April 18, 2017

The Ongoing Problem of Liturgical Clericalism

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion *
The Ongoing Problem of Liturgical Clericalism

Since I am considered something of an expert on the matter, I have occasionally been asked the question: What is the fundamental problem today with the Church’s liturgy? My answer is simple: clericalism.

By clericalism I do not mean the existence of a clerical order in the Church (I am after all a cleric myself). By clericalism, I mean an “ism,” a deformation of something good and necessary – in this case, of something essential to the life of the Church: the liturgical ministry of the ordained.

Liturgical clericalism occurs when the role of those in holy orders overpowers the Church’s rites and disempowers the baptized from the full and active participation in the liturgy for which the twentieth-century liturgical movement and Vatican II called. 

Essentially, there are today two kinds of liturgical clericalism: the “old-fashioned” (a carry-over from pre-Vatican II) and the “new fashioned” (since Vatican II). 

In the old-fashioned kind, the priest assumes unnecessarily the roles of readers, intercessors, or altar servers; the sign of the peace is dropped out; the chalice is withheld from the people; and the laity (especially women) are kept out of the sanctuary as much as possible. 

Indeed, in some quarters this kind of pre-Vatican II clericalism seems to be on the rebound, as many younger clergy state a clear preference for the “extraordinary” (Tridentine) Latin Mass over the “ordinary” form (the Mass we have had since 1970). In this attitude, little consideration seems to be given to the fact that the people do not understand Latin (this trend goes with a resurgence of an exaggerated theology of priesthood.)

The second kind of liturgical clericalism – the new-fashioned – is very much a product of the post-Vatican II era, and is found today mostly among an older generation of priests. What is often referred to as the “talk show” style of priestly presidency of the Eucharist serves – like the older kind – to focus unduly on the priestly role and to disenfranchise the people, who have a right to the liturgy of the church in its integrity. 

The tendency among priests of this school toward excessive personalization, unpredictable intervention, and textual and ritual experimentation has the effect of compromising the objectivity of the liturgy and turning worship into an exercise of personal priestly expression. 

The character of the liturgical life of parishes and communities is fundamentally dependent (like it or not) on priestly leadership. Wise priestly leadership reveres, trusts, and faithfully enacts the official rites, recognizing them as media of divine grace, and it consciously respects the baptismal dignity of the people who worship in and through them. 

Old-fashioned clerics need to recognize the values of the Mass of 1970 – with it provision of the vernacular, the chalice for the people, and a rite characterized by “noble simplicity,” and to appreciate the pastoral superiority of this form over the old Latin Mass.

New-fashioned clerics need to learn the importance of respecting the objectivity of the liturgy; attending to the fact that they are servants of the liturgy, not its masters; and the necessity of avoiding anything that is annoying or offensive to the congregation.

These would also do well to recognize the values of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, especially in the area of music, art, and architecture, as well as its solemn and reverent style, when done well –which was not always the case.

All this points out how crucial are seminary formation in liturgical leadership, the ongoing education after ordination of priests in matters of worship, and strong episcopal oversight of the liturgical life of parishes.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.