Ad-libbing in the Mass: Does it really matter?

Ad-libbing in the Mass: Does it really matter?

John Young

Some people see nothing wrong with a priest departing from the rubrics and exercising creativity in saying Mass. Some think it a good thing that he should impress his personality on the celebration and adapt it to the occasion and the congregation.

They see it as mean-spirited and Pharisaical to complain about this, and regard those who do so as rigid and legalistic, demanding conformity to the letter of the law (in the manner of the ancient Pharisees), while neglecting the spirit of freedom that should characterise the Christian.

This tolerant attitude is contrary to what Rome insists on. Vatican II declared that no-one, not even a priest, may change anything in the liturgy on his own initiative (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 22); and in the forty years since then a stream of directives has issued from the Vatican on how the liturgy is to be celebrated.

There is not the slightest doubt that violations of the rubrics are seen by Rome as serious. This should be enough to cause any Catholic to avoid them, for Christ gave the Apostles and their successors, the Pope and bishops, the power of binding and loosing in God's name. Good reasons exist for the liturgical rules, and great harm can result from flouting them.

For one thing, the truth is obscured. Take what may seem a trivial change: the alteration by some priests of the words "the mystery of faith". They say instead: "Let us proclaim the mystery of our faith." This obscures the meaning, for the expression "mystery of faith" (in Latin mysterium fidei) means the Eucharist, whereas the alteration suggests that the words that follow (e.g., "Christ has died ...") state the mystery we are proclaiming.

A priest who says, "The Lord is with you", instead of "The Lord be with you", gave as his reason that the latter expression is erroneous, because the Lord is always with us, so it is wrong to pray that he be with us. This alleged correction is a manifestation of the priest's poor theology.

Tampering with the words in what seem trivial instances opens the way to distortions of doctrine and even invalidity of the Consecration. It prompts changes for the sake of political correctness, as in the use of inclusive language. The Mass, which should promote unity, becomes a source of division.

Only too often the beauty of the prayers is lessened, with the changes having a banal character unsuited to the majesty of the Mass.

This disobedience to the directives of Rome gives bad example, as the congregation (or those aware of the position) witness defiance of the Church's authority by a priest in his public celebration of the liturgy - a priest who has promised obedience.

It shows contempt for the people present, with the celebrant deliberately flouting their rights, as though he owned the liturgy. It is an example of that lording it over others which Our Lord condemned and enjoined his priests to avoid (Matt 20:25ff).

A tragic result is the dislike for the Novus Ordo engendered in some fervent Catholics by the abuses they have witnessed. Failing to distinguish between the Novus Ordo when faithfully celebrated and when tampered with, they yearn for the Tridentine Mass and haven't a good word to say for the Novus Ordo. Many recruits to the unlawful St Pius X Society have gone that way because of liturgical aberrations by disobedient priests.

The recent Instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Redemptionis Sacramentum, manifests yet again the seriousness with which Rome views this matter. The Instruction declares: "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 this, they render the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy unstable, and not infrequently distort the authentic meaning of the Liturgy" (n. 59).

The Instruction condemns, among other things, the proliferation of extraordinary ministers. "Only when there is a necessity may extraordinary ministers assist the priest celebrant in accordance with the norm of law" (n. 88). This law, although insisted upon by Rome, is only too often flouted; but the fact is that only the bishop, priest and deacon are the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and others are not permitted to distribute Communion unless a real necessity exists.


Self-intinction is another abuse. The communicant is not allowed to dip the host in the chalice: "The communicant must not be permitted to intinct the host himself in the chalice, nor to receive the intincted host in the hand" (n. 104).

An abuse in the celebration of the liturgy, states the Instruction, "is to be seen as a real falsification of Catholic Liturgy" (n. 169). It then quotes St Thomas Aquinas saying that this abuse is the vice of falsehood.

The right of any Catholic to lodge a complaint is stated (n. 184), whether to the bishop or to the Apostolic See, but preferably first to the bishop. I'm sure lay people should exercise this right more frequently than most are willing to. We need to realise that we are being treated unjustly when the liturgy is tampered with, and be prepared to complain about serious aberrations - making sure always that the thing in question really is an abuse, and not a legitimate option.

In this article I have referred particularly to abuses by priests. Of course lay people are also at fault. But if priests will faithfully follow the rubrics, and correctly instruct extraordinary ministers, readers and so on, any aberrations by individual lay people are unlikely to present a serious problem.

  • John Young is a Catholic writer on theology and philosophy.

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