De Defectibus reconsidered: priests learning from the past, going to the heart of Mass

Last year I posted a version of this entry.  In light of some of our recent discussions here, I present it anew.

Recently I have posted Vatican II and the Ordinary Form v. Extraordinary Form.  Good discussion is going on.

As I read through some comments, it came to my mind that, when the suggestion is made that the Novus Ordo is more open to abuse while we all know that the TLM was before Council also celebrated poorly at times, a key remains the priest and his ars celebrandi.

The "art of celebrating" is vital no matter which book is used.

Before the Council is was clear in moral theology that violation of the rubrics could be at least a venial sin.  Since the Council this point has been deemphasized… to our everlasting shame and detriment.  If the idea was to relieve some of the possible scrupulosity on the part of some overly wound up priests,

And so…

As we come now to the 3rd anniversary of the implementation of Summorum Pontificum (14 Sept) it is good to review some of the motives behind Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio, his "emancipation proclamation" for the older, traditional forms of the Roman Rite.

Pope Benedict is concerned that there had been a break in the organic development of the Church’s worship.  This rupture in the Church’s worship life has affected every other aspect of the Church, how Catholic perceive themselves and how they act in the world.

One of the reasons why the Holy Father issued Summorum Pontificum was to effect a course correction in the way the newer, post-Conciliar forms of liturgy. 

He foresees that side by side celebrations of the older form will have a "gravitational effect" on the way the newer forms are celebrated. 

This is, in fact, what is taking place, especially as younger priests – free from the baggage of the 60’s-80’s – are learning about the older forms which they never experienced in their youth.  Through a familiarity with the older forms, they are learning more about what Holy Mass is, what they are doing at the altar and who they are as priests.

This is part of what I call Pope Benedict’s "Marshall Plan" for the Church.  After the devastation WWII the USA helped to rebuild Europe in order to foster trade and support a bulwark against Communism.  In the wake of the devastation caused by a hermeneutic of discontinuity after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict is trying to revitalize our Catholic identity as a bulwark against the dictatorship of relativism.

Younger priests, and lay people as well, are absorbing something of the wisdom of past centuries.

Say a person wants to learn about the older form of Holy Mass, the TLM.  He picks up some old books – maybe found in used bookstores (such at Loome’s) or maybe the seminary library or the basement of a rectory.  Maybe he orders the reprint of Fortescue-O’Connell, or Reid’s new verison of the same, or an older edition of the same and starts to read. He peruses a volume such as O’Connell’s The Celebration of Mass (1959).

Right away he discovers a very different attitude about the way Mass is celebrated. 

Once upon a time, the Missale Romanum itself contained directives, in the section called De defectibus, which indicated that some defects could be either venial or mortal sins.  That is, there was a moral judgment about some defects.  This section, still present in the 1962 Missale Romanum, was removed from the post-Conciliar editions of the Missale Romanum. That is to say, it is not in any edition of the Novus Ordo. 

The argument was, if I understand correctly, that since that was an issue of moral theology, the distinction did not belong in the liturgical book, the Missale Romanum.  I think this is one of the reasons why experimentation began to deform the way the Novus Ordo was celebrated. 

Once "changing the rite" was separated from "sin" in the minds of priests and future priests … the floodgates opened

This took place in an environment in which there was at times an overly rigid approach to liturgical rites, perhaps inculcated by instructors with jansenistic tendencies.  There was, subsequently, a sharp backlash in the minds of some priests against any rubrics.

Back to my point….

If you look in pre-Conciliar editions of manuals designed to help seminarians and priests learn how to say Mass, to train seminarians and priests in the art and concrete crafts of the Church’s worship, you usually find a chapter on defects. 

A review of these old books can be very useful today. 

Reading these old books especially through the lens of Pope Benedict’s Sacramentum caritatis (which presents us with a reflection on the priest’s ars celebrandi) could be of enormous practical use to seminarians and younger priests today.

