11 June 2009

Liturgical Abuse: what to do about it

OK, so your pastor, Fr. Hollywood, has decided to co-opt your parish's Sunday Masses as his time to show all of your pew-sitting mouth-breathers what a hip guy he is. He changes the wording of the prayers to fit his political agenda. He writes the prayer intentions to reflect his pet-peeves and social projects. He uses the homily to berate you for not recycling, for opposing illegal immigration, and for standing outside the abortion clinic praying the rosary. Then, just to rub a little salt in the wound, he ends each Mass with the exclamation, "Go be Church!"

Had enough?

Any sensible Catholic would have exploded by now. Unfortunately, most Catholics are either shell-shocked by the inanity of these DIY liturgies or comfortably numb with the monotonous hum of Father's self-serving political haranguing.

Let's say you decide "to do something about it." What do you do?

First, here's what NOT to do: do not fire off an angry letter to the bishop demanding that this heretic be removed from the parish or else. Unless Father is doing something horribly illegal (molesting children, stealing money, selling drugs out of the rectory, etc.), there's almost no chance he's going to be replaced. There's simply not enough priests to go around. Also, firing off an angry letter to the pastor himself will likely end with him filing the letter for further reference in the trash can.* Angry doesn't work.

The next thing to do is to honestly examine your conscience about your motivations for wanting these abuses to stop. Do these abuses cause me serious spiritual problems? Am I wanting to be a cultural warrior and take sides in the battle? Am I being scrupulous about rule-following, or wantonly careless about following the rubrics? Do the abuses seriously damage my understanding of the faith? Am I just being a liturgy Nazi just b/c I can be? Am I pushing my personal political agenda? Am I thinking with the Church on these issues? Keep in mind: you cannot speak for anyone but yourself. You cannot complain that the inclusive pronouns or the exclusive pronouns are hurting other people's faith. It might be true that Father's liturgical goofiness is hurting other people, but you can't know that; therefore, you can't report it. And even if half the parish tells you it's hurting them, you can't speak for them. You can speak for you alone. I am not trying to discourage you from talking to Father about these issues. I'm encouraging you to know your motivations for wanting to do so. Be clear about those motivations lest you are tempted to pride.

Here's what you need to know before you speak up. . .everyday (probably several times a day), Father is besieged by parishioners who know how to run the parish better than he does. They are all self-appointed experts in liturgy, finance, personnel, scripture, theology, canon law, and politics. And all of them together are pulling the pastor in a hundred different directions, all making contradictory or contrasting demands for action. While you loathe the use of inclusive pronouns that reduce God to a Platonic Parent, there are three people in the parish complaining b/c he doesn't throw out the USCCB-approved lectionary for being sexist. While you're outraged that he uses homily time to bark at you about the evils of carbon emissions, five people are complaining b/c his last homily canonizing Al Gore forgot to elevate The One to sainthood as well. If he makes you happy, he adds eight more complaints to his calendar. Also, keep in mind that Father might actually have justifibly good reasons for what he is doing. I have very bad knees from working for five years in a violent adolescent mental hospital. It is very difficult for me to genuflect. A U.D. student respectfully asked me why I didn't genuflect at the consecration. I explained my weird situation, and she was satisfied. Case closed.

Now, if Father thinks it's his job to make everyone happy, well, that's his problem. He's taken on an impossible task and caused himself nothing but misery. If he choses to bow before the loudest voices in the parish and do as he is told, again, his problem. My hope would be that the pastor would lead. Stand up front and follow the Church with his parish supporting him along the way. That happens quite frequently but nearly often enough. Regardless, we are all responsible to one another in this Body, so if you are clear on your motives and well-aware that you might be the lone oppositional voice. . .speak up!

Having persuaded you that Father is haggarded with competing demands and unlikely to be moved by an angry letter, what do you do to persuade him to change his goofy liturgical ways?

