ASK FATHER: Father says that rubrics are only suggestions

coobookFrom a reader…


I am a member of a consultative body for our parish. During a lively (for lack of a less-positive term) discussion at a recent meeting we were told by our pastor that the GIRM is, in essence, a set of recommendations for the pastor to consider when overseeing the Mass and liturgical celebrations in our parish. Further, the Pastor has wide latitude (my words) in interpretation.

My question is, in a nutshell, how should we read the General Instructions of the Roman Missal and how should its tenets be applied?

Ahhhh, the old “cookbook theory”. The nemesis of the faithful far and wide.

Back in the dark liturgical ages that were the 1980’s, in many places there was a line trumpeted by our mainline liturgist overlords. That is… The Sacramentary is not so much a set of ‘rigid’ rules to be strictly followed. It’s more like a cookbook. Good cooks know, almost instinctively, when to follow the recipe and when to make adaptations. The soup calls for a tablespoon of garlic, but the garlic on hand is older and less potent. Besides the family likes garlic, so the cook tosses in two tablespoons. The pound cake recipe is good, but adding a tablespoon of almond extract will make it taste that much better.

So too liturgy, according to this theory.

The good “presider” knows when to adapt certain words, phrases, and gestures to make the liturgy more meaningful for the congregation. That is… Hey! It’s Lent. We want to emphasize penance, so let’s lengthen the penitential rite, maybe parade about blowing a Jewish shofar to highlight the concept of atonement. Now it’s Easter! :et’s emphasize the resurrection by doing away with the penitential rite altogether. This congregation doesn’t have any connection to the saints listed in the Roman Canon, so lets substitute that with a list of famous social activists and notable founding parishioners. The local sports team is in a national contest! Let’s drape the altar with blue and green bunting to show our support.

It quickly gets absurd.

The Ordinary Form of Holy Mass offers the priest celebrant some latitude, some options at certain points (not all the time and in everything). For example, the priest can choose from several forms for the penitential rite and he can legitimately include or exclude the Sign of Peace. Rubrics of the previous editions of the Missal were studded with the dread phrase, “in these or similar words, the priest…”. The cookbook attitude was exacerbated by these ill-advised optative rubrics. Most of these rubrics are gone from the current edition. The priest is simply given the words he is to say.

Creating options where there are not options in the rubrics is … what’s the word…. wrong.

The General Institution of the Roman Missal is law. It has full legal force. It is as much binding law as the Code of Canon Law is. They are both on the same legal plane. Canon 2 of the Code of Canon Law states that, for the most part, liturgical law is outside the Code. It’s in the rubrics and the General Instruction.

Rubrics are laws, not suggestions. Purposely violating the law is a serious matter.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    That said,

    according to a general principle, it’s the duty of the positive lawgiver to have his law accompanied with appropriate enforcement. And there’s, of course, a superior to the priest. But thank God we simple Catholics who just attend the Mass are not superiors.

    That’s the one thing.

    The other is that with the sort of priests who think rubrics are suggestions, the complaint “but they aren’t” by a layman is going to help, pretty much, nothing. It might help to say “but couldn’t we, for a change, do it as the book has it, for I do guess the lawgiver has spent some thought on it, and maybe the reason for this rubric is xy and xxyy etc. etc.” Saying “but you’re bound to fulfil your rubrics”, on the contrary, will only have one effect which is to harden the priest.

    A third thing is that it generally is much better for one’s spiritual equilibrium (and by these reasons justified) to care only about validity. It’s not my job that the priest gets it straight.

    [And by the way… if he says that he has a wide range of interpretation, this seems to me to be, as such, right. Only there’s some line when interpreting a clear order away is nothing but impossible.]

  2. mburn16 says:

    I thought I saw somewhere on this site some time ago that Rome was considering issuing some kind of more specific direction on the celebration of the mass? Not a change to the missal so much as a how-to book to go along with it? Nothing came of it apparently.

  3. Charles E Flynn says:

    Bad cooks know, almost instinctively, when to take the large pseudo-puppets out of their dark closets and bring them to mass.

  4. everett says:

    This is unfortunately the problem at a good many parishes in our country, including mine, where I’m the “Head” of the “Liturgy Committee”. Why does a parish need a liturgy committee? Just follow the rubrics. Why would a layperson be the head of such a committee? Any time I try to bring up things like “but the GIRM says” or “but the Missal says” I’m told that the pastor is using his “pastoral judgment” (which basically means that his pastoral judgment says that the law of the Church is wrong).

