This Week’s Discussion Question: Utrum “dic nigrum, fac rubrum” sit clavis ad liturgiam bonam?

Each week this summer, a Pray Tell contributor puts up a question for discussion. Here is this week’s.

Because in my head I’m living in the 13th century, I thought I would frame this weeks discussion along the lines of a medieval quaestio disputata.

The question posed is, Utrum “dic nigrum, fac rubrum” sit clavis ad liturgiam bonam? (whether “say the black, do the red” is the key to good liturgy).

Is seems that is it:

  1. Ritual by its very nature is based on repetition of precise words and actions, and careful attention to the prescribed words and actions of the liturgy is therefore fitting to the ritual character of the liturgy.
  2. Saying the black and doing the red helps to keep the presider and his or her idiosyncrasies from dominating the liturgy.
  3. The words and actions of the liturgy have developed over centuries and connect Catholics to their tradition, and therefore should not be monkeyed with.
  4. The uniformity among liturgies afforded by saying the black and doing the red helps convey a sense of the unity of the Church throughout the world.
  5. The liturgy was carefully reformed after the Second Vatican Council by highly trained experts and has been meticulously translated into the vernacular by people who know a lot more than you do, so keep your hands off.
  6. The Venerable Translator* has often said this, and sells copious quantities of swag with this emblazoned on it.

But on the other hand:

  1. Liturgy is a living and growing thing, and variations from the printed text, done in the proper spirit, are the best way for it to continue to develop.
  2. Liturgy is an expression of the action of the Spirit in the local community, and the local community should have the freedom to shape the words and actions of liturgy in response to the Spirit’s movements.
  3. The unchanging nature of the liturgy can induce boredom and people like a bit of variety, so the different ways in which different presiders say Mass help keep the assembly on its toes and spiritually awake.
  4. Even if “say the black; do the red” is a necessary condition for good liturgy, it is not a sufficient condition, and therefore cannot be called the “key.” Much more is needed for even minimally adequate liturgy than reading the words on the page and doing the prescribed actions.
  5. What the hell were the translators thinking! Is English even their first language! I must be able to do better than this!

Feel free critique any of the above arguments and to add your own arguments on either side.

*Often identified by scholars with a blogger from the north country known as “Father Zed,” though other scholars claim that this Zed-person is legendary and that the “Venerable Translator” is in fact a sockpuppet for the Bishop Donald Trautman.


  1. Ah: Say the red and do the black. So simple. And it worked well towards seemly liturgy (where and when due care was in fact taken). But then some Vatican II functionaries had to tinker with the red by emmending things like ‘in this or similar words’, and other similar invitations, which opened the door to all manner of impromptu interjections of chatty, informal, and definitely non-sacral locutions into the sacred rite, thereby relieving all present, and especially the celebrant, of that millstone around their necks, i.e., any embarrassing notion that we were engaged in a very sacred ritual, holy beyond comprehension. So, the red, which once assured the proper demeanor and liturgical aesthetic, has now, too too often become the permission for the opposite. Many priests do not just improvise where the permissive red seems to allow them to, they are apt to improvise commentary just wherever they wish so to do…. with or without red permission!
    It’s a little disingenuous to liken this to ‘organic change’. Calculated irreverence, shoddy catechetics, embarassment in performing profoundly sacred rites, so making them into a sort sacred Ed Sullivan show, would be better descriptors.
    We are not by this dynamic evolving organic change. We are devolving into an informal treatment of a mass which we don’t regard as unduly sacred, as worthy of being undertaken with that ‘fear of the Lord [which] is the beginning of wisdom’.

    1. I initially misread Deacon Fritz’s question as “Whether ‘say the black, do the red’ is a cudgel for good liturgy?” clavis means “key”, while clava means a rod-like weapon. Grammatically the former option clavis must be right. I now know that no double entendre was intended. Still, I do wonder if verbal sparring over rubrics can wound and divide.