Let’s have a look at a snippet of O’Connell’s The Celebration of Mass (1959) focusing on the section which concerns… (my emphases and comments)


10. Despite a custom to the contrary – which is expressly reprobated in the Code of Canon Law (Canon 818 [that is, the old Code, now superseded by the 1983 CIC]) – the Celebrant of Mass is "to observe accurately and devoutly the rubrics" of the Missal, "and take care not to add other ceremonies or prayers by his own authority".  Arbitrarily to change in any way – by addition, omission, or transposition – the rite of the Mass is unlawful.  So strict is the interpretation of this law that the S.R.C. [Sacred Congregation of Rites] refused to allow the Celebrant of Mass, for the purpose of gaining a rich indulgence, to pronounce, even in a low tone, the words "My Lord and my God," while looking on the Sacred Host at the Elevation, and cited Canon 818 to justify this refusal.

11. Whether the mutilation of the rite of Mass would be a grave sin, or a venial one, or no sin at all (for a sufficient cause) is discussed by the moral theologians.  Their reply is that this will depend on: (a) the motive for changing – is it due to contempt for the rubrics, to culpable ignorance of them, to gross indifference and carelessness, or from mere human frailty, like inculpable forgetfulness, or inattention, or from "devotion" of a wrong kind?  (b) The nature and extent of the change – is it one that seriously concerns the reverence due to the Blessed Eucharistic, does it occur in an important part of the Mass (important in itself or because of some extrinsic reason, such as the mystical meaning of the part), is the addition, or omission, serious because of its length?  It is regarded as grave to make even a comparatively small change in the Canon of the Mass, because of its intimate connexion with the sacrifice; and it is more serious to have omission in the ordinary parts of the Mass, the parts that occur in every, or almost every Mass, than in extraordinary parts which occur sometimes only.  Thus the omission of all the Prayers of Preparation at the foot of the altar, of the Gospel, of several of the Offertory prayers, would be regarded as a notable omission; to omit the purification of the paten (unless there were no visible participles on it) or chalice, would be a grave want of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament; to omit the addition of water to the wine in the chalice, or the Fraction of the Sacred Host, or the commingling of the two Sacred Species, would be a serious omission because of the mystical meaning of these rites.  But to omit the Gloria, or Creed, or prayers of commemoration, or the last Gospel would not, ordinarily, be regarded as a grave omission.


12. Arbitrarily to add prayers or ceremonies, with the intention of introducing a new rite, or to a notable extent (especially prayers not found in the Missal), would be a grave violation of liturgical law. To add the Gloria (on days when it should be omitted), or collects not allowed by the rubrics, or ejaculatory prayers would not, ordinarily, be grave.  In general, private (vocal) prayers may not be introduced into the rite of Mass, except where the rubrics provide for it, e.g., at each memento, after the reception of the Sacred Hosts.


13. The directives of De Defectibus do not, generally speaking, encourage the repairing of nonessential omissions (cf. e.g., V, 2). If the Celebrant should omit anything belonging to the validity, or the integrity (e.g., the Offertory), of the rite of Mass, he must, of course, repair the omission.  If an omission be trivial, it need not be supplied, and may not be, if it is not noticed at once.  If an omission be notable (though not concerned with the validity or integrity of the sacrifice) and can be easily made good – because, e.g., it is noticed almost at once – and without causing scandal, it should be.  Thus, if the Celebrant omitted, in error, the Gloria, or a commemoration, or the Creed, he must not interrupt the Mass to repair the omission; but he may, indeed should, repair it, if he adverts to it almost immediately.

The book goes on to describe defects in the matter for Mass, the bread and wine, what is necessary for validity, how to determine of the bread and wine are still good to use for Mass, what to do if there is some problem during Mass.  It describes defects of form, that is, in the words for consecration, and also defects in intention.  There is a section on the defect of the state of soul for Mass and in bodily preparation.  What to do in the face of interruptions in the celebration of Mass such as if the celebrant is taken ill or even dies.  What to do if there are accidents with the Host or Precious Blood. … You get the idea.  I have written about some of these points in a humorous way here.

