QUAERITUR: Can a bishop forbid a priest to say Mass ad orientem?

From a priest reader.  This is edited to preserve anonymity.  My emphases:

Dear Fr. Z.: I have been transferred to a new assignment.  At that time I determined to celebrate Mass ad orientem

The bishop has received letters of complaint and through the Vicar General has asked me to turn around. 

I wish to know if the Bishop has any canonical power over me on this issue?

First, thank you for trying to bring your parish to a superior way of offering worship to Almighty God.

Second, I am not a canonist.   Therefore, I consulted a canonist.

Here is the slightly edited answer I received.

Canonically, it would not seem that the bishop has the right to outright "ban" ad orientem celebrations of the liturgy. Bishop Foley in Birmingham tried to do so, and was informed by the CDWDS [Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments] that his decree lacked effect. He then altered the decree to state that no ad orientem celebration of the Mass could be televised – which the CDWDS did not overturn.
So, it would seem that the bishop could make ad orientem celebrations difficult. He could, for example, mandate that at least one Mass per day be offered versus populum[If a bishop cannot block ad orientem worship, can he really mandate versus populum?  If the priest has the right to celebrated ad orientem then how can he be told he cannot?  Interesting.] making it unwieldy in some parishes to reorient the sanctuary for each Mass.
It would be important to know – has this priest been assigned as pastor? If he’s been assigned as pastor, then it would be quite difficult for the bishop to remove him simply for celebrating Mass ad orientem – difficult, but not impossible. If he’s been assigned as pastor for the usual six-year term, and the bishop is nearing the end of his episcopate, and the pastor has significant support from his parishioners, then this might be a battle worth fighting (if so – urge him to keep a file with EVERYTHING in writing – if he has a phone call with the Vicar General, write up a letter to the VG immediately after hanging up saying, "What I heard in our phone call was XYZ. If my understanding is incorrect, please write to inform me of what you meant.").
In short, the Bishop can’t forbid what the universal law permits, but he can "regulate" it – (e.g., he couldn’t ban the use of the First Eucharistic Prayer, but he could say, for the First Sunday of Lent, I require all parishes to use the Second Eucharistic Prayer…). If he tries "regulating" too extensively, the CDWDS has demonstrated that they will happily step in if priests and faithful complain.

This is a pretty convincing answer.

The bishop cannot ban ad orientem worship but he might be able to regulate it to some degree.  I suppose this would also extend to the language of the liturgy.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. chironomo says:

    I am not a priest, and I certainly cannot imagine having to fight such a fight as this. But…. as will eventually be the case in many aspects of liturgical reform, these are fights that will HAVE to be fought by someone eventually. It is for this reason that I still contend that it is important to have definitive and forceful legislation on such things as language, texts, music, vestments, posture….certainly there will be those who disregard it, but for those who will have to to fight these fights, there needs to be clear support from the top.

  2. Future priest says:

    I wholeheartedly supoport the priest’s right to celebrate Mass ad oreintem; however, did he prepare the parish beforehand with some catechesis about praying “toward the Lord”?

  3. sacredosinaeternum says:

    Yes, indeed, catechesis is necessary for the Faithful’s understanding of the Sacred Liturgy, especially ad oreintem. The Holy Father’s teaching and example is clear: we cannot make the same mistakes of the post-concillar reforms that were rash and handled poorly. With that said, we, as individual bishops and priests, should do all we can to re-orient the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. This, in my opinion, is the single most important liturgical challenge today.

  4. R says:

    It depends on the layout of the sanctuary. My parish has the high altar intact, but we also have an NO table.

  5. We’ve got a younger priest in my Archdiocese who has turned towards the Lord. I pray for him; I pray to St. Theresa of Avila, the patron of people persecuted for their piety; I pray to St. John Vianney, whose Providence school was opposed by so many while answering others’ prayers; I pray that the Holy Spirit pours out to him a little extra of the gift of fortitude.

    It can’t be easy for him. These brave priests need our prayers.

