Extent of a Bishop's Authority

And More on Pre-recorded Masses

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ROME, JUNE 9, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have received from one of my confreres in the Philippines a question regarding the celebration of the Latin Mass. The question is: The «motu proprio» of the Holy Father Benedict XVI allows a priest to celebrate the Mass in Latin, if he so chooses, without need to ask permission from the ordinary. Could a bishop have a right to forbid the celebration of the Mass of Paul VI facing the altar, not the people, when he is using this liturgical form and not the extraordinary form of John XXIII, for pastoral reasons? — S.L., Rome

A: The question is really more canonical than liturgical, and I speak as one who is not a trained canonist.

The question revolves around the bishop’s authority with respect to regulating the liturgy. No one doubts that the bishop has the right and duty of supervising the liturgy within his diocese. Thus the Code of Canon Law states:

«Canon 838.1 — The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, in accord with the law, the diocesan bishop.

«Canon 839.2 — Local ordinaries 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.»

In the task of promoting the sacred liturgy, the law grants the bishop a wide range of authority to make determinations within his diocese. He may, among other things, make pastoral decisions as to some feasts; grant dispensations from some obligations; approve specific musical settings; and mandate certain days of prayer and celebrations. He must also ensure that any abuses are eliminated — if necessary, through the use of canonical penalties.

However, his authority is not absolute. On several occasions the Holy See has made decisions which in some way limit this authority. For example, the bishop may permit the use of female altar servers, but may not impose their use on pastors. A bishop or major religious superior cannot oblige a priest to concelebrate if he prefers to celebrate on his own. A bishop should give confirmation to a child who is sufficiently prepared and spontaneously requests the sacrament, even if diocesan policy requires an older age.

The question that is addressed here is: Can the bishop determine or limit options granted to all priests by universal liturgical law, such as the possibilities of different directions for celebrating Mass found in the Roman Missal?

Liturgical law already provides a complex process through which a bishops’ conference can propose permanent adaptations to the postures and texts of the liturgical books. Such adaptations require a two-thirds majority of the bishops and the subsequent approval of the Holy See before these changes can be mandated as particular law for that country.

Since this elaborate process would be moot if individual bishops could establish alternative postures on their own, I think it is safe to say that establishing stable amendments to the Roman Missal, having the force of particular law in a diocese, is not a prerogative of the diocesan bishop.

It could well happen, though, that a particular situation arises in a diocese which would allow a bishop to make a particular determination for serious pastoral reasons. This decision would be binding as an act of obedience, but it would probably not acquire the force of stable particular law and its effects would be necessarily tied to the pastoral situation that motivated the decision.

Such a situation occurred about 10 years ago in the United States. A bishop forbade in his diocese the celebration of Mass toward the apse. It was a response to certain theological arguments which seemed to present this position as being somehow more orthodox than facing the people.

While I believe that the canonical arguments used at the time to back up the decision (based, above all, on the law of custom) were not unshakable, I also believe that it could fall within the province of a bishop to make a decision of this nature if faced with a pressing pastoral situation.

The bishop consulted with the Holy See which responded: «As regards the position of the celebrating priest at the altar during Holy Mass, it is true as Your Excellency indicates that the rubrics of the Roman Missal, and in particular the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, foresee that the priest will face the body of people in the nave while leaving open the possibility of his celebrating towards the apse. These two options carry with them no theological or disciplinary stigma of any kind. It is therefore incorrect and indeed quite unacceptable that anyone affirm, as Your Excellency sums up this view, that to celebrate towards the apse ‘is a theologically preferable or more orthodox choice for a priest who wishes to be true to the Church’s authentic tradition.'»

Although I am unaware if the bishop later withdrew the decree, I suppose that it fell by the wayside once the underlying theological and pastoral question had been resolved by the Holy See.

The possibility of celebrating toward the apse for the Eucharistic Prayer is a legitimate option offered by the ordinary form of the Roman Missal. It is an option which our present Holy Father has used publicly on at least two occasions in the Sistine Chapel. Some other bishops have also done so in their cathedrals.

At the same time, it is understandable that a bishop would wish to coordinate with priests who desire to use this option at parish Masses so as to ensure that the faithful understand the reasons behind a practice which most of them would not have experienced before. For this reason I would say that a bishop could order that the practice not be introduced in a spontaneous or haphazard way, or he could order that its implementation be delayed for a certain time. It is doubtful, however, that he would have the authority to make a formal and permanent ban on an option offered by the Roman Missal.

* * *

Follow-up: Pre-recorded Masses

After our brief comments on pre-recorded Masses (see May 26), an English reader remarked:

«Initially I was not very happy with televised Masses, whether live or pre-recorded, seeing them as ‘second best,’ perhaps ‘slightly unreal’ poor substitutes — until I was temporarily not well enough to attend Mass. Then I appreciated televised Masses more than I can say, and they must be an even greater spiritual lifeline to those who are rarely or never able to go out to Mass. Surely it is what is in the hearts of both the celebrant and the viewers/listeners at the respective times of the celebration that matters. And who knows what messages may reach the casual viewer/listener who may not be practicing, or not even Christian? Offhand I cannot recall seeing any education/sensitizing [regarding] the value of watching TV Masses; maybe there is room for work there. I write from England where, as far as I know, recordings always take place in churches with a genuine congregation present, thus retaining the feeling of the support of a congregation.»

Our reader is correct as to the possible widespread benefits of televised Masses. We did not address this point as the question revolved around the optimal means of televising, not the fact of broadcasting as such. Although there is no real substitute for an actual celebration, as our reader said, a televised Mass is a spiritual blessing for those unable to attend. And it can even be a means of evangelization.

In a related question a hospital chaplain asked: «I celebrate Mass in the hospital chapel and the Mass is televised on the hospital’s closed-circuit TV system for the benefit of patients who cannot come down to Mass. Usually these Masses have a congregation, but sometimes, especially on Sundays, there are no congregan
ts. My practice when no one is attending the Mass in the chapel is to repeat the people’s responses for the benefit of those watching the Mass on TV from their rooms. Since this is essentially a private Mass that is being televised, is it permissible to repeat the people’s parts?»

I would say that if possible, it would be best to attempt to ensure the presence of at least one person, perhaps a hospital volunteer, who could give the responses — and this especially on a Sunday.

However, if this is not possible, then I think the special situation justifies the chaplain’s practice of saying the responses so as to help those who will be following the Mass from the wards.

* * *

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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