Whenever I work late, I usually catch "The Busted Halo" program on my Sirius XM radio. Hosted by Father Dave Dwyer of the Paulist Fathers, the show presents the Catholic Faith in a relaxed, relatable format, with the ever genial Dwyer fielding questions about the Church, including queries about liturgy.
Not infrequently, a listener calls in with a question concerning liturgical abuse, whether it's not kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, blessings in lieu of Holy Communion or some other strange activity that pops up during the Mass. To his credit, Dwyer tries to answer the question as accurately as he can; however, during one broadcast, his commentary about "liturgical police" made me prick my ears like one of my dachshunds.
One listener was concerned about some irregularities she witnessed at a Mass in her local area. It concerned folks not kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer. After listening to her question, Dwyer tried to give the parish the benefit of the doubt and then told her that she probably should have stood, as this could be a parish custom (the caller had knelt, as indicated in the GIRM). Then, Dwyer uttered the two words that wounded me "liturgical police."
Now, I like Fr. Dave and have called into the show a few times; however, the "liturgical police" comment bothered me. It made me wonder if Fr. Dave had read any part of Redemptionis Sacramentum, one of the last documents promulgated under the authority of Blessed John Paul II, and co-written by no less than his own successor, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The document states that:
it is the right of all of Christ's faithful that the Liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations as prescribed in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms. Likewise, the Catholic people have the right that the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass should be celebrated for them in an integral manner, according to the entire doctrine of the Church's Magisterium. Finally, it is the Catholic community's right that the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist should be carried out for it in such a manner that it truly stands out as a sacrament of unity, to the exclusion of all blemishes and actions that might engender divisions and factions in the Church.Now, granted, there are some who do get nit-picky about stuff such as harping on mistakes that the altar server might make or whether or not the EMHC wore too much red lipstick (I plead guilty to wearing bright lip colors when I help out), but abuses do happen and they sometimes have ugly consequences. They also take on a life of their own and spread like a cancer all over the parish, and, in some cases, all over the diocese when they go unchecked. What is most painfully apparent is when the abuses are caused by the very ones who are supposed to safeguard against such activities, the clergy themselves. And, when the faithful raise a legitimate concern, they get the term "liturgical police" hurled at them.
Some priests have become a little more creative, going so far as calling such faithful "liturgical Javerts", after the villain from Les Miserables, played rather well by Charles Laughlin. In the 1935 version of the film, Laughlin's Javert tells his commanding officer that despite his own background (having been born in prison and having a mother who was a prostitute and a father who was in the galley), he would strive to uphold the law at all cost. For Javert, from that point on, it was black and white. Javert did not see any legitimate options to the law. It was all or nothing.
In the case of informed faithful who have some understanding of the Church's liturgical law, we know that legitimate options exist for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Francis Cardinal Arinze, himself, made that observation. When clergy exercise legitimate options, there should not be a problem; however, when the strange and the bizarre occur that are not permitted by the Church, then the faithful have a right to formally complain. It is not about the sheep turning on the shepherd; it's about the sheep holding the shepherd accountable.
Sadly, when the sheep speak out against the abuse, the shepherd tries to smite them, rather than make the effort to investigate why his action could be wrong. What is just as painful is when those faithful who may not be liturgically catechized wind up assailing the "liturgical police", telling them that they should not stand up to the celebrant because he is the priest. We are not "liturgical Javerts", who seek to subject the errant to the thumbscrews or the galley. Unlike Javert who enforced the law for the sake of the law, those of us who strive for liturgical integrity do so because of a deep love for Christ and His Church, realizing that the Mass is not anyone's personal property; rather, it is our Church's greatest treasure and no one, not even the celebrant, has the right to cut and paste as he sees fit. Ironically, the one time when Jesus acted almost violently and rather forcefully was when He saw the sacred space of the Temple desecrated by moneychangers and animal vendors (next time someone asks "what would Jesus do", taking whips and overturning tables comes to mind). If His own Father demanded liturgical integrity in the worship of Ancient Israel, should not the Son expect anything less when it comes to the integrity of the worship employed by the New Israel, the Church He founded?
In this Year of Faith, which is approaching its last quarter, we would do well to ask ourselves, do we know enough about the liturgy, about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? If we pray as we believe, should we not strive for liturgical integrity? Maybe we could start by reading Redemptionis Sacramentum in its entirety and then enrich our understanding of the Mass by studying "The Spirit of the Liturgy", Pope Emeritus Benedict's great opus on the sacred liturgy. A wild zeal for the law impelled Javert to take harsh actions. There was no love there. He studied the law and could quote it; however, he had no love. When we study the liturgy and see how, in its proper usage, it brings us to love God, then, like Jesus, zeal for our Father's house, will consume us, and we will see that the Lord deserves nothing less than our best, a worship without blemish. That is a battle worth waging.