Properly Celebrating the Liturgy & Sacraments

Improvisation belongs in the comedy club, not the Church

On February 2, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) issued the Note Gestis verbisque, reiterating that sacramental ministers, when celebrating the sacraments, must adhere to their matter and form. From February 6-9, the Dicastery for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (DDWDS) is conducting a “plenary assembly” [info here] to address liturgical formation through the lens of “sixty years [from] … the promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, outlining practical pathways based on the indications contained in the Apostolic Letter Desiderio desideravi, published in June 2022.”

Let me suggest possible relevant coincidences between these two events — though perhaps not considered by their organizers — run by two dicasteries headed by two prefects personally installed by Pope Francis.

Gestis verbisque appears to have been occasioned by a problem whose dimensions might be larger than Rome initially thought: the invalidity of baptisms (which therefore affects one’s ability to receive any other sacrament) occasioned by sacramental ministers who deliberately adulterated the form of the sacrament of baptism by substituting their own, ideologically-driven language. The most prominent U.S. example arose in 2020 when a man in Detroit discovered — by watching a video — that his own baptism was invalid, which meant his subsequent priestly ordination was likewise invalid. That bishops “had expressed concern about the multiplicity of situations in which they were forced to ascertain the invalidity of sacraments that were celebrated” (my translation) suggests the problem might be bigger than initially thought.

What occasioned this seemingly proliferating problem? After all, the catechism used to teach children how to baptize someone in danger of death: pour water on their head three times while using the formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and want to do what the Church does when she baptizes someone. That’s it! It is not nuclear physics. So why did the situation get messed up inside the Catholic Church? Because some priests and deacons decided to improvise their own words to replace the Church’s form.

There were two principal variants. In an era of women wanna-be priests and “sensitive” clergy using “inclusive” language, the revealed names of the Triune Persons were deemed “sexist” and maybe even “unwelcoming.” So, some clergy baptized “in the name of the Creator and of the Redeemer and of the Sanctifier,” a heretical formula. In an era of “democracy in the Church,” “declericalization,” and “the priesthood of the faithful,” other clergy were declaring “we baptize you” either in the name of the Trinity or of their functional preferences. Since the priest acts in persona Christi by virtue of his ordination, so that it is actually Christ — not Fr. Giovanni — who baptizes or absolves or consecrates, the pronoun matters. The priest speaking “I” speaks in the person of Christ, not in the name of the “community.” Do you know for whom you speak?

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared baptisms attempted using these deficient formulae invalid years ago. The fact that the Dicastery is facing this problem now suggests the consequences of that earlier proud disobedience — disobedience that invalidated sacraments — ramify through the Church. By speaking to issues of sacramental matter, form, and intention, Gestis clearly intends to reiterate what is and has always been recognized as essential to sacramental validity.

The consequences with regard to baptism are dramatic because baptism is the foundation for the rest of the sacramental life. Consequences involving other sacraments might have been just as dramatic, although their impact was more limited because — unlike baptism — those sacraments are repeated. There were priests who used invalid matter to celebrate Mass, thus invalidating the Eucharist. Other priests have skirted the line while staying within the minimal parameters required for validity. I have been to more than one Mass where the celebrant decided he was entitled to engage in ad-libbing the Eucharistic Prayer as long as he hewed to the exact words of consecration. Catholics at least stick to the ritual’s exchange of consent in marriage, as compared to the larger society where “write-your-own-vows” is the stuff of Hallmark movies and, now, apparently a growing trade [see here]. The danger there, obviously, are formulations that express things contrary to the essence of marriage or fail to express things that are, e.g., indissolubility.

At the same time the DDF is trying to clean up the “mess” made by off-the-cuff clergy, DDWDS is running a workshop on “liturgical formation” from Vatican II through Francis’s Apostolic Letter issued in the wake of Traditionis custodes, his restrictions on the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Given the context in which Desiderio desideravi came about, one can surmise that the focus of the workshop is likely defending “Vatican II” against traditionalists engaged in “non-acceptance of the liturgical reform” (no. 31).

