may sometimes be required to warn them against certain devotional practices that deviate from sound doctrine or that are prone to confuse his flock regarding the priority of the sacramental life.

In some grave cases the priest might even have to forbid the use of the church as a venue for public manifestations of problematic devotions. In carrying out these actions he must always be guided by sound Church doctrine and not his personal spiritual preferences.

As said, the obedience of the faithful to the priest is in virtue of communion with the Church and consequently they have no obligation to obey a priest who directs them to perform or omit acts contrary to Church norms, because in doing so he fails to fulfill his mission of leading in communion.

The faithful are also free to practice any devotional exercise that is in conformity with sound doctrine and Church norms.

However, the faithful should always have a presumption in favor of the correctness of the priest's directives in liturgical or spiritual matters and should avoid the danger of allowing suspicion to reign in their spiritual lives. If they have a positive doubt regarding any specific issue, the initial attitude should always be one of a charitable dialogue in search of mutual understanding.

Certainly, and not only in the developed world, the days are past when a priest was the exclusive source of doctrinal information. Today, most educated Catholics can find out for themselves what the Church teaches or regulates on any topic.

Yet this extra knowledge should be an aid to mutual understanding rather than a weapon of discordance and the attitude should always be one of construction rather than confrontation.

Sometimes an apparently erroneous directive may be justified by contextual circumstances not readily perceivable and in an attitude of mutual charity the priest should be willing to explain the motivations behind his actions and the faithful be disposed to weigh carefully what he has to say.

If necessary, all should be willing to ask the bishop clarify the situation. To some this might seem overly optimistic, but as the ancient hymn reminds us, "Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est" — Where true charity and love are found, there is God.

Now, alas, we have to come to the nitty-gritty of the first part of the question.
The directive issued by the priest not to kneel during the consecration is erroneous if taken as a general rule. The norms for kneeling in the United States are stated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 43:

"In the dioceses of the United States of America, they (The faithful) should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise."

The debate in the bishops' conference leading up to the formulation of this adaptation, especially with the insertion of the expression "on occasion," made it clear that the bishops desired to prevent the exception from becoming a blanket permission to abolish kneeling.

Thus, unless some particular good reason led the priest to indicate to the people that they not kneel on that occasion, and especially if he indicated a stable norm for the parish, then he was going beyond his authority.

Similarly, there is no law forbidding the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament. Indeed, the Holy See specifically permitted it in an official response to a doubt, published Jan. 15, 1997.

The document did state that the Blessed Sacrament should not be exposed just to pray the rosary. But it allowed the rosary to be among the prayers carried out during adoration.

While there is no prohibition in principle, one could surmise that specific circumstances might arise that would induce a pastor not to allow public recitation of the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament. In such (supposedly rare) occurrences he would be acting within his rights and duties as spiritual guide.

He would have no authority, however, to forbid the faithful from praying the rosary privately before the Blessed Sacrament. ZE05071921

* * *

Follow-up: Obedience to a Priest [08-16-2005]

Several questions cropped up related to the question of the obedience due to the priest in liturgical matters (see July 19).

One reader asked: "In our local diocese the bishop has not implemented the changes found in the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal. When this document was promulgated should the changes have been put promptly into effect? What about religious orders within such a diocese? Is it a matter of 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do?' While I understand the changes are not substantial, I am thinking about the instance when we are instructed by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], to stand earlier. Is it within the bishop's judgment as to when he puts these changes into effect so that proper instruction can happen?"

Other readers also asked about the obligation of religious toward the bishops in liturgical matters.

Our reader did not indicate her country of origin and this would make a difference to the reply. Although the Latin GIRM could have been applied immediately by any community, it would not normally become obligatory until the Holy See has given final recognition to the translation approved by the bishops' conference and it is duly promulgated by the conference's president.

In this, the U.S. bishops' conference moved with alacrity and was the first to have a translation approved. Other English-speaking conferences have only recently finished this task and for them the new GIRM is yet a novelty in the parishes.

With respect to the bishop's implementation of the document: Canon law sees this process as pertaining to the conference as a whole and not to individual bishops.

The bishop was involved, at the level of the conference, at all stages of the approval of the translation. Thus, no further decree of implementation is necessary from the bishop although nothing impedes his writing to the diocese informing of the changes to be made.

If he does not do so, then it simply falls upon each parish community to carry out the indications in the GIRM, which become obligatory from the date indicated in the official promulgation by the conference president.

With respect to the obedience owed to the bishop by a religious priest, "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 176, states:

"The diocesan Bishop, 'since he is the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, is to strive constantly so that Christ's faithful entrusted to his care may grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments, and that they may know and live the Paschal Mystery.' It is his responsibility, 'within the limits of his competence, to issue norms on liturgical matters by which all are bound' (See Canon 838,4)."

It would be beyond the scope of this reply to list all of the prerogatives of the bishop in liturgical matters. But the general principle is clear that all, including religious, are bound by universal norms and by those particular norms emanated by the bishop within his competence.

Some religious orders may have special traditions and privileges granted by the Holy See which the bishop may not abridge.

There is, for example, the centuries-old privilege of the mendicant orders and the Jesuits to lift the excommunication annexed to the sin of abortion. But these peculiarities do not provide carte blanche to religious to ignore either universal norms or episcopal authority with respect to the liturgy.

Several readers asked if one is exempt from kneeling in those churches which have been constructed without kneelers.

From the point of view of the individual believer, he or she may kneel if able to do so but the lack of kneelers could well be considered as a legitimate impediment.

However, such a structure is not furnished according to the mind of the Church and the situation should be remedied as soon as possible. In fact, several U.S. bishops have mandated the installation or restoration of kneelers in churches where they were absent and we would hope this situation will be remedied everywhere as circumstances and finances permit. Any new church project should foresee the provision of kneelers.

A related question arose regarding the incision in the GIRM: "The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise." This means that the bishop may decide, for sound pastoral reasons, to exempt his flock from this practice. If he chooses to do so, the sense of the law appears to be that he establish a diocesan-wide practice and not simply leave the question to the decision of each pastor with the consequent confusion that could arise with every change.

If the bishop decides to allow the people to stand after the Agnus Dei (a common practice outside of the United States), then this decision is binding on all. The bishop is free to exempt any parishes from norms he himself has issued and could permit them to follow the U.S. norms if kneeling after the Agnus Dei is a long tradition.

This period of community kneeling or standing lasts until Communion. As clarified by a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship, after receiving Holy Communion each person may kneel, stand or sit as preferred. It is not required that the faithful remain standing until all present have received Communion.

An Arizona reader asked: "Under the authority of the local bishop, could there be consequences for a priest who does not implement the GIRM into his parish? If so, what sort of consequences?"

It really depends on the bishop himself and on the objective gravity of the case.

A priest might not implement the GIRM, for multiple reasons, ranging from ignorance through laziness all the way to obstinate disobedience.

A bishop first of all encourages priests and faithful to obey the Church's norms based on supernatural faith.

In serious cases he may admonish a priest. Except in cases of grave defects that affect the dignity and even the validity of the liturgy, or of a general attitude of grave disobedience in other areas as well, it would be rare to move toward serious consequences such as suspension or removal.

In a perfect world, such cases would not arise. But, alas, we are not living in a perfect world. ZE05081622

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