      The exacting Tridentine rubrics are no safeguard against Mass abuses. It’s important to remember that priests often abused the Mass before the conciliar reforms. The abuses were not as apparent as in vernacular celebrations today given that much of the low Mass was mumbled in a low voice or silently. Even today, I have occasionally seen older priests say irreverent EF Masses. I can tell by the way that they “say” the Canon in three minutes. Even the blessing “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat …” at each communion becomes “Corpus” and then murmuring. The EF just cannot be reverently said in 25 minutes including the communion. Still, before the council many priests said low Mass in this fashion.

      The EF is a much less common liturgy today, so most priests say it with intent. Still, no liturgy is immune from celebrant carelessness or haste.

  2. Sacrosanctum Concilium 11:

    “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation [the translator means “observance”] of the laws governing valid and licit celebration [my emphasis]; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.”

    “Do the red” is not enough.

    1. “something more is required than the mere observation [the translator means “observance”] of the laws governing valid and licit celebration”

      Paul: your boldfaced quotation above would seem to be aimed to correct tendancies toward liturgical minimalism not an invitation to liturgical tinkering. SC’s admonition for celebrants to carefully adhere to rubrical norms only clarifies this point even further.

  3. MJO, I sometimes think that you and I live in different universes. There is relatively little improvisation at the Masses I attend in London. I rarely see anything like ‘calculated irreverence’.

    If anything, the more frequent violations of STBDTR that I witness are moves in the conservative, Tridentine direction: maniples, genuflections beyond GIRM’s precept, removing the chasuble before the homily and the like. Calculated pomposity, in my view, but certainly not calculated irreverence.

    Something similar applies to catechetics. Since the Venerable Translator has been brought into the conversation, have a look at this summary of Sunday sermons on his blog. Yes, there is selection bias here, and Fr Z wisely told his followers not to post on ‘ridiculous or heretical’ sermons. But these hardly seem examples of laxity.

    I particularly noted this one – Latin and English spelling errors in the original –

    The ‘Orens position’ or imitation of an ordained Priest or Christ is a modern inovation that is not permitted or encouraged. Hand holding during the Our Father is not encouraged.

    As the behaviour of the reformers-of-the-reform demonstrates, STBDTR doesn’t really work. People deviate from from the words and rubrics in their chosen direction, then invoke the rubrics against those who deviate in the opposite direction.

    I will bet that this has been the case for hundreds of years.

    1. Different universes indeed – London and suburban America! Improvisation and irreverence are more the rule than the exception here. (And before anyone asks where ‘here’ is, I am speaking of the Midwest generally and Kansas City specifically, where I’ve had most of my personal experience).

      Now, whether the irreverence is calculated or not is a different question. I have seen plenty of calculated irreverence, but it is certainly less prevalent than bad liturgical habits (often the result of poor formation and simple ignorance, rather than a conscious choice).

      1. Hey Jared;

        Where in “The Most Liveable City” are you…I grew up in Prairie Village, though I now live in SW Florida. I observed A LOT of liturgical nonsense in KC, although it was the early 70’s! Interesting that this question of the week comes up at the same time as the removal of a pastor for improvising prayers…or was that on purpose?

    2. JD –
      Our universes may not be all that dissimilar. I am rather spoiled in belonging to Houston’s Our Lady of Walsingham, principal church of the Anglican Ordinariate. I’m also often involved musically at St Basil’s Chapel at UST, where the liturgy is very decently celebrated – though it’s not as ‘high’ as it should be at a university chapel.
      My remarks above, though, reflect the utter disbelief which I have experienced numerous times when visiting elsewhere, and with which I have heard and read tales from others’ experiences.

    3. Hm? The orens position as a “modern innovation”. I recall Origen in his treatise “On Prayer” (see IX.1) encouraging Christians to pray in this position.