  6. mpm says:

    Dear SIA,

    “Yes, indeed, catechesis is necessary for the Faithful’s understanding of the
    Sacred Liturgy, especially ad orientem. The Holy Father’s teaching and example
    is clear: we cannot make the same mistakes of the post-concillar reforms that
    were rash and handled poorly.”

    Wholeheartedly support what you say (personally speaking, I’m not a priest).
    And I can’t imagine that a bit of genuine authentic catechesis about almost
    ANY aspect of the Faith, especially as it relates to our worship of God in the
    Liturgy, can be anything but a “value add”, as they say today.

    Authentic genuine catechesis is another of the essentials, jettisoned by the
    immediate post VCII radicals, that needs to be added back, brick by brick.

  7. TJM says:

    I think it quite proper that a bishop require proper catechesis for a return to ad orientem celebration. That seems quite reasonable and necessary.
    Otherwise, some folks who are not schooled in sacred liturgy, might assume the priest is being arbitrary and simply acting on his own personal tastes.
    Beyond that, I would love to see a bishop who simply adamantly refuses this to occur in his diocese to stand in front of the Holy Father and tell
    His Holiness to his face why his judgment is superior to 1800 years of tradition and practice and that he knows better than the collective wisdom of Holy Church and
    that the rubrics which clearly imply ad orientem is normative do not apply in his diocese. Tom

  8. Boko says:

    I question whether much catechesis is necessary here. This is something that can be explained in under a minute, in a brief paragraph. But what is really wrong with just doing it, without giving any explanation? (Certainly answering questions later, when they’re asked.) I think that a good priest who has earned the respect of his flock could just go ad orientem one Sunday and most people would be fine with that.

    This is not to say that there would not be problems, but we need to stop pretending that the problems stem from a lack of catechesis. The problems stem from ideologues using the liturgy to push an agenda other than Holy Mother Church’s agenda. That’s a problem, to be sure, but not a problem to be solved by catechesis. Prayer and fasting, more like.

  9. Irenaeus says:

    “but we also have an NO table

    is that the zinger I think it is?

  10. TJM says:

    Boko, I am very conservative liturgically. I prefer the TLM but will attend the OF in Latin, Ad Orientem. But I was around when the “glorious” changes were shoved down our throats in the 1960s with little or no preparation. Just because it was done that way then does not justify doing it that way now. I believe there are pastors like Father Newman at St. Mary’s in Greenville, South Carolina, who spent some time preparing his congregation for the change to ad orientem. It is my understanding that it was favorably received. I doubt it would have been, but for the preparation time he took. Also,
    parishioners from one parish to another talk about these things. If one of Father Newman’s parishioners is challenged by a person from another parish
    questioning the change, Father Newman’s parishioner will have the facts to back up why they’re doing what they’re doing at St. Mary’s. Tom

  11. Romulus says:

    I think it quite proper that a bishop require proper catechesis for a return to ad orientem celebration.

    A sentence that can be read more than one way. I daresay a great many bishops could do with a bit of catechesis on the subject.

  12. Father Totton says:

    The way this is presented, Father showed up with a satchel in one hand (his 1 change of clothes) and a straw hat in the other – ala Father O’Malley – and walked right up to the sanctuary of his new assignment and began offering Mass Ad Orientem (or ad-apsidem) with no explanation whatsoever. If that is what happened, then I can understand why the bishop would respond. On the other hand, proper catechesis – thorough, but not so extensive as to take years – is necessary.

    On a similar note, we began Forty Hours last night with a Mass in the ordinary form, in the vernacular, ad-apsidem (technically speaking, ad-occidentem). No one complained, we did the same for the school Mass this morning, and it is the most natural thing in the world to celebrate Mass in this manner.

    Catechesis will soon follow that such may be done at regular parish Masses. Please pray for all our priests who are seeking to follow the Holy Father’s lead in restoring Sacred Worship.