Let me suggest the contradictions in that narrative.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy begins its entire discussion of liturgical reform with three “general norms” governing that process. One of those three is that “no … person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (no. 22.3). The liturgy belongs to the Church, which regulates it through “the Apostolic See and, as the law may determine, … the bishop” (no. 22.1).

If clergy had been following those general norms, we wouldn’t need Gestis verbisque. But they weren’t. And, in some sense, they had precedent for it. Many of the “reformers” connected with implementation of post-Vatican II liturgical changes — most prominently Annibale Bugnini — had no reservation about ignoring the explicit text of a conciliar constitution (the most solemn and authoritative document a Council can issue) in favor of their interpretations of how to apply the Conciliar “spirit.” Even the most cursory comparison of Sacrosanctum Concilium with what was done nominally under its mandate requires the intellectual honesty to admit that Bugnini et al. were very much 1960s children, “doing their own thing.”

One can, of course, say that the situation was different because, in the end, whatever Bugnini and the Consilium prepared was promulgated by the Pope. That was true. But it does not change the fact that the mentality that the express language of the Church could be scrapped in favor of what one took as the “spirit” of the Council found expression far beyond Rome. The priests and deacons who tampered with baptismal formulae also defended their gutting by appeal to the “spirit of the Council,” expressed in such concepts as “inclusion,” “welcome,” “the priesthood of the faithful,” “the Church as community,” “the Eucharist as meal,” etc. What’s good for the goose…

Yet while these self-appointed revisers railed against “clericalism,” they themselves were supremely clerical, using the de facto power of their clerical office to ride roughshod over the sensus fidei et fidelium to impose their theological illiteracy. When people began complaining to diocesan chanceries in the 1970s and 1980s about liturgical and sacramental abuses in parishes, they were labelled “cranks.” When they got no satisfaction and began sending their concerns to John Paul’s Vatican, these same “friends of the People of God” suddenly objected to oversight by the Holy See. Aidan Nichols, O.P. properly noted that when it comes to clericalism, les extrêmes se touchent: the priest who refused the authorized vernacular in the 1960s and the priest who derided novenas and popular devotions in the 1980s were both speaking from clerical power.

My concern is that, in addressing the need for proper liturgical formation, the DDWDS workshop should not turn into a “trad-bashing” exercise. It was not the traditionalists, after all, who invalidated people’s baptisms and deprived the People of God of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental rites to which they had a right. It was clergymen who decided to substitute their personal “rites” for the typical editions. It was clergymen, taken more with themselves than with being an alter Christus, who felt compelled to put their “mark” on celebration (even to the point of invalidating it).

I bear no torch for the traditionalist movement. I recognize that, in some respects, they have divided the Church. But I also recognize that some heralds of the “spirit of Vatican II” also divided and damaged the Church and that the reaction of ecclesiastical leadership — from local bishops supposedly “responsible” for proper celebration of the liturgy in their dioceses through this pontificate — have reacted in extremely different ways to those two challenges. I would also claim that the votaries of “the spirit of Vatican II” may have wrought much greater damage on a much broader scale. That bishops are having to figure out whether people’s baptisms were valid demonstrates that.

So, as this week plays out in Rome, let’s recognize that properly celebrating the liturgy is not “rigid” but, rather, a recognition that what the liturgy is, does, and effects in the faithful is far too important to “make a mess” about. Let’s recognize that, when it comes to dogmatic, moral, and pastoral clarity, especially in ambiguous or irregular situations, improvisation belongs in the comedy club, not the Church. (Salutary advice to the authors of Fiducia supplicans). Let’s recognize: that clericalism is also responsible for liturgical abuse, not by failing to pretend they are “just one of the People of God” but by using clerical power to impose a faux “democratic” leveling; that ars celebrandi presupposes a humble self-effacement to put on and act in persona Christi to the decrease of the cleric celebrant; and that proper celebration of the Church’s liturgy, to which the People of God are entitled, is not rocket science but, rather, a function of both basic literacy and basic humility.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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