Ringing the Bell at the Consecrations

The practice of ringing a bell at the consecration (or striking a small gong-like bell or using some other sort of chimes) is not required, but is certainly widespread. Some places did abandon it in the past half-century, sometimes for ideological reasons: I’ve heard priests speak badly about it — I suppose they associate it with “old fashioned things” that “we don’t do anymore”. Who knows.

Historically, as I have always understood it, the bell was rung for a practical reason: to call to the attention of the people that the consecration had happened. (Thus also it might be rung at other times, such as the beginning of the Sanctus, at the epiclesis, and at the priest’s communion — effectively to signal where in the Mass the priest was.) This was needed either because the church was large and not everyone could see the altar, or simply because it was the practice in the Roman Rite for the larger part of its history that the canon — the Eucharistic Prayer — should be recited in a whisper voice, and so most people could not hear where the priest was at in the prayers.

Nowadays, when we have altars facing the people out on extended “tongues” (platforms off the original sanctuary) in remodeled churches, and everything blasted through a PA system with the prayers being said at full voice, ringing a bell may seem redundant or simply quaint. But many people do appreciate having it. And it is still permitted.

For the Ordinary Form of the Mass, no. 150 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal simply states, “The minister also rings the small bell at each elevation by the Priest, according to local custom.” The “minister” in this context is an altar server. “According to local custom” in this case may mean “not at all” — if the bell is no longer used in that place — or “three times” or “one long ring” or “one long and two shorts”… or however things have developed over time in that place.

In my experience, one of the more widespread practices is to ring the bell three times at the elevation of the host and then again three times at the elevation of the chalice.

This probably originates from the form that the elevation took in the older, now called Extraordinary, form of the Mass, in which the action of the consecration is a bit more complex. For example, the rubric right after the host is consecrated in the 1962 Missal says:

Quibus verbis prolatis, statim Hostiam consecratam genuflexus adorat: surgit, ostendit populo, reponit super Corporale, et genuflexus iterum adorat…

Having spoken these words [of consecration], he genuflecting adores the Host at once: he arises, shows [it] to the people, replaces it on the Corporal, and genuflecting adores [it] again…

So there are three things that happens immediately after the priest consecrates the host: 1) He genuflects while still holding the host; 2) He elevates the host in the air; 3) Then he places the host on the corporal and genuflects a second time. In the Ordinary Form, step # 1 is eliminated.

Thus, in most places, the bell was rung briefly for each of those three actions. And that is probably where we get the idea that we should ring it three times at the consecration — except, in the Ordinary Form, what this has become is ringing it three times while the host is being elevated in the air, but not while the priest genuflects after.

There is nothing wrong with this, even if it doesn’t have the same logic as it did before. We are free to follow “local custom”, as the GIRM (cited above) says in this regard.

(Aside: I was watching the first Mass celebrated in Notre-Dame de Paris since the great fire [on 6/15] and noticed that their custom there is to ring the bell thrice while the host is being elevated, then a long ring while the celebrant genuflects; see this video starting about 37:06 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GR_NqXFNdA)

I suppose, following the logic of how things were usually done in the past, since there are only two actions now after the consecration (elevation and a single genuflection), it would make the most sense to ring the bell twice, corresponding to those two actions. But I think that most people would sense that something is not aesthetically pleasing about that. We could of course make up reasons for it — ringing twice in honor of the human and divine natures of Christ or something — but, well, that’s not terribly satisfying.

All of that to say, there is really no right or wrong way to ring the bell at the moment of the consecrations; it comes down to local usage and whatever reasons may be behind that usage (if there are any). Some of it just has to do with an aesthetic sense. The bell is not required; in a certain sense, it’s redundant based on how we celebrate Mass in the Ordinary Form. I suspect it especially helps children to focus — but then again, don’t we all sometimes struggle with a wandering mind, even at that most important moment? Overall, I prefer it, and am glad it is still common in my area.

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Rose Petals on Pentecost

This past Sunday, June 9 — Pentecost — we had our second annual “Shower of Rose Petals” in my parish at the conclusion of our 11am Solemn Mass.

This custom picks up on the rather ancient tradition at the Pantheon in Rome, about which I have written before, to rain down rose petals (through the oculus opening on the roof of that great church) at the conclusion of the Pentecost Mass there.

In the Middle Ages this was done at the conclusion of the pope’s preaching on Pentecost, to reinforce what he had just taught about the descent of the Holy Spirit and his sevenfold gifts. In some parts of Europe, Pentecost was also known as the Pasch of Roses.

The rose petals, of course, symbolize the tongues of fire in the form of which the Holy Spirit descended upon the Virgin Mary and the disciples gathered in the upper room. As I said on m parish Facebook page, this lovely custom creates memories for children and reminds us adults that the Holy Spirit has been given to us through our Baptism and Confirmation and that God looks upon us as his beloved sons and daughters.

This is a wonderful expression of the Catholic imagination and highlights the incarnational dimension of our worship. It is beautiful and child-like and brings joy.

Take a look at the photos and video I posted on Instagram (in one single post) or the photos and video (two separate posts) I put on our Facebook page for this year’s Shower of Rose Petals. St. John Cantius in Chicago has also observed this custom for a few years now at least. And I have seen more and more churches doing likewise.

In my parish we have an attic above the nave and can release the petals through the openings for the recessed lighting. I know of one local parish that rigged up a basket with a rope near the ceiling and released the petals that way. Surely with some creativity, almost anyone can re-create this custom in their church!

(See also Amy Welborn’s post about this, with links to additional photos/video.)

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Confession during Mass?

May confessions be heard during Mass?

There is still rather a lot of confusion about this question — both among priests and laity. It is not unusual to hear of a priest who, with a great sense of certitude, declares that confessions may not be heard during Mass — we don’t do that anymore! (Such priests are wrong.)