Talk to him. Make an appointment and charitably express your concerns. Tell him why his goofiness upsets you. Do so respectfully with every fiber of humility you can muster. Approach him with what you see as abuses by asking open-ended questions. For example, "Father, I've noticed you avoid using male pronouns when speaking about God. Can you tell me why this is important for you to do?" Listen to his answer without judgment. Actually hear his answer over the clamour of your need to correct his interpretation of canon law. When he finishes, see if you can repeat to him what he has said. Then, move on to the next question. Save your objections for a later appointment. If he asks you what you think, tell him that you just want to know why he does the things he does b/c you are unsure of his reasons for making the changes. You will be tempted here to launch into a broadside against liturgical innovation. Resist it!

When you go to Mass next take notice of his "abuses." Is he still doing them? Are you still upset? If so, ask for another appointment. This time go back through your questions and tell him how each abuse upsets you. Again, do so respectfully and without accusation. Just report your feelings and thoughts, leaving canon law and papal documents out of it for now. If he's a good pastor he will pull more out of you than you would imagine there is to pull.

Go back to Mass and take note. The abuses are still happening. Ask for another appointment. This time note your disappointment that the abuses are still going on and ask him what you should do about it. Remind him of your objections and how he responded to them. But honestly ask, "I understand now why you think your changes are necessary, but they are disrupting my prayer in Mass. I find them very distracting. What do I do?" Listen carefully to how he answers and ask appropriate questions. He may tell you to get over it. He may apologize and keep on doing what he's doing. He may suggest some reading to "enlighten" you. Or, he may shrug and say, "I dunno. What do you want to do?" Tell him.

Tell him whatever it is you think you need to do. But don't think for a moment that threatening to leave or withhold donations is going to change his mind. He's got three folks in the outer office waiting to push him even further along the road of liturgical experimentation. Or maybe, you are expressing what dozens have express to him already and the pressure to change is mounting. The one thing that will dissipate all that pressure most effectively is anger. If you get mad and spout off, you're credibility is gone. No one wants to listen to a madman, so the ravings of a madman are ignored. Don't threaten. Don't quote canon law. Or liturgical documents. Don't wave Ratziner's Spirit of the Liturgy in his face. Chances are he knows that what he is doing goes against prevailing law and custom. I've never seen the legalistic approach work. Never. There's simply no way to tell someone that they are violating the rules without sounding like you are accusing them of a crime. In fact, that's exactly what you would be doing. "Father, here are the 37 canonical crimes you have commited in a month of Masses. . ."

At this point, sit down and write a very charitable letter detailing what you see as abuse in the Mass. Whatever you do: NOT NOT QUOTE canon law or papal documents. Pastors who tend to be goofy in the liturgy are constitutionally allergic to rules, so quoting rules to them only reinforces their sense of being "hip" and "edgy." They will simply respond my invoking "pastoral considerations" and keep on truckin'. What these guys will respond to favorably is an honest, personal assessment of what you believe their abuses are doing to your prayer life. If you are sincerely adversely affected by the abuses, say so. And be specific about it. For all their calavier attitude about The Rules, most pastors loathe the idea that anything they would do could hurt someone. You could be the first, the tenth, or the one-hundredth person to tell him that his goofiness is detrimental to your fruitful experience of the Mass.

Tell him in this letter that you feel compelled to write a similar letter to the bishop. As the Pastor of the Diocese, your spiritual health is his responsibility. You are not tattling or going over Father's head. If your letter is motivated by genuine angst, written from a personal experience, and doesn't pretend to teach the bishop his business, you will be heard.

Last but not least, prepare for nothing to be done. Prepare for the fact that no changes will occur. Prepare for hearing nothing back from the bishop. Why? Becasue if Father has 800 people pulling at him about this and that, the bishop has 80,000. Not hearing back from the bishop doesn't mean that nothing was done. All it means is that no one told you that something was done. If your pastor has a history of liturgical abuse, the bishop has a file. Your letter will join others and eventually the weight will tilt the bishop into action. But don't expect the bishop to drop everything he's doing, drive to your parish, and blast the pastor in front of the congregation before Sunday Mass. If that's what you want to happen, then you need to do some seriously soul-searching.

