Liturgy Q&A: Responsibility for Liturgical Laws All Have a Role, Especially the Bishop

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.  Q: What is the authority to carry out the liturgy? In our Vietnamese Church, the liturgical […]

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

 Q: What is the authority to carry out the liturgy? In our Vietnamese Church, the liturgical committee is only responsible for advising and guiding. Whether or not the liturgical laws are observed is solely up to the priests. If they like it, they do it, but if they don’t like it, they don’t do it. According to the Vietnamese way of thinking, what works in the past is good — they don’t like changes. The bishop does not put much attention to liturgy because there is no direction from the episcopal conference. Accountability is nonexistent. So who will be responsible for the implementation of the liturgical laws, Father? — J.T., Nam Dinh, Vietnam

A: This published question is a first from the northern region of Vietnam. The essence of the question is, Who is responsible for implementing liturgical laws?

On the one hand this is fairly simple. Every liturgical actor is responsible for implementing liturgical laws which should be carried out, not as a mechanical execution of external rules, but as an internal means of offering worship to the Almighty.

Therefore, everybody, from the faithful in the pew, readers, acolytes, other ministers, deacons and priests should faithfully carry out the rites in accordance with the liturgical books. Nobody, not even a priest, may change anything prescribed in the rituals, for to do so is to deprive the faithful of their right to participate in a Catholic celebration.

However, there are many areas where the books allow for initiative and freedom. For example, choosing votive celebrations on weekdays, composing prayers of the faithful, determining what is sung and by whom, the degree of solemnity with which a given celebration is carried out and similar things. In these cases the pastor, or even the celebrant, has the final say although he may have the benefit of a parish liturgy team to help him prepare and organize the celebrations.

Even though liturgical laws are primarily pastoral, they are still laws, and as such have regulatory and disciplinary authorities. First and foremost, this is the local bishop. The instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) says of the bishop:

“1. The Diocesan Bishop, High Priest of his Flock

“[19.] The diocesan Bishop, the first steward of the mysteries of God in the particular Church entrusted to him, is the moderator, promoter and guardian of her whole liturgical life. For ‘the Bishop, endowed with the fullness of the Sacrament of Order, is «the steward of the grace of the high Priesthood,» especially in the Eucharist which he either himself offers or causes to be offered, by which the Church continually lives and grows.’

“[20.] Indeed, the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church is found whenever the rites of Mass are celebrated, especially in the Cathedral Church, ‘with the full and active participation of the entire holy People of God, joined in one act of prayer, at one altar at which the Bishop presides,’ surrounded by his presbyterate with the Deacons and ministers. Furthermore, ‘every lawful celebration of the Eucharist is directed by the Bishop, to whom is entrusted the office of presenting the worship of the Christian religion to the Divine Majesty and ordering it according to the precepts of the Lord and the laws of the Church, further specified by his own particular judgment for the Diocese.’

“[21.] It pertains to the diocesan Bishop, then, ‘within the limits of his competence, to set forth liturgical norms in his Diocese, by which all are bound.’ Still, the Bishop must take care not to allow the removal of that liberty foreseen by the norms of the liturgical books so that the celebration may be adapted in an intelligent manner to the Church building, or to the group of the faithful who are present, or to particular pastoral circumstances in such a way that the universal sacred rite is truly accommodated to human understanding.

“[22.] The Bishop governs the particular Church entrusted to him, and it is his task to regulate, to direct, to encourage, and sometimes also to reprove; this is a sacred task that he has received through episcopal Ordination, which he fulfills in order to build up his flock in truth and holiness. He should elucidate the inherent meaning of the rites and the liturgical texts, and nourish the spirit of the Liturgy in the Priests, Deacons and lay faithful so that they are all led to the active and fruitful celebration of the Eucharist, and in like manner he should take care to ensure that the whole body of the Church is able to grow in the same understanding, in the unity of charity, in the diocese, in the nation, and in the world.