This is all very useful.  Just the other day I had a phone call from a younger priest who discovered that – for reasons I must omit – he unwittingly consecrated a chalice of mainly water with a little wine.  he wasn’t sure what do to.  He was not culpable in this situation, of course.  But priests need to know what to do.  It is important for them to know which things are grave issues, which must be corrected, what can be left to slide.  It is important to know the rite well from within. 

In my opinion, learning the older form of Holy Mass teaches this in a way that learning the newer form does not.

The point is not – as some claim – to make the celebrant nervous or scrupulous in an unhealthy way.  Rather, it conveys something of a deeper attitude about what Holy Mass is, about how important it is.  It reveals something as well of the intimate connections which exist between the Sacrifice, the rites, the matter, form and the priest himself.

Even though this De defectibus section seems to have been dropped from post-Conciliar editions of these famous manuals, it is important for every young priest and seminarian to have read this chapter at least once. 

There are within some very practical pointers, of course, but reading this section also brings a priest more intimately into the heart of who he is as a priest at the altar of Sacrifice.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. It sounds like it’s not a bad read for the laity, either. It’s good to know that there are rules and principles about these things, and that we’re not just expected to grope and flail around in the dark.

    To know how bad a change or omission is — and to see that some are not horribly irreparably bad, even though you don’t want them to happen — removes a certain amount of worry and fear that comes with the unknown. I feel reassured and strengthened.

  2. Given that most of us laity have witnessed either unfortunate accidents or deliberate changes, it’s good to know about these principles, is what I mean.

  3. Andrew says:

    Can any priest honestly say that he didn’t know that he was supposed to follow the rubrics? As an accountant I need to know a lot of rules. How hard can it be for a priest to realize that he’s supposed to follow the text printed in front of him? This is big news to somebody?

  4. Andrew: Accounts have an immediate bottom line. The bottom line for priests is not so immediate.

  5. Henry Edwards says:

    Father Z: Accounts have an immediate bottom line. The bottom line for priests is not so immediate.

    It can be pretty immediate in the case of a priest who a priest who decides to say a Mass in Latin, ad orientem, or does any one of several other things consistent with the rubrics. It sometimes seems to be egregious violations of the rubrics for which the bottom line is less immediate.

  6. Mitchell NY says:

    Just like the EF Mass, its’ gestures and structure..Everything has a reason…

  7. Andy Lucy says:

    “After the devastation WWII the USA helped to rebuild Europe in order to foster trade and support a bulwark against Communion.”

    Not to pick nits… but shouldn’t that read “communism” instead of “communion?”

    However, your point is straight to the heart of today’s dilemna, I feel. It would seem that many priests today were not sufficiently endowed with knowledge of the actual, proper role in the Mass during their priestly formation. Here in the western KY hinterlands,even, we are seeing a somewhat more reverential attitude on the part of the clergy. Then again, that may have something to do with our new bishop, as well. lol

  8. Gail F says:

    “This is, in fact, what is taking place, especially as younger priests – free from the baggage of the 60’s-80’s – are learning about the older forms which they never experienced in their youth. Through a familiarity with the older forms, they are learning more about what Holy Mass is, what they are doing at the altar and who they are as priests.”

    That is exactly how I felt earlier this year when I attended a solemn pontifical high mass for the first (and only) time. I wondered if I would have some kind of “conversion experience” and never want to darken the door of a parish church again. Instead, I found that I appreciated my regular parish mass the next day much more, because for the first time I experienced what it was supposed to be doing, but in a different way. I think that exposure to the 1962 mass can only be good for the new mass, whether it is celebrated in English or Latin. It’s one thing to read about something you have never seen or heard, it is another thing to experience it! And if I felt this way as a laywoman, I can only imagine the revelation it could be to a priest. The mass as it is currently celebrated could be so much better! But when you give people leave to keep “improving” without any real grounding in what they’re supposed to be doing, what do you think will happen???

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