"So Very Dry" Liturgy

And More on Priests and Bishops

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ROME, MAY 12, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Nowadays there seems to be a shift from the spirit of the liturgy to mechanical and ritualistic performance. Since our liturgy is so very dry, many Catholics in several parts of India are going to Protestant churches where the worship is spontaneous, meaningful and gives them a sense of involvement and satisfaction. Some of the questions put to you and your answers seem to be not appealing to the soul. Should we not think of promoting meaningful liturgy in the light of the local culture and its needs? — P.J., Dindigul, India

A: We occasionally receive questions of this type which touch upon fundamental issues regarding the purpose and nature of liturgy.

Over the years, this column has addressed many points of liturgy, some of which are admittedly technical and maybe even rarefied. But I always strive to give my readers the benefit of the doubt and presume that their inquiries stem from a sincere desire to celebrate the liturgy according to the Church’s heart and mind.

I do not believe that it follows that an exact and precise liturgical celebration is thereby a soulless and mechanical ritual. Nor is a cavalier attitude toward rubrics an inevitable proof of authentic Christianity. There can be both good faith and hypocrisy behind both attitudes, but these are the failings of individual human beings that do not touch the heart of the question.

I strongly defend fidelity to liturgical norms because I believe that the faithful have a right to be able to participate in a recognizably Catholic liturgy, a liturgy that flows from Christ himself and is part of the great stream of the communion of saints.

While not doubting the sincerity of my correspondent, I must take exception to his way of characterizing Protestant worship with respect to Catholic liturgy. I believe that we are before a question that goes much deeper than external forms. The crux of the problem is not that our separated brethren have more exciting performances but that we have failed to teach our faithful basic Catholics doctrine on the Mass and the Eucharist.

Any Catholic who has the tiniest inkling of what it means to assist at Mass; to be present at the Lord’s Passion, death and resurrection; to be able to unite his or her prayer presented to the eternal Father united together with Christ’s supreme sacrifice; to have the possibility of sharing the Bread come down from heaven — how could such a Catholic ever compare this privilege to any Protestant service, even though admittedly it might have better music and more able preaching?

At the same time, the Church’s liturgy is already endowed with flexibility and a richness that can readily respond to local characteristics as determined by the national bishops’ conferences. Apart from the essential problem of lack of liturgical formation there is the question of the abandonment or lack of use of many treasures, both ancient and new, that can transform our liturgies into beautiful and deeply spiritual experiences.

When the full possibilities of genuine Catholic liturgy are used, the celebration is not a tad less participative, spontaneous and meaningful than any non-Catholic service. The difference is that in liturgy, just as in sports, authentic spontaneity, participation and creativity are found within the rules and not outside of them.

Apart from the liturgy Catholicism has a plethora of forms of prayer and associations, from historic confraternities and sodalities to modern charismatic prayer groups and ecclesial movements. I believe that these multifarious expressions can satisfy all forms of spiritual sensibility and desire for involvement much better than any individual group of Protestants.

Therefore if some of our Catholic faithful are migrating to Protestant groups, I don’t think we should be blaming the liturgy but rather double our efforts to celebrate it properly and proclaim the truth of the great mystery of faith.

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Follow-up: New Priests Blessing Bishops

Related to the April 28 question of priests blessing bishops, a reader from Kampala, Uganda, asked: «Can a bishop in a given case of emergency delegate a priest to ordain another priest? It is the bishop who has the fullness of the priesthood of Christ. Yet even priests are configured to the priesthood of Christ at ordination: Alter Christus! How full is the fullness of the priesthood of Christ in a bishop vis-à-vis the fullness of the priesthood of Christ in an ordained priest?»

This question would really require a highly nuanced theological treatise, and a brief answer risks being simplistic.

With this caveat in mind I would say the following. Bishops have the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders. Priests have a lesser participation and deacons a different participation which does not entail priesthood but rather service at the altar, at the table of the Word, and toward those in need.

Even though it is hard to avoid terms such as «more» and «less» when speaking of the degrees of holy orders, it should be said that each ministry lacks nothing that is necessary for carrying out its precise mission within the Church. The fact that some functions are reserved to particular ministers does not mean that the other ministers are deprived of these functions, but that they are not required for the specific mission.

In this sense the ministry of the bishop, having the fullness of the priesthood, goes beyond the power of ordination and directly entails his function as the shepherd and principle of unity of the local church through whom unity with the universal Church is established. Priests and deacons in their respective ministries collaborate with the bishop, and the ecclesial effectiveness of their ministry requires communion with him.

Regarding the question at hand, in case of necessity, Latin-rite bishops may delegate to priests the celebration of the sacrament of confirmation. This faculty may only be validly used within the confines of the diocese itself. Eastern Catholic priests habitually confirm infants immediately following baptism.

The ordination of priests, however, is not delegable (Canon 1012 of the Code of Canon Law). Only a bishop has the power to ordain deacons and priests. Priests do not have this power as it is not required for their mission.

There is some debate as to whether a pope could authorize priests to do so. The only reason this possibility was aired is due to the existence of some medieval documents in which three popes, between the years 1400 and 1489, granted privileges to certain abbots to ordain deacons and priests.

The documents in question are of dubious theological value, the actual historical circumstances are rather murky, and the aforementioned privileges were all later withdrawn. The actual ordinations, however, were not declared invalid, and so it remains a hypothetical question if a precise papal concession might allow for an exception to the general rule.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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