“[23.] The faithful ‘should cling to the Bishop as the Church does to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ does to the Father, so that all may be in harmonious unity, and that they may abound to the glory of God.’ All, including members of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life as well as those of all ecclesial associations and movements of any kind, are subject to the authority of the diocesan Bishop in all liturgical matters, apart from rights that have been legitimately conceded. To the diocesan Bishop, therefore, falls the right and duty of overseeing and attending to Churches and oratories in his territory in regard to liturgical matters, and this is true also of those which are founded by members of the above-mentioned institutes or under their direction, provided that the faithful are accustomed to frequent them.

“[24.] It is the right of the Christian people themselves that their diocesan Bishop should take care to prevent the occurrence of abuses in ecclesiastical discipline, especially as regards the ministry of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and devotion to the Saints.

“[25.] Commissions as well as councils or committees established by the Bishop to handle ‘the promotion of the Liturgy, sacred music and art in his diocese’ should act in accordance with the intentions and the norms of the Bishop; they must rely on his authority and his approval so that they may carry out their office in a suitable manner and so that the effective governance of the Bishop in his diocese will be preserved. As regards all these sorts of bodies and other entities and all undertakings in liturgical matters, there has long been the need for the Bishops to consider whether their working has been fruitful thus far, and to consider carefully which changes or improvements should be made in their composition and activity so that they might find new vigor. It should be borne in mind that the experts are to be chosen from among those whose soundness in the Catholic faith and knowledge of theological and cultural matters are evident.”

Later on, Chapter VIII of the document, «Remedies,» illustrates how the bishop should address abuses:

“4. The Diocesan Bishop

“[176.] The diocesan Bishop, ‘since he is the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, is to strive constantly so that Christ’s faithful entrusted to his care may grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments, and that they may know and live the Paschal Mystery.’ It is his responsibility, ‘within the limits of his competence, to issue norms on liturgical matters by which all are bound.’

“[177.] ‘Since he must safeguard the unity of the universal Church, the Bishop is bound to promote the discipline common to the entire Church and therefore to insist upon the observance of all ecclesiastical laws. He is to be watchful lest abuses encroach upon ecclesiastical discipline, especially as regards the ministry of the Word, the celebration of the Sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and the veneration of the Saints.’

“[178.] Hence whenever a local Ordinary or the Ordinary of a religious Institute or of a Society of apostolic life receives at least a plausible notice of a delict or abuse concerning the Most Holy Eucharist, let him carefully investigate, either personally or by means of another worthy cleric, concerning the facts and the circumstances as well as the imputability.

“[179.] Delicts against the faith as well as graviora delicta [serious offenses] committed in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other Sacraments are to be referred without delay to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which ‘examines [them] and, if necessary, proceeds to the declaration or imposition of canonical sanctions according to the norm of common or proper law.’

“[180.] Otherwise the Ordinary should proceed according to the norms of the sacred canons, imposing canonical penalties if necessary, and bearing in mind in particular that which is laid down by canon 1326. If the matter is serious, let him inform the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.»

From the above, it is clear that the caring for the liturgy is among the bishop’s principal responsibilities. He may work through a diocesan liturgical commission but, as mentioned above in No. 25, the final responsibility falls upon him.

It is true that the bishops’ conference has some legislative and administrative authority for the whole country. Redemptionis Sacramentum in Chapter I stipulates the following regarding the conference:

“2. The Conference of Bishops

“[26.] The same holds for those commissions of this kind which have been established by the Conference of Bishops in accordance with the will of the Council, commissions whose members consist of Bishops who are clearly distinguished from their expert helpers. Where the number of members of a Conference of Bishops is not sufficient for the effective establishment of a liturgical commission from among their own number, then a council or group of experts should be named, always under the presidency of a Bishop, which is to fulfill the same role insofar as possible, albeit without the name of ‘liturgical commission.’

“[27.] As early as the year 1970, the Apostolic See announced the cessation of all experimentation as regards the celebration of Holy Mass and reiterated the same in 1988. Accordingly, individual Bishops and their Conferences do not have the faculty to permit experimentation with liturgical texts or the other matters that are prescribed in the liturgical books. In order to carry out experimentation of this kind in the future, the permission of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is required. It must be in writing, and it is to be requested by the Conference of Bishops. In fact, it will not be granted without serious reason. As regards projects of inculturation in liturgical matters, the particular norms that have been established are strictly and comprehensively to be observed.

