Why Priests and Co. Depart from Liturgical Rules

Martin Stuflesser and Tobias Weyler have together published the 264-page book Liturgische Normen. Begründungen, Anfragen, Perspektiven (“Liturgical Norms: Rationales, Questions, Perspectives”) with Pustet Verlag in Germany. With permission of Katholisch.de, Pray Tell is happy to present this interview about the study which the book reports on.

An interview of Fr. Martin Stuflesser by Tobias Glenz                                                      

According to the will of the church, worship services should not be celebrated arbitrarily. Thus there are liturgical rules, so-called “norms,” which represent a universal, binding benchmark for Catholic liturgy. In the history of Christian worship services these norms were at times understood more narrowly, at other times more loosely. The concrete liturgical reality today, however, is oftentimes not identical with the prescriptions of the liturgical books – there are departures from the norms. Why is this? The liturgy professor from Wurzburg, Martin Stuflesser, has researched with Hans-Georg Ziebertz, professor of religious pedagogy, the behavior of liturgical actors – priests, permanent deacons, full-time pastoral ministers, and conducted interviews. The study has now been published.

Question: Fr. Stuflesser, you investigated so-called “departures from norms” in your study. How frequently do such departures occur?

Prof. Dr. Martin Stuflesser

Stuflesser: More than half of the liturgical actors we asked regularly undertake changes in the liturgy in order to make the liturgical celebration “fitting” – for themselves and for their communities. So, many do not wish to comply with various liturgical prescriptions, but rather celebrate the liturgy other than as prescribed. It was really no surprise for us that the liturgy is adapted. But our study wished to find out where exactly the norms are departed from, and above all, the reasons for which this is done.

Question: In which parts of the liturgy are the departures from the norm particularly frequent?

Stuflesser: First, it concerns the realm of liturgical language, which is frequently criticized for being difficult to understand and cumbersome. People change prescribed prayers, seek out alternative prayers from relevant publications, or completely write texts for themselves – even including the Eucharistic Prayer. A further example is the area of lectionary readings: here readings are frequently omitted – mostly the Old Testament reading – , because they are found to be too complicated or unappealing. A further prominent example is the concluding doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer. Many priests have the entire community proclaim with him “Through him and with him and in him…” That is not what is prescribed. Since the early church, the community says only the “Amen” here, which ratifies the entire Eucharistic Prayer of the presider. The desire for the greatest possible active participation of all the faithful plays a role here. That is perhaps the most important finding of the study: departures from norms are never undertaken arbitrarily, but rather, the actors always have their reasons.

Question: And what are the reasons?

Stuflesser: One can detect among the actors roughly two basic directions: one group holds to the norms to the greatest extent possible; the other tends in general to depart from the norms. Which group one identifies with has much to do with one’s understanding of liturgy. When the primary goal is that the liturgy be a communitarian experience that gives people a “good space,” in that they pray and sing together, then one deals more creatively with the norms.  Those in this group tend to find the prescriptions constrictive – after all, one wants to be responsive to the community and involve them actively. By contrast, the other side sees the liturgy primarily as an encounter with God with an official character and emphasizes uniformity for the universal church. Then the norms naturally will be seen as something venerable. Perhaps the official options in the liturgical books are made use of – but everything is within the bounds given by the norms.

Question: You explicitly reject the notion of liturgical “abuse” in your study. Why?

Stuflesser: First, we have no interest whatsoever in denouncing liturgical behavior that departs from the norms. We merely want to account for it empirically. “Abuse” would be the false concept for various reasons. At the latest, since the question of sexual abuse has arisen in the church, the word has connotations much too strong and negative. We’re working within completely different categories here.

Question: “Departure from the norm” don’t quite have the ring of something forbidden. Are all such departures legitimate then?

Stuflesser: Of course not. Our liturgy gives a whole series of options to choose from and expressly calls for adaptations to a given community. But canon law also says very clearly that the faithful have a right that the liturgy be celebrated according to the prescriptions of the church [Canon 214 – ed.]. For the Collect, Prayer over the Offerings, and Prayer after Communion, for example, it is foreseen that they be prayed exactly as printed in the missal. If some simply write their own unapproved prayer, that is not permitted.

Question: So, what happens when such illegitimate departures from the norms are discovered?