  4. I am reminded of something I read in Kathleen Hughes’s biography on Godfrey Diekmann,OSB. This is from an entry in his 1964 diary, Oratio Contra Rubricistas [Prayer Against Rubricists]: “Deus, qui per rubricistarum ordinem viam caeli impedisti, da nobis, quaesumus, ipsi in mare rubrum detrusis, ut per aliam viam vital eternal consequamur.

    [O God, who through the Order of Rubricists has impeded the way to heaven, we pray that you give to us who have been buried under this sea of red, another way to eternal life.]

    Let the Church say, “Amen!”

  5. The proper balance is needed. I’ve witnessed EF Masses where the actions of the priest are scrupulously robotic and in the OF relaxed giddiness. I’ve seen added genuflections in the OF and absolutely none, the latter more offensive. The worst rubrical offense is language manipulation according to one’s fiersely individualistic perception of what constitutes either good English or sacred character. In addition a literal interpretation of the Last Supper imposed upon the Eucharistic prayer with gestures toward the congregation indicating they are the Apostles at that historic meal. But the worst offense has more to do with rushed, casual action which range from a bull in a China shop or participants in a horse race.

    1. The worst rubrical offense is language manipulation according to one’s fiersely individualistic perception of what constitutes either good English or sacred character.

      For me, the worst rubrical offense is blind, sheep-like obedience, against one’s sense of correct English, to language manipulation according to the Vox Clara committe’s perception of what constitutes either good English or sacred character. We were tested to see whether we would let our sense of right and wrong be crushed by some sense of duty of obedience, and the results are there for all to see: people are going along. One wonders if Catholics have any integrity. It is very discouraging.

      1. For me, the worst rubrical offense is blind, sheep-like obedience, against one’s sense of correct English

        Does this extend also to “sheep like obedience” to those things which are against one’s sense of correct behavior and belief, or is it only what the church has to say about how we worship that you think is flawed? It would be nice if we could just go with what we want, wouldn’t it? My sense is that people “go along” because they HAVE integrity.

  6. Council of Trent, sess. 22, ch. 8:
    Although the mass contains great instruction for the faithful people, nevertheless, it has not seemed expedient to the Fathers, that it should be every where celebrated in the vulgar tongue. Wherefore, the ancient usage of each church, and the rite approved of by the holy Roman Church, the mother and mistress of all churches, being in each place retained; and, that the sheep of Christ may not suffer hunger, nor the little ones ask for bread, and there be none to break it unto them, the holy Synod charges pastors, and all who have the cure of souls, that they frequently, during the celebration of mass, expound either by themselves, or others, some portion of those things which are read at mass, and that, amongst the rest, they explain some mystery of this most holy sacrifice, especially on the Lord’s days and festivals.

  7. Necessary, but not sufficient.

    Should actors in a play say all the lines written by the playwright? Should musicians in an orchestra play all the notes written in the score by the composer?

    Those are not “THE KEY” to a good performance, but they are a basic requirement. The fact that so many people find it relevant to print it on a t-shirt speaks volumes about the problems of personality-driven liturgy.

      1. Do not some scores have notations about when liberties may be taken, e.g. with the tempo and particular notes?

        I think the music analogy is a good one.

      2. Yes, but when the composer indicates that you are to improvise or otherwise deviate from the score, you are in fact following the dictates of the composer by doing so, not deviating from them.

    1. “Necessary but not sufficient” – Exactly!

      We shouldn’t reduce the question to a false dichotomy between “Stale, sterile rubricism” vs. “Spiritual, sensitive, genuinely prayerful liturgy.” The actual ideal should be liturgy that is faithful to the rubrics, while also imbued with true prayer, reverence, and pastoral care of the assembly. The rubrics are only the framework – to be followed, certainly, but also allowing a great deal of flexibility as to how they are fleshed out. For example, the rubrics require a homily. But homilies are very often the silliest and most irreverent part of a Mass. STBDTR doesn’t help a priest craft an excellent and appropriate homily – he must have some sense of the spirit of the liturgy in order to execute the more free-form portions well (homilies, announcements, “these or other words” etc.).

