ROME, 3 NOV. 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ
Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina
Q: For much of the history of our Church, officials have put a
lot of effort in using precise language so that their meaning is
very clear. What is the significance of the words "should,"
"must," "are to" or "are not to"? What is the force in law of
these words? Liturgy uses the word "should" a lot. Does this
mean that its violation is minor? In the United States it seems
that "should" can be ignored if its opposite simply feels
better. What are the criteria for a valid violation of the
J.F., Hesperia, California
A: Liturgical norms and their translations are designed to be
interpreted by everybody from sacristan to bishop, and thus they
generally eschew technical canonical language. Therefore, such
words are supposed to be taken in their obvious meaning.
According to the Collins Dictionary, should
is: "The past
tense of shall: used as an auxiliary verb to indicate that an
action is considered by the speaker to be obligatory (you should
go) or to form the subjunctive mood with I or we (I should like
to see you; if I should be late, go without me).
has, as its most common meaning in modern
English, the sense ought
as in I should go to the
graduation, but I don't see how I can.
However, the older
sense of the subjunctive of shall is often used with I or we to
indicate a more polite form than would: I should like to go,
but I can't ….
Therefore in liturgy the word should
obligation, but depending on the precise context the obligation
refers to concrete acts or to more general attitudes or
For example, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM),
No. 22, indicates: "The Bishop should therefore be determined
that the priests, the deacons, and the lay Christian faithful
grasp ever more deeply the genuine meaning of the rites and
liturgical texts and thereby be led to an active and fruitful
celebration of the Eucharist. To the same end, he should also be
vigilant that the dignity of these celebrations be enhanced. In
promoting this dignity, the beauty of the sacred place, of
music, and of art should contribute as greatly as possible."
Here the use of should
refers to the bishop's general
obligation to promote and oversee the liturgy. The bishop
himself decides as to the actions and means necessary to fulfill
this obligation. Given the overarching quality of the
obligation, it is fulfilled in many different ways. These
include the bishop's personally celebrating the liturgy and
preaching; ensuring the adequate formation of all those involved
in liturgy; establishing particular norms for the diocese when
necessary; and even correcting abuses and disciplining those who
violate the law.
Other norms are more particular. GIRM, No. 5, says, "For the
celebration of the Eucharist is an action of the whole Church,
and in it each one should carry out solely but completely that
which pertains to him or her, in virtue of the rank of each
within the People of God."
Here we are before a general principle but more directly
concerned with a liturgical celebration. Here the obligation is
that each participant in the liturgy must respect his or her
proper area of action. In accordance with this principle, lay
ministers must not encroach on duties reserved to the ordained,
while the latter should not unnecessarily substitute a lay
minister. For example, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion
should not be used if there are sufficient ordinary ministers,
while a deacon or priest should not read the first and second
readings if suitable lay readers are present.
Other uses of should
express a clear norm that must be
followed. Once more, context or other norms determine the
strength of this law. For example, GIRM, No. 32, would admit no
exceptions: "Thus, while the priest is speaking these texts [the
presidential prayers], there should be no other prayers or
singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be
GIRM, No. 43, on the other hand indicates: "The faithful should
stand from the beginning of the Entrance chant, or while the
priest approaches the altar, until the end of the Collect; for
chant before the Gospel; while the Gospel
itself is proclaimed; during the Profession of Faith and the
Prayer of the Faithful; from the invitation, Orate, fratres
before the prayer over the
offerings until the end of Mass, except at the places indicated
Here the faithful's obligation to stand at these moments allows
for exceptions due to age or infirmity. Bishops' conferences may
also modify some postures in accordance with local tradition and
with the approval of the Holy See.
I likely haven't exhausted the uses of the word should
liturgical norms. But the examples presented can show that a
degree in canon law is unnecessary in order to interpret this
and similar expressions in their correct and obvious meaning.