QUAERITUR: How to prevent a priest from ad-libbing during Mass

From a reader:

I hung around after Confession today to go to daily Mass at the Cathedral, and when the priest got to the part that’s normally, “Happy are those who are called to His supper,” the priest completely re-wrote it to, “Blessed are we who are brought to communion in this church.”

My understanding is the new translation’s style of language will make it more difficult for priests to ad lib. What can the new translation do to prevent priests who don’t just ad lib or change a word, but literally completely re-write parts?

What is to prevent a priest from ad libbing?

Off the top of my head I can think of a couple things.

First, abolish the use of the vernacular.

Second, and probably more feasible, would be to place a special server, a member of the Liturgical Police, in the sanctuary with a taser gun.  Tase the priest when he starts abusing the congregation through his ad-libbing.

Perhaps the taser gun could be black and red, just as a reminder.

After that, we all know what bishops and fellow priests ought to be doing in such a priest’s regard.

Lay people might offer strong expressions of disapprobation together with suggestions that the collection might not be all the priest would desire unless he shuts up and prays, if you get my drift.

What is to prevent ad-libbing?

Who knows.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Even gently asking a priest about this can get a lay person into huge trouble (personal experience). There is no way to fix it except prayer I guess.

  2. uptoncp says:

    (It has to be said that “blessed” is an improvement on “happy”; shame about the rest, though.)

  3. rakesvines says:

    During a home Mass a priest did some ad lib comments – outside the homily. After that, I had a casual talk which included my comments about how well he said the Mass. I then asked about his bishop. At that point, his warmth and friendliness fizzled. He turned cold – probably thinking that I was going to report him. I did not plan on it; it was just serendipity. So, by accident I discovered that the mere mention of the bishop will discourage ad libbing, improvisation and other liberties taken with the liturgy.

  4. Joseph-Mary says:

    This is indeed a touchy area. I used to call my (long distance) spiritual director to see if the priest at my parish’s newest innovation at Mass rendered it invalid. So many times I would repeat to myself: “Illicit but valid”. How I disliked wondering about such things, I cannot tell you!

    But I am spoiled now as I have moved to one of the most faithful Archdioceses in the country and our Novus Ordo is, at least, taught properly and our many young priests offer totally valid and unimprovised Holy Sacrifice.

    I just returned from soem traveling and discovered that my diocese is not how it is elsewhere as I encountered the same old innovations. Faulty vesting, illicit things at Mass and so on. I am sorry for the faithful who are denied the totally proper and right celebration of the Holy Mass. I was in that situation for years and it sure feels good to not have that constant upset.

  5. Pachomius says:

    I once went to Mass in a certain place, where during the elevation (“ecce, agnus Dei”), the priest, as I recall, added in the phrase “body and blood, soul and divinity”. I was never sure if this was an option in the missal that was simply rarely used or the priest’s own interpolation, but as it didn’t appear to be doctrinally problematic (and I wasn’t sure if it was an allowed option), I didn’t feel I could criticise the priest for it. Particularly as the other priests around, even if they went with more standard options/ didn’t interpolate, frankly said a worse Mass.

  6. SonofMonica says:

    I have, in the sacrament of reconciliation, confessed the sin of anger and malice when a priest changed the words of the canon. My confessor did laugh a little and indicated that he knew the guest priest I was referring to and that he had heard about his liturgical antics on the day I was referring to. I wasn’t intending to imply anything to my confessor, who also happens to be my parish’s pastor, about saying the black and doing the red, but I would imagine if people start confessing that liturgical abuses lead them into great sin, then a thoughtul priest might think twice before trying to pull an act or put on a show at the altar.

  7. Fiat Domine says:

    That Liturgical Policeman is just too funny—thank you Father. Laughing out loud seemed to relieve the grief of my soul in suffering the knowledge of so many Liturgical abuses and not being able to immediately stop them.

  8. Andy Milam says:

    @banjo pickin girl,

    Even gently asking a priest about this can get a lay person into huge trouble (personal experience).