And then among laypeople, there is the concern whether one could go to confession during Mass and have that Mass still “count” toward their obligation — for example, when confessions are offered during a Mass on a day of precept like Sunday or a Holy Day. (The answer is yes.)

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments helpfully clarified these matters back in 2001. You can read the complete text of their official response HERE. But I will summarize:

  1. Confessions may be heard during Mass, as long as it is not the main celebrant of the Mass who is hearing them (in other words, Mass and confession cannot be combined by the same priest — it needs to be a different priest hearing confessions).
  2. The faithful are encouraged to form the habit of going to confession at other times. This favors better participation in the Mass (i.e., by not interrupting hearing Mass to go to confession) and having a better sense of tranquility in going to confession.
  3. However, it is acknowledged that having confession offered during Mass often has a real advantage. Therefore, this decree does not discourage that possibility at all.
  4. It is suggested that one or more priests who might otherwise concelebrate that Mass hear confessions instead.
  5. The decree doesn’t specifically say it, but it is certainly implied that one can go to confession during Mass AND fulfill any obligation one has to attend that Mass simultaneously. This is the traditional understanding and I do not consider it in doubt.

There is obviously a tension between # 2 and # 3 in the list above. I think this tension is resolved by reflecting on how # 3 can lead to # 2. There are some faithful who may not have good habits about going to confession. Having confession during Mass may be the way to facilitate their going. But then, in that context, the priest-confessor could encourage them to go more regularly and place a higher priority on this aspect of their spiritual life. If they take his advice seriously, then this leads to # 2.

I have tried to facilitate having confession during Mass at my parish for at least some events, when possible. The clergy shortage in some areas is really starting to be felt. I do also think that bishops should do a lot more not only to encourage their priests to offer more confession times, but help them by offering concrete suggestions about how they may do so (for example, by asking that some priests hear confessions during certain diocesan celebrations, or that in churches with an Associate Pastor, the Pastor and he work out a plan whereby one is “in the box” while the other is celebrating Mass).

The good news is that, while we do still have a way to go, I can say that at least in my neck of the woods it seems that more times for confession are being offered. There are a few places with daily confessions, and several others that have them more than just on Saturday for 25 minutes.

A priest-friend of mine talks about how pastors should calculate the cumulative annual time they offer for confessions (minutes per week multiplied by 52) and then divide that by the number of parishioners in his parish. The result is how many minutes each parishioner gets for confession each year — assuming they only go once a year!

My parish has 3.5 hours of scheduled times each week (spanning 6 out of the 7 days). Divided by the number of parishioners that means 7.8 minutes per person per year. Now there are some extra times that we offer in Advent and Lent and there are other area parishes that offer big penance services with several priests, so it’s possible some could take advantage of those opportunities also. And then there are occasions when we have more than one priest hearing confessions simultaneously. But even with our generous schedule, my assessment is we are not offering enough times — especially if we hope that everyone might go more than once a year to confession! We still have a way to go. And that is with a 6 day schedule! I know of parishes that are twice the size of mine that only have confession for an hour or less each week!

All of that to say, there are certainly many challenges today, but challenges often require creative solutions. Offering confession during Mass may be one piece of that puzzle, where it is possible. Bishops should encourage it and priests who have the means to offer it (because of retired clergy or associate priests or hired help or whatever!) should facilitate it. It is an especially suitable way to “seek and save” those who might no longer have good habits and so might not go to scheduled times — but seeing the light on and being nudged by the Holy Spirit, might take advantage of an odd opportunity while at Mass and leave there a much happier and more peaceful person.

As Fr. Zuhlsdorf repeatedly says on his blog, GO TO CONFESSION!

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Eleven Years

Today — June 7, 2019 — is my eleventh anniversary of ordination. Spare a prayer for me today, if you will. Thank you! And thanks be to God.

This past year has been a big one…

First, there was the celebration of my tenth anniversary of priesthood, which was very nice and quite moving. A wonderful group of people from all over committed to praying for me for a year as a special gift for the occasion. I was given a calendar with the names of all who would be praying for me each day. It’s hard to see that gift come to an end — but I am so grateful for all the prayers and I know they have helped greatly. Thank you!

Then, there was my 40th birthday a few months after, which ended up being roughly a 40 day celebration! I believe a total of 14 cakes were involved over that time from so many generous individuals, families, and groups. It was truly a blessed way to begin my 41st year of life!

Not too long after these great celebrations, some ladies surprised me by becoming my Seven Sisters, each having committed to offer a holy hour for me once a week for a year. I am certain that I have done nothing to merit such gifts of prayer; I remain conscience of the warning of our Lord: “Much will be asked of the man to whom much has been given” (Luke 12:48).

Those are just three highlights from a truly blessed year. Coming to today, eleven is not a remarkable number and after all the celebrations of the past year, this anniversary should go by a bit more quietly. But, in any event, I was delighted to see that in God’s providence the gospel for this day is one of my favorite passages: the reconciliation of Peter with Jesus on the seashore, after the resurrection. Simon, do you love me? – Yes Lord, you know that I love you…

Christ tells Peter, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” This passage sums up the life journey of all who take up the cross and follow after Jesus Christ: he always takes us a way that we never expected, perhaps through experiences and circumstances we would never have chosen. If we had our druthers we would so often choose the way that is wide and easy, but the Lord takes us by the straight and narrow — and how easily we can stray off the path along the way!

