Understanding Liturgical Law

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.
The self-proclaimed liturgy ‘experts’ will often quote liturgical law to prove their point. 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.
These ‘liturgical police’ were citing an unofficial translation of the GIRM that had appeared on websites in the USA. I imagine these same people would be upset if someone demanded they obey new road rules that had been issued in America!
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 24 May 2007 Cardinal Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, advised Archbishop Philip Wilson, president of the ACBC, that this text has been approved.
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 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 is not what they are intended for.
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.
Looking at the overall thrust rather than zeroing in on selective bits that support one’s particular ‘hobby horse’.
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 principles so strongly espoused in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from Vatican II.
Waiting for directives from the diocesan Bishop or Liturgy Office before acting, or expecting others to act, upon new directives. Interpreting and implementing documents require the expertise of those with authority and training in theology, liturgy and canon law.
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.
Using common sense when it comes to expecting instant compliance.
Keeping fully informed about the issues by reading Catholic papers and liturgy journals.
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?


Elizabeth Harrington