Monday, August 28, 2006

Improvised liturgical prayers?

Question: Can the priest give his own rendition of the approved liturgical texts so as to express, in his own seemingly improvised words, the prayers of the Roman Missal? It would seem the editio typica of the Roman Missal as approved by the Roman Pontiff went through a thorough process of being authored and approved such that Roman Catholics have a right to expect the Roman Catholic liturgy they participate in to be in accord with the approved liturgical texts. Is that not a reasonable expectation? In fact, isn't that a right that the Catholic faithful possess?

Answer: The Catholic faithful have a right to expect the priest to celebrate the Mass in accord with the approved liturgical texts. The priest is not permitted to "improvise" the liturgy, or to give his own "rendition" of the liturgical texts.

The texts as approved in Latin by the Roman Pontiff is the official Roman Missal. Proposed adaptations and translations into the vernacular must receive recognitio by the Holy See before they are authorized for use.

The practice you describe has been explicitly reprobated by the Roman Pontiff, according to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament, in their Instruction on Certain Matters to be Observe or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist (Redemptionis Sacramentum). This instruction was prepared by mandate of John Paul II in collaboration with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was approved by him 19 March 2004. It states:

"All of Christ's faithful likewise have the right to a celebration of the Eucharist that has been so carefully prepared in all its parts that the word of God is properly and efficaciously proclaimed and explained in it; that the faculty for selecting the liturgical texts and rites is carried out with care according to the norms; and that their faith is duly safeguarded and nourished by the words that are sung in the celebration of the Liturgy." (no. 58)

"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." (no. 59)
Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, affirms:

... in some countries and religious congregations, small additions have been made to these prayers with proper authorization from the Holy See.

The general principles involved are those announced in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 24-26. No. 24 reminds priests that while some adaptations of the liturgy are possible these "consist for the most part in the choice of certain rites or texts, that is, of the chants, readings, prayers, explanations, and gestures that may respond better to the needs, preparation, and culture of the participants and that are entrusted to the priest celebrant. 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." Nos. 25 and 26 refer to other adaptations reserved to the
diocesan bishop or to the episcopal conference which often require the definitive ratification of the Holy See.

The recent instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" has also weighed in on the topic of unauthorized alterations in No. 31: "In keeping with the solemn promises that they have made in the rite of Sacred Ordination and renewed each year in the Mass of the Chrism, let Priests celebrate 'devoutly and faithfully the mysteries of Christ for the praise of God and the sanctification of the Christian people, according to the tradition of the Church, especially in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.' 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. For as St. Ambrose said, 'It is not in herself ... but in us that the Church is injured. Let us take care so that our own failure may not cause injury to the Church.' Let the Church of God not be injured, then, by Priests who have so solemnly dedicated themselves to the ministry. Indeed, under the Bishop's authority let them faithfully seek to prevent others as well from committing this type of distortion."

[Fr. Edward McNamara, "Sustituting the 'Lamb of God'," Zenit News Agency Liturgy Questions, July 13, 2004, ]

Fr. McNamara goes on to quote from Redemptionis Sacramentum no. 58 & no. 59 (cited above). He furthermore asserts:
What is important to consider in the case presented is not so much whether the additions involved are theologically correct -- they might well be -- but the fact that an individual priest takes upon himself the role of changing what the Church has established. By praying in words of his own choosing, and not those chosen by the Church, he, in a sense, betrays the "we" of the presidential prayers which make him the Church's representative before God and obscures the faithful's right to join through his ministry in the prayer of the universal Church. Such acts are probably often done with the best of intentions and even spring from pastoral motives. But they are objectively acts of theological egotism that transform the common patrimony into an individual's private domain.

As mentioned above, this does not mean that the liturgy is totally untouchable; however, any changes must be made according to the proper procedures. To take the present examples, some episcopal conferences, above all in Latin America, have, with the Holy See's approval, added the words "Jesus Christ" to the Agnus Dei so as to strengthen the people's faith in the real presence. The priest thus says: "This is the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who takes away the sins ..." Other episcopal conferences, such as the Italian, have composed alternative opening prayers reflecting the readings of the day for the three Sunday Cycles. Such concessions are particular and may only be used within the confines of the countries for which they have been approved. All the same, they give an idea of the real possibilities for liturgical adaptation when done according to the mind of the Church.


God bless,