Meditating on this passage, I was reminded of a reflection on the priesthood by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his book, A New Song for the Lord. I have published it before on the blog, but I’ll paste it again here following:

In the past the Church was always of the opinion that you could not study theology like any other profession, simply as a means of earning money. For then we are treating the word of God like a thing that belongs to us, and this is not the case. Moses had to take off his shoes before the burning bush. We could also say that those who expose themselves to the radioactive beams of the word of God – indeed those who deal with it professionally – must be prepared to live in such a proximity or else be burned. How real this danger is can be seen by the fact that all the major crises of the Church were connected in an essential way to the clergy’s downfall, for whom contact with the holy was no longer the exciting and dangerous mystery of the burning nearness of the Most Holy, but a comfortable way to make their living. The preparation that is required to be able to run the risk of professional nearness to the mystery of God can find its valid expression in the command of Moses to take off his shoes. Since shoes are made of leather, the hide of dead animals, they were regarded as a manifestation of what is dead. We must free ourselves from what is dead so that we can be in the proximity of the One who is life. The dead – these are first of all the excessive amounts of dead things, of possessions with which people surround themselves. They are also those attitudes which oppose the paschal path: only those who lose themselves find themselves. The priesthood requires leaving bourgeois existence behind; it has to incorporate the losing of oneself in a structural way. The Church’s connecting of celibacy and priesthood is the result of such considerations: celibacy is the strongest contradiction to the ordinary fulfillment of life. Whoever accepts the priesthood deep down inside cannot view it as a profession for making a living; rather he must somehow say yes to the renunciation of his life project and let himself be girded and led by another to a place where he really did not want to go. […] And along the entire path there remains the condition of keeping the contact with the Lord alive. For if we turn our eyes from him we will inevitably end up like Peter on his way to Jesus across the water: only the Lord’s gaze can overcome gravity – but it really can. We always remain sinners, but if his gaze holds us the waters of the deep lose their power.

– A New Song for the Lord, pp. 173-174.

So this is my wish today, as I give thanks to God for these eleven years and look forward to the future: may I obey him in going the way I “did not want to go” — may I follow him faithfully, wherever he leads. This is what the Church needs from us all today — but especially from us priests. Only true holiness will cause us to emerge from this age of scandals and division. There are no easy, technical solutions for what ails us at present.

Lord, please help me and all priests never to take our eyes off you and always to follow your path! Amen.

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The Biretta

One of the delights in reading old books that comment on the liturgy, is that they often provide profound explanations of the meaning of the various things we say and do during the sacred liturgy. One example of this is in my post from yesterday, where I explained what a certain hand gesture meant at the start of the singing of the Gloria at Mass.

Now it is important to recognize that in many cases, these meanings were applied retroactively and were the fruit of contemplation of the centuries-long celebration of the Church’s mysteries by her ministers. It is not as if some committee sat down at some point beforehand and determined that a certain gesture should be inserted into the liturgy to signify a certain thing. In many cases, what was done developed organically, in terms of local customs that later became consolidated and more widespread practice. Commentators, scholars, and saints then recognized meaning in those gestures and shared them for the edification and instruction of all.

So, to the issue at hand… What is the meaning of the biretta? The biretta is the “three horned hat” (tricorno), square in shape with three fins on the top, sometimes a pom (as shown in the photo of the present author above), sometimes without (I have one of those also). There are also variations for different statuses and different contexts. For example, monsignors can have some color on their birettas (piping and poms, depending on rank), whereas bishops can have some variations including the base color being different, and cardinals always have a red biretta with no pom on it. Then there are the academic birettas, which have four fins if the person holds a doctorate (three if their degree is a licentiate) and may have colored piping to signify which discipline they studied. (See something about mine HERE.) Academic birettas are worn for academic functions, not during the liturgy. Other birettas, like the one in the photo above, are worn during liturgical offices/celebrations.

But what is the meaning of this unusual hat? The answer is that there really isn’t one. At least, not in the sense that it finds some root in biblical precedents or some other meaning that various authors have promoted down through the years. Practically every old book that comments on these things that I consulted only rehearsed the history/origin of this hat, including an etymology of its name, and then described its proper use. None of them attributed some mystical sense to it.

Whereas certain hats, like the Bishop’s miter (the “pointy hat”) have biblical roots going back to the Old Testament, the biretta more or less grew out of local customs that then developed and became widespread. In the last 50 years or so its use had practically faded, being a casualty of the mania to throw out so many of our traditions and “simplify” our worship — though now it is enjoying a “comeback” as often younger clergy (not always) discover the “treasures new and old” in the Church’s storeroom (Matthew 13:52).

For me, one of the things that the biretta accomplishes is to help obscure the priest’s individual persona. I have written about this before in connection with the sacred vestments (see HERE) — the priest is called to “clothe himself with Christ” and not put his own ego on display while celebrating the sacred mysteries, since he acts in persona Christi capitis. Consider, for example, St. John Chrysostom’s mystical vision of what the priesthood is in the context of Holy Mass:

For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers.

Fearful, indeed, and of most awful import, were the things which were used before the dispensation of grace, as the bells, the pomegranates, the stones on the breastplate and on the ephod, the girdle, the mitre, the long robe, the plate of gold, the holy of holies, the deep silence within. But if any one should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace, he will find that, small as they are, yet are they fearful and full of awe, and that what was spoken concerning the law is true in this case also, that what has been made glorious has no glory in this respect by reason of the glory which excels.

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshipers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith!

(First posted here)

The priest is indeed called not to put his own personality on display but to represent Christ. Thus he covers his street clothes, he maintains custody of his gaze (see HERE), he doesn’t tell cheap jokes and try to entertain, he says “The Lord be with you” instead of “Good morning” as a greeting, etc. It’s not about the priest, it’s about Christ.

I think for many priests who have “rediscovered” the use of the biretta, the above consideration factors into it.

