When a Priest Massacres the Liturgy

by Mary Ann Kreitzer   

Sr. Adele Brise
Shopping mall entrance? No, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hampton, VA where Sunday Mass is almost unrecognizable.

On the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, the changes to the Roman Missal go into effect. While a handful involve the prayers and responses of the laity, most affect those of the priest. Why is the Church making these changes? According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) “The long-term goal of the new translation is to foster a deeper awareness and appreciation of the mysteries being celebrated in the Liturgy. The axiom lex orandi, lex credendi—‘what we pray is what we believe’—suggests that there is a direct relationship between the content of our prayers and the substance of our faith.” In other words, the bishops want the new translation to draw us closer to God in the liturgy.

For obvious reasons, the order of the Mass and specific translations are approved by the Vatican and promulgated to the whole Church so we can pray in union with one another. Our unity, after all, is one of the four marks of the Church: we are “one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic. The Mass is NEVER about an individual priest doing his own thing. Therefore, to protect the integrity of the Mass, the Church provides a rule book, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM). Every priest is required to follow the rubrics outlined in the GIRM which covers not only the liturgy itself, the proper presentation of the prayers and readings, but also includes standards for those assisting the priest (deacons, cantors, lectors, etc.), requirements for the vestments and vessels, appropriate music, the arrangement of the church, etc.

Since the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the celebration of our unity, a Catholic should expect to find every Church in the country, and in the world, celebrating the same Mass. Of course there are choices at certain parts, like various penitential rites and prefaces for different times of the year. There are also four different Eucharistic prayers. But the Mass itself should reflect the unity of the people of God. No priest, or bishop for that matter, has the authority to change what the Church has set down as the proper way to celebrate the Sacred Mystery.

Having said that, I expect we all know the reality is different. Why? Because some priests, many even, insist on messing with the Mass. While some critics attribute this to the “spirit of Vatican II,” two authors, Paul and Daniel Vitz, a father-son team believe it is more related to the narcissistic times we live in. Here’s their take on it: Setting aside the important underlying theological issues, we can see deeply rooted psychological motives behind the American priests who “individualize” the Masses they celebrate, placing their “personal stamp” on the liturgy. These priests play fast and loose with the rubrics of the mass, transform the “very brief” introduction after the greeting of the people, as authorized by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, into another homily. Some even individualize the prayer of consecration, and in numerous other ways seek to make the Divine Liturgy conform to their own tastes and views.

Narcissistci priests, the authors believe, are separated from both the historical tradition of the faith, our past, and the future, focusing on the “now.” Making the Mass “relevant” to their congregation is what counts and their own “ego renewal.”

My husband and I have experienced priests like this on many occasions and in many places around the country, but the liturgical aberrations and narcissistic showmanship have never led us to doubt the validity of a Mass we attended – that is until recently. On May 21st, the day minister Harold Camping predicted “the rapture.” We went to the 5:30 PM vigil Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Hampton, VA in the Diocese of Richmond. The celebrant was Fr. Robert Perkins, the pastor. The Mass, sad to say, was his personal playground. Going to Mass in Richmond is almost always painful. The good parishes are few; liturgical “innovators” are legion. Unfamiliar with the Hampton area, we decided to bite the bullet and attend the church closest to the hotel hoping for the best.

Our trepidation began immediately. The building could have been the model for Mike Rose’s book on church architecture, Ugly as Sin. It looked more like the entrance to a shopping mall than a house of worship. It was the typical ‘70s Bauhaus style, despite being a new facility. When we entered the lobby we looked around for the church – not obvious. A helpful man distributing Mass programs directed us around the corner. (Perhaps it was a metaphor for life being a search for meaning.) As we walked in the back, we saw the Blessed Sacrament “chapel” on the right, a small alcove virtually invisible to anyone in the main body of the church. The tabernacle, made of dark wood and gold-colored metal, was lovely and over it hung a beautiful crucifix, the only one in the entire church and invisible to the congregation.

