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The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and Liturgical Improprieties.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Mass as the “source and summit of Christian life.” As such, each and every part of the Mass has been specifically outlined by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome, and the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops the NCCB. It is my opinion that we, as laity, should be able to go anywhere in the country, or the world, and find the Mass of the Roman Rite celebrated precisely in accordance with these directives. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

We are living in a time when the majesty of the Mass is not always properly understood, much less appreciated by the laity, and at times even by some of our priests. It is not uncommon to find a lack of respect for the sanctity of God’s house and most importantly for His Eucharistic Presence. I do not say that this is done deliberately; most often, it is done out of ignorance. There is much confusion among us as to how the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is to be celebrated. We as Catholics have an obligation to learn our part in the Eucharistic celebration not only in order to heighten our own participation, but even more importantly, to show proper respect and worship to Our Father in heaven.

The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has expressed his concern for these matters during his entire pontificate. In his encyclical Inaestimabile Donum, his Instruction Concerning Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, issued on April 17, 1980, he wrote in the foreword:


“This Sacred Congregation notes with great joy the many positive results of the liturgical reform: a more active and conscious participation by the faithful in the liturgical mysteries, doctrinal and catechetical enrichment through the use of the vernacular, and the wealth of readings from the Bible, a growth in the community sense of liturgical life, and successful efforts to close the gap between life and worship, between Liturgical piety and personal piety, and between Liturgy and popular piety.


 Then he went on to say:


“But these encouraging and positive aspects cannot suppress concern at the varied and frequent abuses being reported from different parts of the Catholic world: the confusion of roles, especially regarding the priestly ministry and the role of the laity (indiscriminate shared recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer, homilies given by lay people, lay people distributing Communion while the priests refrain from doing so); an increasing loss of the sense of the sacred  (abandonment of liturgical vestments, the Eucharist celebrated outside church without real need, lack of reverence and respect for the Blessed Sacrament, etc.); misunderstanding of the ecclesial character of the Liturgy (the use of private texts, the proliferation of unapproved Eucharistic Prayers, the manipulation of the liturgical texts for social and political ends). In these cases we are face to face with a real falsification of the Catholic Liturgy”.


      The Holy Father continues with a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, Part 2 of the 2nd part, Question 93, Answer 1:


“One who offers worship to God on the Church’s behalf in a way contrary to that which is laid down by the Church with God-given authority and which is customary in the Church is guilty of falsification.

“None of these things can bring good results. The consequences are – and cannot fail to be – the impairing of the unity of Faith and worship in the Church, doctrinal uncertainty, scandal and bewilderment among the People of God, and the near inevitability of violent reactions.

"The faithful have a right to true Liturgy, which means the Liturgy desired and laid down by the Church, which has in fact indicated where adaptations may be made as called for by pastoral requirements in different places or by different groups of people. Undue experimentation, changes and creativity bewilder the faithful.”


Noted moral theologian, Germain Grisez in his three-volume work entitled Living a Christian Life, comments on this issue of falsification raised by St. Thomas Aquinas:


“To falsify Catholic worship can be a grave matter. Liturgical worship is the Church’s act; Jesus and his members share in it. Since they act not simply as private individuals, but share in the Church’s act, all who play a role in the liturgy act in an official capacity. Thus, anyone who makes unauthorized changes in the liturgy or encourages others to make them falsely offers as the Church’s what in reality is only personal. Insofar as such falsification modifies authentic Catholic worship, it is a sort of superstition, for even if the unauthorized change is meant to contribute to genuine worship, the choice of falsification as a means is incompatible with the reverence essential to true worship”.


      The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Chapter 22, paragraph 3, clearly states:   


      “No person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the Liturgy on his own authority.”


      These innovative practices have continued to plague the church worldwide since Vatican Council II, in spite of the Holy Father’s efforts. More recently, in a December 1998 statement to the Australian bishops, the Holy Father, referring to this section in Sacrosanctum Concilium stated:


“A weakness in parish liturgical celebrations…is the tendency on the part of some priests and parishes to make their own changes to liturgical texts and structures, whether by omissions, by additions or by substitutions, occasionally even in central texts such as the Eucharistic Prayer. Practices foreign to the tradition of the Roman Rite are not to be introduced on the private initiative of priests, who are ministers and servants, rather than masters of the sacred Rites”.