      Deacon Fritz – as a concert musician in the last stages of my doctorate, I wonder exactly where your son is coming from. We do play what is on the page, but certainly not exactly as it is written. That is, we play the notes (as much as human imperfection allows us to!), but not metronomically – we add in phrasing, articulation, subtle tempo fluctuations, and so forth to bring the notes alive. But we don’t make up the notes themselves. The musical analogy is interesting to me, because the same false dichotomy sometimes exists as described above: sterile technical perfection vs. spirited, heartfelt playing. Of course, ideally we will have technical assurance and accuracy, coupled with true love of the music and flexible musical playing.

      I believe that the STBDTR crowd generally understands this, despite being characterized as one half of a dichotomy. Maybe they should change the slogan to “STBDTR – A Darn Good Start”

      1. Excellent comment – IMO captures what Paul Inwood quoted from SC and (surprise, surprise) Allan’s opening line – “The proper balance is needed”. Some additional thoughts:
        – SC, like most VII documents, was written by committee and reflects directives that highlight built in tensions and concepts that express compromise. Thus, we have both *STBDTR” and an expression that acknowledges that good liturgy is so much more than just STBDTR
        – liturgical abuse has been with us since the beginning of the church (council fathers appear to have accepted that the liturgy needed to be reformed; that accretions had taken the church away from the Apostolic Period’s eucharistic practice; that the Trentan liturgy was a good reform for its day but the signs of the times required more. The debate about EF, OF, TLM and how folks do it is a dead end.)
        – as some have stated wisely, STBDTR addresses only rubrics, not the total eucharistic liturgy e.g. homilies, musical choices, etc.
        – unfortunately, to accomplish the part of SC bolded by Paul Inwood requires continuous effort; seminary and diocesan/parish education that is consistent and constant; it would require that episcopal conferences focused on liturgy well beyond what we have seen over the past 35 years. There are so many issues that impact liturgy – decreasing priests has created use of foreign priests (issues that go well beyond STBDTR at liturgies – think understanding english); multiple parishes and heavy mass loads create rushed liturgies; etc.
        – look at all the liturgical elements that PTB posts have addressed. STBDTR from a literal, fundamental, mechanistic approach can not give us *spirited, heartfelt, prayerful liturgies; and a presider who just does his thing revising, changing at his whim will also not give us *spirited, heartfelt prayerful liturgies* only his personality cult.
        – It is a question of balance. Ritual by definition is repitition; yet, we know that human nature likes novelty. Ritual, poorly done, impoverishes; ritual, well done, builds up the community. Novelty is not ritual.

  8. Most on-the-fly rewrites of liturgy by improvising celebrants just end up wordier and not better.

    As for mumbled Low Masses, I recall some old stories about celebrants who were proud of being able to say Mass in something like 17 minutes “from amice on to amice off.” (!)

  9. The priest who doesn’t “say the black, do the red” forces us to see him on the altar. This can be good or bad, depending on the person. I’ve seen priests who made themselves the center of the celebration ( a one man drama!) and others whose openness brought everyone into the celebration.

    I fear that the priest who insists on “say the black, do the red” is creating a virtual altar rail separating himself from the congregation. He is the magician able to bring the grace down from Heaven; the rest of us are just there to benefit from his invocations.

  10. Yes, the example of Western classical music is indeed illustrative, since so much of the world’s music, even in ensembles, is improvisational.

    That said, I’ll put in a plug for reading the introductions to the rites. (Stud canum?) The GIRM, certainly, but it is simply amazing how much good sound liturgical theology is missed by those people who just want to turn to the bookmarked page and go.

    Such people are often like assemblers of furniture, gadgets, and such who bypass the instructions and feel they are experts because they have a hammer, a screwdriver, and have experience sitting at a desk or browsing a bookshelf.

    1. let me preface my remark by saying I have a great deal of experience sitting at a desk, and considerably less with music or liturgy, so my expertise may not build anything here.