    At some point we have to be able to risk it. I, for one, don’t care about “getting in trouble.” The pastor at my parents home (and the parish I grew up in) cannot stand me…he literally asked my mother if I was sick the last time I was home. Why, you ask? Because I kept my head down through the whole Mass, with my arms crossed over my chest.

    He doesn’t like the fact that I disagree with pretty much EVERYTHING that he does while [sic] presiding at Holy Mass…from the position of the presidential chair, to the skipping of the gloria, to the inclusion of the laity in the lavabo prayer (….forgive us our iniquities…), to the overuse of EMHCs, to the inclusion of himself in the final blessing (May almighty God bless us….)

    Blech….I’m not home very often, but when I am, apparently I am so obviously ill, that Father notices….good. He should notice….what he is doing is sickening.

    No joke.

  9. Jack Orlando says:

    What to do? Move on. Move on to another church.

  10. Mundabor says:

    My suggestions about what to do:

    1) write to the bishop, or email him.
    2) email the Congregation for Clergy, [This is not the appropriate office. The appropriate office is the Congregation for Divine Worship. And if the priest is relentlessly expressing heresy in his ad-libbing, the CDW will get the CDF involved.]
    3) Copy both of them: let the bishop know you have informed the Vatican, and the Vatican know that you have informed the bishop.
    4) Look for a better place for your mass attendance and as long as you are there, not a dime in the basket.


  11. Andrew says:

    Imagine going to a museum with a set of crayons and walking up to a painting – say – of Mona Lisa, and touching it up a bit with your crayons. That’s what these priests are doing. They truly believe that they can improve the liturgy by their own creativity. It is extremely annoying. But this attitude is so widespread that – personally – I hardly even notice it any more.

  12. Andrew: Imagine going to a museum with a set of crayons and walking up to a painting – say – of Mona Lisa, and touching it up a bit with your crayons.

    Not quite. Imagine going to a museum and touching up a painting by Francis Bacon. The Mona Lisa is too beautiful for the analogy of the lame-duck ICEL version.

  13. Random Friar says:

    My understanding is the new translation’s style of language will make it more difficult for priests to ad lib. What can the new translation do to prevent priests who don’t just ad lib or change a word, but literally completely re-write parts?

    The language in the extant form of the OF is relatively clear. Anyone who wants to ad lib, could, but should not do so (outside of those specific times when it allows ad-libbing, NOT the EP, ever). I know some good, orthodox priests who have some rubrical “quirks,” shall we say. Their intention is to try to make the liturgy more meaningful, but truly, a devoutly offered Mass is a bigger attraction in the long run, and is the most meaningful act of all. Try to offer the Mass, not as someone performing, but as someone interceding in Christ to the Father in the total sacrifice of love and self, for the people of God that God has drawn you out from as His priest for them.

    When you say the black, mean it. When you do the red, love it.

  14. Dr. Eric says:

    I love that last line Father. (Random Friar)

  15. LouiseA says:

    Father Z,
    What artist or painting would you use as analogy for the Latin Novus Ordo Mass, saying the black and doing the red? And what analogy for the Tridentine Latin Mass done correctly as well? Would you consider them to be different artists, or same artist but different works, or same painting? Just wondering how the EF or OF compare in your mind, and how you think we should consider the different forms in comparison with each other.

  16. skull kid says:

    This is just a variant of clericalism, blind clericalism. It’s also pride. A humble soul, when corrected, will accept the correction. A proud soul will get angry. This is a major problem in Ireland.

  17. Ben Yanke says:

    I vote for having an official tazer bearer. That’ll get father’s attention.

  18. Jayna says:

    I do wonder if this reader was at Holy Name in Chicago. I went to Mass just the other day and heard roughly the same configuration, among various other creative additions. It’s really hit or miss there. There are some priests that are just fantastic when it comes to saying the black and doing the red (is it pathetic that I get excited when I see a priest hold his thumb and forefinger together after consecrating the host?) and some that barely glance at the missal. I worry that they won’t care that there’s a new translation come Advent as they hardly pay attention to the one we have now.