  5. Massachusetts Catholic says:

    Just like the 10 Suggestions that Moses brought down the mountain.

  6. Elizabeth D says:

    What I would say is: “But I believe in Vatican II, which says no one, even though he be a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the Mass.”

  7. Clemens Romanus says:

    GIRM no. 24

  8. Alanmac says:

    I do not like the sign of peace. It interrupts the mass at a very crucial time. It is embarrassing as some refuse to shake hands or use alcohol gel immediately. I am surprised to read this practice is optional.

  9. Matt Robare says:

    Perhaps the GIRM Reaper could be this year’s big Halloween costume.

    Also, I was reading today that in the Zairean Use approved for some African dioceses, the male servers are required to carry spears. I bet that keeps Father from doing a lot of “interpretation.”

  10. Clemens Romanus says:

    Actually these are all good references:
    SC 22.3; CIC 846.1; CCC 1125; GIRM 24; and RS 31, 59

  11. Clemens Romanus says:

    • Sacrosanctum Concilium art. 22.3 (1963)
    o Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.

    • Canon 846.1 (1983)
    o The liturgical books approved by the competent authority are to be faithfully observed in the celebration of the sacraments; therefore no one on personal authority may add, remove or change anything in them.

    • Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1125 (1992)
    o For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister or the community. Even the supreme authority of the Church may not change the liturgy arbitrarily, but only in obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy.

    • General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 24 (2003)
    o Nevertheless, the priest must remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.

    • Redemptionis Sacramentum, nos. 31, 59 (2004)
    o They ought not to detract from the profound meaning of their own ministry by corrupting the liturgical celebration either through alteration or omission, or through arbitrary additions.

    o The reprobated practice by which Priests, Deacons or the faithful here and there alter or vary at will the texts of the Sacred Liturgy that they are charged to pronounce, must cease. For in doing thus, they render the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy unstable, and not infrequently distort the authentic meaning of the Liturgy.

  12. juergensen says:

    “Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 52) (Pope John Paul II).

  13. Blaise says:

    The risk is that a priest who takes that view of the GIRM will consider the code.of canon law irrelevant. And clearly will not be interested in documents like Redemptionis Sacraamentum or Ecclesia De Eucharistia the latter was out of print in the UK when I tried to by a copy three years ago.

  14. pelerin says:

    Matt Robare’s comment amused me and also made me wonder about the real reason why the servers in Zaire carried spears. Could it be that they were protecting the Priest should a wild animal enter the church and attack him? A hundred years ago this was a strong possibility although today one would think that the carrying of spears by the servers (all male according to Wiki) would be more of a ceremonial practice. I wonder if they slowly lower the spears at the Consecration as I have seen done with flags by French Old Soldiers grouped around the altar at Mass. A most moving experience.

    I notice that another difference mentioned in the Wiki article was sitting at the Gospel – something that Protestants have always done – and wondered whether the GIRM actually gives instructions as ‘sit or stand’ or whether each country has a different instruction.

  15. Kerry says:

    Elizabeth D, good shootin’ pardner.

  16. Kerry says:

    ProfKwasniewski, oh my! I just read the article. In the 10 ring at 800 yards, with iron sights! Oorah.

  17. Glen M says:

    As Fr.Z mentioned, many priests received very poor (to be charitable) liturgical formation in the seminary. We do bear a responsibility to broach the subject yet need to practice prudence and respect for their vocation. Our responsibility is to the greater good: it’s no coincidence Mass attendance starting dropping when cookbook rubrics started.

  18. acardnal says:

    everett wrote, “Why does a parish need a liturgy committee? Just follow the rubrics. “

    Perfectly stated. I’d suggest that if a parish has a so called “liturgy committee”, leave it. Run away from it as fast as you can!

  19. The Masked Chicken says:

    Hey, if the musicians in the choir don’t get to make up lyrics or interrupt the Mass with Jazz improv or scat singing, why should priests. This is, pretty much, thumbing your nose at the Church or composer.

    The Chicken

  20. mburn16 says:

    There’s nothing inherently un-Catholic in having a liturgical director other than the Priest. Even the Pope has a Master of Ceremonies. [Who is a priest and sometimes has even been a bishop.] I’m not sold on the idea of doing it by committee, but…….certainly it could be useful.

