Reading #GaudeteEtExsultate – Pope Francis blasts “punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy”

I’ve been working my way through the very long Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate.  It’s a whopping 20K words.

A point that people have been asking me about, and which libs will surely throw in the teeth of anyone who wants a traditional sacred liturgical worship of God, is the Pope’s remark about liturgy in GEE 57.

My emphases.

57. Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious [sic] concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ.

My first reaction when I read things like this from the Holy Father are: Who are these people?  Again and again the Pope describes people who are hard to identify.   I have an idea of whom he has in mind here.  More on that later.

A “punctilious” concern for the Church’s liturgy?  What to make of that?

Let’s use the text and context itself to interpret this passage.

I’m going to go with “punctilious”, even though after looking at the same paragraph in other languages it is pretty clear that “punctilious” is not quite the correct English word choice.

YES, friends, we need LATIN.   In lieu of Latin, what does the text of GEE 57 really say at this point in other languages?

French: l’ostentation dans le soin de la liturgie
Italian: l’ostentazione nella cura della liturgia
Spanish: la ostentación en el cuidado de la liturgia
Portuguese: a ostentação no cuidado da liturgia
German: dem Zurschaustellen [sic… Zurschaustellung?] der Sorge für die Liturgie

I’m sensing a theme.   Why choose “punctilious”?

“ostentation in the care/custody of the liturgy”

Ostentation is characterized by vulgar or pretentious display; designed to impress or attract notice to oneself. One might say, “flamboyant”.

Clearly, the other languages want to convey something “over the top”, something “ostentatious”.  “Punctilious” and “ostentatious” are not interchangeable.   The former is concerned with great attention to details.  The later is concerned with open pretension.

They have a common characteristic, however: excess.

Let’s pull all these things apart and make sense of them because libs are surely going to use “punctilious” as a club with which to beast those of us who want tradition, so let’s stick with that.

When you read Francis, you have to slow down and think.   The texts coming out over his signature are not always clear, or easily deciphered.

To understand “punctilious” look at some of the vocabulary and phrases in that paragraph:  “… obsession… absorption… excessive…”

The principle is this: Too much of a good thing is too much.

That “punctilious” here is surely meant to mean something like “obsessive … excessive”, rather than “careful… reverent… attentive…” etc.

It would be absurd to suggest that the Pope thinks that liturgy should not be careful, attentive, reverent.  That the Pope thinks liturgy should be the opposite of “punctilious”, which is sloppy or careless.

Keeping in mind the context and vocabulary, we affirm that observance of law is good.  Being socially and politically active is good.  Careful attention to detail in worship is good.  Knowing, teaching, and following the Church’s doctrine is good.  Defending the Church’s reputation and prestige is good.  Being practical is good.  Etc.

However, being excessive in any good thing is not good.  Too much of a good thing is too much.  Quantum potes tantum aude.  Right?  This applies to just about everything in life, except for faith, hope and charity, which – anyway – are all gifts from God.

Next, and this is important, this remark about liturgy is under the subhead “New pelagians”. 

We have to remember that just a little while ago the CDF issued document, Placuit Deo, which sort of explained in advance something of how the Pope uses these terms.  It was careful to state that the terms as used by the Pope are not strictly interchangeable with their technical use in Patristic and systematic theological spheres.

That said, what do we make of “… their own efforts…” when it comes to liturgy?

This is a salutary point from the Pope if we understand it properly.  Libs probably won’t, but we won’t fall into the trap with them.

Catholics know that the true Actor in our worship is Christ and that every word and gestures is truly Christ the High Priest’s.  Liturgy is a gift to be respected and not abused.   Hence, our liturgical practice, our ars celebrandi, should be careful and exact.  In addition, we are not doing it on our own or merely in reference to ourselves.   Liturgy is for us in that it is given to us.  Liturgy is about us in as much as it is God’s gift to us.  Liturgy, however, is not for us or about us.  God doesn’t need our liturgical worship, we do.  So, God gives it to us so that we can be good images of God in all we say and do in regard to God and neighbor.

