The Problem With Liturgical Pickiness—From A Guy With Very Specific Liturgical Views

Good evening, everyone!

I’m not gonna be going on about Latin or English in the Mass right now, but as a background to the topic of this post, I was talking about the liturgy recently (big surprise there) and it was on the very subject of Latin vs. English. My opinion may strike some as almost being schizophrenic: I actively like the vernacular, and when I go to a Mass in Latin I find it takes an extra effort to pay attention, but as a matter of fact I don’t like the vernacular and think we should go back to using Latin.

But why in the world would I argue we should use something (Latin) other than the thing I technically prefer (English)? That, my dear readers, is an idea I want to talk to you about now.

In a word, I would say this: in the end, the Mass is just not about us. To be sure, some liturgical principles should be maintained everywhere. To be sure, any liturgical celebration should be entirely founded on the traditions of the Church (a topic open to varying interpretations itself), and to be sure, I have my own opinions and pray about them. But in the end, I think we need to remember something: it’s not about us.

Did you notice that across the whole spectrum, especially across countless Catholic blogs, there’s a bunch of opinions about what would make the best liturgy? In conversation, I’ve heard many older Catholics say that they like the reverence and feel of the Mass before 1965, but don’t miss not being able to understand what the priest is saying; so basically they’re saying that, if they could pick, they’d take the reverence and aura of the older liturgy and do it in their own language. A ton of examples could be used to illustrate this mindset. What if you like Praise and Worship in the Mass, a distinctively new thing, but like to receive Holy Communion kneeling down and on your tongue, a distinctively old thing? What if, say, you like it when only the priest gives Communion, but you like Communion under both species rather than Communion under one kind only, so you start pressing for intinction? I’m not saying you can’t have your likes and dislikes. That isn’t my point. But how good is it, do you think, if we keep picking and choosing all these different aspects, as so many Catholics invariably end up doing? At what point do we begin to see the liturgy as a great big set of opinions, with our individual opinion—rather than the countless individual opinions of other people—representing the ideal liturgy? Before the 1960s, such an idea would have generally been unheard of. The liturgy was codified in all its different parts and was viewed as something that the Church was given and meant to safeguard. Now, whether someone is labelled a traditionalist or a liberal, it seems like the liturgy is viewed as something you can tinker with at will—making the liturgy what Cardinal Ratzinger once called a fabricated and on-the-spot product.

How do we get out of this? Honestly, I don’t know. In the end there will inevitably be varying opinions about what makes “good liturgy” and “bad liturgy”, but in my humble opinion, this would be helped partially by slimming down the huge number of options for everything in the current missal, giving us instead a set formula for each part, which would be used every Mass. This would give greater stability to the celebration of the liturgy in general; then, though many will disagree with me, I think we should do all we can (to borrow from the Pope Emeritus again) to bring the “current” Mass in line with the “previous” Mass, thus, again, limiting the differences. Finally, it would be my hope that we would, after many, many years, perhaps, have once again a single liturgical form, founded soundly on Church tradition, without a plethora of options and variations. This, to me, would decrease the “mental narcissism” of many Catholics—including me!—and would allow us to view the Mass, once again, as something objective, codified, and not formed by majority opinions. And if we were to reach such a point of resignation, we could repeat the outstanding principle laid out by St. John the Baptist: “He must increase, and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).


Genuflecting, Tabernacles, and You—What is the Correct Protocol?

Greetings, my dear readers,

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything liturgically related, but I feel I should write about what you’re going to read for the sake of everyone involved. Every time I go to a Catholic church, whether the Tabernacle is located in the sanctuary or not, 90% of the congregation invariably skips genuflecting and makes a bow, unless they’re getting into pews, where genuflecting seems to be a more ingrained habit.

Part of this confusion comes from the separation of the altar and Tabernacle in the 1960s. Without going into my thoughts on that, I will say simply that before the postconciliar changes, it was simple: the Tabernacle and the altar were typically one unit, and so when you passed the altar (which was also the Tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament), you genuflected. Now, people hear conflicting directions: genuflect to the Tabernacle, but bow to the altar when the Tabernacle is absent. And it has confused people enough that now, they mostly bow whether the Tabernacle is present or not. I’ve heard priests and laypeople alike say that the “profound bow” (a bow of the torso) is sufficient before the Blessed Sacrament, but I’d like to clear up some things. What does the Church currently expect you to do when you pass by or in front of the Tabernacle? Is it any different than it was in the pre-Vatican II days? Read on!

The current document of guidelines on these matters, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, distinguishes between a) the reverence given to the Tabernacle inside Mass and outside Mass, and b) the reverence given to the Tabernacle inside Mass, which differs between those who have a liturgical role to perform and those sitting in the pews. Easy guideline first.

Although there are individual exceptions, 99% of the time you will only need to remember this one rule: the GIRM says that “all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect” (274). I’ll get to the exceptions in a second, but like I said, they will only rarely affect you, so just genuflect most of the time. I think it’s important to underscore something, not to be a Pharisee, but to ensure that the importance of the Holy Eucharist, the reverence due to God present in It, is properly conveyed by our movements. Genuflecting is the required gesture before the Blessed Sacrament. The profound bow is only allowed if you truly cannot genuflect. If you can’t genuflect without something to hold onto, but are able to do so with some sturdy object as support, then by all means, grab onto a nearby pew and genuflect that way. Please, consider the truth of the Real Presence and use the profound bow as a truly last resort, like if you have genuine leg problems and nothing to grab hold of. 

Now, what are the exceptions to genuflecting? Like I said, they’re rarely going to apply to you. They actually apply to the priest and other ministers, and only during Mass (GIRM 274):

If the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.

There we go.

Rule 1) Outside of Mass, everyone genuflects to the Tabernacle, whenever it is passed and whenever entering or leaving a pew. This trumps bowing to the altar. At the risk of sounding irreverent, just ignore the freestanding altar if the Tabernacle is there and make a genuflection.

Rule 2) During Mass, if you’re just a member of the faithful in the pews, genuflect before the Tabernacle. The profound bow, contrary to common belief, is reserved only for those with a true inability to genuflect, rather than being just an easier and equally acceptable gesture.

Rule 3) If you’re performing some ministry within the Mass, then you do not genuflect to the Tabernacle. If you’re the priest or an altar server, you genuflect upon approaching the altar if the Tabernacle is present, and also upon leaving it, but not during Mass itself.

Rule 4) Only if the Tabernacle is not present, make a profound bow to the altar instead.

And you know what, I’ll even throw in a personal pity plea: I’m confined to a wheelchair. I wish that I could genuflect, but I can’t. Please, I beg you, use the working legs God gave you and perform this gesture of reverence before Him in the Eucharist. It’s worth a few seconds of stopping for.