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LITURGICAL LAW

The Regulation of the Liturgy and the Sacred Minister or Celebrant


One of the more difficult areas of law is that involving the regulation of the liturgy and the sacred minister or celebrant. This is because the law which, regulates all aspects of liturgical celebration, cannot be found in one source as, for instance, in the Code of Canon Law. To discover the norm for proper liturgical celebration one must turn to the introductory norms as contained in the liturgical books (e.g., the General Instructions of the Roman Missal) or the various instructional and Roman documents touching upon liturgy with a view to legislation. Because of this situation, liturgical law tends to become an amorphous mass of norms, many of which escape the minister’s attention and at times prove pastorally harmful to the worshiping community. This condition is especially distressing when one considers that liturgical law is the most fundamental and proximate experience of law a priest or sacred minister confronts in his day-to-day ministry. 

The 1917 Code of Canon Law does not deal explicitly with liturgical norm. In its section on general norms, under Canon II, it states: “The Code as a rule does not legislate regarding the rites and ceremonies which the liturgical books approved by the Latin Church prescribe for the celebration of the most holy sacrifice of the Mass, the administration of the sacraments and sacramentals, and other sacred functions.” One can readily observe that, as far as liturgical law is concerned, the Code adopts a hands-off policy. 

What is one to understand by this and what, per se, are the reasons for such a legal disclaimer, as viewed in Canon II? There are two reasons: (1) The peculiar character of liturgical law (that is, the nature of the law itself) works against its being included in codified legislation. The norms for divine worship are by their nature meticulous and ritualistic, thereby preventing their being included in a book of law. (2) The norms for celebration and otherwise pervasive liturgical regulations are so numerous that their inclusion in the Code of Canon Law would have rendered the Code too unwieldy. Hence, one finds the rules, norms and prescriptions not in a book of law but in general instructions on celebration and in each and every liturgical book itself. For example, the law governing the celebration of Mass can be found in the General Instructions of the Roman Missal; many other things relative to law can likewise be found in the Roman Missal. The laws governing the separate rites of baptism, anointing, confirmation, etc., can be found in the introductory section of each ritual book. Therefore, generally, the law regulating each sacrament is spelled out in the liturgical book or “ceremonial” of each individual sacrament. 

Incidentally, here and there, the Code of Canon Law does legislate matters regarding rites and ceremonies; for example, in areas where doubts are to be resolved, defects supplied, certain changes specified. Illustration of these can be found in the Code under the section dealing with sacraments, sacred times and places, divine worship and sacramentals. These deal basically with diversity of rite, holy Mass and administration of sacraments. But the view is always to the canonical ordering of liturgy in a general way and not with a view to the legislating for specific sacramental celebration or regarding pre-Scripture rubrics. The Code would treat of liturgical matter strictly, not with liturgical matters which only touch upon discipline or celebration. Ergo, the liturgical law of the Church, properly so called, can be found in the official liturgical books which are approved by the Holy See or by the episcopal conferences insofar as the Vatican delegates this power to episcopal conferences in particular matters, e.g., Thanksgiving Day liturgy. 

The usefulness of liturgical books is readily evident; not only do they provide the Church with proper format of sacramental celebration and the ordering of sacramental matter and form, but they provide the norms for proper regulation of worship with a view to sound ecclesial celebration. Without these norms the liturgy would become chaotic and unwieldy. Moreover, the norms for worship insure that the unity of worship in a particular rite is maintained and safeguarded against un­warranted abuse. Since liturgy is a source, indeed, the font of unity, then the proper presentation of good sacramental order is essential to the Church’s future and tradition. This in no way implies a uniformity (e.g., Latin was viewed in this light by many) but, on the contrary, fosters a unity of sacramental celebration which in turn builds up a unified faith community. 

The norms of liturgy are not meant to be a means to insure monotonous worship but to assure the believing community of the Church that the essential aspects of their worship will be preserved as Christ had intended. The diversity of worship has long been recognized by the Church: to wit, the Eastern Rites. But this diversity is careful to maintain the unity in essentials which is needed for authentic gospel liturgy. Certain norms must be followed so as to protect the most sacred aspect of one’s faith life from distortion at the hands of enthusiastic amateurs and reputable theologians alike. 

Variety in liturgical celebration is greatly needed. No one doubts nor would argue this point. But the question of authentic and genuine liturgical adaptation must not descend into an awkward or unwieldy pastoral practice. One must continually guard against the temptation to usurp the venerable heritage of the Church in favor of some home­spun variety of dubious value. Admittedly, occasions will arise when pastoral necessity will dictate one’s deviating from the general liturgical norms of the Catholic Church; but this ought always to be the exception and not the rule. 

The question of flexibility within the limits of law continues to be a pointed one, especially in modern times. The post-Vatican II experience has left the clergy with a great need to adapt to the unexpected situation as well as to the unforeseen demands emanating from the Church’s program of renewal. These situations become somewhat critical when Church law and demands for good order conflict with particular circumstances and pastoral necessity. There is no easy avenue for relief. The resolution is mostly left to the priest’s own good judgment. 

In liturgical matters no sacred minister need fear gross reprisal from high churchmen for deviation in liturgical celebration so long as there exists a genuine need and a just cause. A priest or deacon should feel free to adapt the liturgy to the needs of the people whenever the situation calls for such action, but only when the need is legitimate. For example, it is one thing to use a special Eucharistic proper designed for children at a specifically children’s liturgy (the Holy See has approved the use of three Eucharistic prayers called for by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, or NCCB). and quite another thing altogether to employ unauthorized Eucharistic prayers at general parish Masses on Sunday morning, or on the occasion of some high Church feast. 

To engage in enlightened adaptation, the sacred ministers must be apprised of what good liturgy is and how a variation can promote the good of souls under certain conditions. For a priest or deacon to alter seriously the character of liturgy as set by Rome and the NCCB, there should be present a real pastoral need, a just cause (e.g., epikeja, excusing causes, exempting causes, moral impossibility), and it ought to be directed toward a particular group or category of persons within the Church. 

The liturgy is the efficacious point of contact between people and their God. It further represents the most profound area wherein people and law or authority converge. Apart from marriage law, people have their most intimate experience with Church law relative to liturgical celebration. Owing to this contact between law, people and liturgy, the Church rightly considers liturgical law to be most significant in the configuration of faith and order. Because of the impact of liturgical law on the Church, it forever remains a highly guarded area. 

In a final note the priest should take particular interest in the distinction drawn between essential and accidental rubrics. An essential rubric is a norm of action which regulates, directs or otherwise orders a particularly significant aspect of sacramental liturgy with a view to insuring valid celebrations. The essential rubric touches upon the most profound element of liturgical activity. One should not casually approach an essential rubric or norm. (It should be understood that while the word “rubric” carries poor connotation today, it is really only a euphemism for a norm.) An accidental rubric is one which concerns aspects of liturgical celebration which are of lesser import and usually exist in order to promote fluid, artful and stately worship. These selections touch upon the validity of a sacrament. Those rubrics or norms which usually appear in the front of the liturgical books (e.g., Roman Missal, Sacramentary, etc.) are generally of a more essential nature; those that appear throughout the text are generally accidental in nature. 

This rule of thumb should be used when attempting to judge whether a norm or rubric is essential or accidental: Does this particular norm touch upon the essence of the sacrament? If the answer is yes, the norm is essential; otherwise it is accidental.  

To wit: The rubric which states that the water used in baptism is to be poured in a flowing manner over the head of the one to be baptized, not sprinkled, is certainly more important than whether the mother or godmother holds the child.

 

 
 

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