So, let's say that you have done all that I have suggested and you arrive at Mass on Sunday morning confident that Fr. Hollywood has been straightened out. He processes in and begins, "In the Name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifer. . ." What do you do?

Like the shampoo bottle says, "Rinse, lather, repeat." If you tell me that you don't have time for this sort of protracted conversation, I am tempted to say that you aren't serious about the abuses hurting your spiritual life. If Father's goofiness is damaging you spiritually, nothing should stop you from addressing the abuse. It might take years to convince him to change. How important is it to you to have the Mass celebrated with the universal Church?

*When I was a deacon at Holy Rosary Church in Houston, I was unexpectedly recruited by one of my elderly brothers to help him distribute communion. Unfortunately, I was dressed to go on a work project with my U.H. students. We were there for the Mass b/c our project supervisor was running late. I was wearing shorts, a tee-shirts, and sandals. When I objected to the priest that I was not properly dressed, he insisted I help him with the unusually large crowd. He didn't even give me a chance to put on an alb! So, there I was at the very traditional Holy Rosary Church giving communion in shorts and a tee-shirt. A few weeks later the pastor got a thick envelope that he passed on to me. Inside were about thirty pages of copies of canon law, papal and conciliar documents going back to the ninth century! All yellow highlighted and decorated with exclamation points and underlines. The point of the letter: clergy should not participate in the liturgy dressed in anything but proper vestments. Duh? Really? I didn't know that. The author of the package was furious with me for my disrespect, etc. and demanded that I be fired. Had he taken 30 seconds after Mass to talk to me personally, he would have discovered that I agreed with him! Instead, he chose to go home fuming and spend hours collecting and copying documents that fit rather nicely in my trash can.


  1. Anonymous6:29 AM

    Fantastic post, Father! Will be filed away for further reverence. Though probably not in the trash can.

    And you used a footnote. My appreciation knows no bounds.

  2. Anonymous7:42 AM

    It depends. You have some good points and if you are willing to hear people who you think "complain" over and over again, then you are not like the priests here.

    This is my experience. I do not address liturgical abuses unless they are true and serious (this usually means dealing with Eucharistic prayers and changing of things so much that the consecration could be invalidated). Now, what I do is address it quickly and follow up with a letter with just reference (not documents). I pretty well know I will not get my calls answered and will wait till the End of Time if I try to meet with him. So, a copy of that letter is sent with another letter to our Bishop. And it usually does stop the abuse. Would I like to do that? Heck no. But I only say something when it is a serious abuse (breaking the host during the Eucharistic prayer instead of at the Lamb of God, for example).

    The other things, music and decoration and multiplication of EMHC, that has to come from the Bishop and so far, he doesn't see a need to address it.

    Never once have I gotten past the first talk. They just won't let you.
    If you do that Fr, God Bless you!
    In the end, it depends on what you think is an abuse. And I would do research first.
    This is just my experience.

  3. Anonymous7:52 AM

    One more thing, as to why I do this, it is because of my profound love for our Holy Mass. We also have a right to the mass celebrated the way it is supposed to be celebrated. But just know, that I have only had to address 3 real serious abuses. And it also comes with the price of not being received by the priest, there are not chummy feelings between us and him. But I do have respect for him as I do the Mass. And I also learned that many were not taught things or were not aware that some things were abuses.

    Just saying.

  4. Opey, honestly, I've only been asked about my liturgical practices a few times in four years...very few. I say the black and do the red. It keeps me out of trouble. Of course, my first three years of priesthood were at the Univ of Dallas, where I was very comfortable with the more traditional attitudes toward liturgy. I've never had anyone outright complain to my pastor or the bishop about something I did at Mass.

  5. Maybe the all-time best thing ever to do is to appeal, not to the priest nor to the bishop nor even to Rome, but to their Boss -- in prayer. Imagine what could happen if all the faithful prayed the Rosary every day for the intention that the liturgy be restored in its fullness. Since it takes the Holy Spirit to change hearts, it seems to me that prayer would take care of not only Fr. Hollywood but also Bishop Vegas Strip who supports his nuttiness, and, most of all, their fans in the pews who like the goofy stuff and are hostile to tradition.