There is also the incarnational element. The biretta is not kept on for the whole celebration. It is worn during the procession in and the procession out. Otherwise, it is worn only while sitting or preaching. But even then, it is doffed or removed whenever there is a mention of the Holy Name, the name of the Blessed Mother, or the name of the day’s saint. These physical gestures of removing it at certain times emphasize the reverence that is due to the One and the ones whom we honor and celebrate.

Is there some profound meaning attached to this hat? No, not really. But its use has been found beneficial for many: for their own identity as priests, for their own piety.

That said, it is clear that others besides priests may wear the biretta. Seminarians may do so in certain cases, as well as deacons, priests, bishops, and cardinals. Even a few religious orders (such as the Norbertines, the feast of whose founder, St. Norbert, is today — June 6) have a biretta, though many religious orders have other customs of head-covering. The pope is the only bishop who traditionally does not wear a biretta in any context.

(I am happy to endorse Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s Biretta for Seminarians Project — HERE)

Whether we’re talking about hand gestures or headgear, to many nowadays these considerations seem as so much minutia and wasted time. There are, indeed, many who want our worship to be casual and “free”. Look at the designs of so many modern churches, reflective of this mentality, and thus not really looking like sacred spaces. See and hear how some clergy ad lib prayers and otherwise make the liturgy up. I personally welcome the rediscovery of our interesting and unique traditions — even those things that do not have mystical meanings attached to them –; especially when they help us to recover greater solemnity and sacrality in what we do and how we carry ourselves.

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Gestures during the Gloria

Continuing a theme I’ve recently been addressing here, we may consider other ways that the richness of our Catholic liturgical tradition as handed down to us in the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy may be brought to bear on our celebration of the Ordinary Form.

After all, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal — the main body of liturgical law that governs our celebration of the Ordinary Form — has this to say in its most recent edition:

42. The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people, must be conducive to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, to making clear the true and full meaning of its different parts, and to fostering the participation of all. Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. [emphasis added]

Since, as I’ve noted various times, the rubrics of the Ordinary Form are often vague, we sometimes benefit from looking to the older form rubrics to have a smoother and more eloquent ars celebrandi or manner of celebrating. But beyond such considerations, as I mentioned, there is the possibility of that “mutual enrichment” for which Pope Benedict XVI called, thus bringing greater continuity between the two forms of the liturgy.

Today I want to mention some things in this area as regards the singing of the Gloria.

In the Extraordinary Form, the priest ordinarily stands before the altar while reciting the gloria (meanwhile, the choir or schola may be singing it). He is to make several gestures during his recitation:

1. At the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the highest): he extends his hands to about shoulder width (as he does when saying the greeting, “The Lord be with you”), then raises them to about shoulder height, then joins them in front of his chest. This is basically a circular movement. This video, starting at about 18:20, explains and demonstrates this gesture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUCa0pkPBhs

The question naturally arises, What does this gesture mean? The great liturgist, Fr. Nicholas Gihr, in his book, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass pp. 405-406, has this to say:

At the words Gloria in excelsis, the priest, without raising his eyes at the time, extends and elevates his hands to the shoulders, thus giving vent to his eagerness, enthusiasm and longing to praise and to magnify God. At Deo he again joins his hands and bows his head profoundly toward the Crucifix on the altar…. for “holy and terrible is the name of God” [Psalm 110, 9]. (my boldface)

This circular hand gesture, then, is a physical expression of the priest’s praise on behalf of both himself and the assembly. And it is particularly fitting that there should be a physical expression here, since the phrase Glory to God in the highest was sung by the angels in honor of the Incarnation (Luke 2:14). This gesture is used at other points in the traditional Mass, and hopefully I’ll be able to write more about this gesture at another time. In any case, the foregoing is the meaning we can attribute to it at this point.

2. At the conclusion of the circular gesture, as he says the word “Deo” (God), he rejoins his hands at the chest, bowing his head in reverence to the name of God. There are also traditionally a few more head bows in this hymn after this moment: namely, at the phrases, “Adoramus te” (we adore you); “Gratias agimus tibi” (we give you thanks); “Suscipe deprecationem nostram” (receive our prayer); and at both instances of “Jesu Christe” (Jesus Christ). Gihr has this to say about the head bows:

This profound inclination of the head is several times repeated, to express interior acts of adoration…, of gratitude…, of petition…, of reverence…, and to give expression to these acts of homage not merely in words, but also by the body in bowing the head.

3. Finally, a third gesture is that of the celebrant’s signing himself at the conclusion of the Gloria, as he says the words “in gloria Dei Patris” (in the glory of God the Father). He then joins his hands as he says “Amen”. Gihr explains the gesture of the sign of the cross here:

At the last words of the Gloria the celebrant signs himself with the sign of the Cross, — principally to close the sublime hymn in a suitable and worthy manner. But as the sign of the Cross is of itself a symbolical representation of the Trinity, it may also be referred to the glory of the Holy Trinity expressed in the concluding words of the hymn…

So, three main gestures: circular hand motion, bows of the head, and sign of the cross. There is no reason why these cannot be incorporated into the Ordinary Form by the celebrant as he sings or recites the Gloria. It makes the greatest sense when it is done in Latin. Here is the Latin text with annotations for the actions:

(circular hand motion) Gloria in excelsis (join hands & head bow) Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonæ voluntatis.
Laudamus te,
benedicimus te,
(head bow) adoramus te,
glorificamus te,
(head bow) gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam,
Domine Deus, Rex cælestis,
Deus Pater omnípotens.
Domine Fili unigenite, (head bow) Jesu Christe,
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris,
qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis;
qui tollis peccata mundi, (head bow) suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus,
(head bow) Jesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu:
(sign of the cross) in gloria Dei Patris. (join hands) Amen.