  19. APX says:

    place a special server, a member of the Liturgical Police, in the sanctuary with a taser gun.

    Lol! Yes, this is a good idea. Less lethal than the liturgical beretta, yet potent enough to bring the priest into compliance.

  20. ejcmartin says:

    I think I read somewhere recently that a fairly traditional seminary has started up a new masters program, MLP. Masters in Liturgical Policing. In addition to a strong emphasis on reading the black and doing the red there will be included daily target practice.

  21. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Andy, I did risk it and it wasn’t worth the pain. I now have all the priests there shunning me and even got an email from the wing-it guy gloating, “I hope you can find a priest to talk to.” They know I have health problems and need pastoral care, etc. but this overrides that apparently. And this is in the “parish of last resort” for our diocese, the one where “everything is done right.” This is the most difficult thing I have ever gone through. It wasn’t worth it in this case. I should have just ignored it. And I didn’t even talk to him about what he was doing. All I did was talk to him about what kind of parish ours is, that it is the “refugee parish” full of people from other parishes and lots of converts who love the kneeling at the rail, etc. But this guy doesn’t like all that stuff and he obviously was defensive from the beginning and went on the attack, I was frightened. I should have just talked about stuff like the bake sale or something.

    Fortunately, there is one priest I can “see” in the confessional who has tons of compassion and he is very helpful with the health issues.

    But I am starting to doubt some of the things the Church teaches about ordination, for example. I just have to hang onto the dogma of indefectibility with white knuckles. Here we go… wheeeee…

  22. Charles E Flynn says:

    I strongly suspect that every priest capable of ad libbing in Latin would never consider doing so.

  23. pookiesmom says:

    Whatever possessed the New Mass folk who changed the Latin into the vernacular and switched the altars around!?! All this is the unhappy product of such wacko-ness and will unfortunately continue until the Mass is changed back….I have found that the priests who are the worst adlibbers are very dismissive about the new translations and therefore don’t intend to abide by that as well. I try to attend the Mass that makes me the least angriest and whenever I can, flee to the beautiful EF Mass celebrated by a very devout FSSP priest (a 100 mi. round trip) for reparative therapy. This priest says Mass like it is the most important and beautiful thing on the face of the earth which it is!

  24. Ef-lover says:

    Andy Milam says:
    He doesn’t like the fact that I disagree with pretty much EVERYTHING that he does while [sic] presiding at Holy Mass…from the position of the presidential chair, to the skipping of the gloria, to the inclusion of the laity in the lavabo prayer (….forgive us our iniquities…), to the overuse of EMHCs, to the inclusion of himself in the final blessing (May almighty God bless us…)

    The priest in my parish had started giving the blessing like that “May Almighty God Bless Us…” it started about a year ago –began with one priest and spread to the others in the parish and also there has always been an over use of EEM’s

  25. Shellynna says:

    With all due respect, Fr. Z., I’ve never understood how abolishing the vernacular will stop priests from ad-libbing. What I CAN see abolishing the vernacular accomplishing is to make it mor difficult for laypeople to realize when a priest actually is ad-libbing. Even with hand missals, it would be difficult for the ordinary layperson to realize when the priest has said something different in a foreign language. In the layperson’s OWN language though, such ad-libs are immediately obvious.

  26. skull kid says:


    Those priests who could ad lib in Latin, as another commenter said, probably wouldn’t. There’s no point ad libbing if people don’t know what you are saying. The whole point of doing it is so that the people notice your doing it, and you can only really only do that easily in the vernacular.

  27. benedetta says:

    Ad libbing it. Sigh. Sometimes the verbiage uttered in the ad libbing of the Eucharistic prayers can be delightful, yet I don’t comprehend the point of it. After so long I haven’t any clue how it ought best be handled. Perhaps an ad libber, or one who once did, recovering, might, you know, anonymously here fill us in what the expectations would be, how we might deign to ask, what is the protocol? Absent this information, so long as we are talking, nerf guns, nerf tasers, in a completely simpatico way, well, yes, lock and load.