Stuflesser: It’s in the hands of the bishops. The Vatican instruction “Redemptionis sacramentum” elevates liturgical norms very high and also foresees the possibility of sanctions. We did not investigate how often these departures are communicated to the “higher ups.” But I could well imagine that some bishops would have sleepless nights if they knew that over 50% of their coworkers do not celebrate the liturgy as prescribed.

Question: One might think that liturgical norms are expendable, if it’s the case that one can get around them without any problem…

Stuflesser: Definitely not. Liturgical norms are needed because they represent an assurance of quality and provide a liturgical skeletal structure. But the question is yet to be answered as to how much uniformity the liturgy actually needs across the universal church in order for one to be able to say everywhere: when it says Roman Catholic on the sign outside, it’s really Roman Catholic inside. It is clear that the liturgy can and must be adapted to the given local congregation so that, with a view to language and ritual flow, the worship service can be celebrated authentically. Thus, in the field of liturgical studies we do not speak in the first instance within the categories of “permitted and unpermitted,” but rather “sensible and less sensible.”

Question: And what do these categories mean with a view toward departures from norms?

Stuflesser: A look at church history shows that many liturgical reforms came about from departures from the norms. These were movements “from below.” For example, when young monks at the beginning of the 20th century celebrated the community Mass in German in the crypt of Maria Laach, they did it at a time when this was actually prohibited. And yet, the Second Vatican Council picked this up at a later time, as more and more voices came from entire universal church considered it sensible to give greater place to the vernacular in the liturgy.

Question: You did research in various diocese for your study. Were there significant differences?

Stuflesser: Yes, differences, but proportionately not that much. The tendency was at least discernible for the diaspora to be more conservative, because of the desire for boundaries toward the other in order to form identity. The liturgy there becomes a marker of identity, and one tends to celebrate it as it is given in the official books.

Question: You investigated various groups of liturgical actors. Are there groups that make changes more than others?

Stuflesser: We were able to establish differences especially between generations. Among younger full-time workers, and especially in the younger generation of priests, one finds more rejection of and mistrust of free liturgical forms. Conversely there is the older generation, which was ordained immediately after the Council and took in that era’s spirit of breakthrough. Here things go strongly in the direction of freer forms. But these are swings of the pendulum. Painting it in black and white with “conservative young clergy against the liberal Council generation” would not be correct.

Question: From conservative quarters the accusation frequently is made that the reformed liturgy is particularly susceptible to wild “outgrowths.” Were there really no deviations from the norm in the preconciliar liturgy?

Stuflesser: I think this thesis is rather ridiculous. Naturally one can say that the preconciliar liturgy was more strongly regulated, and it clearly gave fewer possibilities for choices or possibilities of adaptation. But there have been departures from the norm in all eras of church history. When we look at the liturgical movement, such departure from norms is seen. And they were taken up by the church entirely intentionally and led to the liturgical reform. The overwhelming majority of bishops saw the need to take action. A glorification of the preconciliar liturgy as something which was always celebrated according to the norms is historically unfounded.

Question: What should be the result of your study, and what role do norms play for the liturgy of the future?

Stuflesser: Well, we didn’t develop any maxims for future behavior, but rather we started by determining how liturgical actors behave today. A very important next step would be to look at what congregations actually desire in worship services. How do the faithful imagine liturgy in the 21st century? For this we have already planned a follow-up project. In all communities there should be regular liturgical management of quality. But norms will also play a role in the future. There simply are “essentials” which are indispensable. I think of a unified order of lectionary readings and unified Eucharistic Prayers. But this does not mean that things can’t change in the future with respect to norms – that happens constantly. Take foot washing of women. Pope Francis washed the feet of women on Holy Thursday, although the norms had forbidden it at that point in time. As the highest lawgiver, he flouted the norms – and then at a certain point they were changed as a consequence. Today it is totally taken for granted that the feet of all baptized Christians can be washed. Liturgy is and always was something living that grows and develops further.

Von Tobias Glenz. Tr. awr.


  1. canon law also says very clearly that the faithful have a right that the liturgy be celebrated according to the prescriptions of the church [Canon 214 – ed.].

    Here is one of the prescriptions of the Church: GIRM 20.