Old Testament


As the Old Testament is the foundation for the New Testament, it should be noted that Jewish liturgical practice was a precursor to our present day Catholic practice.

      The Old Testament book of Leviticus, chapter 24, verses 1-8, bears eloquent witness to the communal worship that Yahweh expected of his people. He made extensive provision for sacred rites and determined the regulations to be observed by the Israelites in rendering him the honor he ordained. He established a variety of sacrifices and designated the exact ceremonies with which they were to be offered him. His prescriptions on such matters as the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple, and the holy days were minute and very clear.

When these proscriptions were violated the penalties were severe, such as described in Leviticus, Chapter 10, verses 1-3 when the sons of Aaron were struck down for offering improper sacrifice.

Holy of Holies


The innermost sanctuary of the Temple built by King Solomon was called the tabernacle or Holy of Holies. Originally it contained the Ark of the Covenant. Since the Ark was considered a sort of throne of Yahweh and was the particular abode of God among His Chosen People, this inner room was the most holy of all holy places.

Leviticus 16:29-34 describes one of the solemn feasts of the Jews, Yom Kippur also called The Day of Atonement or the Feast of Expiation. Once each year, on the tenth day of the month of Tishri, which means “beginning of the year”, the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of a bullock to offer sacrifice for his sins and the sins of all Israel. St. Paul gives a vivid description and explains the typical character of these ceremonies in Hebrews, Chapter 9, verses 1-5.

On the Day of Atonement, not ordinary priests, but the High priest alone officiated, not in his ordinary priestly “golden garments”, but in simple, white, linen garments, expressive of purity. He was to be the representation of perfect purity, which was sought in the sacrifices of the day. Those who stand nearest to God are always described as arrayed ‘in white’ as in: Ezek. 9:2; Dan. 10:5 and 12:6.

      On this holiest of days there were continual offerings throughout the day. According to Jewish tradition, fifteen animals were sacrificed by the High Priest with the assistance of more than 500 other priests. Only while officiating in the distinctly expiatory services of the day did the High Priest wear his ‘linen garments;’ in all the others he was arrayed in his usual ‘golden vestments.’ This necessitated five changes of dress, and before each he was required to bathe his entire body. In addition, he was to wash his hands and bathe his feet an additional ten times over the course of the day. Normally, a priest only had to bathe his feet and wash his hands prior to offering sacrifice. Once used in the Holy of Holies, the simple, linen garments were never worn again.

      The garments worn by the High Priest had bells of gold attached to the hem and when the he entered the Holy of Holies it was with a rope tied around his waist. If, for any reason the sacrifice was not acceptable to God, or in the event that he was not pure at heart and clean of person, God would strike him down for profaning His temple, the bells would no longer ring and the rope was used to pull the body out of the sanctuary.

      There are other instances in the Holy Bible that show that God punishes the profanation of what is dedicated to Him. For example in 2 Samuel, Chapter 6, verses 1-7 where Uzzah was truck down for touching the ark of God. The profane must not come in contact with the sacred.

 The New Testament is also not silent on this issue: John, Chapter 2, verses 13-17 describes the anger of the Lord when he found that His Father’s house was being profaned by being made into a marketplace.


The Ordination Rite


As part of the Ordination Rite, the newly ordained priests recite the Apostle’s Creed, thus publicly professing the faith, which they will preach to the world.

The newly ordained also recite a Promise of Obedience. This promise of obedience is not a vow like the vow of obedience made by religious, but it imposes upon the priest the solemn obligation to administer his office in faithful obedience to his ecclesiastical superiors. Without obedience the Church could not carry on her work. And after all, how fitting it is that the priest, who is "another Christ," should distinguish himself and merit the blessing of God for his work by the practice of that virtue which may be called the characteristic virtue of our Savior Jesus Christ, who "became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:8).

Inherent in this Promise of Obedience is that the priest will do and teach what the Church ordained him to do and teach. If a priest willingly and knowingly celebrates Mass in a manner contrary to the specifics mandated by the Church, he is in violation of his oath before God and commits sacrilege, i.e. mortal sin.

