ASK FATHER: Am I obliged to tell an old priest about his liturgical ad libs?

From a seminarian…


Thank you very much for everything you do on this blog. I am a seminarian and an avid reader of this blog. My seminary is orthodox, but these are difficult times in the Church and it is a great blessing to have you as a consistent voice of reason and orthodoxy. It is also great to have someone I can trust to answer my question without beating about the bush.

I recently attended Mass at a parish outside my diocese. It was a difficult experience. The music (surprise!) was terrible, but the thing that irked me the most was the fact that the elderly priest kept ad libbing. Most unfortunately, he also made up a part of the prayers of consecration of the Precious Blood. Overall, he basically got across the same meaning (except his blatant substitution of “all” for “many”). That is until the Ecce Agnus Dei which he rendered “This is Jesus…ad lib…ad lib…ad lib…” and the closing prayer which he completely made up.

My question is twofold.

First, at what point is the Mass invalid and what does one do in such a circumstance? I always worry that I should go to Mass a second time elsewhere.

Second, I really wanted to say something to the priest after Mass, but I chose not to. However, am I morally obligated to say something. I’ll be honest. I chickened out. Should I have said something? Again this was not my home parish, and as far as I could tell, this was a visiting priest.

Thank you very much and God bless!


There are several factors at work here.

Second question first.  Should you have said something?

Firstly, you were outside of your diocese.   There is little you can do to follow up.  So, in this situation, it is best to keep your mouth shut.

Second, as a seminarian, you are about at the level in our priestly corps as the recruit getting off the bus in the middle of the night for your tender welcome at Parris Island.  Your job right now is to find your particular painted set of yellow footprints and stand in them until you are told what to do next.  So, in this situation, it is best to keep your mouth shut.

Third, the priest is old, “elderly”… which from your perspective could be directed also at me.  Old men tend to be set in their ways.  And here comes Sonny with his helpful observations.  In terms of “fraternal correction” you had no obligation, in your present status.  In fact, since seminarians are not an easily renewable resource, don’t needlessly put yourself in the line of fire.  So, in this situation, it is best to keep your mouth shut.

This is like the old chestnut, “‘Shut up!’, he explained.”

Your job, along with finding your yellow footprints, is to get ordained.  Smile, watch your back, work hard, get ordained.

Fourth, at what point is Mass invalid?  If the priest has a negative intention against what the Church teaches, that invalidates.  If the matter and form are defective to the point that they don’t conform to what the Church specifies, that invalidates.  If the priest does not consume both of the sacred species, then he may have confected the Eucharist but it wasn’t Holy Mass. Fail.   Other than that, ad libbing doesn’t do it, unless he ad libs the consecration into incoherent idiocy.

Friend, be good and be prudent.  File these experiences away and let them warm your cold times.  Examine your conscience often and use the sacrament of Penance regularly.  Continue to verify your vocation with brutal honesty.

There are a lot of people praying for you.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. I think some priests occasionally unconsciously revert back to what they had memorized for decades. The new translation of the Missal has now been around for years, but not for as many years as an elderly priest would have spent saying “for all” at the consecration.

    If he does it all the time, that’s a little different. But then, you have to assist at a lot of his Masses to know whether he does it all the time.

  2. monstrance says:

    It’s particularly troubling when a “not so elderly” priest insists on making up the rubics.
    It becomes a prideful square filler for these rebels.
    ie. – refusing to use the beautiful words of absolution that Holy Mother Church has given us in the confessional.
    What motivates this behavior other than pride ?

  3. FN says:

    I have a question related to monstrance’s observation about confession. Our elderly priest uses the correct form of absolution, but he does NOT ask you to say an act of contrition. I always say, “Father, shall I say an act of contrition? “ and he says, “Yes, yes.” Then I do. But my daughter (8) is too shy to do this, she feels like Father doesn’t want her to say it, and it troubles her (and me) that her experience of confession is different from what I taught her about How We Do Confession. Do I have the right or the duty to ask 80-something Father to request the act of contrition at least in her case? ( I think he knows who she is as we are the only family with children regularly availing ourselves of confession at this church.)

    [If you talk to Father about this, be appropriately diplomatic. Remember that he cannot discuss what happens or doesn’t happen in the confessional. If you say, “You don’t do X!”, can can take it in, but he must be very careful about how he replies, particularly in the case of individual confessions. Anyway, be fair.]

  4. TonyO says:

    FN, when I was growing up (1960’s) there was no requirement that in confession we say an act of contrition. It is one of those optional extras that the Church added in some time in the recent past. I suspect that it is also an entirely local phenomenon, not a rule of the universal Church, either. And it doesn’t affect the validity of the sacrament at all – all that is needed is that you confess at least one sin, confess all mortal sins (that you can recall, sincerely), that you have due contrition, that the priest say “I absolve you…”, and that you intend to do the penance prescribed. At least, that’s what I was taught way back when with the Baltimore Catechism.

    [Saying the Act of Contrition is the clearest way that the confessor knows that you are sorry and that you have a firm purpose of amendment and intend to do penance.]

  5. Bthompson says:

    Obviously the things described above are not OK, but I would say that–PRUDENTLY timed and phrased questions–can be a learning opportunity for seminarians. When I was a seminarian, there were times when something struck me as off/unfamiliar, and so I (very carefilly) asked the priest why he did X. He told me about said (sometimes obscure) option and where it could be found.

