The 2004 Vatican Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum reminds us that the laity have important liturgical rights.
For example, Section 12 declares that 'it is the right of all of Christ's faithful that the Liturgy ... should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations ... in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms', while Section 24 proclaims that 'it is the right of the Christian people themselves that their diocesan Bishop should take care to prevent the occurrence of abuses in ecclesiastical discipline, especially as regards ... the worship of God'.
But what if the Bishop fails to correct abuses after numerous complaints over a prolonged period?
During parts of 2004-5 my wife and I regularly attended Sunday (or vigil) Mass at a certain church in Brisbane where the liturgy was on the whole celebrated impressively well, but where there were a few disturbing irregularities. Two of these seemed significant enough to mention to Auxiliary Bishop Brian Finnigan, to whom I wrote, in part, as follows on 19 September 2004:
'When celebrating weekend Mass Fr X regularly omits the Gloria completely and often also omits one of the first two readings. The Church has gone to a lot of trouble to arrange a wide selection of Scripture excerpts over a three-year cycle, and it is not part of the plan that any of these readings should be totally omitted.
'It could even be that one or two scrupulous souls may wonder whether they have fulfilled their Sunday obligation by attending such a truncated performance. So I am wondering whether you [could] courteously remind Fr X that these missing elements are not labelled 'ad lib' in the rubrics. I am hoping that you could also make this gentle criticism of mine more palatable by stressing that it comes from someone who on nearly every count is full of enthusiastic praise for the way he conducts the liturgy.'
Bishop Finnigan replied that he would be happy to raise this issue with the priest concerned; but when there had been no improvement at all after ten weeks I tried again with a firmer and more juridical approach on 28 November 2004:
'The clergy make the rules for the laity on how we are meant to keep the Sabbath holy. Attendance at weekend Mass is obligatory. Therefore the laity have an absolute right to expect that the Mass they attend will be celebrated in accordance with the rubrics and the laws of the Church, not according to the whims of this or that priest and not by the recitation of a mere selection from the prescribed prayers.
'It was to check just such liturgical abuses that the Vatican recently issued the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, in which, as you will know, Section 59 forbids priests to 'alter or vary at will the sacred texts' and Section 62 prohibits arbitrary omissions, while Sections 183-4 allow and even encourage the laity to report abuses, and Sections 177 and 178 require the Diocesan Bishop to investigate such reports and take action where necessary.'
I also informed Bishop Finnigan that I would be referring this matter to the Archbishop himself.
Archbishop Bathersby replied promptly, undertaking to raise the issue with Bishop Finnigan in the near future.
Nine months later, on 4 September 2005, I wrote again to the Archbishop, stressing that the same priest was still omitting the Gloria at every weekend when I had attended his Mass. He replied courteously on 25 October, saying that he needed to see this priest soon on other business and would use that opportunity to raise my points with him.
On 30 October I thanked him for his letter, adding that at the two most recent weekend Masses I had attended in that parish the priest had omitted both the Gloria and one of the readings.
Four months later, on 7 March 2006, I told the Archbishop that there were still no improvements. This was my last letter to him on this subject. I have still not received any reply to either of these letters, and to this day such liturgical omissions continue.
Altogether I wrote ten letters dealing with this topic, four to Bishop Finnigan and six to Archbishop Bathersby, over a period of 18 months, and to no avail; and friends in Brisbane have had similar experiences when complaining about far worse liturgical abuses.
Occasionally, when pressed, our bishops will intervene, but they seem to have a limited appetite for such activity and little appreciation that the faithful actually have rights that the bishops are obliged to defend. Endless procrastination seems almost to have been elevated to the level of policy. But justice delayed is justice denied.
So what needs to be done? First, the onus is now clearly on our Archbishop to explain just how he proposes to enable the laity to exercise their liturgical rights - for they are certainly not able to do so effectively at present.
Secondly, every priest needs to be sent a copy of Redemptionis Sacramentum and solemnly instructed, under his vow of obedience, to study it carefully and abide by its prescriptions.
Thirdly, I suggest that a Liturgical Ombudsman be appointed whose publicly announced task it would be, under the aegis of the Archbishop, to defend the liturgical rights of the faithful as defined in this Vatican Instruction.
This Ombudsman would not be any liturgist known to be out of sympathy with the whole tenor of this document. He would promptly and impartially investigate all complaints; not even the liturgy of the Cathedral itself would be exempt from his scrutiny.
Then one could hope that, as the Instruction puts it (Sections 11-12), the perplexity, confusion, sadness, disharmony and 'vigorous opposition' of 'the People of God' caused by liturgical abuses would be assuaged, and the Eucharist would once again 'truly stand out as a sacrament of unity'.
Dr Michael Apthorp is an Honorary Research Adviser in the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics at the University of Queensland.