      There are many types of music, some ordered and some improvisation. Classical and romantic. Jazz and John Phillip Souza. Rat zinger, in the Spirit of the Liturgy, has a passage where he contrasts Apollonian music, presumably Mozart, Bach et al, with Bacchanalian rock music. The latter can apparently never be appropriate for Christian liturgy.

      How accurate is that? It sounds pagan to me. Is it really impossible to do ritual in a Jazz style, improvisational with boundaries? This seems analogous to STBDTR; is precise repetition really the only way to pray? And what about Bach and Mozart doing variations on the melody we know as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”? Is ritual immune to such variations?

  11. Thank you for a wonderfully memorable form, Fritz! I truly laughed aloud reading it. Of course the true answer then must be “sic et non”!

    As for the thing itself, I come down on “[quasi] necessary, but not sufficient” — if there was no interpretation needed at all, we wouldn’t need to train presiders to preside; they could just “sight read.” And Thomas (drawing on Augustine) says that the words of the (essential!) form are effective inasmuch as they are understood, even if they are garbled a bit in production (ST III, 60, 7-8: e.g. “Yet both [Greek and Latin churches] confer the sacrament validly [with different essential forms]. Therefore it is lawful to add something to, or to take something from, the sacramental forms”).

    I would again interpret this in the direction of anti-minimalism and pastoral care, rather than license to make it all up. In fact Thomas says explicitly in that article that if the presider changes the words because he does not intend to do what the church does, the sacrament is deficient on those grounds. And of course what constitutes not intending to do what the church does would be yet another discussion.

  12. It seems to me that the EF and OF are built, in part, on considerably different premises. Proponents of the EF point out it is a precise ritual with mandated prayers and gestures that are directed solely to the Triune and Majestic God. They believe that anything that might deviate from this fundamental premise constitutes irreverence and disobedience, likely rendering the Mass illicit and the celebrant sacrilegious. In this approach, the personality of the priest is to be hidden so that the focus may be completely on Christ in whose sacred person he is offering this Mass. This form of Mass may even be offered without the physical presence of anyone but the priest. It requires the basic stance that the presence of God is “out there” somewhere to the east so that the priest and people must ordinarily face in that same direction. This Mass may be celebrated validly/licitly by a priest who does not, in fact, thoroughly understand the words he is praying–whether in sotto voce or in complete silence.
    I hardly know where to begin the very different premises upon which the OF is based. The Fathers of VII, the bishops and priests, and hundreds of millions of the faithful since the promulgation of the NO clearly have understood that the entire worshiping assembly offers the Mass, led by priest or bishop, with, in, and through Christ. It is a corporate action so clearly reflected in all the we’s and our’s of the Mass prayers themselves. It’s celebration involves the ministry of deacons, acolytes, readers, musicians and singers, ushers & greeters, and most significantly that of the worshiping assembly. In this rite, the priest and all present have personalities (just as Jesus did) that will be reflected in a manner of speaking, along with facial and other bodily gestures. The presence of God suffuses the entire building and the lives of the worshipers. This means the rite will be directed to God while engaging the people. This Mass is for the people not the other way around.

  13. I voice my approval of the “necessary but not sufficient” response. That Sac. Conc. said “something more is required”, and not “something else is required”, tells me that fidelity to the Rite is important and indispensable but not exhaustive for a most fruitful (edifying, sanctifying, and glorifying) celebration of the liturgy.

    1. Funny, when I looked quickly I thought it was a pharmaceutical “gift mug” for writing many Viagra prescriptions.

    2. Fr. Z once bragged that he made so much money shooting pool and playing cards in college that he didn’t need to get a job. I find it interesting how as a priest he’s found a way to make money from the comfy chair of his office without engaging in any pastoral ministry unlike his less clever brother priests. The more things change…

  14. If “say the black, do the red” is our rule to live by, why study liturgy at all? Just shut down all those liturgy programs, both pastoral and academic. Who needs them? It’s all been settled.