  28. rakesvines says:

    When the apostles celebrated the Lord’s supper, they did not have a formula. They simply recalled the mandate and the Lord’s words. So, didn’t they ab lib it all the time? ;D (Just stirring up some lively discussion.)

  29. Charles E Flynn says:


    Interesting observation. I suspect that the apostles were ad libbing for the ages, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Subsequent ad libbing has had quality control problems.

  30. rakesvines says:

    @Charles: “Subsequent ad libbing has had quality control problems.” You must be referring to heresies. What if the ad lib was not heretical – after all priests do have the Holy Spirit too.

  31. JBotAlan says:

    A priest I look up to once told me, in regard to the particular music chosen and the style it was performed in, that he tries not to let things like this distract him. This really struck me because as an engineer, I tend to be so focused on the details I see that I tend to be distracted from what’s important, where the focus really should be.

    No, it really isn’t right to deviate from the rubrics of the Mass. However, it isn’t right to angrily stomp off to a corner because it happened. Often times when I encounter something that makes me cringe during Mass (and yes, that happens more than I’d like), I just close my eyes and pray. Violently thrashing around isn’t going to help anything–it isn’t going to fix the problem, and it isn’t going to make you any more comfortable either…so what’s the point? That’s not to say “don’t talk about it”. That’s just to say that stomping around angrily is pretty much completely unhelpful.

  32. Luvadoxi says:

    Our priests say, “This is Jesus” in addition to/instead of “This is the Lamb of God”. Kind of hard to argue against stressing the Real Presence–maybe they can’t resist a teachable moment? But anything that isn’t in the “black” or an approved option just grates on me. *Is* it ok to say “This is Jesus….this is He Who takes away the sins of the world, etc., etc.”?

  33. Warren says:

    Find that sweet little old lady who agrees that the priest should toe the line. You know the kind: indomitable, reminds the priest of his mom, the kind whose polite comments deliver like velvet grenades and, because she’s a saint, no one would dare refuse her counsel. Prod her to chat up the priest (or errant altar server, subpar music minister, etc.) and give him what for.

    There was a diminutive nun in our choir, Sister Anne-Marie: 75+ years of age at the time, tough as nails but a heart of gold. She could work wonders when she needed to (i.e., knew someone was out of line). She was all of 5 feet tall. Aptly named “the church militant”. Resistance was futile.

  34. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Luvadoxi, I read about a year ago that “This is Jesus, the Lamb of God…” is an indult for South America where they had some kind of problem with understanding that Lamb of God thing apparently. This may be where our Father Wingit got this as he spent a lot of time in SA. But it’s not okay in NA.

  35. akp1 says:

    I was so relieved to read this post and the comments. At the moment I’m in UK helping my Mum out as she’s had an operation. Her Parish priests – one ad-libs incessantly, the other one moves parts of the liturgy about. The EMHCs get communion before the priest has communicated, etc etc. Final straw for me was when the PP gave a homily one Sunday in which he critised Pope BXVI for bringing back clericalism by his ‘allowing’ the old Mass to be used again. At that point I said, I am not coming here again – found myself a lovely ‘proper’ Church (one that doesn’t look like a living room) where the priest celebrates the EF and therefore knows how to celebrate the OF (I’ve been to both DG for the opportunity) – although it involves travelling and cost – well worth it not to spend the whole Mass trying not to be critical of things that really I should be critical of. I have been to another Parish nearer by, it’s not as bad, but not good at all. I would like to think they don’t know better – but they must do surely? Thankfully at home our Masses are well celebrated in general. I would like to write to them but wonder if the repercussions will fall on my Mum….

  36. crifasi says:

    How to prevent a priest from ad libbing? Why, a formationator, of course: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkO40uHGZUo

  37. Rob Cartusciello says:

    Two words: Shock Collar.

