“Dear Father, In my travels I have attended Mass in many parishes and have seen it celebrated in very different ways, in some places with great care and reverence, but in others with little care for the rubrics, even leaving out some prayers and introducing others. Is this allowed?
I have been asked this question many times over the years, and I now use Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Letter Desiderio Desideravi to answer it. The Pope wrote that letter, dated 29 June 2022, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, to stress the importance of formation in the liturgy for everyone, both priests and lay faithful.
He mentions in the letter that on various occasions he has warned against the dangerous temptation of “spiritual worldliness”, about which he has written at length in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (nn. 93-97). One form of it, Gnosticism, “shrinks Christian faith into a subjectivism that ultimately keeps one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings” (DD 17).
Here the priest celebrating Mass can be tempted to ignore the prayers and gestures in the Missal and adapt them to his own subjective way of thinking.
Pope Francis goes on to say that the liturgy, by its very nature, is the most effective antidote against this: “If Gnosticism intoxicates us with the poison of subjectivism, the liturgical celebration frees us from the prison of a self-referencing nourished by one’s own reasoning and one’s own feeling. The action of the celebration does not belong to the individual but to the Christ-Church, to the totality of the faithful united in Christ.
The liturgy does not say ‘I’ but ‘we,’ and any limitation on the breadth of this ‘we’ is always demonic. The Liturgy does not leave us alone to search out an individual supposed knowledge of the mystery of God. Rather, it takes us by the hand, together, as an assembly, to lead us deep within the mystery that the Word and the sacramental signs reveal to us” (DD 19).
The Mass belongs to the Church, not to the individual priest to do with as he sees fit. “Let us always remember that it is the Church
That is, the liturgy, and in this case especially the Mass, is not an action of the individual priest, but an action of Christ together with his Mystical Body, the Church. The prayers and gestures have been determined by the Church and are spelled out in the Missal. It is not up to the individual priest to leave out or add anything, according to his own tastes.
The Pope goes on to say: “Let us be clear here: every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to (space, time, gestures, words, objects, vestments, song, music…) and every rubric must be observed. Such attention would be enough to prevent robbing from the assembly what is owed to it; namely, the paschal mystery celebrated according to the ritual that the Church sets down” (DD 23).
The faithful have a right to the Mass celebrated according to the indications of the universal Church, a right to the Catholic Mass. They should not be subjected to a Mass celebrated according to the personal whims of the priest. The Mass belongs to the Church, not to the individual priest to do with as he sees fit. “Let us always remember that it is the Church,
the Body of Christ, that is the celebrating subject, not just the priest” (DD 36).
One of the ideas that the Pope treats at some length is the ars celebrandi, the art of celebrating. Here he says there are two dangers to be avoided: on one hand a rigid adherence to the rubrics without piety, and on the other a wild creativity without rules: “The ars celebrandi cannot be reduced to only a rubrical mechanism, much less should it be thought of as imaginative – sometimes wild – creativity without rules. The rite is in itself a norm, and the norm is never an end in itself, but it is always at the service of a higher reality that it means to protect.
He also says the art of celebrating must be in harmony with the action of the Holy Spirit, who obviously only inspires us according to the mind of the Church: “Only in this way will it be free from the subjectivisms that are the fruit of individual tastes dominating” (DD 49).
It is clear from all this that the priest can celebrate Mass making use of his own personality and personal piety, but always in fidelity to the norms of the Church, so that the Mass is not his own but that of the Church.