    I think it is especially important to invoke the Mother of God via the Rosary on this matter. Kookburgery cannot coexist with true devotion to her.

  6. Flambeaux10:23 AM

    When faced with a Fr. Hollywood, I leave. Period.

    But, it usually doesn't get that far. When the (permitted) alter serviettes flounce out to light candles, or the Haugen/Hass/Schutte Mass setting begins, that's usually when I walk out.

    I don't know that I've ever bothered, but once, speaking with a priest about liturgical abuse. His response, "I know. You're right. But what can I do? I'm just the pastor."

    *rolls eyes*

  7. Anonymous10:52 AM

    Bless you father.
    If I may add one more thing, when the abuses are real and serious, I think it would be better if we, the laity could go another route, straight to the Bishop or someone in the office so that it doesn't jeopordize or hurt the relationship we have with our priest.
    I had wished we could do that but that isn't an option and at least here, when you try to say something to the Bishop's office, you get the same rote response of "Tis better to reconcile these matters one the lowest level..." Which is completely right. But, if I am stating something to you, in which you have been taught something wrong, why would you to listen to me?
    It is unfotunate on both sides.

  8. Thank you for this excellent and prudent post.

    If Catholics had been more charitable in the past about liturgical abuses (which seemed to enjoy its heyday in the 'eighties), we might not have such polarity between liturgically inept priests and well-meaning Catholic laity.

    I have one objection, however. The hypothetical Catholic who speaks with her/his pastor speaks of how the abuses disrupts "my" prayer.

    The sacred liturgy is never "mine" but "ours"--and it should be the common patrimony of all Catholics that is owed respect and preservation, not personal piety. Personal piety is necessarily subsequent to the liturgy.

    But still, great post. Thank you!

  9. Steven R12:05 PM


    I first need to say that I consider myself sane, not nitpicky, and have a love for the Church, her priests and her liturgy. In fact, I and my entire arsenal of children sacrifice regularly and pray nightly for all priests, particularly those priests in our parish and our Archbishop. Having distanced myself from those who would fire off a letter to the Bishop because the Pastor had his hair parted on the other side of his head, I have taken a very similar approach to the one you outline in addressing liturgical abuse. I call my method the "climbing the ladder of authority" approach where I address each individual beginning on the lowest level first in the most personal and charitable way possible trying to be as disarming as possible and expecting, as you say, “no changes [to] occur” at any level.

    While I agree with everything that you have outlined, there are a two key components, closely related, that never seem to be addressed by anyone that speaks about this, particularly priests, who speak about addressing liturgical abuse. Cont...

  10. Steven R12:06 PM

    First, while I have in the distant past been motivated to address liturgical abuse for my own spiritual welfare, I now primarily address liturgical abuse for the sake of my children. No one ever really fully considers or appreciates how the various fluctuations in liturgy can affect the spiritual development of a child. If “lex orandi, lex credendi” has any validity at all, then any liturgical abuse is a tragedy in realying this reality to children. As I attempt to relay the Faith to my five children, it becomes increasingly difficult to have them believe that what we do at mass reflects a greater reality and should be reflected in the way we live, when the liturgy is so “off the cuff” and at times disrespectful to the reality of Christ’s sacrifice on the altar. For example, my son was instructed by the Pastor to go up around the altar at his first communion and did not have to kneel during consecration at this event; and the parochial vicar has deemed it necessary to place a glass of water on the altar at every mass from which he sips just prior to or during consecration – (I object to the placement on the altar not to the use or presence of, and have even offered to purchase a decorative stand to hold this). So, even though we believe that that is Christ upon Calvary and that all should kneel, on the day of his first communion my son is somehow the center of attention and does not have to kneel to Christ? And surely there was a glass of water on Calvary for Christ to sip from to sooth his parched throat? Relaying the faith is made so much more difficult when Pastor Soandso prays mass “his” way and other priests pray “their” way. Confusion in the laity truly abounds because of this, and if the adults are confused then what about our Children? So where does the concerned mother or father go to when those in authority won’t affect changes to correct liturgical abuses? This is the primary reason why I am attracted to the traditional Latin mass. Its theology matches its actions, almost always. But unfortunately, only the Novus Ordo is available to me and my family – (so much for Summorum Pontificum!). Cont...