  38. Random Friar says:

    Bishops/priests apparently did some “ad-libbing” in the Early Church. St. Justin Martyr tells us that at Mass each priest would offer the prayers “to the best of his ability.” There being no set books, of course.

    However, as lack of thought, confusion and heresies popped its cold, wet nose into the liturgy, the need for at least some kind of standardization was seen rather fairly early. A priest who offered the Mass with the mind and words of the Church could not, in general, be suspected of sacramental invalidity.

  39. Random Friar says:

    I apologize. Someone mentioned the same thing earlier. I must’ve skipped that part. Forgive my echoing!

  40. Dr. Eric says:

    I used to have such high hopes for the new translation, but now I think the ad libbers will keep on changing parts of the Mass as they see fit. (I just had a bad experience at Mass, forgive me for wearing my heart on my sleeve.)

  41. RichardT says:

    Andy Milam complained about “the skipping of the gloria”

    Do you just mean missing it out, or is this some sort of horrible liturgical-dance type skipping?

  42. Re: ad-libbing in Latin

    Mental translation of songs into Latin is actually pretty fun (and often provides some badly needed gravitas). For example, this morning one of the hymns was “I Will Be with You”, which isn’t heretical or anything, but which sounds like a meditative torch song at best and is even sillier if not sung meditatively. But it’s very suitable for trying to remember verb conjugations and tenses.

    (Of course, actually singing different words out loud is disruptive.)

  43. James Joseph says:


    RE: Skipping the Gloria

    I think I’ve heard the words “Glory to God…” maybe once in like two-years. Maybe like once… that’s allowing for my forgetfulness. In good ole’ liberal, witch hunting Massachusetts, it just isn’t done ’round these parts.

  44. pelerin says:

    Doesn’t the skipping gloria come from the same stable as the clapping gloria?

  45. Fr-Bill says:

    I read once that the correctly celebrated Mass is one at which those who assist cannot remember who the Priest was. I attempt to be as forgettable as is possible by saying the black as it is printed.

  46. Fr. Bill: A great aspiration! I wholeheartedly agree. Of course the priest must preach, and that is pretty personal and individual.

    Similarly, lay people – all things being equal – should avoid attaching to one priest at a parish, trying to go only to his Masses. All things being equal, of course.

  47. Linz says:

    I’m a terrible Catholic. I’m not nearly as educated about the mass as I should be. I pray through most of it. I probably wouldn’t notice most ad libbing but even I have to laugh (probably shouldn’t but I can’t help it) every time our visiting priest says “He broke the bread, gave it to his friends …” I’m glad to know Jesus had friends. I was worried. Too bad the priest never has a friendly look on his face when he says it. He looks as if he were daring someone to challenge him.

  48. JKnott says:

    In an observant monastery of nuns where they have maintained the chapter of faults, if there is one even small mistake in the chanting during the Divine Office in common, the nun who caused it and the nuns who followed her have to go back one by one to the Superior, kneel down and ask pardon and kiss the floor, while the Sisters all wait in place before they can process out of the chapel.
    The reason for this is that the prayer of the Church must be presented before Heaven as perfectly as possible.
    What a huge divide between this holy attitude, and all that jolly and histrionic ad libbing at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

  49. NancyP says:

    I actually own a Liturgical Police baseball cap, from a US Army Europe Church Music Conference in the late 1980s. I wonder if any of my fellow attendees might be reading this blog right now?

  50. MichaelJ says:

    Banjo Pickin Girl. I find it very disturbing that a Priest would hint that he would deny you access to the Sacraments. To me, this is far worse, and far more frightening than any ad-libbing.

    I understand you reluctance to “rock the boat” – I am the same – but this is just awful. I would forward the Priest’s e-mail to the appropriate authority. Congregation for Clergy perhaps?

  51. Banjo pickin girl says:

    MichaelJ, He just said he “hoped” I “can find a priest to talk to.” I took that to mean that this shunning I am experiencing is intentional. I have been able to talk to the pastor about unrelated matters but he is not doing the job of prior, which he is supposed to do. It seems as if the prior should be taking care of things like this. They are all very inexperienced priests which is part of it too. And there is now a definite youth cult at the parish.

