JULY 2004 (ZENIT)
Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: It is common in my diocese for priests, after the Lamb of God, when the
Missal reads "This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the
world ..." to substitute a different (but still true) title or description
of Christ — usually related to the Gospel of the day. For example, "This
is Jesus, who today calls us to take up our cross and follow him ..." Is
this permitted? — C.S., Hamilton, New Zealand
A: The short answer to this, and to other similar questions regarding
priests altering prescribed texts or composing new ones, is no.
But — and there is a but — in some countries and religious congregations,
small additions have been made to these prayers with proper authorization
from the Holy See.
The general principles involved are those announced in the General
Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 24-26.
No. 24 reminds priests that while some adaptations of the liturgy are
possible these "consist for the most part in the choice of certain rites
or texts, that is, of the chants, readings, prayers, explanations, and
gestures that may respond better to the needs, preparation, and culture of
the participants and that are entrusted to the priest celebrant.
Nevertheless, the priest must remember that he is the servant of the
Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own
initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of
Nos. 25 and 26 refer to other adaptations reserved to the diocesan bishop
or to the episcopal conference which often require the definitive
ratification of the Holy See.
The recent instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" has also weighed in on
the topic of unauthorized alterations in No. 31:
"In keeping with the solemn promises that they have made in the rite of
Sacred Ordination and renewed each year in the Mass of the Chrism, let
Priests celebrate 'devoutly and faithfully the mysteries of Christ for the
praise of God and the sanctification of the Christian people, according to
the tradition of the Church, especially in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and
in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.' They ought not to detract from the
profound meaning of their own ministry by corrupting the liturgical
celebration either through alteration or omission, or through arbitrary
additions. For as St. Ambrose said, 'It is not in herself ... but in us
that the Church is injured. Let us take care so that our own failure may
not cause injury to the Church.' Let the Church of God not be injured,
then, by Priests who have so solemnly dedicated themselves to the
ministry. Indeed, under the Bishop's authority let them faithfully seek to
prevent others as well from committing this type of distortion."
The document returns to this theme in Nos. 58 and 59: grounding the
priest's obligation to respect the liturgical text on the rights of the
faithful to a truly Catholic liturgy and on the authentic meaning of
No. 58 says: "All of Christ's faithful likewise have the right to a
celebration of the Eucharist that has been so carefully prepared in all
its parts that the word of God is properly and efficaciously proclaimed
and explained in it; that the faculty for selecting the liturgical texts
and rites is carried out with care according to the norms; and that their
faith is duly safeguarded and nourished by the words that are sung in the
celebration of the Liturgy."
No. 59 continues: "The reprobated practice by which Priests, Deacons or
the faithful here and there alter or vary at will the texts of the Sacred
Liturgy that they are charged to pronounce, must cease. For in doing thus,
they render the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy unstable, and not
infrequently distort the authentic meaning of the Liturgy."
What is important to consider in the case presented is not so much whether
the additions involved are theologically correct — they might well be —
but the fact that an individual priest takes upon himself the role of
changing what the Church has established.
By praying in words of his own choosing, and not those chosen by the
Church, he, in a sense, betrays the "we" of the presidential prayers which
make him the Church's representative before God and obscures the
faithful's right to join through his ministry in the prayer of the
Such acts are probably often done with the best of intentions and even
spring from pastoral motives. But they are objectively acts of theological
egotism that transform the common patrimony into an individual's private
As mentioned above, this does not mean that the liturgy is totally
untouchable; however, any changes must be made according to the proper
To take the present examples, some episcopal conferences, above all in
Latin America, have, with the Holy See's approval, added the words "Jesus
Christ" to the Agnus Dei so as to strengthen the people's faith in the
real presence. The priest thus says: "This is the Lamb of God, Jesus
Christ, who takes away the sins ..."
Other episcopal conferences, such as the Italian, have composed
alternative opening prayers reflecting the readings of the day for the
three Sunday Cycles.
Such concessions are particular and may only be used within the confines
of the countries for which they have been approved.
All the same, they give an idea of the real possibilities for liturgical
adaptation when done according to the mind of the Church. ZE04071322
* * *
Follow-up: Substituting [for] "Lamb of
God" [from 07-27-2004]
Changing the words of the "Lamb of God" (see July 13) is just the tip of
the iceberg of the wider problem of unauthorized ad-libbing during Mass.
And this problem includes liturgical gestures.
A Wisconsin reader mentions one case of changes to gestures in a Mass. He
writes: "After the consecration, all 13 or 14 members of the congregation
gathered around the altar and the priest gives them the host. We hold
Jesus in our hands, we don't consume it, and the priest announces, while
elevating his host, 'This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of
the world ...' After all the proper prayers have been said, we then
consume the host. No one raises his own host during the prayer. Is this
Our correspondent was justifiably perturbed by this "change" which lacks
any theological justification and infringes so many norms it's hard to
know where to begin.
Not least among the norms violated is that the faithful receive Communion
before the priest has completed the sacrifice by consuming the Precious
Blood before distributing Communion. This places the faithful in a
position that belongs only to priest concelebrants.
Perhaps the priest desired to bring this small group into closer
participation of the Eucharist by this ritual innovation. But the
fundamental problem remains the same as when one elaborates one's own
texts: The meaning the Church expresses through her rites is vacated by
the action of an individual and the celebration loses something of its
It can also foment erroneous doctrine by blurring the distinction between
ministerial and common priesthood. Moreover, it can weaken the experience
of wonder before the Eucharistic mystery and it perhaps overemphasizes the
meal aspect of the Eucharist at the expense of the fundamental concept of
All the same, some readers sincerely desire to know what means there are
to adapt the liturgy to special circumstances.
First it is crucial to grasp the essence of liturgy as participation in
the Church's universal worship. What gives importance to our particular
circumstances is the chance to offer them together with Christ's eternal
sacrifice in the liturgy. The liturgy gives our circumstances meaning
not vice versa.
This is essential in understanding and joyfully embracing the necessary
limits imposed by liturgical participation.
Once this is grasped, then the true possibilities of adaptation opened up
by the liturgy may be fully capitalized on. This requires gaining a
thorough knowledge of the liturgical norms and of the possibility of
incorporating other liturgical rites which are often underused.
Thus, for example, although the rites and prayers are faithfully
respected, adaptation to particular circumstances can be made by choosing
an appropriate Mass formula from the Masses for particular circumstances
offered in the missal.
This could include the Mass for the growth of charity, for reconciliation,
or for peace and justice. This can also involve the choice of a particular
Eucharistic Prayer from among those approved for special needs.
On some occasions the liturgy allows the readings to be changed so that
appropriate scriptural texts may be chosen. It is also possible for the
priest, or a commentator, to make some brief comments alluding to the
special circumstances. Special prayers of the faithful may also be
On some occasions, selections from the Book of Blessings may be
incorporated into the Mass to enhance a particular moment, such as the
blessing of pilgrims on their departure or return, or the blessing of
students and teachers at the beginning of the school year.
Thus the liturgy itself offers many possibilities to adapt to particular
circumstances while remaining in full harmony with the mind and heart of
the Church. ZE04072722