In the last Newsletter we viewed the Church as it was in 1958, recalling the feeling of calmness, sincerity and organisation of that time. One aspect of this organisation is rubrics. The Old Testament devotes several pages to very detailed regulations regarding the worship of God. Should we expect to be any less meticulous when we have the privilege, unique to the Catholic Church, of the Real Presence during Mass and in the tabernacle? The study of rubrics is a fascinating but complicated exercise, not to be undertaken lightly. Many books have been written on the subject, and the replies and decisions of the Congregation of Sacred Rites during its 400 years of existence are numbered in the thousands. An article of this nature is necessarily limited in its scope and I shall simply attempt, in this one, to consider the nature and value of the rubrics in general.
The fundamental base on which rubrics are built is theology, or rather dogma. It is not by chance that the well-known rubricists were primarily doctors of theology. Adrian Fortescue, Klaus Gamber, J. A. Jungmann, S.J., and E. J. Mahoney all fall into this category. The reasons will become clear as we proceed. Two quotations from J. B. O'Connell give us a start:
"The Sacred Liturgy is the worship of God by the Church. By divine worship is meant the recognition and acceptance of the excellence and sovereign lordship of God and the manifestation of this recognition and acceptance. In other words, it is the exercise of the virtue of religion, by acts of adoration and praise, of thanksgiving, of propitiation and of petition."
"The rubrics are the rules (laws, directions, suggestions) which are contained in the liturgical books for the right ordering of liturgical functions. For the most part, if not entirely, the rubrics are positive ecclesiastical laws, and so
a) they bind under pain of mortal or venial sin, according to the gravity of the matter with which they are concerned;
b) apart from such considerations as the giving of scandal, contempt for the law, and the like, a sufficient and proportionately grave cause excuses from the observance of an (accidental) rubric."
O'Connell goes on to describe an accidental rubric as one which is directive, but then observes that:
"the accidental rubrics, no less than the substantial ones, are laws, and hence are preceptive, except when they themselves state clearly that they are not".
Debates on this subject went on among rubricians for many years, but even those who claimed that some rubrics were not preceptive (commanding) admitted that it was difficult or impossible to say which these rubrics were. For our purposes the situation is made sufficiently clear in the Code of Canon Law (1917) which refers to rubrics as liturgical laws, without drawing any distinction between preceptive and directive rubrics, and orders that the rites and ceremonies which are prescribed by the Church in the approved liturgical books are to be accurately observed. The Code of 1983 is no less forceful, as the following extracts show.
It is the prerogative of the Apostolic See to regulate the liturgy of the universal Church, to publish liturgical books and review their vernacular translations, and to be watchful that liturgical regulations are everywhere faithfully observed.
The liturgical books, approved by the competent authority, are to be faithfully followed in the celebration of the sacraments. Accordingly, no one may on a personal initiative add to or omit or alter anything in those books.
The only safe approach to the rubrics is suggested by O'Connell in his summing-up:
"With reverence and love towards God, out of obedience and loyalty to His Church, should they, each and all, be fulfilled."
The Church, and only the Church, has the right to lay down the rules regarding the worship of God. The very fact that they regulate our dealings with God should be sufficient to establish the value of, and the need for, rubrics. What we do in our own private devotions is our own affair, but in the liturgy, which is the public worship of God, the rules must be formulated by the supreme authority of the Church.
I hesitate to use the expression lex orandi, lex credendi which may be considered to have been overworked in the pages of our Newsletters, but it is essential to my purpose.
This is where the dogmatic element shines forth. If we genuinely believe that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is really, truly and substantially present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the consecrated Host, then we can begin to understand the rubrics. Without this firm belief, the rubrics have no meaning or purpose. From observing some activities, even within the sanctuary, I wonder if this fact is seriously considered.
The rubrics, then, serve two purposes. They regulate the public worship of God and they direct and suggest actions which will ensure the reverence and honour to be given to the Blessed Sacrament. Hence many rubrics are very precise.
A complete set of instructions was issued by Pope Clement XII in 1731 for the ordering of the Forty Hours Exposition. These instructions remained in force until the publication of Eucharisticum Mysterium on 25th May, 1967, and had served as guidelines for any ceremony which involved the Blessed Sacrament exposed. It is sometimes necessary, while serving on the altar, to perform what appear to be almost acrobatic feats in order to meet the requirements of the rubrics. One may, for instance, be told to make a left turn where the more natural movement would be a right one, the reason being that only a left turn, in that particular case, will ensure that one does not turn the back towards the tabernacle.
I have recently been disturbed to see that altar servers, having communicated, proceed to sit during the Communion of the faithful. How widespread this practice is I do not know, but it should be stopped. At the very least it displays complete disregard for the Blessed Sacrament exposed. It should be noted that even a prelate is required to kneel during the Communion of the faithful. Nobody is exempt from this rule. With a strong faith in, and devotion to, the Blessed Sacrament, such erroneous practices should never develop.
The conclusions to be drawn from the foregoing may be summarised as follows.
1. The rubrics are obligatory, and not optional.
2. They are issued by the supreme authority of the Church with the clear intention that they be obeyed.
3. They have all been designed for a specific purpose which a little thought may reveal.
4. They are laws which carry penalties for non-observance.
5. The doctrinal connection is very important, e.g. a simple genuflection performed with reverence is an act of faith in the Real Presence; the priest crosses himself with holy water when leaving the sacristy as an act of faith in the Most Holy Trinity, in whose honour he is about to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
6. It is not possible to separate rubrics from dogma. They are so closely intertwined that any attempt to ignore or change the rubrics must raise doubts about what we really believe. This has become very clear over the past thirty years.
There can be no greater evaluation of the rubrics than that contained in the exhortation of Pius XII to the bishops of the world in Mediator Dei:
"Readily provide the young clerical student with facilities to understand the sacred ceremonies, to appreciate their majesty and beauty and to learn the rubrics with care, just as you do when he is trained in ascetics, in dogma and in canon law and pastoral theology. This should not be done merely for cultural reasons and to fit the student to perform religious rites in the future correctly and with due dignity but especially to lead him into closest union with Christ the Priest so that he may become a holy minister of sanctity."
[Taken from the Latin Mass Society's February 2000 Newsletter.]