As I have explained in preaching and conferences and here on this blog, it is possible to lose sight of the purpose of our liturgical worship, which certainly includes striving for an encounter with transforming mystery as a preparation for our inevitable death and judgment.

It is possible to focus on the details of liturgical worship, the trees, to the point that one loses view of the reason why we are there, the forest.

For example, some may be entirely fixed on whether or not the server started out with the left foot or the right, or how the book was moved from the Epistle to the Gospel side, or whether a turn was made at a sharp enough angle, etc.  I have actually been graded by the Mr. Punctilious who rushed to the sacristy to inform me that I got a C+ because I didn’t wiggle my pinky at the same place in his heavily-worn St. Joseph Daily Missal where old Father Bill did back when he was growing up.

Mr. Punctilious does a lot of harm to our project.  Don’t be that guy.  Don’t give the Pope another excuse to hurtful things about people who want tradition.

Ironically, in my experience, it’s not usually traditionalists who are fiercely positivistic about liturgy, but rather liberals.

For the most part the “trads” I’ve been around for the last few decades have a healthy respect for details, but without being scrupulous…. “punctilious” in the negative sense.  There are a few exceptions, such as the Mr. Punctilious I mentioned above.  On the other hand, many older libs, now into serious liturgical abuse or craziness (which they then insist on imposing on everyone), were once upon a time known as rigid and conservative.   Then the nutty 60’s hit.  They changed and became as rigidly liberal as there were rigidly conservative.

My old pastor, Msgr. Schuler, would describe some of the raging libs of the archdiocese were back in the day.  Some of them would nearly hyperventilate from scrupulously trying to make signs of the Cross exactly between the syllables of words as they appeared on the pages of the Missal.  Later in life, when the loony days hit, they threw off their restraints and became as doctrinaire in their progressivist antics as they were in their pre-Conciliar conservatism.   I heard the same sorts of stories when I was in Rome: priests who were famously traditional when they were young became crazy libs later in life.  A common trait: they impose their brand of crazy on others.

When we scratch libs, we generally find nazis underneath.   Similarly, when we really look into who out there are the authentic self-absorbed Promethean Neo-pelagians, we inevitably find that they are liberals, defined also as “those with whom you are free to agree”.

“But Father! But Father”, some of you libs – shaking with fury and pounding your little feetsies on the arms of your fainting couches – are howling, “you yourself said that the word is supposed to be ‘ostentatious’ not ‘punctilious’.  You are being both ostentatious and punctilious in your explanation!  HA HA! See what I did there?  You are trying to fool all your readers into running down a rabbit hole.   The Spirit of Vatican II says that we had to get rid of all the ostentatious statues and vestments and music and precise language and … and… just, you know, use clay pots and authentic macramé and a contemporary style of speech just like Jesus wants.  But you want us to turn the clock back to the bad old days because YOU HATE VATICAN II!”


Quickly, and to close, let’s rework that phrase from GEE 57 as “an ostentation in the care/custody of the Church’s liturgy” (l’ostentazione nella cura della liturgia).

Again, the title of this sub-section of the Pope’s really long Apostolic Exhortation is “New pelagians”.  The overall theme is self-sufficiency without reliance on God.

Lack of reliance on God turns what is otherwise good into something ruinous.   Law is good, when our reading and making of law is rooted in the justice and truth which is God and in the reason and natural law which reflects God.  Godless, merely human law – grounded in ourselves – in our will – is open to horrible abuse.   So too with everything else the Pope lists, including liturgy.

Liturgy filled with liturgical abuses and illicit creativity is self-referential… neo-pelagian.  It is the soul of ostentation.   It is like the restrictive closed-circle that Ratzinger described in Spirit of the Liturgy.

When our liturgy is carried out for our self-satisfaction, closed in ourselves, then what we lavish on it is a manifestation of selfish ostentation.   It might be beautiful, tasteful, and precise, but in itself, in its essence it is closed off to the ultimate victory of God which it outwardly mimics.