“[28.] All liturgical norms that a Conference of Bishops will have established for its territory in accordance with the law are to be submitted to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments for the recognitio, without which they lack any binding force.”

Thus the bishops’ conference and its liturgy or divine worship commission have certain responsibilities for the whole country. For example, the conference must approve all translations of the official books as well as propose new texts. It may propose adaptations of the calendar for the country. It may propose norms regarding the posture adopted by the faithful such as when to kneel or stand. These kinds of norms require the approval of the Holy See.

Other elements may be approved by the bishops without necessarily requiring that they have the full force of law. For example, in some countries, the bishops’ commission on liturgy approves the music to be used for the ordinary parts of the Mass (Gloria, Sanctus, etc.). Some also have an approved national repertoire of liturgical songs which everybody should know even though each bishop can approve other songs. These commissions can also give guidelines on how to apply universal law in the national context.

However, the bishops’ conference does not usually get involved in disciplinary matters which are the province of the local bishop with respect to his diocese and, in grave cases, directly between the bishop and the Holy See. With respect to abuses of liturgical law and the action of the Holy See, Redemptionis Sacramentum says:


“[169.] Whenever an abuse is committed in the celebration of the sacred Liturgy, it is to be seen as a real falsification of Catholic Liturgy. St. Thomas wrote, ‘the vice of falsehood is perpetrated by anyone who offers worship to God on behalf of the Church in a manner contrary to that which is established by the Church with divine authority, and to which the Church is accustomed.’

“[170.] In order that a remedy may be applied to such abuses, ‘there is a pressing need for the biblical and liturgical formation of the people of God, both pastors and faithful,’ so that the Church’s faith and discipline concerning the sacred Liturgy may be accurately presented and understood. Where abuses persist, however, proceedings should be undertaken for safeguarding the spiritual patrimony and rights of the Church in accordance with the law, employing all legitimate means.

“[171.] Among the various abuses there are some which are objectively graviora delicta or otherwise constitute grave matters, as well as others which are nonetheless to be carefully avoided and corrected. Bearing in mind everything that is treated especially in Chapter I of this Instruction, attention should be paid to what follows. […]

“[174.] Furthermore, those actions that are brought about which are contrary to the other matters treated elsewhere in this Instruction or in the norms established by law are not to be considered of little account, but are to be numbered among the other abuses to be carefully avoided and corrected.

“[175.] The things set forth in this Instruction obviously do not encompass all the violations against the Church and its discipline that are defined in the canons, in the liturgical laws and in other norms of the Church for the sake of the teaching of the Magisterium or sound tradition. Where something wrong has been committed, it is to be corrected according to the norm of law. […]

“5. The Apostolic See

“[181.] Whenever the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments receives at least a plausible notice of a delict or an abuse concerning the Most Holy Eucharist, it informs the Ordinary so that he may investigate the matter. When the matter turns out to be serious, the Ordinary should send to the same Dicastery as quickly as possible a copy of the acts of the inquiry that has been undertaken, and where necessary, the penalty imposed.

“[182.] In more difficult cases the Ordinary, for the sake of the good of the universal Church in the care for which he too has a part by virtue of his sacred Ordination, should not fail to handle the matter, having previously taken advice from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. For its part, this Congregation, on the strength of the faculties given to it by the Roman Pontiff, according to the nature of the case, will assist the Ordinary, granting him the necessary dispensations or giving him instructions or prescriptions, which he is to follow diligently.

“6. Complaints Regarding Abuses in Liturgical Matters

“[183.] In an altogether particular manner, let everyone do all that is in their power to ensure that the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist will be protected from any and every irreverence or distortion and that all abuses be thoroughly corrected. This is a most serious duty incumbent upon each and everyone, and all are bound to carry it out without any favoritism.

“[184.] Any Catholic, whether Priest or Deacon or lay member of Christ’s faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. It is fitting, however, insofar as possible, that the report or complaint be submitted first to the diocesan Bishop. This is naturally to be done in truth and charity.”

Of course, all the above procedures will be unnecessary if all those who take part in the liturgy seek to do so for God’s glory and according to what has been lawfully established in each country’s liturgical books.

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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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