  11. Steven R12:07 PM

    Second, whatever happened to the shepherd leading and guiding the flock? It seems that the shepherd is now either a wolf in sheep’s clothing or badgered by the sheep so much that he is doing what the sheep want him to do instead of taking the sheep to task with the staff of correction. Where is the rod of correction? It’s no wonder why we have all the confusion we have in the priesthood and particularly in the laity. When there seems to be a prevailing attitude that you can do what you please with the liturgy in the name of “being pastoral” and never worry about being reprimanded, corrected, guided, or otherwise “straightened out” (particularly by Catholics in the pews who take their faith so seriously that they would dare say anything to the offending priest) because there are no repercussions. As a parent, I know that if I delay disciplinary action, if the discipline that I am to use is not applied swiftly following the offense, then the pattern of offending is reinforced. I think that a very similar dynamic is at work in our Church today. Where is a St. Paul these days when you need him? Those in authority, only very rarely in and usually in extraordinary circumstances ever actually and with concrete effect apply that authority for the greater good. This is proven every time a layperson, who is the most directly affected, stands up for the Church and her Mass and yet expects “no changes [to] occur.” I don’t buy the argument that the bishop is just too busy to do what he is supposed to do, especially and particularly for the sake of our children. It may be reality that any particular Bishop is busy, but the responsibilities to his flock are also a reality.

  12. Anonymous12:37 PM

    I wish I could follow these instructions, I truly do. But I seem to be one of those more emotional types that will either feel my anger rise or my tears fall.

    I could not go through protracted meetings. Once would be all I could possibly muster and not alone either.

    What did I finally do when I could endure no longer? I moved to another diocese. No kidding. We left our life behind and moved to a place that was Roman Catholic. I just wish we had done it sooner.

  13. Anonymous1:57 PM

    Being nice, being courteous, even picking up the Mass vestments the pastor had draped across some shrubs as he exited the church got me expelled from the parish.
    On an official visit, the Bishop did away with the pretty wine glasses and a real chalice reappeared.
    I don't know if anyone has ever seen this priest in clericals, but sometimes he remembers to wear a stole over his sport shirt and chinos while standing in the center aisle hearing confessions, if he has not had a chance to post an handwritten note on the church doors that "the priests don't have time to hear confessions this week".

  14. An archbishop once said to me: "You are part of the body of Christ. Those men that have received the sacrament of Holy Orders are also part of that Body. They have been given great power. While you might be a skin cell, they are a heart cell. As a member of that body you and every other parishioner of your church deserve the mass as it is meant to be done. When a priest or bishop thinks themselves above the laws and norms of the church, they hurt you and everyone else, not to mention themselves.

    It is their duty to celebrate the mass correctly. So do not be afraid to confront the priest, because that priest knows better. That is why they pent seven years in preparation. So never settle for anything less than what is correct and what is true."

    And the more I look at it, the more I see that he is right. The liturgy is remarkably structured while still allowing freedom. But whomever steps over those boundaries risks destroying the faith of those whom they have been entrusted.

    For that reason, I will never settle for less.

    And father phil, these are good guidelines. I do agree except one thing. I think people should talk to each other to make sure that for every three green nuts outside the office, ten others with the truths in mind will be there to back you (or me) up.


  15. "And even if half the parish tells you it's hurting them, you can't speak for them."

    Am I my brothers keeper?

  16. James,

    You might be your brother's keeper, but you aren't his spokesperson.

    Telling your pastor "half the parish hates the stuff you do" is meaningless, especially if you are the only one to confront him about the abuses.

