Questions about Catholic Liturgy

Dear Fr. Phil,

First, let me tell you that I have really enjoyed reading the information on your web site. I discovered this page just before Lent began this year and have been reading regularly and extensively from it since then. I have particularly found your essays and homilies on confession extremely beneficial. I have been quite resistive to the idea of going to confession since I graduated from a Catholic high school. Once I no longer had someone to march me upstairs to the chapel or give me the opportunity at a retreat at least once a year, I found all sorts of excuses for not going to confession, despite nagging thoughts about this in the back of my head. I had only gone once since graduating in 1990 and that was four years ago during Lent, but last Saturday, I finally got up the courage to go and didn't let myself make any excuses. I went and I'm glad I did. It was hard to go, but I don't think it was hard to be there once I got through the door. I thank you for writing those wonderful articles on confession, which has provided me with much to think about this Lent regarding the sacrament of reconciliation. I think that my childhood fear and loathing of the experience may be passing and that I am coming to a more mature understanding of the purpose of the sacrament. I also appreciate your homily collection. A good homily really makes the Mass that much better and more useful for spiritual development. I think that your parish is fortunate to have a priest who delivers such thoughtful homilies and who isn't afraid to stress Church teachings, take on tough issues, and tie all of these issues together into our practice of the Catholic faith.

I do not want to trouble you with a lot of questions. I'm sure you get a lot of these emails, but I do have a few questions for you if you have time to reply. There are a few things in the Liturgy that bother me on a regular basis and I do not know if I am right to be so bothered or if I should just accept these issues and get over them.

1.) Could you tell me something about the practice of holding hands during the Lord's Prayer? This was not something we did in the church where I grew up, but sometime since 1992 or so, I have seen this practice in churches in Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina, both at student centers and regular churches. Now, when I go back home to visit my parents, my old parish has started doing this too. Is this a new practice in the church? Is it officially a part of the Liturgy? Is this connected with any activist movements in the church? Neither my wife nor I are happy with this practice. It isn't that we are against a good community spirit during the Mass, but the practice also seems connected with an elevation of the laity and a reduction of the role of the priesthood, especially given the fact that the community raises its hands in a gesture of prayer usually reserved for priests. We also aren't so much against holding hands, but there is the opportunity immediately following this prayer to offer a sign of peace to those around you, whether it be a handshake or a hug, which would seem to already fill the role of making a physical connection with those around you. Whenever it is possible without offending someone, we try to avoid holding hands with those around us and merely pray reverently with the whole community. Once this prayer is completed, however, we are quite willing and cheerful in exchanging the sign of peace with those around us. What do you think, Father, are we being petty or do we have a point?

2.) Another troubling practice in our church involves the Eucharistic ministers. Before the priest consumes the Host, he distributes a host to each of the Eucharistic ministers standing behind him at the altar, who hold the Host in their hands (sometimes there must be around 20 of them up there) until the priest returns to the altar, takes a Host for himself, and then they all consume together at the same time. As much as I hate to say this, at this very holy time in the Mass, I often get a creepy feeling seeing this take place. Again, this seems to be a raising of the lay ministers and a diminishing of the priestly role. Is this practice within the dictates of the Church?

3.) I do not want to complain too much about music ministry, but I think this question will sum up my qualms about lay participation in the Mass. It seems to me that in recent years, much effort has been made to be more inclusive of the laity, to give them a greater role. However, these practices which were intended to include more people in the mass, actually work to the exclusion of the non-"ministerial" laity. These opportunities, I think, also denigrate the role of the priesthood and change a hierarchy of ordained priests into a sort of elite oligarchy of select, co-equal volunteers, while a remnant and antiquated priestly role remains to carry out the letter of the rituals. As applied to the music ministry, although I do not want to criticize the motives of those involved, they often appear as stage performers, singing solos and standing before everyone for attention. It often seems like all the responses have become sung refrains, which are often not intended to be sung with community participation or which are too difficult or unfamiliar or constantly changing for us to pick up on and participate (To paraphrase C.S. Lewis from his "Letters to Malcolm", let the liturgy be whatever it will be, but keep it constant so that it doesn't become a distraction from worship). Do you have any comments about these trends in the church on a nation-wide basis?