    1. Many would say you have hit the nail on the head, albeit with a decided sense of sarcasm. The middle road, of course, would be to make the point of such academic study a thorough knowledge of how to faithfully implement the given rubrics in a wide variety of situations… much as has been discussed above, as necessary facets of liturgical celebration, but not sufficient in and of themselves to acheive the liturgical ends to which they point. I sense that all too often “liturgical studies” begin with an assumption that the liturgical books are inherently flawed.

      1. JH:

        I sense that all too often “liturgical studies” begin with an assumption that the liturgical books are inherently flawed.

        I don’t agree with that at all. I think that what liturgical studies are mostly concerned with is the history of the rite and its development, the overall shape of the rite, and rather importantly what each part of that shape is trying to achieve. That obviously includes studying texts and ritual gestures, but it goes further than that. I believe JP is right about “something more” rather than “something else”; and that “something more” is the anthropological dimension of the rite which is beyond what words and rubrics can tell us. It’s about the ars celebrandi, it’s about being alive and human and not mechanistic and robotic. It’s about how what we do is perceived, as well as about what it is that we do.

      2. “I sense that all too often “liturgical studies” begin with an assumption that the liturgical books are inherently flawed.”

        That’s certainly the sense I get from Fr Z. He’s built a whole internet cottage industry on the point, hasn’t he?

      3. The program Jeffrey describes would be a study of rubrics, not of liturgy.

      4. Margaret, a study of liturgy of any depth must, in my opinion, address the rubrics and texts. The rubrics and texts are a particular rite’s manifestation or expression of the liturgical principles.

    2. That seems to me to be a non sequitur. Are not the words and actions of the liturgy part of what one studies in an academic or pastoral course on liturgy? If we do not pay attention to and study the words and actions of the liturgy, how can we know how best to say them and carry them out? How can we know their meaning and how to impart their meaning in the course of the celebration?

      Put another way, one has to know the rule if one is to exercise the exception.

    3. The liturgical movement!

      One can obey the existing law while at the same time studying it and petitioning for reform. Study shows where reform is needed.

  15. “*Often identified by scholars with a blogger from the north country known as “Father Zed,” though other scholars claim that this Zed-person is legendary and that the “Venerable Translator” is in fact a sockpuppet for the Bishop Donald Trautman.”

    May be tongue in cheek Deacon but I hope you could be correct.

  16. re: Musical analogy.

    Yes, most of the world’s music is improvised.
    As is most of the world’s prayer.

    But Liturgy, by it’s nature as something written down to be repeated, is more like Western Classical music than it is like jazz or rock-n-roll.

    There’s nothing wrong with improvised music, or improvised prayer.
    But a symphony is not improvised, and neither is Liturgy.

    Except when the composer has explicitly stated so, or when the tradition calls for it. Cadenzas, segues, and solos within concertos may be improvised, certainly- within a framework that makes sense, by musicians trained in and familiar with the music.

    Similarly, the Liturgy allows for this- in the Homily, in the Prayers of the Faithful, in some leeway for musical programming, in choices available, etc. In other cases, it should be clear that “improvising” is not a legitimate option. Just as it is clear to good musicians when it is and is not acceptable to improvise on a written score.

    If I pay money to go hear Beethoven, I want to hear Beethoven- I do not want to hear the Conductor’s made-up chords. We can talk about one conductor or another doing a better job, or bringing a different understanding to it, but we’re still talking about the notes Beethoven wrote getting played.

    And when you do something else, it isn’t Beethoven anymore. It might still be good, but it isn’t Beethoven, and shouldn’t be branded as such.

    Another issue that improvisation brings up is- who exactly is qualified to improvise? The priest at my parish back home could probably improvise prayers I would find very meaningful, but which other people would find distracting or heretical. Me liking it should not be the highest criteria for whether an improvisation was “good,” but there can’t really be any other criteria, because we can’t say “some priests are allowed to, and others should not.”

