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Liturgy: Obedience to a Priest

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 the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise."

The debate in the bishops' conference leading up to the formulation of this adaptation, especially with the insertion of the expression "on occasion," made it clear that the bishops desired to prevent the exception from becoming a blanket permission to abolish kneeling.

Thus, unless some particular good reason led the priest to indicate to the people that they not kneel on that occasion, and especially if he indicated a stable norm for the parish, then he was going beyond his authority.

Similarly, there is no law forbidding the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament. Indeed, the Holy See specifically permitted it in an official response to a doubt, published Jan. 15, 1997.

The document did state that the Blessed Sacrament should not be exposed just to pray the rosary. But it allowed the rosary to be among the prayers carried out during adoration.

While there is no prohibition in principle, one could surmise that specific circumstances might arise that would induce a pastor not to allow public recitation of the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament. In such (supposedly rare) occurrences he would be acting within his rights and duties as spiritual guide.

He would have no authority, however, to forbid the faithful from praying the rosary privately before the Blessed Sacrament.

* * *

Follow-up: What to Do With Old Ceramic Vessels

Our suggestions regarding the disposal of ceramic vessels gives the opportunity to answer a couple of related questions.

A California reader asked: "The new instruction indicates that glass chalices or ciboria may not be used at liturgy. When the Pope came to our city and we had a marvelous liturgy for hundreds of thousands, the archdiocese had glass bowls made for the distribution of holy Communion. After the Pope left, the archdiocese asked parishioners to buy these bowls for their parishes. Hundreds, if not a thousand bowls, were purchased. It seems strange that these bowls could be used for the Pope's Mass, but can no longer be used. What should be done with these glass bowls which have been used in parishes? Should they be given back to the buyer?"

Regarding the eventual disposal of such vessels, I refer to what I said in the earlier column. Since the problem is generalized the bishop could be asked to make some overall dispositions.

I would point out, however, that the fact that these vessels were used at a papal Mass does not automatically mean they were liturgically correct, as a lot depends on the local organizers.

At the same time, until the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" finally cleared up the doubts, the admissibility of glass and ceramic was a disputed point. And so it is probable that the use of these bowls was considered correct at the time.

Another reason could be that extraordinary occasions may require exceptional solutions and, while the use of less expressive and easily replicable vessels might not be justified for normal liturgical use, it may be the only practical possibility on rare grand occasions with many thousands of people receiving.

Indeed, I observed that ceramic ciboria were used recently to distribute Communion at the Mass celebrated by Benedict XVI at Bari in southern Italy to conclude a Eucharistic Congress.

A Minnesota reader asked: "I offered to purchase replacements for the glass chalices and the 'fishbowl' that are used for Communion. While the priest is willing to bend a little, offering to use gold-plated items should I purchase them, he retains that he will still use the glass for 'catechism' of children during Mass, i.e. to let them see the body and blood of our Lord so that they understand. I reminded him of the 'Redemptionis Sacramentum' statement to not use glass, and he stated that the bishop sent letters to the priests in the diocese saying not to implement RS until he'd reviewed it and given it the OK.

"There are several issues here: 1. Is there any exception for the use of glass as stated by my priest? 2. Does the bishop have a right to hold up the implementation of RS which to me is just a clarification of the GIRM?"

I do not think that there are any exceptions which would allow for glass chalices. To my mind the priest's "catechetical argument" is somewhat specious -- as if the visibility of the sacred species somehow facilitated faith in transubstantiation.

The Church has managed to transmit faith in the Eucharist for centuries without having recourse to glass chalices. It can probably manage without them in the future.

As I have not seen the bishop's letter I cannot comment in particular and I suppose that, at this stage, he has already taken action. I doubt that he was claiming the right to veto the Holy See.

It is more likely that he was referring to the practical consequences of the document and its application to the diocese. He probably wanted time to study the document so as to assure a smooth diocese-wide transition of any practices that needed reform. He might have also wanted to resolve logistical difficulties, such as, for example, the bulk purchase of new vessels at a favorable price.

Of course, some aspects of "Redemptionis Sacramentum," such as anything reprobated as a "grave abuse," had to be remedied immediately and without delay.


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Liturgy, Priest, Catholic, Mass, Vessels, Ceramic

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