  13. Tom, I usually agree with you, but think Boko’s got it exactly right this time. A call for needed catechesis has become a standard bureaucratic delay tactic. Like the alleged plans for two years of catechesis to get folks ready for the accurate new English translation of the OF missal. When we all know that, if it were implemented throughout the U.S. this coming Sunday, no one who understands English at all would have any difficulty with it.

    At any rate, I don’t buy the argument that as much time needs to be spent now explaining something that’s plainly right and overdue, as should have been spent in the 1960’s explaining something that was plainly wrong and precipitous. Surely, Catholics still have some instinct for right and wrong, so it naturally takes a lot longer to explain why something wrong is right, than to simply point out that what’s right is right.

  14. TJM says:

    Perhaps I should have made myself clearer. I think proper catechesis is something that can be done pretty expeditiously, in a sermon or two. But I still
    believe that an explanation should be provided, a priori, so the priest doesn’t appear arbitrary or capricious and that what he is doing is restoring to the
    Faithful an inveterate practice. That’s all. Tom

  15. RichR says:

    Prayers going out for this brave priest. I think this is the “dialog” that the HF hoped would occur as a direct result of his example at the Sistine Chapel.

  16. Boko says:

    There’s a difference between catechesis and talking someone down off a ledge. This isn’t a catechetical problem, it’s a political one.

  17. RosieC says:

    I wonder if Father offered some Catechesis on the subject before making this change. There is a generation that insists upon viewing ad orientem as “Father has his back to us.” They need to be told, firmly and often, that this is not the case. A lifetime of the wrong impression (60-70 years in many cases) needs to be consistently refuted.

    At our parish, Father carefully explained, during the homily the weekend the change was made, that this was not the case and what it all meant, liturgically and theologically. I don’t think there were any compelling letters sent to the Bishop in our case.

    Generally, our pastor has been careful to explain what was going on as he’s returned us to some more traditional forms of worship. Since many Catholics suffer from a horrible lack of Catechesis, I hope the priest who sent the original email, and any priest who is making similar changes, is doing the same thing.

  18. My late Bishop,John R.Keating,a renowned canonist who was chairman of the USBC canonical affaris committee and member of the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Interprtantion of Canonical Texts told me,”If a priest ofn this diocese told me that from now on he would only say mass ad orientem,there is nothing I could do”.

  19. TJM says:

    Yes, Father McAfee, but it sounds like your bishop had both a brain and a sense of honor. For the life of me, I can’t understand why a practice
    that has been au courant for 40 years somehow has more legitimacy than an 1800 year old practice. I was in my early teens when the “changes” were
    implemented. I said then and I will say it again now. Although certain limited modifications to the Liturgy probably made some sense, it was the height of arrogance and hubris to set aside almost wholesale 1800 years of tradition. The 1960s was truly an era of “it’s all about me.” I’m glad those days are behind us. All the best, Tom

  20. Federico says:

    Fr. Mcafee wrote: My late Bishop,John R.Keating,a renowned canonist who was chairman of the USBC canonical affaris committee and member of the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Interprtantion of Canonical Texts told me,”If a priest ofn this diocese told me that from now on he would only say mass ad orientem,there is nothing I could do”.

    Ah, but every diocese has a Siberia somewhere. Every priest must learn to choose his battles.

  21. patrick f says:

    That’s interesting news about birmingham. Foley seems at least when I have seen him on EWTN, to be more conservative. Is there more to thaty story? Perhaps he was just worried about the integrity of the mass and expressed it not in the best approach? Though I suppose that diocese is like anyother. There are pockets of “novus ordo” people, and then you have the traditional crowds (of which also have their own BEAUTIFUL Churches they celebrate in).

    Pray for bishops. Pray pray pray. We are blessed with people like Finn, Burke, and others, who are great supporters of the traditional mass. However I can only imagine how hard it is for some of these men, One wants to give the church something beautiful, but one also wants souls to stay in the church. Its a balance beam act. Thank goodness I am married. I only have 2 people to worry about (God and My wife :)) Bishops have so much more, and priests too.

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