|ROME, 19 JULY 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: In a certain church in New York state a priest told parishioners they
could not kneel during the consecration. He also told them they could
not say the rosary in front of the Blessed Sacrament. The question we
have concerns obedience. Are the laity obligated to obey a priest when
it comes to liturgical practices or devotional practices? Is it a sin
not to obey the orders of the priest?
M.A.E., Rochester, New York
A: There are several questions here and several levels of obedience.
First of all, both priest and faithful owe obedience to Christ and his
Church in matters of faith, morals and liturgical discipline.
Neither the priest nor the faithful are lords and masters of the liturgy
but must receive it as a gift through which, by actively and consciously
participating, they enter into communion with Christ and the Church, and
benefit from an increase of grace.
This fundamental obedience of the assembly to Christ and the Church is
the basis for the other forms of mutual obedience within the assembly.
In a way, the priest owes obedience to the faithful in that he has a
solemn mission to lead them in prayer and worship according to the mind
of the Church. And the faithful have a corresponding right and duty to
pray and worship in communion with the universal Church.
This also leads to a proper understanding of the faithful's obedience to
their pastors. They should be docile in accepting his guidance in all
that touches on the mind of the Church.
Thus, with respect to the liturgy, the priest is called to direct the
faithful in the Church's liturgical worship. The faithful, in turn, have
an obligation to obey him insofar as his direction corresponds to
Church's mind as expressed in the liturgical books or in the
dispositions of legitimate Church authority.
With respect to acts of private devotion, the priest, as teacher, is
called to guide the faithful to a solid spiritual life. In this he may
sometimes be required to warn them against certain devotional practices
that deviate from sound doctrine or that are prone to confuse his flock
regarding the priority of the sacramental life.
In some grave cases the priest might even have to forbid the use of the
church as a venue for public manifestations of problematic devotions. In
carrying out these actions he must always be guided by sound Church
doctrine and not his personal spiritual preferences.
As said, the obedience of the faithful to the priest is in virtue of
communion with the Church and consequently they have no obligation to
obey a priest who directs them to perform or omit acts contrary to
Church norms, because in doing so he fails to fulfill his mission of
leading in communion.
The faithful are also free to practice any devotional exercise that is
in conformity with sound doctrine and Church norms.
However, the faithful should always have a presumption in favor of the
correctness of the priest's directives in liturgical or spiritual
matters and should avoid the danger of allowing suspicion to reign in
their spiritual lives. If they have a positive doubt regarding any
specific issue, the initial attitude should always be one of a
charitable dialogue in search of mutual understanding.
Certainly, and not only in the developed world, the days are past when a
priest was the exclusive source of doctrinal information. Today, most
educated Catholics can find out for themselves what the Church teaches
or regulates on any topic.
Yet this extra knowledge should be an aid to mutual understanding rather
than a weapon of discordance and the attitude should always be one of
construction rather than confrontation.
Sometimes an apparently erroneous directive may be justified by
contextual circumstances not readily perceivable and in an attitude of
mutual charity the priest should be willing to explain the motivations
behind his actions and the faithful be disposed to weigh carefully what
he has to say.
If necessary, all should be willing to ask the bishop clarify the
situation. To some this might seem overly optimistic, but as the ancient
hymn reminds us, "Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est"
Where true charity and love are found, there is God.
Now, alas, we have to come to the nitty-gritty of the first part of the
The directive issued by the priest not to kneel during the consecration
is erroneous if taken as a general rule. The norms for kneeling in the
United States are stated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal,
"In the dioceses of the United States of America, they (The faithful)
should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus
until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on
occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people
present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make
a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The
faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines
The debate in the bishops' conference leading up to the formulation of
this adaptation, especially with the insertion of the expression "on
occasion," made it clear that the bishops desired to prevent the
exception from becoming a blanket permission to abolish kneeling.
Thus, unless some particular good reason led the priest to indicate to
the people that they not kneel on that occasion, and especially if he
indicated a stable norm for the parish, then he was going beyond his
Similarly, there is no law forbidding the rosary before the Blessed
Sacrament. Indeed, the Holy See specifically permitted it in an official
response to a doubt, published Jan. 15, 1997.
The document did state that the Blessed Sacrament should not be exposed
just to pray the rosary. But it allowed the rosary to be among the
prayers carried out during adoration.
While there is no prohibition in principle, one could surmise that
specific circumstances might arise that would induce a pastor not to
allow public recitation of the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament. In
such (supposedly rare) occurrences he would be acting within his rights
and duties as spiritual guide.
