Muslims' Views in Lieu of a Homily

And More on Latin

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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: During our sacred liturgy on Pentecost Sunday, in place of the homily, two leaders from the local mosque were invited to “join us in prayer in light of the example given by our Holy Father.” The first gentleman shared his views on God and how we are all searching for peace and how it can be found only in God. He explained that Muslims believe in the same God as Christians and that they too believe that “Jesus was a prophet, like the great Mohammed.” The second gentleman proceeded to read various selections from the Quran in English and then sung those same verses in Arabic. He read several passages about Mary as well. At the end of their “prayers for peace,” the woman who introduced them explained to the congregation, and I quote, that “Our Muslim brothers would now be leaving the Liturgy of the Word as we prepare to recite the Creed which further isolates us from them.” I do not take issue with Muslims being invited and present at our holy Mass as observers. My question is, was this a grave offense to have them speak in place of the homily, read from the Quran, and state (several times) that they too “believe that Jesus was a great prophet”? I personally felt a prisoner in my own house and felt ashamed because I did not have the courage of the early martyrs to stand and say, “Jesus was not JUST a prophet but the Son of GOD.” I was horrified to hear our Creed be referred to in our own house as a point of “isolation.” I feel our Creed is not a point of isolation, but truth that should not be apologized for, just because we have visitors from another faith with us. Am I overreacting? — H.C., Orlando, Florida

A: While our Holy Father has gone to great lengths to promote mutual understanding and acceptance among people of different faiths, he, like his predecessors, has made every effort to avoid any religious syncretism, and I do not recall any incidence where non-Christian prayers were introduced into a Christian liturgical act of worship, much less into a Mass.

Therefore, first of all I think calling on Pope Francis’ example for this act is simply incorrect.

Second, I do not believe that the Muslim gentlemen involved in this episode would ever think of inviting a Christian minister to Friday prayers to tell his fellow Muslims that Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and God’s definitive revelation to man. In saying this I am not criticizing the Muslims for lack of reciprocity but would simply say that this would be perfectly coherent from a Muslim point of view, since allowing the Christian to say so would be tantamount to denying the central tenet of Islam itself.

I believe it should also be equally obvious to a Catholic minister that there can be no place for expounding a non-Christian religion within the context of a Christian liturgical rite.

There are certainly times and places where the explaining of a non-Christian religion can be done with mutual benefit but never in a Christian liturgical context. All Christian liturgy is a proclamation of faith, and to expound another religion is to deny the very reason for being present at the act of worship. In this sense we are not only “isolated” from Muslims by the Creed but from the moment we make the sign of the cross and proclaim the Trinity at the very beginning of Mass.

To put it plainly: Although there can and should be mutual respect and peace between them, from the standpoint of religious beliefs, Islam and Christianity are incompatible religions. There are indeed some shared values and common points of religious practice, but both religions hold as absolute truths tenets that are mutually exclusive. We can agree to disagree in a friendly manner but must accept that there can be no common ground in the matter of central religious beliefs. Only then can fruitful dialogue ensue.

In this sense we can now address the affirmations made by the Muslims during the Mass. Insofar as both faiths believe there is one God, then it is certain that we both adore the same God. From a more speculative point of view, however, some scholars would argue that the underlying concepts of the nature and attributes of the divinity are not always compatible in both religions.

Likewise, the affirmation that Muslims regard Jesus as a great prophet like Mohammed is practically meaningless for Christians.

To use another example: A Christian could tell Jews that the Christians hold Isaiah to be a great prophet. It would be a true statement. However, this does not mean that a Jew could accept the Christian belief that certain texts of Isaiah foretell the life and death of Jesus. To do so would be to deny the Jewish faith.

For Christians, Christ is the Son of God and God’s definitive revelation to man. A Christian cannot accept that Mohammed is a prophet in the Christian sense, since all prophecy ceased before Christ and necessarily led to him. Nor can Christianity give any credence to the Quran as divine Revelation, because there can be no public Revelation after the time of the apostles. To affirm otherwise would be to deny a central belief of our faith.

Finally, although it might seem to be legalese, the homily may not be omitted on such a major feast. It may not be delivered by anyone other than an ordained minister and should reflect the faith.

As the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum says:

“64. The homily, which is given in the course of the celebration of Holy Mass and is a part of the Liturgy itself, ‘should ordinarily be given by the Priest celebrant himself. He may entrust it to a concelebrating Priest or occasionally, according to circumstances, to a Deacon, but never to a layperson. In particular cases and for a just cause, the homily may even be given by a Bishop or a Priest who is present at the celebration but cannot concelebrate.’

“65. It should be borne in mind that any previous norm that may have admitted non-ordained faithful to give the homily during the eucharistic celebration is to be considered abrogated by the norm of canon 767 §1. This practice is reprobated, so that it cannot be permitted to attain the force of custom.

“66. The prohibition of the admission of laypersons to preach within the Mass applies also to seminarians, students of theological disciplines, and those who have assumed the function of those known as ‘pastoral assistants’; nor is there to be any exception for any other kind of layperson, or group, or community, or association.

“67. Particular care is to be taken so that the homily is firmly based upon the mysteries of salvation, expounding the mysteries of the Faith and the norms of Christian life from the biblical readings and liturgical texts throughout the course of the liturgical year and providing commentary on the texts of the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass, or of some other rite of the Church. It is clear that all interpretations of Sacred Scripture are to be referred back to Christ himself as the one upon whom the entire economy of salvation hinges, though this should be done in light of the specific context of the liturgical celebration. In the homily to be given, care is to be taken so that the light of Christ may shine upon life’s events. Even so, this is to be done so as not to obscure the true and unadulterated word of God: for instance, treating only of politics or profane subjects, or drawing upon notions derived from contemporary pseudo-religious currents as a source.”

