Elizabeth Harrington on the Liturgy: "Leave it to us Experts"

Jokes about liturgists (more correctly, “Liturgiologists”) in the Church are like jokes about lawyers in the rest of society. The best known is “The Liturgist and the Terrorist” joke (“You can negotiate with a terrorist”), but here are few others:

What is the definition of a liturgist? It’s someone who doesn’t care how many Persons of the Trinity there are, as long as they’re all standing in the right place.

“What is the difference between a liturgist and a prison?”; Answer: “There is always the possibility of escaping prison!”.

Mind you, they bring it upon themselves. Here is Elizabeth Harrington telling off us “amateurs” for the way we read official liturgical documents from the Holy See. Granted, we should never “use these documents to attack others” or “as weapons to browbeat sincere pastors and parishes into their own way of thinking and acting”, but to suggest that one needs to have “years of study and experience in the field” to be able to read the simple English (or Latin) in order to be able understand Vatican documents is ridiculous. A degree in Vaticanese may be necessary, but not a degree in Liturgical studies!

The fact is that all Christians are “liturgists”, just as we are all “theologians”–it is a part of our baptismal birthright because we all participate in the liturgy, and we all reflect upon God’s Word. Secondly, there are many, like myself, who have made a concerted effort to become educated in the liturgy without any specific academic qualifications in the liturgy. It is possible to do this today because we all have access to the same books and online information that the professional “liturgists” do. Perhaps the only thing we lack is access to the ideology that is inclucated in many of the official academic courses in liturgy. And that is no great loss.

Anyway, here is Elizabeth’s latest telling off “from an expert”. My comments in [bold]:

Interpreting liturgical documents
with Elizabeth Harrington

SOMETIMES it seems that everyone is an expert on liturgy and that personal preference carries more weight than the considered judgement of someone with years of study and experience in the field. [Okay, you know where this is going: My considered judgement is worth more than yours because I’m an expert]

The self-proclaimed liturgy “experts” will often quote liturgical law to prove their point. [So, this is a turf war between “self-proclaimed” liturgy experts and…what sort of expert?]

For example, when the new version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) appeared in the year 2000, many parish priests received calls from people complaining that the laws were not being observed in their parish liturgies.

They insisted, for example, that parishes immediately alter existing practices concerning the timing of the special ministers coming forward to the altar. [She is probably refering to GIRM 2000 (US), p. 162, which reads: “These ministers should not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion”.]

These “liturgical police” were citing an unofficial translation of the GIRM that had appeared on websites in the USA. [She is quite correct]

I imagine these same people would be upset if someone demanded they obey new road rules that had been issued in America! [The analogy doesn’t quite hold, as the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani 2000 has been promulgated in by the Holy See and applies, as far as I know, universally, even if the translation has to be adopted by the local episcopal conferences–I might be mistaken, I am not an “expert”!]

An official translation of the GIRM was prepared by ICEL in 2002 and this version, with adaptations for Australian traditions and circumstances under the provisions of Chapter IX of the Instruction, was sent to Rome by the bishops for approval in June, 2006. On May 24, 2007, Cardinal Arinze, who is prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, advised Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Philip Wilson that this text has been approved. [Quite correct–but then this isn’t privileged information, anyone who keeps up with the news knows this, not just the “experts”.]

Some people heard news of this approval and are demanding that it be implemented immediately.

The instruction does not come into force until later in the year [be patient guys–and we are still waiting on the Australian vernacular edition of the Third Typical Edition anyway, to which it applies]and in the meantime formation material will be issued by the National Liturgy Office to assist in its implementation.

It seems that some lobby groups see official Church documents – especially those dealing with liturgy – as weapons to browbeat sincere pastors and parishes into their own way of thinking and acting. [This would be an incorrect and uncharitable use of the documents. But even before the documents become L-A-W Law in our local Churches, we can still see them as general indications of how the Holy See desires us to celebrate the liturgy. Since the Latin original of GIRM 2000 (IGMR) also includes the sentence “Hi ministri ad altare ne accedant antequam sacerdos Communionem sumpserit”, there is no reason to regard this as a specifically American directive that applies only in the US.]

This is not what they are intended for. [Agreed. They are meant to be received with faithful and willing submission.]

The correct approach to understanding and interpreting such documents involves:

Reading them with an open mind to discover what they are really saying and not relying on media reports or hearsay. [Absolutely. Good advice. We have seen with the Motu Proprio what a hash the Media makes of these things. However, those who are quoting the line about special ministers are obviously not relying on news reports, but have read the actual documents.]

Looking at the overall thrust rather than zeroing in on selective bits that support one’s particular “hobby horse”. [Hmm. I’m not sure the GIRM/IGMR is meant to be read read in terms of “general thrusts” rather than specific directives. Reminds one a bit of that scene in “The Castle“: “It’s Mabo, it’s the Constitution, it’s the vibe”.]

Putting them in the context of other liturgical and Church instructions rather than treating them in isolation. For example, liturgy documents must always be viewed through the lens of those liturgical principals so strongly espoused in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from Vatican II. [Ummm… Through the lense of “The Spirit of Vatican II”? Would that be the hermeneutic of continuity or of rupture, Elizabeth? Is she suggesting that the Congregation for Divine Worship would issue statements that were not in accord with Sacrosanctum Concilium?]