    Because[, however,] the celebration of the Eucharist, like the entire Liturgy, is carried out through perceptible signs that nourish, strengthen, and express faith, the utmost care must be taken to choose and to arrange those forms and elements set forth by the Church that, in view of the circumstances of the people and the place, will more effectively foster active and full participation and more properly respond to the spiritual needs of the faithful.

    The Latin of the phrase in which I have emphasized two verbs runs: maxime curandum est eas formas et elementa ab Ecclesia proposita seligi et ordinari. Those two verbs, select and arrange, are routinely ignored, and yet, I maintain, if we are not doing the selecting and arranging we are in fact not properly doing the task that the Church asks of us liturgical practitioners; we are not giving the faithful what Canon 214 says they have a right to: a liturgy that is well-adapted to the celebrating community.

  2. Regarding whether adaptations were made to the preconciliar rite, the answer is Yes, they certainly were. And furthermore, the rite could be personalized in ways that might not have been immediately obvious to the casual observer in the pew.

    As an example, one of the things that could catch out a server at Low Mass, kneeling at the foot of the altar steps on the Gospel side of the altar, was failing to watch for the signal that the priest had finished reading the Epistle. The server would then rise, go to the middle, genuflect, and then move to the foot of the altar steps at the Epistle end of the altar, ready to transfer the Missal on its stand to the Gospel side when the priest had completed reading the Gradual and Alleluia or Tract. Failure to notice the signal or to arrive in time would often provoke a rebuke from the priest.

    The conventional signal was for the priest to lay his left hand flat on the edge of the altar next to him, but priests would use all kinds of signal. Some would look toward the server and back again. Some would nod in the server’s direction. Some would raise their left elbow and drop it again. One Jesuit that I served for would swing his straight left leg out a couple of feet and then back. Very occasionally a priest would give no signal at all and you would have to run when he moved to the centre of the altar.

    Anyone who thinks that the Tridentine Rite was a liturgical straitjacket never learned that every priest had his own individual idiosyncrasies, his own variants in gestures, his own requirements — his own speed! (I used to be able on occasion to serve three Masses simultaneously in adjacent side chapels, because although they started at the same time they all went at different rates. Of course the spoken responses were said by the priest himself.) These idiosyncrasies became even more pronounced at High Mass. Celebration was always an individual affair and you needed to be on the alert!

    1. Well said, Paul.

      I used to attend Sunday Mass at a church where Mass was celebrated by an elderly retired Jesuit priest. This was in the days of the silent Canon. Now I am, and was, intimately acquainted with the Latin text of the Canon, and I can speak it fast. However, there was no way that priest could have got through it in the short time he did, without leaving bits out (was he a student of Hans Kung or Karl Adam?) or else ‘rhubarb’ing’ much of it on the ‘sumpsimus- mumpsimus’ principle.

      A priest (still working) of my acquaintance says that all that matters is getting the words of consecration right.

      I am more worried by priests who routinely celebrate Mass on their own, without the serious reason that we have traditionally allowed for such practice. It is a nonsense to be saying ‘et cum spiritu tuo’ when one has just said ‘Dominus vobiscum.’ If the Missal says, well just leave out those bits, that’s even worse!

      Hey ho


      1. On a related topic….

        I remember attending a Divine Liturgy at a local Antiochian Orthodox parish and dutifully following along in the pew book….until the Canon….where I lost him, only to discover that I had to fast forward 4 pages and could catch up again….

        Ah, the mysteries (pun intended) of the Holy Spirit.

    2. And we wretched altar boys would judge the character of the celebrant by how he dealt with the lavabo towel aka manuterge. If he handed it back folded we considered him a gentleman and a scholar. If he flung it back at us unfolded we considered him an absolute lowlife, and that’s being polite.

      Of all the priests I served I always was thrilled if a Jesuit walked into the sacristy because I knew that he’d not only handle the towel properly but would also give me a generous tip. It never failed.

