Bishops' Interpretations of Liturgical Laws

And More on Singing

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[Due to an editorial oversight, the Liturgy column was not published last Tuesday, April 30. ZENIT apologizes to our Liturgy column readers.]

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

Q: The new missal has prompted the publication of an «instruction» by a diocesan professor of liturgy, accompanied by a letter from the diocesan bishop stating that he has made the instruction «normative.» Priests are questioning various points from this «instruction» as being personal interpretations, for example: «3. The stole is worn by the Priest around his neck and hanging down in front of his chest, not crossed. (GIRM 340)» It is debated as to whether the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 340, in fact has this intention. It is also debated as to whether these and other «questionable points» can be legislated (i.e., blessing children in the Communion line; no words of introduction or secular greeting such as «Good morning» before the Sign of the Cross, etc.). Could you please address these debated points? — G.S., New York state

A: This question involves a larger one regarding the liturgical prerogatives of the local bishop with respect to universal liturgical laws.

The bishop has in fact fairly wide authority to make binding norms for his diocese in several areas of liturgy. In some cases he may also interpret liturgical laws if no higher interpretation is available. Such norms are binding on all, including, in most cases, members of religious orders.

The rule of thumb with regard to a bishop’s authority is that he should not forbid what the universal law permits, nor permit what the universal law forbids. To this we could add a corollary that he may not legally introduce liturgical novelties.

Like all general norms, there may be legitimate exceptions which would justify going against these notions in specific cases.

That said, according to a response from the liturgy office of the U.S. bishops’ conference the GIRM grants bishops specific authority to regulate liturgy of the Mass in the following areas: «The publication of norms on concelebration (GIRM, no. 202), service at the altar (GIRM, no. 107), Holy Communion under both kinds (GIRM, nos. 282-283), the construction and renovation of church Buildings (GIRM, no. 291 and 315), posture (GIRM, no. 43.3), liturgical music (GIRM, nos. 48, 87), and the establishment of days of prayer (GIRM, no. 373).»

Other documents mention the bishop’s right to make norms regarding «The regulation of Masses on radio, television and via the internet, and his responsibility to establish a diocesan calendar.»

Thus the principle that the bishop should not «forbid what is permitted» would mean that he should not «allow the removal of that liberty foreseen by the norms of the liturgical books so that the celebration may be adapted» (see the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, No. 21).

A bishop could not normally forbid, for example, the use of Eucharistic Prayer III nor mandate that it be always used for funerals.

Not permitting what is forbidden means that in general terms a bishop cannot contravene a clear norm of the liturgical books. For example, a bishop would not normally have the authority to allow no kneeling whatsoever in his diocese, since kneeling is expressly foreseen in the books.

That said, however, it must be recognized that bishops have wide powers of dispensation and may permit some exceptions to universal liturgical law for a just cause. For example, if a few churches in the diocese have no kneelers, and their eventual installation is technically very difficult or economically not feasible in the short term, a bishop could allow that parish to omit kneeling so as to favor a unified posture at Mass, at least until a solution is found.

Not introducing novelties means just that — no bishop has the authority to introduce any new liturgical practice. The above-mentioned response of the U.S. bishops comments: «With the exception of these and other modifications of the law explicitly assigned to the Diocesan Bishop, no additional changes to liturgical law may be introduced to Diocesan liturgical practice without the specific prior approval of the Holy See.»

With respect to some of the «debatable points» mentioned by our reader, it must be remembered that the bishop does have the authority to interpret the law and give norms coherent with that interpretation.

Thus if a bishop accepts the interpretation that GIRM, No. 340, excludes crossing the stole in the ordinary form, or that secular greetings at the beginning of Mass should be omitted, this is well within his authority in regulating the liturgy and is a reasonable interpretation of the law. Whether or not GIRM, No. 340, positively intended excluding the crossed stole (probably not) makes no difference to the possibility that the bishop could consider it a logical inference and make a norm so as to ensure a common practice at concelebrations.

The question of blessing children in the Communion line is more difficult because here we are dealing with a novelty. Several sources indicate that the Holy See is less than favorable (see previous articles on March 24, 2009; and May 10May 24 and June 7, 2005). Bishops’ conferences and individual bishops, however, give mixed signals.

From the legislative point of view, I would say that, being a novelty, a bishop would be within his authority to forbid the practice. If so convinced, he would be able to recommend it as a pastorally useful custom, unless the Holy See eventually decrees otherwise. He could not, however, legally impose the practice on his priests as this would be to attempt to introduce a novelty.

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Follow-up: Singing the Gospel

In response to our comments regarding singing the Gospel (see April 16), a priest wrote: «I am near tone-deaf but would love to sing the Gospel at least for Christmas and Easter. Is there a very simple version for clergy in my unfortunate situation? Otherwise we would be introducing a severe penance to the congregation at an inappropriate time in the liturgical calendar.»

In principle all chants for the Gospel should be fairly simple. In fact Pope St. Gregory the Great forbade deacons from singing the elaborate and fairly free psalm melodies and restricted them to the simple tones of the Gospel so as not to be showy in the liturgy. He said that the cantor at the service of the altar irritates God by his customs even though he (the cantor) fascinates the people with his melodies.

However, if one is incapable of maintaining even these simple chants, it is better either to ask for help from another cleric or refrain from causing undue pain and suffering. It would be a pity if people were to say that the priest was trying in every sense of the word.

Related to this a reader from Melbourne, Australia, asked about the Alleluia: «When I was growing up I remember the whole congregation singing or reciting the Alleluia (or Lenten chant), then the lector or psalmist or cantor would read or sing the prescribed verse (or sometimes a choir would sing it) and then everyone would sing or recite the Alleluia again. The new practice, which is apparently now the more or less accepted norm in most parishes, is that the whole congregation sings or recites both the verse and the Alleluia. I am not entirely comfortable with this practice and am reluctant to join in the verse, but I am not sure if my reluctance is not misplaced. My understanding is the GIRM (#62, quoted in your reply) indicates that the
verse is reserved to the cantor or choir and I suppose, by extension, to the lector or psalmist if it is recited. Am I being too scrupulous about this? Am I too literal in my reading of the GIRM or is the option described above indicated in another document which I do not know about?»

I would say that both forms are entirely acceptable, in accordance with the community’s ability to sing. If the community is capable of singing the entire verse, then it is preferable. If the community is capable of singing only the Alleluia but a cantor is able to sing the verse, then this should be preferred to the whole community reciting the verse.

In other words, the solution which allows for the most singing is to be preferred.

The very elaborate Gregorian Alleluias for feasts were composed to be sung by the entire choir (or monastic community) and so the singing of the complete Alleluia is certainly rooted in tradition.

These Alleluias may still be used but require a well-trained choir or community to execute them.

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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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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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