In English, the opening gesture doesn’t work quite as well, due to word order. The head bow would fall on “highest” instead of on “God”. However, God is surely the highest reality, so I think having the head bow on that word instead is not totally infelicitous. So here is the English text annotated similarly:

(circular hand motion) Glory to God in the (join hands & head bow) highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise You,
we bless You,
(head bow) we adore You,
we glorify You,
(head bow) we give You thanks for Your great glory.
Lord God, heavenly King, O God Almighty Father.
Lord (head bow) Jesus Christ, Only-Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
You take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us;
You take away the sins of the world,
(head bow) receive our prayer.
You are seated at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy on us.
For You alone are the Holy One,
you alone the Lord,
you alone the Most High,
(head bow) Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit
(sign of the cross) in the Glory of God the Father. (join hands) Amen.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says nothing about any sort of gestures during the Gloria in the two main places where instructions are given on it (nn. 53 and 126); it’s almost as if it takes for granted that we would do it the way it had always been done – i.e., the way narrated above. Number 42 of the GIRM now makes it clearer for us that this is a legitimate way to proceed. Thus a way to bring the singing or reciting of the Gloria by the celebrant into greater continuity with our tradition — also expressing the incarnational joy and reverence that is proper to that moment of the sacred liturgy.

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Retirement of a Bishop

A recent photo of Bishop Baker, after celebrating priestly ordination.

My bishop, the Most Rev. Robert J. Baker, S.T.D., turns 75 today. Happy Birthday!

Many people of course realize that bishops ordinarily retire when they reach 75, and so are wondering “what happens next” — some are also anxious about getting a new bishop. Change and the uncertainty that precedes it aren’t easy! God is in control and we entrust Bishop Baker, his successor, and ourselves to Him.

It’s interesting to note that the Church does not require a diocesan bishop to submit his resignation upon completing 75 years of age; rather, she requests it. From the Code of Canon Law, canon 401 §1: “A diocesan Bishop who has completed his seventy-fifth year of age is requested to offer his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who, taking all the circumstances into account, will make provision accordingly.”

If a Bishop does not freely offer his resignation upon turning 75, at some point thereafter the Holy See will usually make a concerned inquiry and reiterate the “request”… but I think most, if not all, bishops nowadays send in their resignation pretty much right away. So we may presume Bishop Baker will do likewise, although I do not know any specifics about when he is sending his in.

What happens next is that the Holy Father, with the help of the Congregation for Bishops, may do basically one of four things:

  1. Accept the bishop’s resignation and appoint a successor right away;
  2. Delay accepting the bishop’s resignation until a replacement bishop has been selected/named. This happens in many cases, especially when there is no urgent reason (such as ill health or local scandal) for accepting the outgoing bishop’s resignation;
  3. Accept the bishop’s resignation and then allow the College of Consultors of the diocese (a group of priests established by the bishop to help in the governance of the diocese) to elect a diocesan administrator from among the priests of the diocese — or even electing the retired bishop as diocesan administrator. The diocesan administrator would then run the diocese until a new bishop is named;
  4. Accept the bishop’s resignation and appoint an apostolic administrator (often, the metropolitan archbishop, so in this case it would be Archbishop Rodi of Mobile – though sometimes it might happen that some other bishop or priest is named to this position by the Holy Father); the apostolic administrator would then run the diocese until a new bishop is named.

When Bishop Foley submitted his resignation upon turning 75 in 2005, it was accepted by the Holy Father rather quickly — but then the College of Consultors elected him as diocesan administrator! A diocesan administrator has more or less the same powers as a bishop, except where the law limits it or “the nature of things” limits it. For example, a priest who is a diocesan administrator obviously cannot celebrate the sacrament of Holy Orders, because only bishops may do that. Diocesan administrators also may not “innovate” (start new major initiatives or change existing structures and plans) or otherwise run things in a way that could prejudice the rights of the new bishop. Basically, he’s to keep things going as smoothly as possible until the Holy Father sends a new bishop, who will then establish and execute his vision for the diocese.

So the question is, which of the above four options might the Holy Father take upon receiving Bishop Baker’s letter of resignation? Well, we don’t yet know, and it’s difficult to guess. Any of those scenarios is possible. We will just have to wait and see.

It is worth noting that, as I write this, there are already eight dioceses that are “vacant” — that have either a diocesan administrator or an apostolic administrator and are awaiting a new bishop. In other words, the previous bishop was either moved to another diocese, died while in office, or his resignation was accepted for one reason or another before a new bishop was named. One of those eight dioceses — Helena, Montana – has been vacant for over a year now. So it seems there is a bit of a backlog. The web site I linked to is a good one to check to keep up with these things and with other stats and facts about bishops and dioceses.

So might we have a bit of a wait? It is possible. But we just don’t know.

Where can we find out when Bishop Baker’s retirement is accepted and a new bishop is named? The Daily Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office is where the news of episcopal nominations is announced. The traditional time for publishing this bulletin is “Roman noon” — about 5:00am U.S. Central Time — though on some days it comes out earlier or later. I suppose the Holy See will see an uptick in daily traffic from Alabama for a while as we await this news!

Of course, we live in the age of “leaks” and there are some reporters who somehow get a scoop and announce things early. We just need to have a holy skepticism about such reports, as they are not always proven correct. The nomination of bishops is something that happens under the Pontifical Secret, and there are serious consequences for those who are bound to keep that secret and fail to do so. It’s always best to look for confirmation from official sources, which in this case would be the Holy See Press Office bulletin. Of course, almost immediately after it is announced by the Holy See, a local press conference is held to announce the news.

There are also questions about how new bishops are selected. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has an informational page about this HERE. It’s an interesting and somewhat complex process. Has the process begun yet for our new bishop? We are not privy to that information. It is good, however, to pray for our Apostolic Nuncio, for those who work at the Congregation for Bishops, and for the Holy Father, as well as all others who are involved in this task.