    I am not being denied the sacraments, just the ability to talk to a priest about the problems I have been having related to redemptive suffering and convert issues. Though counseling is close to a sacrament for somebody with severe health problems. But the priests are so young and inexperienced I figure they can’t do much good anyway and may do harm.

    There are other things related to this incident which are far more serious and I did in fact call the office of the prior provincial. They gave me his email address and I sent an email and received no acknowledgement. The silence is deafening.

    Meanwhile, I can just go to church and see the good guy in the confessional. But he won’t talk to me if I call him on the phone. Of course emails are ignored too. I have been totally shut down. The cause of the problem is more complex than just liturgical abuse, there are other things going on that I know about first hand, related to favoritism and things that I have alluded to in previous posts. But since everybody is being secretive nothing is being dealt with.

    I am being philosophical and taking all this to mean that God is protecting me from people who could do me harm. As my brother said, “being shunned by mean people is a good thing!”

  52. salve95 says:

    Something that should also be eliminated from the Mass is the use of settings of the ordinary that deviate from the prescribed text. Not to point fingers, but I’ve seen this kind of thing most often occur in parishes/monasteries with a heavy charismatic presence, and any sort of “youth” Mass. (And being 15, I find myself hearing one of those now and then, though I’d much prefer some sacred polyphony)
    Off hand, I can remember these deviations:

    1. There is a setting of the Great Doxology that changes the text to read this: “Give glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.” Ignoring the fact that the text reads neither “Da gloria” or “Date gloria”, it makes no sense to say “Give…and peace to His people on earth.” Who are you addressing? We can’t give peace to ourselves, that’s outside of human capabilities. Surely someone noticed this before publishing? (Yeah, and 40 years ago someone noticed the flagrant translation errors before the publication of the Lame-duck Missal. I’m too optimistic I suppose.)

    2. There is a setting of the Sanctus which is written roughly like this, set of course for guitars, drums, and other ill-fitting instruments:
    Choir – Holy, holy
    Congregation – Holy, holy
    (ad nauseaum)
    Choir – God of power
    Congregation – God of power
    The thrice use of the word “holy” (or “sanctus”, or “agios”, etc.) means something, each repetition referring to a member of the Holy Trinity. To breath with my eastern lung (something I’ve been doing quite a bit lately, incidentally), I’d like to point out that in the Cherubikon from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, we chant “We who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity” and at the end we chant “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” in a thrice-repeated hymn of praise to the Trinity. If you were to change the number of alleluias in the Cherubikon, the meaning would be lost. Likewise, this goofy sounding call-and-response rendition of the Sanctus (the thrice-holy hymn, incidentally, though that title could also apply to the Trisagion prayer, I’m not sure what is being referred to, could be both) mutilates the symbolism of the thrice repetition of the word “Holy” and this is only a slippery slope to a destruction of the meaning of the liturgy.

    3. Mass of Cremation. Enough said. But the thing that gets to me in particular is the Agnus Dei, where the invocation of the Lamb of God is preceded with “Jesus.” This is more of a rubrical whine then anything else, since there is no theological error I can think of off hand that is being presented with this. We’ve been over the use of different titles in the Agnus Dei in this blog approximately ten billion times so no need to go there.

    4. I don’t know if there is a greater error here then a likely deviation from rubrics or if I’m just complaining, but there is a very charismatic version of the Great Amen that is this odd, trance-like singing (accompanied by guitars and drums and other ill-fitting instruments, of course) of “Amen, King of the Angels, Amen, Lord of Lords,” etc. with other invocations. It’s not the worst offense in the universe but it violates the rubrics as far as I know. Rubrics aside the intense charismatic aesthetic doesn’t work for me but that’s a spirituality that I’m not able to get into by any means, if anyone is interested, at the moment I’m developing a rather Byzantine spirituality, which is certainly much different then charismatic spirituality.

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