    Indeed, those who understand liturgy enough to be able to adequately improvise on it, know better…

    1. Let me be clearer then: music is not the best analogy to use with regard to liturgy. Beethoven is Beethoven, but as a lover of western classical music, I don’t find it to be the pinnacle of art.

      Speaking in its favor, improvisation might be a better metaphor for the Christian community: placing varied gifts to use to make a better whole from disparate parts, using a certain structure to order the whole expression.

      Leaving aside the matter of who is really qualified to improvise, (and I would contend such persons are fewer than they think) I’m not willing to cede the liturgy to those who would make it less of an art and more of a cookbook exercise.

  17. I agree cautiosly with TF:
    Using music as analagous to our topic, improvisation has a limited validity which depends on the music one holds as exemplary. With Beethoven and his followers one does not improvise: one interprets the best he is able the intentions of the master. Any improvisation is extremely limited to matters of what nuance is the most loyal. Never does one add notes, embroider on them, edit them, or subtract from them. This, it seems to me, is an appropriate paradigm for the ritual text and its rubrics.
    With earlier music the matter is more complicated because it is expected that improvisation upon what the composer wrote will take place following certain era-specific conventions. This, it seems to me, is not an appropriate (nor intended) paradigm for the ritual text and its rubrics.

    When the sacred ministers have processed in and mounted the altar, the first thing I have a right to expect to hear is the priest chanting ‘In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, and from that moment until the dismissal nothing is added to nor subtracted from the ritual text. No ‘good mornings’, no comments: just the rite which has its own divine and inviolable rhythm.

  18. “This, it seems to me, is an appropriate paradigm for the ritual text and its rubrics.”

    Cautious agreement, but just to this point. But liturgy, as a spiritual exercise, is far more than text and rubrics.

  19. Adam and MJO, you repeatedly assert that “the ritual text and its rubrics” should not be changed, but the only reason I can find is Adam’s “Liturgy, by it’s nature as something written down to be repeated.” and that begs the question. Is that the nature of liturgy?

    Take marriages where the couples write their own vows. Clearly those are not “something written down to be repeated.” Does that mean they are not liturgy? There is a format, and some guidelines for composition, but no undeviating text. You are not going to get the Beethoven of vows every time, but you always get liturgy. Why is the Eucharist different from that?

    Even beyond the question in front of us, which presupposes a ritual text, I have problems with reducing liturgy to something written down. Liturgy is prayer, which might be helped by what is written down, but it is not primarily the enactment of what is written. It is prayer, a relationship among God the Church and everyone else. A written text can be a good way to create liturgy, but it does not invalidate other ways of creating liturgy.

    Beethoven is wonderful at times, but sometimes the Beatles are better.

    1. Couples who write their own vows are not doing Catholic Liturgy. They might not even be doing liturgy at all, but at the very least, they are not doing the Roman Rite.

      So- maybe it is a stretch to say that all liturgy is, by it’s nature, something that is written down and repeated. But that is a characteristic of the Roman Rite. It is not, by nature, an improvisatory “artform.”

      The Mass is not the only valid way to pray, just as Beethoven is not the only valid music to listen to. Devotionals, personal prayer, para-liturgicals, Christian Rock concerts, the Rosary, listening to the St. Louis Jesuits on CD in my car are all part of a healthy spiritual life. Claiming that the Beatles (semi-improvised) is sometimes better than Beethoven (composed and rehearsed) doesn’t change the fact each of these forms has a context, and that someone interested in understanding music should probably experience both.

    2. re: Jim McKay on June 26, 2012 – 7:25 am

      I agree Jim that in theory a Roman rite nuptial liturgy does not absolutely require the vows set forth by liturgical books or permitted by a national episcopal conference. Vows are provided, however, to ensure a couple demonstrates explicit and sufficient consent before the clerical officiant and the assembly.