The driving force of triumphalism is “victory”.  When we celebrate God’s victory, we can hardly be “ostentatious” enough.  When we celebrate our own accomplishments, then even raising our faces from the dust is already too much.

When our liturgy is carried out for God and for the purposes God chooses for it, namely a transforming encounter with Him in mystery and love, then all that would otherwise be ostentatious and triumphalistic is hardly even a beginning of what we should desire to give.

Liturgical worship which is informed by our faith, hope and love of God, victorious over death and glorious in heaven, is not ostentation in the negative sense, triumphalistic in the bad sense.

Of course all virtuous behavior is governed by the “golden mean”.  It is okay and even meritorious to tighten the belt and fast and make sacrifices for the sake of the purchase of a new vestment for the parish priest to use at Mass.  It is not alright to neglect feeding your children for the sake of buying a new vestment.   It is meritorious to lavish money and care upon the building of a new church.  It is not okay to build a new church and, all the while, ignore corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Balance… the mean in prudence… virtue.

The problem is that reasonable people see what libs don’t see.  We can do more than one thing at the same time.  We can build beautiful churches and care for the poor.  (Beauty is good for the poor, too, by the way.)  We can have lovely and – if you insist – “punctilious” liturgical worship and have a regard for the needs of our neighbor.  (Prayer on our knees in church is also good for the poor, by the way).   We can multitask.  Libs, however, seem to see the world as if through a “zero sum” lens.   According to their twisted line of thought, those who want traditional worship with all its lavish care and beauty are indifferent toward the poor.

B as in B.  S as in S.

But that’s what we are going to hear, especially in conjunction with GEE 57.

When libs fling GEE 57 at you, as if you were some sort of “pelagian”, just chuckle.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Just yesterday in a meeting with our Bishop these paragraphs were cited by our Vicar General to show the danger any further expansion of TLM communities would be to the unity of our Diocese.

    [That suggests a shallow mind.]

  2. Benedict Joseph says:

    Paragraph 57 is symptomatic of a disassociation with reality on a number of levels. It bespeaks a form of madness. It is not unique to the individual to whose name it is attributed. This canonization of misperception and recklessness is characteristic of both Church and society. It was raised to the altars with “Hagan lio.” It is representative of a gross form of geriatric irresponsibility and entirely characteristic of the generation of sixties priests who cling to life on this planet.
    Men who cannot read the writing on the wall might call upon some younger man graced by God to clarify what is before their very eyes.

  3. PaulK says:

    I’ve been a big fan of you and your site for a long time Father, but it bothers me that you don’t seem to understand what Francis is getting at here. It is precisely people like yourself that he is trying to call out, yet you kind of chuckle at his remarks, dissect a word or two, and move along.

    I’m not a raging lib, and love the old mass. But can we not all pause and think that just maybe Francis has something important to say to folks who lean heavily to the right?

    [I sat on this comment for a while and thought about it. I respond saying that, no, I am not the type of person that the Pope is calling out. That should be obvious from what I have written here and elsewhere. Perhaps my lack of skill with words has given you a false picture. Next, I didn’t dissect “a word or two.” I did more than that. Moreover, I didn’t short-change or dismiss the Pope’s message. As a matter of fact, I found useful elements in it and expanded them. NExt, I don’t know who the “we” are whom you referenced. I certainly paused and even displayed my thought. And I don’t know what you being by folks on the “right”. Finally, review my remark about chuckling. About whom was I talking?]

  4. Andrew says:

    One who is trustworthy (punctilious) in small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is not honest in small matters is dishonest also in great ones. (Luke 16:10)

    [Card. Kasper might respond that maybe in Jesus’s day that was true, but today, according to our lived experience, we can’t assume that it is possible to be trustworthy in great matters.]

  5. Alexander Verbum says:

    Both excess and deficiency in the liturgy are bad. However, deficiency is rampant today and totally dwarfs excess – yet no mention deficiency?