* * *

Follow-up: Knowledge of Latin

There was quite a lively and diverse response to our June 10 column on understanding Latin.

One reader wrote: “My concern with the new emphasis on the use of Latin is that the assembly does not understand what is being said. What was the reason in the first place that the language of the Mass was encouraged to be in the vernacular, from
the constitution on sacred liturgy from Vatican Council II? The use of Latin seems to be depriving the assembly of full active participation. Why is the extraordinary form even being emphasized and allowed?”

From a very different stance another reader commented:

“After having read the subject, I got the impression that for you and for many people the celebration of Mass in Latin (ordinary or extraordinary form) is something a bit special and rare, reserved to some privileged people or in some specific circumstances. Wouldn’t have it been good to recall the proper place given to Latin in the liturgy as the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium recommended it (Nos. 36 and 54)?

“How is it possible that priests don’t know Latin? Is it normal? Do we have to take for granted that basic knowledge of Latin among priests in the Latin Church is just an option for some! This is why I found your response very interesting but not completely satisfying. I wish you could come back on this argument and explain also that efforts have to be realized in the Church so that priests and faithful become more acquainted with Latin. Wouldn’t it have been right to quote CIC 928 and CIC 249? And Sacramentum Caritatis, No. 62?

“’62. None of the above observations should cast doubt upon the importance of such large-scale liturgies. I am thinking here particularly of celebrations at international gatherings, which nowadays are held with greater frequency. The most should be made of these occasions. In order to express more clearly the unity and universality of the Church, I wish to endorse the proposal made by the Synod of Bishops, in harmony with the directives of the Second Vatican Council, that, with the exception of the readings, the homily and the prayer of the faithful, such liturgies could be celebrated in Latin. Similarly, the better-known prayers of the Church’s tradition should be recited in Latin and, if possible, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung. Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant.’

“We can also take note of the document of Congregation for Catholic Education published on Jan. 28, 2011, Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy. In this document (Article 60) it is recorded that Latin is a compulsory subject that has to been taught at least for two years so that the student may understand the philosophical writings (especially of Christian authors) written in this language.

“Then we have the motu proprio by which Pope Benedict XVI on Nov. 10, 2012, established the Pontifical Academy Latinitas (with reference to Optatam Totius, No. 13) that underlines the importance of Latin in relation with the liturgy.

“Already in their own time Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI have emphasized the necessary knowledge of Latin: Pope St. John XXIII in the apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientiae (Feb. 22, 1962), Pope Paul VI in the apostolic letter Summi Dei Verbum (Nov. 4, 1963) and apostolic letter Studia Latinitatis (Feb. 22, 1964). The decree Optatam Totius of the Second Vatican Council says: ‘Before beginning specifically ecclesiastical subjects, seminarians should be equipped with that humanistic and scientific training which young men in their own countries are wont to have as a foundation for higher studies. Moreover they are to acquire a knowledge of Latin which will enable them to understand and make use of the sources of so many sciences and of the documents of the Church. The study of the liturgical language proper to each rite should be considered necessary; a suitable knowledge of the languages of the Bible and of Tradition should be greatly encouraged’ (No. 13).”

I believe that our first reader is not correct in seeing a danger in an increased use of Latin. As our second correspondent correctly points out, the total abolition of Latin was never desired by Vatican II. The Church has repeatedly encouraged its continued use and has expressly desired that all the faithful should know the basic Latin responses and the simpler Gregorian chants for use at Mass.

I personally hold that Mass celebrated in Latin in the ordinary form should be widely available. I also hold that even when Mass is celebrated in the vernacular, common Latin chants such as the Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei should be used regularly as well as vernacular chants of the same texts.

It is true that for many and complex reasons, and in spite of canon law, several generations of priests have been formed with a minimal knowledge of Latin. As our second reader noted, this situation has begun to be reversed in theory and practice in recent years.

The question of the people’s understanding as a requirement for worship is a valid question to which there is no easy answer. If we claim that understanding is essential to worship, then we call into question the authenticity of the worship of countless Catholics for most of the Church’s history — including that of many canonized saints. Even today it is probable that not every member of the faithful who attends a Mass in Latin has an understanding of the language, but it is difficult to deny that they achieve authentic worship at such celebrations.

Although understanding the language is of great benefit to many, the use of the vernacular is just one level, helpful, but insufficient in itself. The liturgy is a complex tapestry interwoven with biblical references, signs and symbols. It will always need some mediation and explanation. Even if a member of the faithful understands all the words, but fails to grasp them in all their scriptural and theological richness, is he or she somehow deprived of authentic worship? I very much doubt it. God does not require a degree in theology to give him glory.

That the Church now permits several possibilities in the liturgy should be seen as an enrichment rather than something to be rejected. It is a sign that the Church is fully alive, open to new possibilities without leaving behind the good things that made her what she is today.

Finally, a priest asked: “Would you say that there is any objection to correcting the grammar in the new translation as a priest prays, for example, the opening prayer? Often, the first sentence will read, for example, ‘Lord, who has … etc.’ That is obviously poor grammar. So, if a priest instead says, ‘Lord, you have … etc.,’ would you say that it is permitted to correct the grammar? I certainly don’t believe it affects the validity of the Mass.”

I have not personally encountered this particular error in these prayers. I would say that a priest should correct an obvious error, especially if clearly due to a typo. There were a few such cases in the first printing of the new Latin Missal.

If it is a question of different usage or possible grammatical variations, then I suggest sticking to the printed text.

It would be highly unlikely to find such errors in the essential part of a sacramental rite. If a hypothetical grammatical or typing error were blatant, however, correcting it would not affect validity and in some cases might even be necessary for validity if the error changed the essential meaning of the rite.

* * *

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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