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Liturgy: Obedience to a Priest

7/20/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Obedience to a Priest

And More on Old Ceramic Vessels

ROME, JULY 20, 2005 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: In a certain church in New York state a priest told parishioners they could not kneel during the consecration. He also told them they could not say the rosary in front of the Blessed Sacrament. The question we have concerns obedience. Are the laity obligated to obey a priest when it comes to liturgical practices or devotional practices? Is it a sin not to obey the orders of the priest? -- M.A.E., Rochester, New York

A: There are several questions here and several levels of obedience.

First of all, both priest and faithful owe obedience to Christ and his Church in matters of faith, morals and liturgical discipline.

Neither the priest nor the faithful are lords and masters of the liturgy but must receive it as a gift through which, by actively and consciously participating, they enter into communion with Christ and the Church, and benefit from an increase of grace.

This fundamental obedience of the assembly to Christ and the Church is the basis for the other forms of mutual obedience within the assembly. In a way, the priest owes obedience to the faithful in that he has a solemn mission to lead them in prayer and worship according to the mind of the Church. And the faithful have a corresponding right and duty to pray and worship in communion with the universal Church.

This also leads to a proper understanding of the faithful's obedience to their pastors. They should be docile in accepting his guidance in all that touches on the mind of the Church.

Thus, with respect to the liturgy, the priest is called to direct the faithful in the Church's liturgical worship. The faithful, in turn, have an obligation to obey him insofar as his direction corresponds to Church's mind as expressed in the liturgical books or in the dispositions of legitimate Church authority.

With respect to acts of private devotion, the priest, as teacher, is called to guide the faithful to a solid spiritual life. In this he may sometimes be required to warn them against certain devotional practices that deviate from sound doctrine or that are prone to confuse his flock regarding the priority of the sacramental life.

In some grave cases the priest might even have to forbid the use of the church as a venue for public manifestations of problematic devotions. In carrying out these actions he must always be guided by sound Church doctrine and not his personal spiritual preferences.

As said, the obedience of the faithful to the priest is in virtue of communion with the Church and consequently they have no obligation to obey a priest who directs them to perform or omit acts contrary to Church norms, because in doing so he fails to fulfill his mission of leading in communion.

The faithful are also free to practice any devotional exercise that is in conformity with sound doctrine and Church norms.

However, the faithful should always have a presumption in favor of the correctness of the priest's directives in liturgical or spiritual matters and should avoid the danger of allowing suspicion to reign in their spiritual lives. If they have a positive doubt regarding any specific issue, the initial attitude should always be one of a charitable dialogue in search of mutual understanding.

Certainly, and not only in the developed world, the days are past when a priest was the exclusive source of doctrinal information. Today, most educated Catholics can find out for themselves what the Church teaches or regulates on any topic.

Yet this extra knowledge should be an aid to mutual understanding rather than a weapon of discordance and the attitude should always be one of construction rather than confrontation.

Sometimes an apparently erroneous directive may be justified by contextual circumstances not readily perceivable and in an attitude of mutual charity the priest should be willing to explain the motivations behind his actions and the faithful be disposed to weigh carefully what he has to say.

If necessary, all should be willing to ask the bishop clarify the situation. To some this might seem overly optimistic, but as the ancient hymn reminds us, "Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est" -- Where true charity and love are found, there is God.

Now, alas, we have to come to the nitty-gritty of the first part of the question.
The directive issued by the priest not to kneel during the consecration is erroneous if taken as a general rule. The norms for kneeling in the United States are stated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 43:

"In the dioceses of the United States of America, they (The faithful) should kneel beginning after ...

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