    It just may be a sneaky way to entice bishops and priests to pummel or stop the TLM, as FR AJ’s experience demonstrates above.

  6. Vincent1967 says:

    When I was a boy, my mother made clear that our endeavour was always to grow a little in holiness each day so I was interested to read Gaudete et Exsultate. As I grew up, mum would refine or explain in more detail to my siblings and me what she meant, but her previous instruction always remained true. Here are some examples:
    Refrain from bad language: it is rude. (And later, when we understood better): it is aggressive and can hurt others and shows a lack of education.
    Respect the law: it is the structure by which we live. (And later): if true, respect the law as a reflection of the Divine
    Show respect for others, e.g. reply to letters and other communications. It shows your respect for them. (And later): ignoring people shows a massive lack of respect and is not the behaviour of a gentleman.

  7. supercooper says:

    And what would punctilious or ostentatious concern for doctrine consist of?

    With the references in this paragraph to law, liturgy, and doctrine I can’t help but read this as an intentional affront to Cardinal Burke. I would be willing to bet that Pope Francis had in mind the image of Cardinal Burke wearing the cappa magna when he chose the word ‘ostentación.’

  8. cpt-tom says:

    Our Latin Masses are usually beautiful because of the simplicity (Unaccompanied schola, chanted propers, two altar servers, priest in traditional vestments, etc.) and the silence that is uncharacteristic of most of the hyper-active Masses in the parish. The only thing ostentatious is that we have the correct chalice with veil and burse and, horrors, more than one cloth covering the altar. So over the top. *snark* Simplicity doesn’t have to mean pottery and burlap!

  9. otsowalo says:

    I would say “punctilious” is how we witnessed a lamentable Easter Vigil. Somehow father inserted a poorly spliced video of Jesus’s life in place of the Gloria, and had a song and dance number towards the end.

  10. Fr. Reader says:

    I am not sure what is “punctilious concern”. But I think we find it at every step in the spectrum. Very liberal ones are punctiliously concerned about avoiding anything that might resemble pre-VCII, about introducing “punctilious hectic participation” by multiplying ministries, punctiliously nervous about pronouncing even one or half word in Latin, and punctiliously allergic to sacredness.

    At the same time, I have seen among some people a tendency to focus 98% in liturgical things. This is not I have read or heard about, I see it often. They spend the Mass focused on every step of the priest, there is not much concern about personal spiritual life. One of them, I might say, a friend, sends me messages on Ember days to ask me if I have done some fasting, or to remind me that we are at Septuagesima. Another one, when I am preparing for Mass, pushes the stole against my face to make sure that I actually kiss the Cross, and during the Confiteor in the Ordinary Form bows until his nose touches the floor to make sure everyone notices it. I saw an article at OnePeterFive related to this, very interesting.

  11. Fr. Reader says:

    @cpt Tom
    “The only thing ostentatious is that we have the correct chalice with veil and burse and, horrors, more than one cloth covering the altar”
    This is not ostentation. A veil “veils” not “ostends”. And the cloths under the cloths are hidden.

  12. Fr. Reader says:

    “With the references in this paragraph to law, liturgy, and doctrine I can’t help but read this as an intentional affront to Cardinal Burke. I would be willing to bet that Pope Francis had in mind the image of Cardinal Burke wearing the cappa magna when he chose the word ‘ostentación.’”

    With all due respect, I think Pope Francis has many other things in mind that to attack Cardinals in letters. In many many countries nobody has every heard (much less cares) about Cardinal Burke. Pope Francis is also thinking about and talking to them.

  13. TonyO says:

    And what would punctilious or ostentatious concern for doctrine consist of?

    Don’t know. Haven’t seen anything approaching punctility from the Chair a handful of years now. Haven’t seen anything bearing the remotest resemblance to “ostentatious” concern for the liturgy in many decades.

    One last thing: is it ostentatious to spend 20K words on GEE? Did Francis punctiliously observe the due mean and measure for how long to go on about this theme, or was his verbiage ostentatious in its excess?