I'm sorry to let this go on so long, but my wife saw that I was writing to you and brought up two more issues to add.

4.) Our parish recently moved into a beautiful new church, but before we moved, our pastor used one of his homilies to educate us on new practices once we moved into the new church. He justified these practices with Church teachings, but we were wondering if you could comment. We were told that we should no longer genuflect when entering the pews. The explanation was that you genuflect before the tabernacle, which in the new church is in a separate chapel in another part of the building. Rather, we should bow to the altar when we enter the church. Also, we no longer kneel before or after communion, which was explained as a holdover practice from when communion was not distributed weekly, but rather adoration of the Sacrament was the weekly practice. Any comments?

5.) And something that will probably either make you smile or make you angry. Why do so many Catholics bolt the doors after Communion? In our parish, it sometimes seems that the priest and procession can barely make it out the door because of the people leaving early.

We would appreciate any comments you could offer. I should perhaps mention that my wife and I are fairly young (26 and 27), so we're not just being crotchety people who long for the old days. However, as a graduate student in the humanities, I have seen so many faddish theories and practices take hold in universities, that I really am sorry to see such things taking hold in the Catholic Church.

Thank you for your time and help. If any of this material would be of use to you in your web site, please feel free to use it as you see fit. May God bless you in your work.


Steven and Chris Clancy
Chapel Hill, North Carolina


Dear Steven & Chris,

Thank you for your kind words and the questions. James Akins has written a book called Mass Confusion which addresses the concerns you raise. It also has some practical suggestions on how to respond to liturgical abuses. But lest it sound like I am dodging, let me give my own response to your questions:

1. Hand Holding during the Our Father: I've asked people here at Holy Family to please respect the person who might not want his hand grabbed. I don't join hands with concelebrants or servers myself, tho I don't see that I can prohibit others from holding hands when the practice is so widespread. I'm waiting for some direction from the Archbishop (tho it is not the most pressing issue for him to address) or the U.S. Bishops Conference. A number of years back people started joining in the concluding doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer ("Through Him, with Him...") With encouragement from priests that practice had become pretty widespread. It was clarified that it was a confusion of roles and was stopped. Something similar could happen with hand-holding during the Lord's Prayer. Meanwhile what you and your wife are doing seems very good to me.

2. Eucharistic Ministers Receiving Communion at Same Time as Priest: My understanding is that practice is incorrect because it gives an impression of them being "concelebrants." Even the deacon should receive communion after the priest(s) have received both the Body of Christ and the Precious Blood.

3. Music, Clericalized Lay Ministers: I also like what C.S. Lewis said about "just keeping things the same." At the same time I admit I have introduced a few more "traditional" practices here and have had to deal with people who preferred things the way they were used to. For example at Christmas we changed from glass communion cups to gold plated chalices (they were donated). I thought everyone would love them, but I was wrong. But, yes, my desire like yours is that we have a more standard way of celebrating the Sacred Mysteries. While trying to avoid being rigid or uptight, people do have certain liturgical "rights" (see Akins).

I've also noticed lay ministers becoming "clericalized." It seems to be less among Hispanics (most of my work here is with them). They have a lot to teach us about proper balance in that area. By and large they have maintained a deep respect, even reverence, for the priest and developed some very effective lay ministries without usurping priestly roles.

4. Genuflecting, Kneeling: My understanding is that it is proper to genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament, as your pastor says, and to bow to the altar or crucifix. James Akins explains there are no prescribed postures after communion. I've seen some good articles on kneeling as a New Testament posture for adoration and supplication. Extraordinary ministers of communion are instructed to kneel during their commissioning. When a priest is ordained he kneels during the imposition of hands. Kneeling is thus more than a posture of penance, but also of receiving a great gift.

5. Bolting after Communion: It more makes me smile. I say to myself those people are so fired up they can't wait to get out and change the world!

Blessing for you and your wife. Remember that you are priest of the domestic church formed on the day of your marriage.

Fr. Phil Bloom


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