  3. The overarching principal governing the celebration of liturgical rites is that we pray what we believe. We know well that over many hundreds of years various liturgical books were employed in various places. When Pius V promulgated the “Tridentine Mass” and directed that it be followed precisely at the risk of invalidity it took more than 200 years to achieve compliance. Even then various other rites survived from place to place. Not to mention the distinctive Byzantine rites which virtually no one in the West knew anything about. As to rubrical departures and modifications of some texts in the Novus Ordo, it might be helpful to note that its texts and rubrics were not promulgated by “The Church” but by particular church men who acted out of the context of their own understanding of the principles of the reform set in motion by SC at Vatican II. The English speaking bishops took much time and effort during the 80’s and 90’s to craft revisions to the Roman Rite in consultation with clergy, religious, and laity. This endeavor as we know was swept aside by a cabal of reformers of the reform. The next decade saw the wearing down of those seeking further development and cultural adaptation and the adoption of a very controversial translation of the Roman Missal. Along with countless of my confreres I pray what the church clearly confesses and believes. We pray texts that have enjoyed approbation. We follow rubrics which make clear and good sense. There are few, if any, of the faithful who object to what may amount to minor modifications of the 2011 Missal.

    1. As I have observed before, it is high time the expression ‘Novus Ordo’ was retired from service. It has no official status and, when used by the Society of St Pius X and others of like mind, always has a pejorative connotation.

  4. Does anybody know the likelihood of Professors Stuflesser and Weyler’s book being translated to English in the near future? It seems like a fascinating study.

  5. What pains me is seeing newly ordained priests adapting the liturgy to make it seem “more sacred” or even older priests who just go through the motions. Sadly, in Melbourne Australia, the study of liturgy at the various seminaries has been much neglected and indeed, in one seminary, discouraged. It’s no wonder changes are made in the liturgy, generally without thinking or understanding. How can a liturgical minister be expected to adapt in a fitting manner if he or she simply doesn’t understand the liturgy or the liturgical action. It is the Church’s bread and butter, the one form that those who seldom participate in, when they do are, are served up banality. I know this might be somewhat off topic. I’ve no problem with adaptation, so long as their is understanding. Sadly, liturgical education seems to have taken a long holiday here and completely bypassed others, much to the detriment of the liturgy. I agree with Robert’s statement about the term “Novus Ordo.” For somebody like myself born in the seventies, it’s just the Eucharist. There’s no new order or old order. Yet sadly for some there is, resulting in adaptations that ape the old which more often than not results in a confused ecclesiology.

      1. I can give you one…..as an example…..

        Attended a funeral recently and the newly ordained paused so long at the genuflection following the elevation, that I became concerned that he might have died…..SOLID 5 MINUTES before rising to perform the same genuflection following the elevation of the chalice……

        Mass was 1.5 hrs…..and even the deceased could not wait to finally leave

      2. I preface this by saying adaptations are not confined to newly ordained priests who might tend to lean one particular way liturgically , rather, I believe these adaptations are simply a failure to understand what the liturgical action is about and what the liturgy as a whole is about. I’ll confine my examples to just a few. Some newly ordained priests, aping the old, have reintroduced the maniple, extra genuflections, prolonged and overemphasized words at the institution narrative, the joining of the canonical digits, never straying from the confetior for any of the other options, incensing the gifts with the old circles and crosses. These are but a few. At the other extreme I have noticed overly verbose introductory remarks that paraphrase the readings – let them speak for themselves – or worse still “the theme of today’s Mass as we find in the readings” – no penitential rite but rather a moment of thanksgiving – isn’t that what the Eucharist is about? – a truncated preparation of the gifts – somehow this is not seen as important – no lavabo – one newly ordained priest said to me “I’m no sinner, I don’t need to wash my hands.” I think most of this just stems from bad or rather no liturgical formation. What strikes me is a lack of the ars celebrandi when it comes to presiding. By all means, adapt, but don’t ape a redundant style, likewise if you do, understand what it is you are doing. Presiding. Sadly, in some parts, the Mass belongs to the priest. All to often I have heard “Not at my Mass” or “at my Eucharist I prefer.” Little regard is given for the poor suffering People of God.

  6. Can we parse “departing from the rules” a bit? There’s a chasm of difference between “tapping your foot so the acolyte knows to fetch and move the missal” and omitting the Old Testament lesson “because they are found to be too complicated or unappealing.”

    There are supplements to keep the liturgy moving along. I get that. If an MC is subtle, he’ll be able to direct everyone along without the congregation noticing, and none of that important job is prescribed.

    It’s quite another thing to read in red, “Do X,” and decide, “Nope. I’m not going to do X. I’m going to wing it, substitute in something, or just omit X entirely.”

    1. Can we parse “departing from the rules” a bit?

      Well, of course, this is why it’s terribly easy to talk past one another and cherry-pick with abandon.

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