  21. Midwest St. Michael says:

    Clemens R,

    Thanks for those. Filed away for future reference.

    Elizabeth D,

    Well played!


  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    Hey, Elizabeth D.,

    You have been firing on all cylinders, recently. I nominate you for the position of the assistant combox elf lord.

    The Chicken

  23. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Suggestions. Pffft.

    Canon 281 is just a “suggestion”, too, then?

  24. Priam1184 says:

    Sadly Father, as someone who has actually read through a good deal of the missal for the Ordinary Form, I think that the large number of options that exist for the priest/celebrant to choose from at various points (some of them highly significant like which of the four Eucharistic Prayers he feels like using at that particular moment) during the Mass, depending on what his mood is or what color shirt the guy in the front row is wearing, would tend to lead one into the temptation to think that pretty much everything is on the table.

    Doesn’t mean that it is right, but I can see how a priest could be led down that primrose path. Pray for priests, they need it.

  25. Patti Day says:

    Dr. Peters,

    Ha, Good one.

  26. Elizabeth D says:

    Dear Chicken, you are kind. But if there is such a position I do not imagine he would entrust it to me!

  27. Clinton R. says:

    Reason #6892 for Summorum Pontificum. Let us continue to pray for the restoration of the Old Rite as the Ordinary Form of the Mass. +JMJ+

  28. With regards to conservative and liberal preference & practice, this can cut both ways. A good example and recently discussed here is GIRM #43, particularly on the ordinary determining whether or not we kneel after the Agnus Dei, which of course holds the full legal force of law as much as any other rubric.

    We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that only liberals have difficulty with following laws & rubrics that run contrary to their preferences. We’ve all got our struggles with what the Church set out for us.

  29. Kerry says:

    Masked gallus, I second the nomination. Any discussion…?

  30. Kerry says:

    Oh, and “firing on all cylinders”; I knew Eliz. would be a revolver gal.

  31. Matt Robare says:

    mburn16, I think the last thing we need is for more liturgical directors to be like Piero Marini.

    pelerin, I think spear-carrying is a cultural thing to demonstrate that one is an adult man. Up until the 19th century, the mark of a free man in European culture was the carrying of a sword. Clergy generally weren’t allowed to bear arms, I believe (which makes sense, since they’re not technically free). I’m sure the Knights of the Altar could attract members with the promises of swords or spears, but I wouldn’t want to be in charge of them. (“You see, Mrs Johnson, the reason the reason Timmy is missing those fingers is . . .”)

  32. Volanges says:

    I’ve belonged to Liturgy Committees over the years and what I’ve come to realize is that they are as good or as bad as the Pastor lets them be. The last one I served on was in place to make sure that what needed to be done got done: ministries filled, schedules done up, various liturgies prepared for — the Triduum doesn’t just “happen”, someone has to look after the details and Father has enough on his plate. You’ll usually find “Paschales Solemnitatis” open on the counter in our sacristy as they go about their work at that time.

    But like a previous poster said, even knowing the documents doesn’t help if you’ve got a Pastor who stands up in church and says that the GIRM is just a suggestion.

    Or you’ve got the Pastor’s former seminary professor, now appointed assistant priest, who, upon having a member bring up the documents in questioning the practice of using 3 EMHCs and having 2 priest sitting watching them, angrily declares, “We’ve never paid attention to Rome on this and we aren’t about to start now!”

    Or you’ve got another Pastor who categorically refuses to empty the Tabernacle before The Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Or one who doesn’t just empty the holy water stoups on Ash Wednesday but removes them from the church so no one will fill them up again like they kept doing during his first Lent in the parish.

    Liturgy committees often get blamed for things which they are not doing.

  33. jjoy says:

    Ah, liturgy committee meetings, I remember those. Ghastly. Depressing. It brings to mind a plaque my husband has up in the back room: “For God so loved the world, that He DIDN’T sent a committee!”
    Now I’m off to ponder what a GIRM Reaper costume would look like…

  34. Volanges says:

    Liturgy Committee meetings were nothing compared to Parish Council meetings.
    The first time I head the song “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” I remarked, “Really? Obviously the lyricist has never attended a Parish Council meeting.”

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