“So long as its valid, we can do what we want! Right?”

Some people think that so long as Mass is valid, that the minimal elements of valid matter and valid form are used, we ought to be able to change all the other elements to conform to the needs or goals or even sentimentality of this community in this moment.

"Changes in the liturgy take on a momentous significance for the believer, for they are changes in his experience of God – changes, if you wish to be Feurbachian, in God himself.  The question whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or with three split a Church.  So can the question whether of not to use the Book of Common Prayer or the Tridentine Mass." 

Joseph Ratzinger, Preface to A. Reid’s The Organic Development of Liturgy (2nd ed.  – San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005, p. 11).
What we do at Mass is of profound importance.  All the elements matter.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Kevin B. says:

    I’m often asked, “Why do you get so hung up on the mere externals of the Mass?” And I always reply, “Let’s imagine for a moment that the pope were to announce the Ordinary Form was abrogated and the TLM was to become the norm throughout the universal Church again. Would that upset you? If so, why are you getting so hung up on the mere externals of the Mass?”

    I say that to help them understand that there really isn’t such a thing as a “mere external” in the Mass. Everything means something, and to change any of it changes our understanding of the Mass. Even if it’s something as apparently innocuous as saying “Good morning” before making the Sign of the Cross.

  2. robtbrown says:


    That is the perfect answer.

  3. Brian Day says:

    The question whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or with three split a Church.

    I’d love to read the story behind that.

  4. Random Friar says:

    I don’t understand. The Mass is a remembrance of our Lord’s perfect love and obedience to the will of the Father, even unto death on a Cross. It is not about doing “the minimum.”

    Why would you want to celebrate Mass as disobediently as you can “get away with?”

  5. FrCharles says:

    I was actually taught this “doctrine” somewhere along the way. As long as it’s valid, everything’s fine. Only those thing that bind under “grave” obligation are actually required. Based on this doctrine, we were able to use illicit matter for Mass in a habitual way, and when we were ordained deacons we were taught that we didn’t really have to pray the whole of the LoH each day.

  6. Alice says:

    He’s referring to the schism in the Russian Orthodox Church between the Old Believers and the modern Russian Orthodox in the 1660’s. One of the bones of contention in the schism is the manner in which the Sign of the Cross is made. Traditionally, Russians had made the Sign of the Cross with 2 fingers, which represented the 2 natures of Christ, but Patriarch Nikon insisted that the Russians make the Sign of the Cross in the Greek style using 3 fingers instead. Although the Russian Orthodox Church lifted the anathemas against the Old Believers in the 1970’s, the schism is by no means over.

  7. Huxtaby says:

    I spent some time in the compnay of a religious Sister this morning who was quite adamant that the Church is a democracy and that everyone has a voice – and that was why she signed the petition against the proposed new translations. I must note that she was a sister of a certain age! We must remember that some of these people still have quite a bit of life in them yet.

  8. How are we loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength if we just stick to the bare minimum? In what sense are we not offending God by taking the attitude that the absolute bare minimum is good enough (even assuming that what some people think is the bare minimum really is the bare minimum)? The absolute, rock-bottom minimum is never good enough when it comes to a fellow human being whom we love; yet we think it’s good enough for the God Who created us.

    St. Thomas More raised a related point in his excellent Dialogue Concerning Heresies. He talks about the fact that we need not worry about whether a priest is in a state of mortal sin, because his Masses are valid even if he is. But in answering the question whether it would not be better to have more Masses, even though many priests might be offering Mass in a state of mortal sin, he says not, however it may benefit us to have more Masses; because these Masses are sacrilegious and therefore offensive to God, and we ought never to wish for more of something that offends God.

  9. Maltese says:

    “One cannot manufacture a liturgical movement but one can contribute to its development…. J.A. Jungman, one of the truly great liturgists of our century, defined the liturgy of his time, such as it could be understood in the light of historical research, as ‘a liturgy which is the fruit of development.’ … What happened after the Council was something else entirely: in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it — as in a manufacturing process — with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product. [Gamber] showed us the multiple forms and paths of liturgical development; as a man who looked at history from the inside, he saw in this development and its fruit the intangible reflection of the eternal liturgy, that which is not the object of our action but which can continue marvelously to mature and blossom if we unite ourselves intimately with its mystery.”

    –Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in the preface to Klaus Gamber’s “The Reform of the Roman Liturgy,” French Edition.

    Today, throughout the world, we are see the horrific rot the concillium wrought by trying to smash such a beautiful, sublime, Godly thing as the Traditional Latin Mass is. Thank God our Pope is taking measures to restore it!

  10. JonM says:

    I recently had the chance to see the film Thomas à Becket, a film that took a few liberties with the great saint (it is my understanding that as Archdeacon he was worldly, but did not engage in the sexual indulgences of his Norman compatriots. Oh, and he was most likely not a Saxon.)

    St. Thomas Becket died a martyr’s death to defend the right of – get this – the Church retaining its own courts for the clergy and Canterbury’s right to crown the King of the English. Today, the bishop of DC will not refuse Communion to those in objective, serious sin. But St. Thomas Becket presented himself to defend an important right of the Church that today would probably be laughed at in [neocon] conservative Catholic.

    It was (and is) important because if secular courts have judgement over the clergy, that would imply that the Church is answerable to the State, which of course it is not.

    So absolutely, things that might be called ‘minor’ today probably have much deeper and serious considerations. This goes for sins and for liturgical disciplines. I mean, facing the altar rather than the people has enormous and obvious symbolic and practical consideration.

    [blockquote]I’m often asked, “Why do you get so hung up on the mere externals of the Mass?” And I always reply, “Let’s imagine for a moment that the pope were to announce the Ordinary Form was abrogated and the TLM was to become the norm throughout the universal Church again. Would that upset you? If so, why are you getting so hung up on the mere externals of the Mass?”

