The Meaning of "Should"

And More on Daily Masses

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ROME, NOV. 3, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: For much of the history of our Church, officials have put a lot of effort in using precise language so that their meaning is very clear. What is the significance of the words «should,» «must,» «are to» or «are not to»? What is the force in law of these words? Liturgy uses the word «should» a lot. Does this mean that its violation is minor? In the United States it seems that «should» can be ignored if its opposite simply feels better. What are the criteria for a valid violation of the «should»? — J.F., Hesperia, California

A: Liturgical norms and their translations are designed to be interpreted by everybody from sacristan to bishop, and thus they generally eschew technical canonical language. Therefore, such words are supposed to be taken in their obvious meaning.

According to the Collins Dictionary, should is: «The past tense of shall: used as an auxiliary verb to indicate that an action is considered by the speaker to be obligatory (you should go) or to form the subjunctive mood with I or we (I should like to see you; if I should be late, go without me).

«Usage: Should has, as its most common meaning in modern English, the sense ought as in I should go to the graduation, but I don’t see how I can. However, the older sense of the subjunctive of shall is often used with I or we to indicate a more polite form than would: I should like to go, but I can’t ….«

Therefore in liturgy the word should generally indicates obligation, but depending on the precise context the obligation refers to concrete acts or to more general attitudes or obligations.

For example, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 22, indicates: «The Bishop should therefore be determined that the priests, the deacons, and the lay Christian faithful grasp ever more deeply the genuine meaning of the rites and liturgical texts and thereby be led to an active and fruitful celebration of the Eucharist. To the same end, he should also be vigilant that the dignity of these celebrations be enhanced. In promoting this dignity, the beauty of the sacred place, of music, and of art should contribute as greatly as possible.»

Here the use of should refers to the bishop’s general obligation to promote and oversee the liturgy. The bishop himself decides as to the actions and means necessary to fulfill this obligation. Given the overarching quality of the obligation, it is fulfilled in many different ways. These include the bishop’s personally celebrating the liturgy and preaching; ensuring the adequate formation of all those involved in liturgy; establishing particular norms for the diocese when necessary; and even correcting abuses and disciplining those who violate the law.

Other norms are more particular. GIRM, No. 5, says, «For the celebration of the Eucharist is an action of the whole Church, and in it each one should carry out solely but completely that which pertains to him or her, in virtue of the rank of each within the People of God.»

Here we are before a general principle but more directly concerned with a liturgical celebration. Here the obligation is that each participant in the liturgy must respect his or her proper area of action. In accordance with this principle, lay ministers must not encroach on duties reserved to the ordained, while the latter should not unnecessarily substitute a lay minister. For example, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should not be used if there are sufficient ordinary ministers, while a deacon or priest should not read the first and second readings if suitable lay readers are present.

Other uses of should express a clear norm that must be followed. Once more, context or other norms determine the strength of this law. For example, GIRM, No. 32, would admit no exceptions: «Thus, while the priest is speaking these texts [the presidential prayers], there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent.»

GIRM, No. 43, on the other hand indicates: «The faithful should stand from the beginning of the Entrance chant, or while the priest approaches the altar, until the end of the Collect; for the Alleluia chant before the Gospel; while the Gospel itself is proclaimed; during the Profession of Faith and the Prayer of the Faithful; from the invitation, Orate, fratres (Pray, brethren), before the prayer over the offerings until the end of Mass, except at the places indicated below.»

Here the faithful’s obligation to stand at these moments allows for exceptions due to age or infirmity. Bishops’ conferences may also modify some postures in accordance with local tradition and with the approval of the Holy See.

I likely haven’t exhausted the uses of the word should in liturgical norms. But the examples presented can show that a degree in canon law is unnecessary in order to interpret this and similar expressions in their correct and obvious meaning.

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Follow-up: Indult for 3 Daily Masses?

Related to the question regarding the celebration of more than two daily Masses (see Oct. 20), a Connecticut reader had asked: «I would like to know whether a pastor who celebrates one regularly scheduled daily Mass for his parish each weekday is allowed to also celebrate a second Mass privately each weekday morning. By ‘privately’ I mean that he celebrates a second Mass by himself, or with only one or two attendees who happen to know about it only by word of mouth. If he is allowed to offer a second, private Mass, is that simply up to him or would he need explicit permission from the bishop?»

As stated in our earlier reply, the priest may celebrate only one Mass a day. The bishop may give priests permission to celebrate twice a day or thrice on Sundays if priests are scarce.

Many bishops grant pastors and other priests habitual permission to use these faculties in order to respond to the needs of the faithful. It is quite common, for example, that a priest has to celebrate a scheduled Mass and a funeral on the same day. There are many other possible examples, and most canonists consider that such faculties may be used for any reasonable cause.

It is clear, however, that this possibility is allowed only for the good of the faithful and is never a question of a priest’s personal devotion. Thus a priest is not justified in celebrating a Mass alone or with the accidental presence of only one or two people if he is scheduled to celebrate another Mass later on or has already celebrated such a Mass.

Here the question revolves around the «private» character of the celebration and not the number of attendees. It is possible to envision a case when a priest could legitimately celebrate a second Mass for a reduced number of people in special circumstances such as at the bedside of a dying person.

Nor is it a question of the priest celebrating alone, as this situation, while never ideal, can also be justified in certain circumstances such as while traveling.

The danger involved in this double celebration, besides the violation of canon law, is of converting the Mass into a quasi-private devotion and obscuring its essentially public dimension as an act of the whole Church. The priest is the administrator, not the owner of Christ’s treasures and must distribute them according to the mind of the Church.

* * *

Readers may send questions to 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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