    On the other hand, I also got myself burned a few times for innocent questions. I remember when starting the theology seminary they did an orientation for how they celebrated mass at the seminary. I asked about what the custom was with regard to posture after the Agnus Dei (this was back when some regions of the country stood at that point in the Mass). My word! What a backlash! The priest thought I was a troublemaker trying to catch him out on something contrary the rubrics.

  6. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Sometimes what we think is an ad lib is actually Obscure Option #27. Big missals are useful for that.

  7. JustaSinner says:

    TonyO, Baltimore Catechism, best book ever!

  8. Discipula says:

    Perhaps the best solution would be to approach Father with your daughter outside of Confession, smile and ask him for his help in encouraging your daughter to ask if she should recite the Act of Confession during her confessions. Smile and keep the conversation relaxed and positive. It sounds as if the real problem is that she is troubled that her experience is different from what she was expecting and that she isn’t comfortable speaking to Father about it. I suspect a friendly and cheerful conversation involving all three of you would be very beneficial. After all, you are really trying to create a habit in her more than you are trying to change a habit in him. A habit that will serve her well no matter who hears her confession.

  9. beelady says:

    I would like to thank the seminarian for asking this question and Father Z for answering it.
    I am a lay person and I had a very similar experience two Sundays ago.
    I was on vacation and visited a parish for Sunday Mass. That Mass was the most irreverent Mass I have ever encountered! I am worried about it’s validity and I have been trying to decide if I should write to the local Bishop. The priest (I am told he is 88 yrs old) seemed to make up the words of Consecration. I am positive that he did not use an official Eucharistic Prayer. He used broken sentences and rambled on about how Jesus shared bread with his friends and hoped that they would remember him. He also failed to genuflect when he held up the Body and the Precious blood.
    After communion he stood up and asked if there were any Birthdays in the upcoming week.
    Some people raised their hands and he walked over to them, asked their names and proceeded to lead the congregation in singing “Happy Birthday”!
    All of this was before the closing prayer – he made it part of the Mass!
    How do I know if that priest had a negative intention against what the church teaches? Should I assume in charity that he did not?
    His behavior certainly made it appear that he does not have respect for Jesus in the Eucharist.
    His homily was a Marxist/Leftist rant about melting weapons and using the metal to make farm implements to share.
    Although he was elderly I don’t think his age was the issue. He seemed to be intentionally ad libbing/putting on a show; not having difficulty because of his age.

  10. The problem is that a) he is 88 and b) if he is active he isn’t going to change and c) it is probably well known that he does this dopey stuff.

    It’s sad, but it is unlikely that anything will come of complaints.

    Also, to “complain” effectively, you have to have “proofs”, that is, documents or photos or videos that prove that what you claim happened really did happen.

  11. TonyO says:

    Fr. Z points out that:

    [Saying the Act of Contrition is the clearest way that the confessor knows that you are sorry and that you have a firm purpose of amendment and intend to do penance.]

    This is a very good point: a priest could spend a half hour discussing your state of mind to clarify that you have proper contrition and wish to amend – but obviously that’s an awfully long time when 50 other people are in line waiting for confession. The Act of Contrition is a very precise and very abbreviated statement that clarifies the necessary mental conditions for a good confession.

    If accurate, that is. Because the Act of Contrition is taught to us as kids, and we memorize it, it is perfectly possible for a person to recite it by rote, without thinking through what it means. Without, even, having the conditions of a good confession, such as actually intending to avoid those sins in the future. Or (more likely) not having reflected on what the prayer actually says in detail, perhaps just a general. amorphous regret for past sins.

    Personally, I am glad it’s there, because it urges me to think about my contrition. But I am also glad that having reflected perfectly on it and having meant every word of it in perfection are not necessary conditions for making a good confession. I think it helps us make better confessions.

  12. Fr. Kelly says:

    TonyO ays:
    FN, when I was growing up (1960’s) there was no requirement that in confession we say an act of contrition. It is one of those optional extras that the Church added in some time in the recent past. I suspect that it is also an entirely local phenomenon, not a rule of the universal Church, either.

    Tony O, I suspect that this was indeed a local phenomenon (both in time and in place) I was raised in the midwest of these United States in the latter 1960 and abroad in the 1970s and I found that the practice of requiring the Act of Contrition during Confession was normal unless it was during School confessions when Sister would lead us in the Act of Contrition all together beforehand. That being said, we had a priest who never asked for the Act of Contrition in Confession and that was one of his personal practises that distinguished him from our more traditional pastor.

    FWIW I checked with my older brothers and sisters who would have been raised in the late 4os and 5o’s also in the midwest and their experience was universally of reciting the Act of Contrition in confession. In fact, they tell me that the priest usually began the prayer of Absolution while they were reciting the Act of contrition and completed it when they were finished.

  13. aquinasadmirer says:

    Last Sunday, our 91 y.o. priest (but not pastor) added the Memorare prayer after we finished praying the petitions. (N.O. Mass) Not sure if this is liturgical abuse or not..

  14. Charles E Flynn says:

    In the mid to late 1950s, every candidate for First Holy Communion in my parish in had to memorize the Act of Contrition.

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