Being a bishop today is not an easy or enviable task. And besides the particular challenges of the times in which we live, there is also the fact that the bishop in any age has a high calling and will therefore be held to a higher standard by our Lord. Bishops always need our prayers. Bishop Baker is still our bishop and so we should continue to pray for him as he finishes out his time of service to us. It is good now also to start praying for the process of finding his successor, which will surely begin soon, if it has not started already. And, since God already knows who that successor will be, we can pray for him also and ask the Lord to prepare his heart so that he will be a wise and prudent steward and a faithful father of us here in the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama from the first moment he becomes our bishop.

I mentioned in the beginning that this time of inevitable transition perhaps gives rise to anxiety. I am not personally anxious because I really do trust in the Lord to take care of us and to give us the graces we need to do his work. Let us try to resist any temptations to anxiety, and instead foster a childlike confidence in God. I always think of what a wise old priest — may he rest in peace — once told me: “Put in a good day’s work and let God take care of the rest”. We should strive each day to be faithful to our respective callings and then let God take care of the rest. And he will.

Happy birthday, Bishop Baker! Thank you for your service to us and to the Church!

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Come, Holy Spirit — What does this mean?

At this time of the year, as we prepare for the Feast of Pentecost, it is not uncommon to see many people invoking a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit and praying that He will come into their lives.

There is nothing wrong with praying this way, understood properly. In fact, there are hymns and prayers of the Church precisely on this theme. Veni, Creator…

But… just a little while ago, as I was reading precisely one of these sorts of invocations, it dawned on me that some people seem to pray this way as if they did not already have the gift of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

If the Holy Spirit is already there, why ask him to “come”?

I think, for some, it boils down to unrealistic expectations about who and what the Holy Spirit is.

If you are baptized and in the state of grace, then the Holy Spirit is dwelling within you. If you are baptized and not in the state of grace, then you need to make a good confession — and then, the Holy Spirit will dwell within you anew.

I wrote recently about the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in ourselves. I think a lot of people today are looking for a far more emotional religious experience. They want the Holy Spirit to “shake them up”, to give them consolation, to make His presence felt, etc. Those are nice things and sometimes God does grant them to us — but when we lack them, it does not mean that He is not with us!

In fact, one of the things that the Lord does as we grow in Christian maturity is to deprive us to one extent or another of these emotional experiences. He wants us to see that His image in us is found primarily in our intellect, not in our passions and emotions. Again, if we are in the state of grace, the Holy Spirit has already “come”. We may ask him to strengthen his gifts in us, to complete his work in us, to make us more faithful, to renew us, etc. And I’m sure that’s what many mean when they pray for him to “come”. But I think some also just are hoping for some sort of emotional confirmation of his presence.

I am increasingly chary of prayers that are either vague or too broad. I think we need to be specific in our prayers — at least, whenever we can be. Sometimes we do not really know what we want or need, and all we can do is reach out to God and trust that his Spirit will indeed pray for us as we ought (Romans 8:26). The problem is, however, that we might also form bad habits of prayer in which we routinely pray vaguely, not because we don’t know what we need, but for other reasons.

These reasons may include: 1) We are greedy in our prayer: we want “everything”, going well beyond what we need or at least being in a state of unpreparedness to receive everything; 2) We haven’t really reflected on what we need and, moreover, counted the cost involved in obtaining it — rather, we prefer that God might just “zap” us instead of our doing the hard work of conforming more fully to a way of life that betokens the answer we seek; 3) We have a sort of spiritual laziness (sloth), by which we assuage our sense of religious duty by praying vaguely and so being able to say that we have prayed — rather than entering into that deeper intimacy with the Lord that sheds light on and so scrutinizes our motives and our perceived needs and wants.

Let us try to be more specific in our prayer. If by “Come, Holy Spirit!” we do recognize that He is already with us (if we are in the state of grace), then let’s actually pray for what we need and want, not just vaguely ask him to “come” when he’s in fact already there. A good place to start in this analysis is with our primary fault, asking the Holy Spirit to help us more resolutely to acquire the virtue(s) needed to overcome it and to persevere in the struggle that, therefore, lies before us.

May we not miss the gift that is already ours!

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How Does One Make Holy Water?

Is it enough for a priest to make the sign of the cross over plain water, to make it “holy water”?

Holy water is one of the Church’s sacramentals. “Sacramentals” are sacred signs instituted by the Church that “signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the Church’s intercession” (Catechism # 1667). Moreover, according to the Code of Canon Law (canon 1167 § 1), “the Apostolic See alone can establish new sacramentals, authentically interpret those already received, or abolish or change any of them.”

A priest can pretty much bless anything, by intending to do so and waving his hand over it in the form of a cross. He could say something very simple — “Benedictus benedicat” (May the Blessed One bless [this thing]” — or he could make up an elaborate and verbose blessing that wows all who hear it. Either way, an item is then blessed afterwards. But does a made-up prayer thereby bring about a sacramental? Or, to the point at hand, if a priest says some random blessing over some water, does it become holy water?

The Code of Canon Law has something more to say about this. The second paragraph of canon 1167 adds this indication: “In confecting or administering sacramentals, the rites and formulas approved by the authority of the Church are to be observed carefully.”

From this we understand that in order to make holy water, one needs to use the ritual provided by the Church for making holy water. It is not enough just to bless it. (There are actually two rituals, I’ll return to this in a moment.)

So if a priest just makes the sign of the cross over water, it is blessed water, not holy water. Some will see this as a ridiculous and petty distinction, but it is important: sacramentals are established by the Church, and through her intercession gain us specific helps. If this water that I use is merely blessed and not holy water per se, I do not gain all the benefits that the Church invests in holy water per se when I use it.

Priests who do not use the Church’s official rituals may end up depriving the faithful of special graces they could otherwise receive. 