He would have no authority, however, to forbid the faithful from praying
the rosary privately before the Blessed Sacrament. ZE05071921
* * *
Follow-up: Obedience to a Priest [08-16-2005]
Several questions cropped up related to the question of the obedience
due to the priest in liturgical matters (see July 19).
One reader asked: "In our local diocese the bishop has not implemented
the changes found in the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal.
When this document was promulgated should the changes have been put
promptly into effect? What about religious orders within such a diocese?
Is it a matter of 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do?' While I
understand the changes are not substantial, I am thinking about the
instance when we are instructed by the General Instruction of the Roman
Missal [GIRM], to stand earlier. Is it within the bishop's judgment as
to when he puts these changes into effect so that proper instruction can
Other readers also asked about the obligation of religious toward the
bishops in liturgical matters.
Our reader did not indicate her country of origin and this would make a
difference to the reply. Although the Latin GIRM could have been applied
immediately by any community, it would not normally become obligatory
until the Holy See has given final recognition to the translation
approved by the bishops' conference and it is duly promulgated by the
In this, the U.S. bishops' conference moved with alacrity and was the
first to have a translation approved. Other English-speaking conferences
have only recently finished this task and for them the new GIRM is yet a
novelty in the parishes.
With respect to the bishop's implementation of the document: Canon law
sees this process as pertaining to the conference as a whole and not to
The bishop was involved, at the level of the conference, at all stages
of the approval of the translation. Thus, no further decree of
implementation is necessary from the bishop although nothing impedes his
writing to the diocese informing of the changes to be made.
If he does not do so, then it simply falls upon each parish community to
carry out the indications in the GIRM, which become obligatory from the
date indicated in the official promulgation by the conference president.
With respect to the obedience owed to the bishop by a religious priest,
"Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 176, states:
"The diocesan Bishop, 'since he is the principal dispenser of the
mysteries of God, is to strive constantly so that Christ's faithful
entrusted to his care may grow in grace through the celebration of the
sacraments, and that they may know and live the Paschal Mystery.' It is
his responsibility, 'within the limits of his competence, to issue norms
on liturgical matters by which all are bound' (See Canon 838,4)."
It would be beyond the scope of this reply to list all of the
prerogatives of the bishop in liturgical matters. But the general
principle is clear that all, including religious, are bound by universal
norms and by those particular norms emanated by the bishop within his
Some religious orders may have special traditions and privileges granted
by the Holy See which the bishop may not abridge.
There is, for example, the centuries-old privilege of the mendicant
orders and the Jesuits to lift the excommunication annexed to the sin of
abortion. But these peculiarities do not provide carte blanche to
religious to ignore either universal norms or episcopal authority with
respect to the liturgy.
Several readers asked if one is exempt from kneeling in those churches
which have been constructed without kneelers.
From the point of view of the individual believer, he or she may kneel
if able to do so but the lack of kneelers could well be considered as a
However, such a structure is not furnished according to the mind of the
Church and the situation should be remedied as soon as possible. In
fact, several U.S. bishops have mandated the installation or restoration
of kneelers in churches where they were absent and we would hope this
situation will be remedied everywhere as circumstances and finances
permit. Any new church project should foresee the provision of kneelers.
A related question arose regarding the incision in the GIRM: "The
faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines
otherwise." This means that the bishop may decide, for sound pastoral
reasons, to exempt his flock from this practice. If he chooses to do so,
the sense of the law appears to be that he establish a diocesan-wide
practice and not simply leave the question to the decision of each
pastor with the consequent confusion that could arise with every change.
If the bishop decides to allow the people to stand after the Agnus Dei
(a common practice outside of the United States), then this decision is
binding on all. The bishop is free to exempt any parishes from norms he
himself has issued and could permit them to follow the U.S. norms if
kneeling after the Agnus Dei is a long tradition.
This period of community kneeling or standing lasts until Communion. As
clarified by a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship, after
receiving Holy Communion each person may kneel, stand or sit as
preferred. It is not required that the faithful remain standing until
all present have received Communion.
An Arizona reader asked: "Under the authority of the local bishop, could
there be consequences for a priest who does not implement the GIRM into
his parish? If so, what sort of consequences?"
It really depends on the bishop himself and on the objective gravity of
A priest might not implement the GIRM, for multiple reasons, ranging
from ignorance through laziness all the way to obstinate disobedience.
A bishop first of all encourages priests and faithful to obey the
Church's norms based on supernatural faith.
In serious cases he may admonish a priest. Except in cases of grave
defects that affect the dignity and even the validity of the liturgy, or
of a general attitude of grave disobedience in other areas as well, it
would be rare to move toward serious consequences such as suspension or
In a perfect world, such cases would not arise. But, alas, we are not
living in a perfect world. ZE05081622