We arrived early to say our rosary and heard folks chatting and laughing as they came in and found seats. The choir was also practicing, making it a cacophony ill- suited to preparing for Mass. The church itself looked like a social hall with a slanted, theatre-type floor. Yellow and white banners decorated the front wall and a large rough wood cross draped in a white cloth (Cont. on p. 5) (no corpus) stood in the back of the sacristy. There were no pews or kneelers just padded movable chairs. To the left of the altar was the choir area with a grand piano, two guitarists, and a full set of drums. (Thank God the drummer was out!). There was no organ.

A large baptismal tub was to the right front near the sanctuary which was raised one step from the rest of the church. There were no statues and I looked in vain for Stations of the Cross. (We found them later on the way out flanking the doorway in two perpendicular arrangements of seven “black stick figures” as my husband described them.) The only other religious image in the church was a beautiful icon of Our Lady, hung to the left of the stations. Poor St. Joseph was banished to the lobby.

Mass started with a rousing hymn (Music is generally the most important feature at a Protestant service.) and they gave it their all. As Father passed the baptistry following an altar woman, he blessed himself with holy water. He began the Mass joking about the rapture. That became a recurring theme and standing joke throughout the Mass. The congregation obliged by laughing.

Father didn’t skip anything, but much of the Mass was unrecognizable. Seated to the left of the altar, he introduced each reading with ad-libbed commentary. We recited the creed accurately. Three members of the congregation brought up the gifts. The first had the bread and wine, the second carried the collection basket, and the third pushed a large loaded supermarket cart (borrowed from the local Giant?) which remained at the right of the sanctuary for the rest of Mass. The Preface and the Eucharistic prayer bore little resemblance to authorized texts. Father had a pamphlet open on the altar next to the Sacramentary and seemed to be reading from it. Perhaps it is the parish version of the Mass. Other than the words of Consecration almost everything else was changed. When Father reached the Our Father, the congregation recited the Protestant version omitting the priest’s prayer before, “For thine is the kingdom,” etc.

The vessels used for the bread and wine were glass, a liturgical violation forbidden by the GIRM which requires But what caused my husband and I to refrain from Communion was the bread used for the Eucharist. It was dark brown like gingerbread and about a quarter inch thick. Two women helped in the fraction, another liturgical abuse since, according to the GIRM it is As the ladies broke the large wafers, they rubbed their fingers together presumably to wipe off the crumbs. The shape of the pieces appeared to be little cubes. I doubted it was valid matter and, in view of the rest of the Mass, I hoped it wasn’t. Poor Jesus!

Father wasn’t wearing clerics. We could see his olive green slacks under his alb. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. I suspect he is “Just call me Bob” to his parishioners. During one of his ad libs he talked about the heart of Jesus being big enough to embrace blacks and gays and straights! It was a not-so-subtle promotion of gay propaganda that opposing sodomy is equivalent to being a racist. I doubt much Catholic truth is taught in that parish, but disobedience definitely is.

The final head-shaker came before the final blessing when Father invited the lay extraordinary ministers to come forward to take Communion to the sick. He also called forth anyone else who wanted to take Jesus to a sick family member at home. (Isn’t taking Communion to the sick the main purpose for lay extraordinary ministers?) Apparently the “Jesus take-out” policy causes logistical problems because there was a plea in the bulletin for people to return pyxes to the church.

Sad to say, if we hadn’t seen the sign outside that identified Immaculate Conception as Catholic, we would have thought we’d stumbled into a Protestant service by mistake. And, in fact, that’s exactly what it was. Father, who had no authority to change the Mass, showed by his multiple illicit innovations that he is a renegade priest doing his own thing, not the Church’s.