Now I mentioned that there were two rituals for holy water. This is a somewhat thorny issue. Basically here we are talking about the Ordinary Form ritual versus the Extraordinary Form ritual. The former is a simple blessing of the water that may include (but does not require) the mixing-in of blessed (not exorcized) salt; it is found in Appendix II of the Roman Missal in its latest version. The latter is a far more elaborate ritual that entails exorcizing both salt and water and blessing both several times over the course of about six distinct prayers, all said in Latin (it is not permitted to do them in English); it is found in the old Rituale Romanum. Many priests now prefer to use the Extraordinary Form ritual for the preparation of Holy Water. I’ve written about that before HERE (that post includes recordings of the Latin prayers, for those priests who need help with Latin).

It is good to have things blessed. The Church has a large number of blessings to enrich our lives. Priests may, as I said, bless practically anything ad libitum. But even better than having something that is merely blessed is having something that is a sacramental, where applicable. In the case of holy water, that is certainly the case. Priests should use the Church’s official ritual so that the faithful can gain all the benefits the Church intends.

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Who may use the Exorcism of Pope Leo XIII?

I remember once, many years ago, when I was more involved in pro-life activities, I was in a certain place praying outside an abortion clinic and the other good lay people who were praying there (I was a layman also at the time) were using the longer-form Prayer to St. Michael by Pope Leo XIII. It was in English. Someone I was with told me that wasn’t allowed. At that time it struck me that there might be a prayer that was “not allowed” — and it also got my attention and stayed with me.

Many years later, as a priest, I was told by various priests that it was permissible to use the prayers of Pope Leo XIII for exorcism — i.e., those prayers that contain this longer-form St. Michael Prayer. A screenshot of the beginning of these prayers in Latin is included with this post. It’s interesting, because the rubric that precedes it states clearly that only the bishop and those priests who have the authority to do so may use this prayer. “No matter”, I was told; “it is allowed now.” I remained skeptical: the rubric is clear.

One of the reasons I remained skeptical is because the Church does not handle such weighty matters in an informal, merely verbal way. This is, after all, a prayer of exorcism! And the Code of Canon Law is clear that only those priests who have been delegated by a bishop for exorcism ministry may use such prayers. If a prohibition is in writing, then ordinarily the reversal of that prohibition will be in writing also. But there are no decrees anywhere that say that any old priest may use prayers of exorcism whenever he wants.

Moreover, many priests come to understand that you do not go and provoke the devil. Using prayers of exorcism is a serious thing — and the devil is a legalist. If you do not have the authority to use those prayers he will very likely “show you”. None of us has what it takes to contend unarmed with the devil. We need to be covered and protected by legitimate authority.

A final consideration was that these prayers are not found in the modern books; they come from the older books. And a careful reading of Summorum Pontificum and the subsequent instruction, Universae Ecclesiae, teaches us that we are to follow the laws that are proper to those books in many cases. Here we have a clear indication that only a priest who is delegated or the bishop himself may use these prayers. The current Code of Canon Law is also clear and consonant on that matter. Therefore, we should consider that that indication still applies, especially in light of all the other foregoing considerations.

A post on the blog Rorate Cæli from a little over a year ago helps put this matter to rest. A private response given from the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei states clearly that the rubric indicated at the beginning of the text, that I have been referring to, still applies. “Any old priest” may not use this prayer in a public manner. The letter has some nuance, allowing for its use in private ways involving places, but even there I hesitate and counsel caution.

A priest who finds himself in a situation where he feels he may need “heavier” prayers like this should talk about it with his bishop and seek his blessing and delegation. The bishop’s permission is a powerful thing and a salutary layer of protection. Ephesians 6:12 — “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”.

Fathers: do not too readily or too easily accept “conventional wisdom” about such weighty matters. As I learned, conventional wisdom was not only wrong but incredibly dangerous in this matter. I thank God that I remained skeptical and that I finally got the answer I sought. I share it here to help diffuse it more widely, since in recent years there is increased interest in this area and also increased misinformation. There is more that I could say about that but I will save it for another post.

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A (Simplistic?) Thought on Medjugorje

It was recently reported that Pope Francis had authorized pilgrimages to Medjugorje (they had formerly been forbidden — and that directive was widely and flagrantly disobeyed). There is a proviso (which will likely be ignored by many), that these approved pilgrimages not be seen as an authentication of supernatural phenomena there.

One of the reasons given for the Church’s alleged inability to pronounce officially on the Medjugorje phenomenon has been that the alleged apparitions are still occurring. Not until they cease can be they be thoroughly investigated.

A (possibly simplistic) thought that I had this morning: Surely the Mother of God respects and even obeys the Vicar of her Son, the Pope. If the Pope were to state publicly that the visions must cease, and direct under obedience that the alleged seers assume a normal way of life (and stop having “visions” on-demand/on-schedule), would not this be a good test?

If the “seers” obeyed and if the apparitions did cease, then there would be good reason to consider them possibly legitimate and, in any case, to conduct a thorough-going investigation of the entirety of them and reach a definitive verdict — as the Church has done in so many other private revelations, approving some, declining to approve others.

If the “seers” did not obey or somehow the apparitions did not cease, then there would be good reason to consider them illegitimate. Of course, a thorough-going investigation would still be needed, and it could be started in spite of the seers’ ongoing activity at that point, since disobedience to legitimate authority would be a negative indicator.

Again, maybe these thoughts are overly simplistic. Take them for what they’re worth. And count them as one proposed solution among probably many to a seemingly never-ending contemporary phenomenon that, as far as I am concerned, calls for much greater clarity.