      Sacrilege is a sin against the First Commandment. Jesuit Father, John Hardon, in his Catholic Catechism, defines the term sacrilege as a sin against the first commandment:


 “The term “sacrilege” is commonly used to describe any profanation of what is sacred, for example, perjury or blasphemy. But strictly speaking, a sacrilege is the violation or contemptuous treatment of a person, place, or thing publicly dedicated to the worship or service of God. Thus a sacrilege… is called real when committed against a sacred object, for example, treating the Blessed Sacrament irreverently or administering or receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin. One of the clearest allusions to such irreverent treatment of the Eucharist occurs in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 29 & 30, when he warned that ‘a person who eats and drinks without recognizing the body (of the Lord) is eating and drinking his own condemnation. In fact, that is why many of you are weak and ill and some of you have died.’ Paul considered the sickness and death of some Corinthians to have been a punishment for irreverence to ‘the body and blood of the Lord.’”


    What of our priests, and laity who celebrate Mass properly, but in a casual or even slovenly manner? This too is sinful, though not necessarily mortal. Every Mass should be celebrated and entered into, by priest and laity alike, as though it is our last. What about those in higher authority who sanction or ignore these irregularities; will they not also be held culpable by God?

    Germain Grisez in his Living a Christian Life asks: What Is One’s Chief Responsibility in Regard to Worship? He answers this question by saying: One should participate devoutly in the Eucharist.


“Reverent participation," he says, “respects the holiness of the Eucharist. While an excessively formal attitude of reverence and awe toward the sacrifice of the Mass and the reception of Communion might reflect and foster inappropriate fear of God and self-depreciation, a casual attitude of relaxed informality during the Eucharist can reflect and foster forgetfulness of God’s holiness and a lack of humility before him. Therefore, appropriate behavior is important in order to manifest and foster the reverence due the holy sacrifice and Holy Communion.”


In other words, there should be a balance between proper fear of the Lord and proper worship of the Lord. One day we will stand before Him; what will we say about our devotion? 

      It is unquestionably a fundamental duty of man to direct his whole life and activity toward God. Man does so when he responds freely to the divine being in those postures of the human heart that God expects of his creatures – in a word, when he practices religion, which is simply but sublimely the virtue of justice toward God.

      This responsibility is first of all incumbent on us as individuals, each being bound to render homage to God according to our native capacity and the gifts of grace we have received. But the duty also binds the community of the human race, grouped as we are by mutual social ties. Not only man but also mankind is to worship God.


What can be done?


How much longer must the Our Heavenly Father endure the profanation of His temple, either by clergy or laity?

The philosopher Edmond Burke (1729-1797) wrote: “For evil to triumph, good men have to do nothing.” It is easy to simply blame lax priests and bishops for the liturgical mess confronting our Church, but in reality, we, the laity, are equally culpable. We have allowed these aberrations to continue year after year as sheep being led to slaughter and will be held culpable if we do nothing. In June, 1972 Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, wrote: “Who is going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests and religious. It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops, and your religious act like religious.”


The following are a few suggestions:


1.       Pray daily and fast often for a renewal of proper liturgical practice.

2.       Have Masses celebrated in atonement for our neglect.

3.       Educate yourself by reading Church documents on the Liturgy.

4.       Be vocal in your appreciation toward faithful priests and bishops who celebrate Mass properly and reverently.

5.       Speak out in support of proper liturgy. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that there are many others who share your concern.

6.       Do not be afraid to confront improper practice, but do so respectfully.

7.       Use the chain of command. If your priest is negligent and does not respond to your entreaties, document everything and write to your bishop, respectfully asking him to provide fraternal correction.

8.       Finally, if your bishop does not respond to your satisfaction, write to: Francis Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship & Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome.


Francis Cardinal Arinze

Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship & Discipline of the Sacraments

Palazzo delle Congregazioni, 00193 Roma, Piazza Pio XII, 10




© 2005 – Victor R. Claveau

Part or all of this article may be reproduced without obtaining permission as long as the author is cited.



“Let us hide our littleness in His greatness.”

–St. Francis de Sales




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved