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How to Cope with Abuses in the Eucharistic Liturgy

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


How to cope with abuses in the Eucharistic Liturgy. The Holy Sacrifice of the mass is an infinite source of Divine Grace. It must be celebrated with great reverence and in accord with the carefully structured rules for the Mass as laid down by the Magisterium of the Church. Deliberate violation of these rules is serious, pernicious, sacrilegious and widespread. How serious? How pernicious? How sacrilegious? How widespread? Let’s hear the answers from a holy priest. A storehouse of knowledge of the teaching of the church. A master teacher, Jesuit Fr. John A. Hardon.

Father Hardon:

Suppose we start with a prayer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Our Lady of the Eucharist. Pray for us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Our present conference is on, “How to Cope with the Abuses in the Eucharistic Liturgy.” The moment you hear that title you realize that this will be the most unusual conference we have so far engaged in. It will be unusual on several counts. We shall deal here with one of the most delicate and difficult features of what I do not hesitate calling the revolution going on in the Catholic Church today. We shall identify some of the features of this revolution which involves the most sacred element in Christianity - nothing less than Christ Himself in the Blessed Sacrament.

By way of exception I will draw on the experience and analysis of this revolution by other dedicated Catholics who are deeply concerned over what is happening in the Catholic Church.

First Subtitle-Liturgical Obligations. From the very beginning of the Church’s existence Catholics have been obliged to assist at Mass every Sunday and at what came to be called Days of Obligation. Just for the record there were many, many, more Days of Obligation in the early church than there are now.

For the present there are two provisions in the Code of Cannon Law which spell out this obligation. Cannon 1247 states and I quote, “On Sundays and other Holy Days of Obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass.” The next cannon is even more specific. It states and I quote, “The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic Rite either on the Holy Day or on the evening of the preceding day.” Notice it is however a precept where the Church, over the centuries, identifies as binding under grave sin. Corresponding with this obligation is the Church’s perennial teaching that assistance at Sunday Mass on days of Holy Obligation is obligatory unless there is a very, very grave reason to the contrary.

It is important to spell this out, I think, at the beginning of our conference. Why? Because Catholics commonly recognize the seriousness of their duty. As a result, their conscience tells them to participate in the Holy Sacrifice, but and everything in this conference depends on that adversity. This same conscience is now being tested in not a few cases to the breaking point because of the widespread liturgical abuses going on throughout the United States as well as other countries in the Western world.

Basically our question is, how does a Catholic satisfy this grave duty of assisting at Mass, I repeat, on Sundays and days of Obligation where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered in ways that are frequently, very often nothing less than scandalous to the faithful? This is our context.

Our Next Subdivision - A Hypothetical Parish. Following the lead of so many who have written on these abuses let us suppose we are members, and I will make up the names as I go along, let us suppose we are members of Ethel Rita Parish, located in the town of Middleburg. Our pastor and the only priest of the parish is Fr. Filbert Imbecilius who introduced altar girls many years ago. He refuses to distribute Holy Communion to anyone kneeling. Either you are standing for Holy Communion or he will pass you by.

Fr. Filbert regularly omits the Gloria and substitutes what he calls the “Prayer of Belief.” He never says the Nicene Creed. He changes the wording of both the Sacramentary and the Lectionary to eliminate every even suggestion of sexist language. He uses strange looking and even stranger tasting altar bread. Regularly he refers to God as Father, Mother or pronouns He or She. He insists that everyone stand for the whole Eucharistic Prayer. He regularly changes the words of the Mass including the words of consecration to suit his own fancy. He hardly ever celebrates Mass without a crowd what he calls facilitators. Most of whom are well known as zealous feminists who join their hands around the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer.

Recently, Fr. Filbert announced that henceforth no one may receive Holy Communion on the tongue. Either he receive it in the hand or again he will be passed by. Countless letters, letters of complaint have been sent to the Bishop of the diocese. Every letter has gone unanswered, and there is no reason to expect that the Bishop will make any effort to change the abuses in this parish. In fact, the only occasion when the Bishop made any public statement on the subject of the liturgy was when he rejected a petition to allow the celebration of the Tridentine Mass in his diocese. Said the Bishop, “There is no need to return to the past.” and the petitioners were labeled, “Liturgical Reactionaries” his Holy Excellency.

Suppose moreover that within a radius of a hundred miles there are three other parishes, but they are no better than St. Ethel Rita. If a Catholic wants to attend a Mass, celebrated with some regard for the lawful norms he would have to drive over a hundred miles to the nearest parish of a neighboring diocese.

A few years ago some members of St. Ethel Rita became so disgusted that they formed a private liturgical association, and now hold meetings every other Sunday in a old Protestant church building which they have purchased and converted into a small parish. These meetings are followed by a Tridentine Mass celebrated of course without the permission of the Bishop of Middleburg.

The priest celebrant is a retired cleric in good standing. Known by the pseudonym of Fr. Benedict. He will smuggle in from outside the diocese, occasionally whenever the services are not available, priests affiliated with the Society of Pope Pius X to celebrate the Mass. Also there is a Greek Orthodox parish in the village but a half hour drive from Middleburg. And many parishioners from St. Ethel Rita often attend this Mass on Sundays.

Before I go any further let me be clear. I’ve only touched the surface of a widespread - what a mild term - widespread liturgical abuse going on throughout the United States, and I should add in other countries too. Every offense we described has occurred and is occurring in real life, and what I did was just choose a fraction of the abuses that are widespread in nations like ours.

We go on. The reason for the abuses only the Lord knows all the reasons for the widespread liturgical abuse going on in one so-called developed country after another. However, liturgists have now written so extensively on this - not the subject of abuses - but on the reasons that we know lie behind the abuses. That we can be much more specific than I think you expect me to be. We are told, and I repeat I am quoting and paraphrasing from publications - both books and periodicals - dealing with the liturgy.

As explained in a recent issue of “Worship” magazine the readers are told, “The most stunning consequence of Vatican II was its challenge to find a new way of being Church.” “This challenge”, I am back to my quotation, “This challenge struck and still strikes fear in the hearts of curia bureaucrats and bishops who are worried about the size of their miters.” This was quoted from a widely circulating professedly Catholic publication called “Worship”.

The new way is in competition with the old way, and the old way identified. I’m quoting as the preconciliar view was, I repeat, from a professedly Catholic publication. “The old way was traditional pyramid ecclesiology. The image of a church that was a body where some members are inherently inferior to others and all are subordinate to the head. This view has been replaced now by the new way.”

What is the new way? The new way sees the church as charismatic rather than hierarchical. The Eucharist is being seen not as a thing, not as a reality, but as the assembly of the people. In fact, and this is being taught in religious classes in professedly Catholic schools. The children are being told without the assembly, without people attending, there is no Eucharist.

These I repeat, are the premises of the new way of seeing the Church. There has been a redefinition of the Church which underlies what the innovators call, “A Reformation of the Liturgy”.

Another Subtitle - The Dilemma Facing Catholics. Faced with so many abuses in the Eucharistic Liturgy, how is the conscientious Catholic to cope with this painful experience? Well, he can endure the Masses at St. Ethel Rita or he or she can attend the Masses offered by Fr. Benedict, or the Catholic can go to the Greek Orthodox liturgy which the Catholic Church declares is valid, therefore the Masses celebrated by the Orthodox, whether Greek or Russian or otherwise, the Catholic Church declares those Eucharistic Liturgies are the valid celebrations of Mass. Or another option, the Catholic can continue shopping around to find a congenial church where the liturgy is still consistent with the directives of the Holy See or, of course, he could stop going to Mass at all.

As it happens however, not a few Catholic have no access to unquestionably valid Mass. Note the adverb – unquestionably - valid mass celebrated according to the liturgical norms by a priest in union with the Bishop of Rome. So what follows? Under these circumstances a Catholic may have to invoke the principle of tolerance to avoid a greater evil. Let me repeat the phrase, tolerance to avoid a greater evil is a principle in Catholic morality. He may have to endure what is bad in order to avoid something worse.

However, I must say something else. Issues are involved which may fall within what we call, the realm of the eternal forum within the conscience of each person. This means that a faithful Catholic may have to appeal to the depths of his faith and make decisions which surpass those canonical norms that are limited so the church declares to what she calls the external forum. Needless to say such conditions called for sound spiritual direction, fervent prayer and intense reflection on the liturgical discipline of the Catholic Church.

I cannot tell you for how long I prayed and meditated before I composed today’s conference. What we are talking about affects millions of Catholics. In our present reflections, our first step is to determine as best we can the validity of the altar bread used by Father Imbecilius. By the way, I deliberately chose that name, Imbecilius, when the priests who indulge in these abuses are not mentally all there. If they are mentally all there they are committing grave sins and God have mercy on their souls.

In the Latin Rite, the hosts, I am quoting from Canon Law, must be made of wheat alone. And again the Latin Rite, must be unleavened bread. The content of the altar bread affects the validity of the Mass. When the hosts are other pastry than pure wheaten bread they are not valid matter for Eucharistic consecration. When certain essential words in the formal consecration are omitted or radically changed, again, the consecration is not valid.

What we have here is much more than a mere dilemma. It is nothing less than a deep, deep, question of conscience. As intimated before, a Catholic has several options. The following resolutions, as I call it, is based on a careful consultation with Canon Lawyers and Moral Theologians along with a careful analysis of the liturgical directives of the Holy See.

I will begin each resolution what is a crisis with a short title. First, attending a Lefebvre Mass - among Catholic Cannon lawyers there is a divergence of opinion. One group canonists conclude that Catholics attending Sunday Mass in a traditionalist church, whereby traditionalist we mean Lefebvres although as I know there are other traditionalist churches not coming from Archbishop Lefebvre. The first group of canonists declares Roman Catholics may attend such a Mass. However they also hold that a person that is a Catholic may be violating his separate obligation to maintain communion with the Catholic Church. Moreover scandal must be avoided when people see an otherwise faithful Roman Catholic regularly attending the Eucharistic liturgy celebrated by a priest who is publicly known to be out of communion with the Bishop of Rome. That one group of canonists.

Other cannon lawyers take another position. They write it makes no sense to speak of Catholics fulfilling an obligation which they have within the Catholic Communion, but participating in a Mass which is outside that Catholic Communion. According to them therefore, if a Catholic attends such a Mass on a Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation he or she has not fulfilled their obligation.

Now my own opinion which I have been giving now for years. In my judgment, Catholics do fulfill their duty of assisting at Sunday Mass by attending in the Holy Sacrifice a church affiliated with those who are members with a schismatic group like the Lefebvres. But then I also must add the Catholics be sure at those seeing them attending these schismatic Masses are not scandalized into thinking that professed Roman Catholics have given up their fidelity to the Bishop of Rome.

Second Option - Eastern Orthodox Liturgy. One of the remarkable developments of ecumenism, I mean real ecumenism, is the openness which the Second Vatican Council gave Roman Catholics in their relationship with the Eastern Orthodox. In 1967 the Holy See declared that, “Catholics attending the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Eastern Churches, not in communion with Rome, do fulfill their Sunday obligation provided they have reasonable grounds for doing so.” “Such”, Rome also declares, “would be public office, or public function, blood relationship, friendship, or even the desire to be better informed about the practices of Eastern Orthodoxy.” This Roman document goes on to say that professed Catholic are, “Not then bound to assist at Mass in a Catholic Church. It is likewise a good thing if on such days Catholics for just reasons cannot go to Mass in their own Church attend the Holy Liturgy of their separated Oriental brethren if this is possible.”

Next Option - Parish Shopping. Given the situation in so many dioceses it is not surprising that many Catholics resort to what they have come to call, “parish shopping”. This is more than a clever expression. Two large Archdioceses in the United States which I prefer not to identify have closed over 140 parishes in less than three years. By now a dozen reasons have been given for this sad phenomenon. But one reason must be honestly recognized and I believe honestly expressed. It is a fact that abuses in the Eucharistic Liturgy have become so widespread in some dioceses that they have literally emptied Catholic Churches and have led to the closing of numerous Catholic churches.

Not a few Catholics have had to resort to finding a parish somewhere even outside of their own diocese where they can be assured that the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered, hear me, both validly and according to the norms of the Holy See.

Next Subsection - The Responsibility of Catholics. What we are dealing with here is of historical significance. Nothing less than the survival of the Roman Catholic Church in more than one part of the world is at stake and my Vatican superiors have been telling me for years the reason is that behind the abuses of the Eucharistic liturgy is a widespread undermining of revealed truth about the true meaning of the Blessed Sacrament. As we saw in a previous conference there are liturgists and professedly Catholic theologians who deny in the clearest language, who deny what the Catholic Church believes. They write extensively and those who use their books teach widely that the Eucharist is not an objective reality. They will tell you, and this goes back years, that the Eucharist is essentially the gathering of the faithful.

As I have said before they could not be plainer. They will tell you a priest saying Mass alone is not offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice. What we are calling liturgical abuses are only symptoms of deep doctrinal errors that have penetrated once Catholic circles and are causing untold damage to the faith, and I mean it, of millions!

Now a Subtitle - Understanding the Eucharist. Notice we are now addressing ourselves to the responsibility of Catholics. Understanding the Eucharist. Our focus, remember, is on how to cope with the abuses in the Eucharistic Liturgy. The most fundamental way of coping with these abuses is to grow in our understanding of what the Holy Eucharist really is, and for this there is no substitute.

So many people nowadays are speaking about Eucharistic celebration. So few are ever talking about the Sacrifice of the Mass. In the 16th century when Martin Luther and John Calvin broke with the Catholic Church the first thing they did was to change the Catholic vocabulary. Instead of the Mass it became - this is the 16th century- the liturgy, or Eucharist, or Holy Communion, and that is what is happening today. In other words, there is no substitute for understanding the Holy Eucharist as the Sacrifice of the Mass which is, we believe, a representation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. The Holy Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle, in the plainest language I can use, is Jesus Christ. Once even doubts are raised about the Real Presence is it any wonder that so many Catholic Churches either have no tabernacle in the Church or the tabernacle, as I saw in Louisville, is on a window sill out of sight of the congregation, or in a separate place but not in the Church?

So the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, I repeat, is nothing less than the living Christ now on earth with the fullness of divine and human natures, but hidden through our bodily eyes. But you must believe behind what looks like bread is a man, and that man is a living God who became Incarnate. Again in the same way Holy Communion is not just a commemoration what the Savior did at the Last Supper. No it is the Savior Himself giving Himself in the fullness of His humanity united with the fullness of His divinity so that we receiving His body into our bodies might remain in God’s grace and on the last day enter heaven with our glorified bodies.

Let me repeat, because when I use the word millions I was not exaggerating. Millions of once professed Catholics have left and are leaving the Roman Catholic Church. And consequently, the first condition for coping with massive liturgical abuses in so many parts of what had been the Catholic world today is that Catholics understand, and I mean understand, the Holy Eucharist.

From my first days of teaching theology I never failed to tell my students: read, reread, memorize the 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel where Christ, remembers, tells the parable of the sower who went out to sow his seed. All good seed, but the seed fell on different kinds of ground. And the last ground produced any yield, and the first fruitless soil, said Jesus is the soil which is the hard pathway on which people walk. The seed fell on this hard ground and the birds came along and picked up the seed and what else can you expect, nothing grew. When the disciples pressed the Master to explain He told them, and remember this is a first and Christ chose this sequence. The first fruitless soil said Jesus are those who having received the faith in their hearts fail to understand this faith and therefore, it is Christ’s therefore, the evil spirit comes along and steals the faith from their hearts.

The main reason for the loss of millions of once believing Catholics is they have not understood what they have believed. Either you understand the meaning of the Holy Eucharist or today’s world you will cease to remain a Catholic.

Let me be as clear as I can, abuses in the Eucharistic liturgy are no mere abuses in external worship. They are external expressions, but of what? Of deep internal errors in faith. And even a positive denial of what Christ revealed about the Holy Eucharist.

No wonder, no wonder the seminary population in Catholic seminaries in the United States has dropped by 90% since the close of the Second Vatican Council. No wonder.

Another Subdivision - Knowing the Church’s Teaching. Besides the understanding of our Eucharistic faith we must keep, keep up to date, what the Church’s directives on how the Holy Eucharist is to be celebrated, worshipped and received. And hear it, the final arbiter on the Holy Eucharist is not, is not, the Bishop of the diocese. It is the Bishop of Rome.

Since the Second Vatican Council there are literally several hundred specific norms which the Holy See has issued on how the Eucharist is to be administered, worshipped and celebrated. As early as 1980, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued the document: Inaestimabile Donum , which means Inestimable Gift. This document, and I just counted them, has no less than 20, pardon me, 27 clear directives on the Eucharistic liturgy, and many of these directives have further subdivisions.

Let me be as clear as I can, abuses in the Eucharistic Liturgy are no mere abuses in external worship. In other words, they are both ignorance in not understanding the true faith and laziness in not exerting oneself to keep the faith by knowing the Church’s teachings and laws on the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Again a Subdivision on How - Prudential Courage. My last recommendation for coping with liturgical abuses assuming that we understand our Eucharistic faith and further assuming that we know the Church’s directives and both are large assumptions. We must be courageous, and I mean courageous in professing our faith in Jesus Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament and offering Himself in the Sacrifice of the Mass in today’s world and what I am saying refers not only to the laity but also and with painful emphasis to priests.

How much I could say, but I won’t, on the agony of remaining faithful as a priest to what we believe is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. What we believe is Jesus Christ on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. The grace it takes from God and the prudential courage it takes from us. From you the lay faithful and from those who are priests.

By now I have been told by hundreds of the people how they must not be misled or induced to join the crowd. Human respect can be a tyrant. How to, how to fear, without becoming a slave of fear. How to be ready to be considered not just different but strange and odd. It is not easy, believe me, to live up to our faith and the Church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist. Not easy because it demands super human fortitude. How difficult it can be when the priest offering Mass insists on certain practices which are inconsistent with the Church’s teaching or inconsistent with our Catholic faith. But no matter, either we have the courage to live up to our faith or we shall be swept by the tide of confusion and become parts of the “new church” which is an open competition with the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

The Catholic Church will survive only, only where there are still bishops, priests, and the laity who have the supernatural even heroic fortitude to live up to what they know the Vicar of Christ expects of those who call themselves Catholics.

Lord Jesus, we beg you to give us the strength to not just believe internally in your Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Give us the strength to profess our faith, especially in the company of people who have accepted widespread Eucharistic liturgical abuses and consider us out of touch with the times.

Mary our Mother, ask your Son to make us strong in following Him really present in the Blessed Sacrament even if this would cost us our lives. Amen

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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