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The Marital Debt

One very traditional (and important) Church teaching that has all but disappeared from Catholic consciousness in recent decades is that of “the marital debt”, also known as “the conjugal debt”. This teaching has to do with the obligation that spouses have to acquiesce to the marital act when it is reasonably requested by the other spouse. I suppose movies and TV shows typically depict this as one-sided: the husband wants intimacy but the wife “has a headache” and declines the request. But in real life it probably goes both ways, with husbands sometimes refusing also. Indeed, it would seem that one of the problems afflicting some married couples in our very workaday and confused world at present is that of the “sexless marriage” — not because the couple is at odds with each other, but because they are just so busy and preoccupied with other pursuits.

The term “marital debt” sounds so… sterile — perhaps. It is certainly the language of legal contracts. But marriage does have a contractual quality to it, even if it is not only or merely a contract. And regardless of whether we like the term or not, we should recognize that it has biblical roots. See what St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. (1 Cor 7:3-5)

The original Greek, echoed in the Church’s official Latin translation of this passage, says something more like, “Let husbands pay the marital debt to their wives”.

As I said, the Church’s understanding of the marital debt is that spouses who are in a presumably valid marriage may not refuse the marital act to each other when it is reasonably requested. Our trusty moral manual by Fr. Heribert Jone helps us to understand this teaching better:

Rendering the requested marriage debt is a grave obligation, especially when the petitioner is in danger of incontinence or would have to make a great sacrifice to overcome temptation.

[…] It is only a venial sin to refuse the debt (provided the other party is not placed in danger of sinning gravely), if the petitioner will readily renounce his right, or if rendering it is only briefly postponed, or if the use of the marriage right is frequent and its refusal is only rare…

So Fr. Jone emphasizes that refusal to acquiesce to marital intimacy in some cases could lead to other problems — i.e., some form of incontinence (for example, the denied spouse resorting to solitary acts instead, because of frustration).

But what are some cases where it would be unreasonable for one spouse to request the marital debt, and therefore the other spouse could refuse it?

Some of them could be:

  • When the requesting spouse seeks sexual acts that are unnatural or repulsive.
  • When intercourse is painful (of course, medical help may and possibly should be sought for this also).
  • When intercourse is requested too often (spouses should discuss this and come to an agreement).
  • When the petitioner has committed adultery with another person — a grave violation of his or her marriage bond.
  • When the petitioner is seriously negligent in fulfilling his or her other marital obligations (support of spouse and children).
  • When there is other danger to health (for example, certain heart conditions).

From the foregoing it emerges that spouses may not “lightly” refuse “the debt” — refuse legitimate marital intimacy to their spouse — without sinning (and possibly contributing to the others’ sinning). Indeed, for some, this may well be one of the areas of married life where one did not expect to have to make sacrifices (!), if it happens that one spouse has to acquiesce sometimes for the good of the marriage, even though he or she is not otherwise “in the mood”.

So much of the difficulty that some experience in the area of the marital debt could be avoided through better communication. Some couples find it very difficult to discuss their intimacy, or they never formed good habits about doing so. If one spouse feels that the other spouse seeks intimacy too often, he or she should have a frank but charitable discussion with the other about it. If one spouse experiences discomfort of one kind or another, s/he should let the other know. And so forth.

Spouses who use Natural Family Planning often (not always) learn to communicate better in the sphere of intimacy. Couples who use no family planning method, while they do not sin, might also end up not communicating well enough about this part of their marriage. Couples who have marital acts that are not open to life also may not communicate effectively about their marital intimacy — besides the fact that they also sin by using contraception or forms of sexual intimacy that are not open to life.

Yes, the language of “the marital debt” may sound rather legalistic, sterile, cold. But it comes straight from the pen of St. Paul the Apostle. And has been constantly taught by the Church. In spite of all the emphasis on sexuality in modern times, even with things like the Theology of the Body, this particular teaching for some reason has fallen by the wayside. When I mention it in marriage preparation some couples look at me like I’m crazy. They imagine that sex in marriage will be easy, free, no sacrifice involved, always synergistic… little do they realize that one or both of them may have to make sacrifices for the good of their marriage bond, and that those sacrifices flow from the fact that through the contract of marriage they gave a right over their person to the other spouse, and vice-versa.

I did a Google search on “the marital debt” and found surprisingly few web sites that discuss it. In fact, more of them focused on questions of finance! There is more that I could say, but I have wanted to share something here of what I’ve picked up along the way and now attempt to communicate to those whom I prepare for marriage.

* * *

ADDENDUM, 5/23/19, 9:15am

This type of post usually encourages a lot of objection and even upset, because it calls to mind for some the exceptional and difficult cases they are either aware of in the lives of their friends or even in their own marriages.

One point that needs to be emphasized in the foregoing is that of COMMUNICATION. Spouses need to be able to communicate about their intimacy and work through the issues in that area, just as they try to do in the other areas of married life. Many people today are simply unprepared to do this. This post does not propose to offer solutions on how one can more effectively communicate in that area — it just signals the problem.

Another point to be emphasized is that this teaching should not be used as a pretext by those who just want to be selfish and who do not really care about the good of their spouse. St. Paul has an extensive teaching on marriage that goes beyond the issue of the marital debt. One of those areas that he teaches on is, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church” (5:25). Intimacy in marriage is not meant to be a chore, even if we can identify aspects of it that have the nature of “duty” or “obligation” — “debt”. Intimacy should be sought for the good of both, not for the good of only one. A spouse who mis-uses this gift fails to live up to the standard of love set by Christ himself.

Those who have difficult cases should seek counseling or the advice of a prudent priest, as is appropriate. Teachings like this also become very painful when they are received in the midst of a difficult situation where no help is being sought. Again — COMMUNICATION, COUNSELING, etc. The teachings don’t change. We have to work through our difficulties and do what we can. A good priest and a trusted counselor can help a couple navigate that and find the way forward in the midst of their particular circumstances.

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