Rubrics - the rules for celebrating Mass and other liturgical celebrations - have gotten something of a bad name in the years since the Second Vatican Council. Priests who follow the rubrics established by the Church are often accused of being “legalistic” or “unimaginative”; priests who take liberties with the rubrics are frequently thought to be “creative”. It seems an argument without end.
Benedictine Father Anthony Ruff of St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, a thoughtful and knowledgeable commentator on matters liturgical, argues that the whole discussion of “rubrics” should be refocused. Here is what he wrote recently in Antiphon, the journal of the reformist Society for Catholic Liturgy: “The most important thing to say about rubrics is that they are not of central importance. The focus belongs elsewhere; on Christ who acts in His Church; on the community that gathers to celebrate Christ’s continuing presence; and on the mystery of redemption which is actualized in the liturgy.”
“Rubrics exist only to serve these great mysteries. They do this best by being discrete and not calling attention to themselves. The responsible priest faithfully observes rubrics because he does not want to introduce any distraction that would divert the assembly’s attention from the mystery and unto himself.”
“Of course, no rubric is absolute and each rubric could have been arranged differently. In a sense, I do not care personally whether the approved books of our rite call for no genuflection, or two genuflections, or six at the [Consecration]. However, I do care that priests and liturgical ministers be willing to follow a consistent pattern for the sake of the worshippers to whom their every ritual action belongs.”
“Quiet and unobtrusive observance of the rubrics is entirely at the service of the prayer of the entire assembly. They should not have to adjust to the idiosyncrasies of liturgical ministers every time they attend Mass.”
One of the most intellectually creative and imaginative priests I know told me recently, “I have made a solemn promise to myself never to say anything in the celebration of Mass that isn’t in the Sacramentary.” He had been to too many liturgies over the past decades in which the celebrant, substituting himself and his judgment for the prescribed prayers and gestures, had created a tremendous distraction to prayer. I could only applaud my friend’s self-discipline, even as, like him, I sometimes chafe at the clumsiness of the English in our currently approved translations.
There’s an odd inversion going on when celebrants take personal liberties with the liturgical texts. It’s really a form of clericalism, which many priests who take these liberties claim to reject. Free-forming the liturgy says, however unintentionally, “Look at me.” In fact, of course, the entire liturgy is intended to make us look, together, at the face of Christ - and in seeing Christ, to meet the merciful Father who comes searching for us.
“Rubricism”, which connotes a kind of neurotic anxiety about following every jot and tittle of liturgical law, was undoubtedly a problem of Catholic liturgy years ago. But this is not our problem today. In the reform of liturgical reform that is now underway, the central issue is to remind ourselves that liturgy is not something that we create; it is our participation in something God creates, for our worship is a participation-by-anticipation in the liturgy of heaven.
The Christian community does not gather at the Eucharist to admire itself or to be dazzled by the celebrant’s “creativity”. The Christian community gathers for the Eucharist to worship God. Rubrics are meant to help us do just that - to point us beyond ourselves, through ritual (another good word often given unpleasant connotations), to an encounter with the transcendent Truth and Love that is God, the Holy Trinity.
Priests who are faithful to the rubrics - priests who deliberately ensure that Christ, not the celebrant , is the focus of the liturgy - are fostering what the Second Vatican Council called the “full, conscious, and active participation of the faithful” in the Church’s worship. That rubrics can change goes without saying. That rubrics should not be unilaterally changed as an expression of their own personalities, should also be obvious, from Vatican II.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
This article appeared in the Nov. 22, 2001 issue of the Arlington Catholic Herald, the Arlington Diocesan Paper, and is reprinted with permission of Catholic Northwest Progress, the syndicated publisher.
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