    I warn you, I will borrow this!

    While on the issue of the film about the great English/Norman saint…

    Please say prayers for Richard Burton. His portrayal of St. Thomas Becket was so profound that I have said two Rosaries for him.

  11. Fr_Reif says:

    Why should the Mass, in all its parts and elements, not be added to or taken away from: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Simple as that. Cafeteria Catholicism wants Cafeteria Liturgy, I’m afraid. The Faithful, however, have the right to authentic Liturgy, as given to us by the Church, and should settle for nothing less. Please encourage your priests to be faithful to the Missal. Do the red, and say the black…

  12. catholicmidwest says:

    It seems to me that most people, even priests, aren’t at all sure what’s essential, within and beyond the rubrics, and what’s not. That’s the problem. Perhaps it will never be knowable by them. Therefore, they must understand that they will always be risking clumping the desire for their own preferences all up together with (or against, as the case might be) the essentialities, and that this may be unavoidable–part of the human condition. This is why it is important to:
    a) follow the rubrics, as given by the Holy See, which has rightfully been given the authority to determine them the best they can be on this earth, whether you particularly like them or not,
    b) take some time to understand and appreciate the situation I just recounted,
    c) try to understand what God has given us in revelation at a higher level, by means of scripture, education and growth of faith through earnest and honest prayer.

    (There is more to being Catholic, even Christian, than getting into one’s liturgical and cultural “happy places.” I believe that true realization of this would be unacceptably shocking to at least half the Catholic world, and this is why they behave like they do on the street, but there you have it.)

  13. AM says:

    I think the underlying meaning of “why do you get so hung up…” is “why does Mass have to have to many rules — why shouldn’t we all just do what seems best to us?”. That question represents a common view, which we could answer — but not with the “what if” proposed by Kevin B. For that suggests that the asker has his own rules and they’re revealed as different from the askee’s.

  14. catholicmidwest says:

    I’m not so sure, AM. Both sides of the argument are “hung up…,” as you put it. I learned even before I was received into the church in 1985 that Catholics as a group are incredibly and preposterously touchy on some subjects and *all of them* would go ballistic at the mere mention of some words (like the mere word “latin”), even if their arguments were totally at odds with one another. Go figure.

    Rather, the idea is that the Church has a structure and a source of authority which even CNN knows is Rome. They, not individuals out in catholic-land, are tasked with defining the mass–words, meaning and essence–as tradition and the deposit of faith require.

    I also think that Catholics get so wound up with this stuff that they forget the rest of the responsibilities of being Christian. Some of the most upright-tight folks are the ones you most have to avoid in the parking lot so as to avoid becoming human road kill.

  15. catholicmidwest says:

    And believe me, both sides of the orthodoxy argument each have their share of upright-tight folks.

  16. rinkevichjm says:

    Kevin B’s attempt is by no means a perfect answer: The counter reply is what if the Pope were to order all the Latin Liturgies in every form to be replaced by the Divine Liturgy of St James (which has long been considered the oldest liturgy in the church). I think almost every one would squirm.

    Random Friar is on the better track: for every liturgy in the Church there is an ideal perfect way in which it should be celebrated so that our offering may be perfect in God’s eyes. Any thing that deviates from that reduces the perfection (quality) of our offering.

  17. JosephMary says:

    I cannot tell you how many times I contacted my long distance spiritual director to ask if that, that or the other that I experienced at Mass was valid. Inevitably it was ‘illicit but valid’. And I cannot tell you how many times I had to suffer through many forms of liturgical abuses, all the while repeating to myself: illicit but valid. Don’t the celebrants know that the Mass is no one’s personal property to to with as they please? In the end, I moved to a new diocese. Still some abuses but our interim pastor is cleaning them out. At least we can get the novus Ordo according to norm. It is still the N.O. though…

  18. aquinasadmirer says:

    How does someone (who is a lay person) “instruct” a celebrant that the rubrics are being violated? Any suggestions?

    I live in a diocese where at Christmas Eve mass, celebrated by the Bishop himself, had a liturgical dancer prance down the aisle, and dance through the sanctuary. Mass immediately followed.

    This is the situation I find myself in. Any advice is welcome.

  19. Supertradmom says:

    Do we not get concerned about externals in our families? If someone forget a birthday card, or if one does not say “goodnight”politely? Externals cannot be separated from the internal life-but that disjunction is one of the great heresies of our time. One can believe something privately, like abortion, but not stand up for it publicly. Or one can be a show of morality, but trespassing through the Ten Commandments “privately”. Such is relativism.

    The tyranny of novelty is nothing less the the endless movement of sin, such as in Dante’s Inferno, when people must constantly move or being carried along in the wind for all eternity, for their grave sins.

  20. Supertradmom says:

    PS and there are those who think novelty and spontaneity are superior to form and tradition-sense and sensibility, to steal an idea from another blog here….decorum is not valued any more in our do what you feel like doing society…

  21. ssoldie says:

    The word is “organic” not fabricated”.

  22. ssoldie says:

    may I also quote from ‘The Organic Development of the Liturgy’, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Now Pope Benedict XVI, The Popes authority is bound to the Traditionof Faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not manufactured by the authorities. Even the Pope can only be a humble servant of it’s lawful development and abiding integrity and idenity.
    The authority of the Pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.
    ” Even the supreme authority in the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy”….pg 307

  23. catholicmidwest says:

    Is decorum the overriding rule for determining how the liturgy should be celebrated, Supertradmom? Who says? And why? And who decides exactly what decorum is and how much of it is needed?

  24. Luke says:

    Lex orandi, lex credendi.

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