    [Hang on. St JP2’s documents weren’t exactly terse.]

  14. JustaSinner says:

    Can the Dark One invade the Church and her priests/bishops/cardinals?

  15. JustaSinner says: Can the Dark One invade

    Of course. They are human beings. Holy Church, however, is indefectible.

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  17. TonyO says:

    I said ” is it ostentatious to spend 20K words on GEE?

    Fr. Z quite understandably points out that St JP2’s documents weren’t exactly terse.]”

    Before I commented, I checked one of JPII’s documents, Veritatis Splendor. It comes to more than double, over 40K words. So, right you are, Fr. Z.

    But my jab was rather to force the libs onto the horns of a dilemma: to pick whether to be properly and duly careful in teaching doctrine, or to overflow at the mouth with ostentatious excess. ‘Cause Francis is teaching, here. And one must presume (unless he tells us otherwise) that he carefully chose how to speak to us with due care, and did not subject us to a careless diarrhea of words. One might presume that he avoided the excess of ostentatious verbiage. The point, then, is to point out the difference between the carefully chosen path and the carelessly excessive path, and note that BEING CAREFUL with important matters is not a way of being in the wrong, it’s a way of being in the right. Just like being careful to say the Mass according to the mind and heart of the Church, as she expressed it in the Missal, the General Instruction, and in a 10,000 exhortations by bishops and popes down the centuries.

  18. Nathan says:

    Hmmm, wait a second. Isn’t a “Clown Mass,” by definition, ostentation? Aren’t the 15-minute entrance processions at the LA Religious Ed Conference, with the Broadway-esque pit orchestra and the choreographed dancing girls and the nuns swirling with the bowls of incense, by definition, punctilious? Isn’t making up your own text for the Mass both?

    Could this spin of the papal exhortation reflect the adolescent, high-school tendency of our society, where the rules don’t apply to the cool people? After all, Father Yoga Pants is so nice and so cool!

    What is striking about the TLM Pontifical High Mass is how the very beautiful and detailed ceremonies work. If you use the definition of ostentation, which is to bring attention to oneself, it’s hard to see how being led around the sanctuary, or being tied to your servers even while wearing the cappa magna (the bête noir of the anti-traditionalists), is meant to bring attention to the celebrating bishop. Rather, it is a pretty clear symbol of the Alter Christus being led like a lamb to the slaughter.

    In Christ,

  19. cpt-tom says:

    @ Fr. Reader

    Agreed. But if you were to talk to “the Staff” (ominous music) of my parish, you’d think we were piling on the lace, and putting on a huge show. Which is ironic when you consider some of the outlandish displays done at Mass by the parish “Arts and Environment” committee. [Ironic.]

    I think if people would just do the Red and say the Black there would be a whole lot less distraction and fuss.

  20. Nathan says: clear symbol of the Alter Christus being led like a lamb to the slaughter.


  21. TOnyO says: So, right you are, Fr. Z.

    And when you are right, you can’t be wrong.

    One of the many problems with church documents today is their length. Their length is partly a product of using word processors and partly a product of writing in the vernacular.

    The method, the language and the resulting length also produce the lack of interest (no one has time to read this stuff) and lack of clarity (they turn into word salad).

  22. fishonthehill says:

    Antonyms for punctilious: careless, uncaring !

  23. Alexander Verbum says: It just may be a sneaky way to entice bishops and priests to pummel or stop the TLM, as FR AJ’s experience demonstrates above.

    Most priests and bishops don’t need to be enticed to pummel or stop the TLM.

  24. HighMass says:

    Just another Jab at the TLM. Have had the feeling since March 2013, it was in the works to do away with it again. According to Pope Benedict XVI, it was never (don’t remember the word he used) suppose to be forbidden. It is obvious the TLM is a thorn in this present pontificates side.

    I guess we all need to keep on praying. As it is been said the TLM is the most beautiful this side of Heaven!

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