      Couple-composed vows tend to focus on the unitive aspects of marriage. Unitive love is a crucial part of marriage. However, Catholicism also teaches that marriage is absolutely open to procreation and indissoluble. The vows provided for a nuptial liturgy succinctly reflect the Church’s understanding of the sacrament. I would argue that it is easier for a couple to pronounce the vows provided. It would be difficult for a couple to compose personal vows which summarize Catholic marital theology well.

      1. “Vows” in the Anglo-American Protestant cultural understanding we have today aren’t required at all… (though they may well be desirable). Rather the consent of the parties is required and (since Tamesti) the witness of the Church.

        The pre-1962 Roman Ritual (unlike the permitted local rituals) does not contain vows, but merely this expression of consent, the declaration and blessing of the priest, the blessing and giving of the ring, and then the nuptial blessing.

        The form of the consent is just: “N., do you take N., here present, for your lawful wife according to the
        rite of our holy Mother, the Church?”

      2. re: Samuel J. Howard on June 26, 2012 – 9:54 am

        Thanks; I see what you mean. As I understand you, until the reformed nuptial rite, couples were not required to consent to theological statements. Consent to the sacrament and its grace are sufficient in the EF.

        I am certain that a couple who elects to wed in the 1962 nuptial rite will not deviate from an established local custom. However, given the, well, creative civil wedding vows I have heard, I would not be surprised if some of the vows pronounced at ordinary form Catholic weddings barely fulfill the minimal sacramental requirement of consent to the rite. Then again, as a person who will never wed, I should have no interest in such matters. praestet fides supplementum.

  20. The greatest freedom, the deepest joy, the most profound insight gained when playing a Bach fugue is had when playing just what Bach wrote, with the most cautious and informed addition of some ornamentation that was in vogue in his time. Though no two times are alike, the rewards increase each time because one does play what Bach wrote. Every time one is faithful to the musical text, and yet every time something new is revealed, the satisfaction more sublime.
    The same may be said for liturgy. Liturgy is, by definition, not improvisational. I dare say that few Catholics nowadays have experienced the blessing of repeatedly entering into the rhythm and grace of an uninterrupted liturgical flow. Many priests seem to be afraid of it and think that they just HAVE to say something which spoils this flow. And most people have become so inured to it that they couldn’t even dream that something better exists. We are not evangelicals who make up their worship services as they go along. We are Catholics who have a divine liturgy. It has an integrity which one ought to be rather fearful of disturbing. A priest’s opportunity to say something is the homily. Whatever else he thinks he just has to interject does not interest me and is a clumsy, unappreciative interruption of our inviolable liturgical act.

  21. In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem SC 8

    Apparently I am in a minority here in thinking that liturgy is not repetition, even rote. Where is the text that will be repeated in Heaven? There is no text, because liturgy then will be as Todd described it above: “placing varied gifts to use to make a better whole from disparate parts, using a certain structure to order the whole expression.” This is the vision of heaven, where all the saints are so aligned with God’s will that their improvisation is the heavenly harmony.

    On earth, a written plan makes it easier for many voices to sing together. I picture the 5000 fingers of Dr T all going their own way when freed from unison; that rarely is the road to the heavenly hymn. But the written plan, the repetition, is not the hymn. (nor are the individual written notes of a fugue the music, which can only be heard or imagined)

    Marriage is the simplest example. Two baptized persons can commit themselves to one another; as a sacrament, this commitment is liturgical even if it does not use the forms of the Church. The anticipation of the love that fills heaven is what makes it liturgy, not the written repetitive rite. (leaving aside for the moment whether the official, institutional church recognizes the liturgy)

    A community gathered commits itself to God more easily with a written rite to coordinate their actions. But the written rite is not the liturgy. Glorifying, worshipping, adoring and giving thanks are the liturgy. Acting in the one Spirit, with one Spirit, is liturgy. Fulfillment of rubrics and text are not liturgy, but instruments to create liturgy.

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