  17. Reason 3,412 why the liturgy shouldn't have been changed. It introduced, as did many of the changes in the 60's, the idea that change for its own sake was good for the liturgy/sacraments/disciplines of the church.

    Do we even know what a real abuse is anymore? At least when there were abuses with the Roman Rite before it was altered, they either met the standards of the rubrics or they didn't. Now, I can see a different Mass in every city I visit. "Liturgical" Dancing, costumes, altered words of consecration, feminized (or gender neutralized) terms for God, hand holding (or none) in Our Father, prayers and sermons for liberal political activism rather than expounding on the faith...the list goes on.

    All this change and alteration from the old norms does not reflect our "diversity" and "dynamism". It reflects our confusion. The liturgical inability to sit still, an ADD if you will.

  18. Good points, but one quibble. Polite letters merit an answer. Not to respond is condescending at best. One may not get a letter agreeing with one's view. It may, in fact, be (upon close examination) a polite brush-off. But if someone has taken the trouble to write a polite letter, a well-bred recipient MUST respond. Neither congressmen, nor presidents, nor university heads, nor country club chairmen, nor bishops are exempt from this requirement.

  19. Anonymous2:18 PM

    Fr. Phillip, how would you suggest approaching a pastor about things that aren't quite right that *aren't* during Mass? For example, if it's about problems with how Sunday school is taught?

  20. Anonymous9:42 PM

    henry clemens,

    Under normal circumstances I would agree that polite letters require an answer. But a priest or bishop's life is rarely normal.

    I don't know what it's like for your pastor, but mine can easly get 50-100 e-mails a week, and that's just e-mails. Some letters are serious, and many, far too many, are trivial - that includes ton's of spam that people like to pass along. If he were to respond to all of them he would have no time to visit the sick, celebrate the sacraments, meet wiht people who need help and everything else that he does each day.

    While we would all love to get a response when we write, we have to remember that priests are not merely administrators. Their pastoral duties have to come first. In other words, that emergency sick call that lasted for two hours can mean that 5 letters won't get answered, and that is how it should be.

  21. Anonymous makes a good point about over-burdened pastors. One-hundred emails a week (plus spam) is a burden. But one (if one is old enough at any rate) distinguishes between attention due emails and that due proper letters. Overburdened pastors can probably respond to most with a quiet word at the church door after Sunday mass. "So appreciated your letter; thanks for taking the trouble."

    But some pastors and all bishops (in my experience) have secretarial staff. I must get three or four letters a year "signed" by the bishop and asking for support for something. If the staff can cash the resulting check (be it only the widow's mite), they can acknowledge a serious letter. Laity are not clergy, but, if not cranks and if polite, they have the right to expect reciprocal politeness and some consideration of their views. In any case, one should have thought that a serious communication of relevant views would be of some value -- which can certainly be indicated without encouraging a lengthy further exchange

    There may be another factor here. I was told a number of years ago by a older and very well placed layman --active and supportive of and honored by the Church-- that the reason one does NOT all that often receive a reply from the chancery is that the older clergy, at least, remain all too mindful of the XIXth Cent. dispute over lay control of church property. Therefore a deliberate decision not to acknowledge lay views by what would otherwise be the expected response. But I trust that this historical memory is no longer a factor?

  22. Father, while I understand that we cannot know all the mitigating circumstances based on appearances 100% of the time (and I'm sure the individual who wrote you would have been happy to know you agreed with him!), wouldn't it be fair to say that it was not his mistake to be scandalized by an objectively grave abuse, but more your responsibility to avoid it by obeying the higher authority and insist on grabbing an alb?

  23. Very good tips Father...

    But I must say for myself, I try to give the benefit of the doubt to the priest in most circumstnaces.

    Example: The Chaplin at my school doesn't genuflect to either species. I cut him slack because he's had a few hip replacement surgeries and he's becoming pretty old. I see the wear and tear on him personally.

    I'd add if there aren't medical impediments to a priest following the rubrics exactly, one of the effective methods that I've found is relating the abuse on a different scale, for example, something comes out wrong when you don't preheat the oven or something like that.