Waiting for directives from the diocesan bishop or liturgy office before acting, or expecting others to act, upon new directives. [Yes, we should always follow due ecclesiastical authority. Although it never hurts to draw to the attention of our bishops and liturgy offices the documents issued with the due authority of the Holy See…] Interpreting and implementing documents require the expertise of those with authority and training in theology, liturgy and canon law. [What? even a directive as plain and as simple as “These ministers should not approach the altar
before the priest has received Communion”? What advantage does an “expert” in theology, liturgy or canon law have over us amateurs when it comes to interpreting the meaning of that?]

Considering who the document is written for and directed at. Confusion and hurt sometimes arise when documents intended for the guidance of diocesan bishops, not for the general public, are widely circulated. [Yeah, yeah, and I have even heard people say that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was prepared only for the use of bishops and not for lay people too. One of the great advantages of the current information age is that we lay people have been enfranchised by having access to documents “intended for the guidance of diocesan bishops”. We know what Rome is telling them even if they aren’t acting on it. Remember: We are the Church! Not the “experts”.]

Using common sense when it comes to expecting instant compliance.

Keeping fully informed about the issues by reading Catholic papers and liturgy journals. [Couldn’t agree more.]

The way that some people use these documents to attack others causes me great concern. “Love one another as I have loved you”… if we’re not prepared to act by this commandment, what good will all the liturgical laws in the world do us? [Absolutely. Charity above all else. Charity also on the part of diocesan bishops, parish priests and liturgy offices, who should acknowledge in justice “the right of Christ’s faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition and discipline” (<Redemptionis Sacramentum p. 11)]

.My one question is: When the new Instruction does come into force in Australian parishes, will Elizabeth Harrington write a column encouraging compliance with it in all respects, or will some–“whose personal preference carries more weight than the considered judgement” of the Holy See–still be encouraged to follow their own preferences? Will we, in short, see a time when special ministers of Holy Communion only approach the altar AFTER the priest has completed his communion?


Addendum: To see exactly how Elizabeth Harrington treats liturgical documents not to her liking, take a look at her piece on the Motu Proprio and the comments by Hardman Window at Coo-ees in the Cloister.

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6 Responses to Elizabeth Harrington on the Liturgy: "Leave it to us Experts"

  1. Tony Bartel says:

    I couldn’t agree more and I am close to being a liturgical “expert” as I have almost finished an MA (Liturgy) at Australian Catholic University. :-)

    While there has been a certain bias in much of what has been taught, I would have to say that a great deal of the course has been reading the liturgical documents, which has been most helpful. I also get a sense that we are moving past the worst of the liturgical experimentation.

    Having said that, there is still a great distance between what the Church teaches and the way that liturgy is celebrated. My favourite example:

    “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as distinctive of the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy, 116).

    While the intention of this was not to exclude other kinds of appropriate liturgical music, one would be hard pressed to say that Gregorian Chant has pride of place in the liturgy in Australia and the States (the two places I am most familiar with).

  2. Schütz says:

    Yes, when EH speaks about “those liturgical principals so strongly espoused in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from Vatican II”, one wonders if these are the sorts of thing she meant.

    So, I’m interested, what do you think your MA actually taught you that you couldn’t have learnt on your own?

  3. Schütz says:

    And, having done your MA, would you call yourself an “expert” in a way that wouldn’t have dared think of yourself before when you were a mere liturgical celebrant?

  4. Tony Bartel says:

    Good questions!

    Apart from learning languages, I am not sure what any of my formal academic studies have really taught me that I could not have learnt on my own.

    I guess the good thing about any formal study is that it challenges your assumptions and prejudices, and sometimes makes you wrestle with issues which you would just rather choose to ignore.

    The definition of an expert is “a drip under pressure” so I’ll pass on that appellation.

    Nevertheless, you raised a good distinction between a liturgist and a liturgiologist (or liturgical theologian to use the terminology of Alexander Schmemann). A liturgist, be they clergy or lay, is somebody who participates in the liturgy. A liturgical theologian is somebody who understands the theory and theology behind the liturgy. Not all liturgists need to understand this. Indeed, the importance of the liturgy is not the theory behind it, but that it is an encounter with God in Christ in the Spirit. But it is good that at least some people do think and ponder and reflect about these things. So I’ll eschew the title expert, but will gladly take the title liturgical theologian, even if I am only at the dilettante level.

  5. Schütz says:

    I like the moniker “liturgical theologian”. Of course, there are many who claim to be “liturgists” (meaning “expert on the liturgy”) who are not in any sense “theologians”, but merely someone who has done a course in liturgy or has a job in a “liturgy office”.

    For instance, the Holy Father is not a “trained liturgist” as some have uncharitably taken it upon themselves to point out (meaning he has never done an academic course in liturgy), but he is one of the finest liturgical theologians the Church has ever seen.

  6. Chad Toney says:

    “The Vibe!”


    The Castle was somewhat of a cult-classic among me and my High School friends. We watched it dozens of times and I’m still loaning my DVD copy out to this day.

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