A few weeks later on the Outer Banks, we attended daily Mass at Holy Redeemer by the Sea in Kitty Hawk. Again, the priest ignored many of the rubrics and “did his own thing” from not wearing a chasuble to using a strange Eucharistic prayer (I think it was from the children’s liturgy although there were only two or three children in the church). During the Our Father he left the altar and came down the main aisle inviting everyone to come hold hands to “show our unity.” (Isn’t that what the entire Mass is, a sign of our unity in Christ?) We did not participate.

During the parts of the Eucharistic prayer where we pray for the living and the dead, he spoke his intentions aloud and asked the congregation to do the same out loud. He instructed us all to stand until everyone went to Communion. Most did; we did not. The use of peer pressure to elicit conformity to the priest’s preference is unjust. On two retreats I attended with him, Fr. John Hardon, S.J. spoke about liberal priests trying to eliminate both genuflecting before the tabernacle and kneeling during the Consecration and at other points during the Mass including after Communion. He instructed us to kneel regardless of a local priest’s instruction to the contrary. And so, we continue to kneel and genuflect wherever we go, not to draw attention to ourselves but to adore Our Living God in the Eucharist.

Despite a congregation of about thirty people, three extraordinary Eucharistic ministers assisted Father at Communion distributing under both species. After Communion while everyone was still standing Father reminded us all that Jesus was really present within us and asked us to spend a few minutes reflecting on that reality. I appreciated the short time of focused silence.

I wish I could believe these two recent experiences reflected unique cases of aberrations. I can’t. Whenever we travel we rarely find a Mass said as the Church intends. Once on Chincoteague Island we were so impressed at the priest’s fidelity (almost unknown in the Diocese of Richmond under Bishop Walter Sullivan) that we spoke to Father about it after Mass. He laughed and said, “That’s why I’m here. I have about thirty families in my parish.” What a sad reflection on his bishop who continues to scandalize in retirement.

The difference between Masses said by faithful and unfaithful priests is like night and day! Those faithful to the Church truly reflect the unity of our belief and teach their congregations obedience to lawful authority. Unfaithful priests who practice disobedience and contempt for Holy Mother Church teach their flocks the same. And what are the odds the two priests in Hampton and Kitty Hawk will obey the Vatican and implement the mandated changes to the Roman missal on the first Sunday of Advent? Not high I’d say. If priests are disobedient to their obligation to follow the Roman Missal and the GIRM now, why would they suddenly be obedient in November? Many liberal priests consider it a step backwards. Some have already trumpeted their intention to ignore the new translation. Recently, 300 priests in Austria joined in a “Call to Disobedience” which includes offering “self-designed” liturgies and inviting non-Catholics to Communion. And hundreds of priests in Ireland and Australia are publicly railing against the new translation, some saying they will defy the Church by not implementing it. By proclaiming their non serviam, they put their parishioners on notice: Follow these false shepherds at your own risk!

As for the two priests whose Masses we attended, they grieved my heart because both appeared to be likable, friendly men. I imagine they are popular priests beloved by their parishioners. But our Catholic faith isn’t a cult of personality (like protestant churches so often are) where people follow a clergyman from place to place because he gives good sermons and offers an innovative service. That type of atmosphere reflects the narcissism described by Paul and Daniel Vitz. It is not Catholic! Wise parishioners will avoid such priests and seek those who love the Church and prove it by their fidelity.

Identifying faithful priests isn’t difficult. They proclaim and defend the doctrine of the Church. They never treat the Mass like their personal stage (or circus ring), but let Jesus Christ shine through them. They make the sacrament of penance easily and frequently available. They visit the sick and suffering and are energetic in their service of the Lord. If you have a priest like that, be sure to thank him. If you have a showman priest who teaches disobedience, pray and fast for his conversion. You can be sure, one is leading his people to God; the other is leading them astray.

As for the new translation, embrace it and encourage others to pray it with fervor. We are blessed to be living in a time when many faithful Catholics are fighting vigorously for a restoration of the Church. May we live to see her once again shining in all her glory.

Table of Contents