Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Continuing the theme of growing in our knowledge and understanding of the liturgical practices of the Catholic Church, especially as they relate to the Mass, I would like to focus our attention on the rubrics of the Mass. The word “rubric” is derived from the Latin for “red,” and (in the context of Catholic liturgy) is a direction for what to do during liturgical worship. The rubrics are generally printed in red, while words spoken aloud by the celebrant or congregation are printed in black. An axiom oft repeated in conversations about the liturgy goes “Say the black; do the red.”
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#24) “Nevertheless, the priest must remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.” The Mass (and any of the Church’s liturgy, for that matter) is not the personal property of any one person. All Catholics benefit from the celebration of the liturgy, but do not have to create the liturgy. Rather, the liturgical prayer of the Church is given to us according to the teaching authority of the Church. Adherence to the rubrics has the positive effect of demonstrating the Church’s unity, of allowing the Church’s prayer to be prayed regardless of geography, language, culture, or time, and of enabling the worshiping community to worship in a way that is properly ordered and beautiful. This is not to suggest a blind adherence to rules, or a stubborn clinging to a legalistic understanding of rubrics or Church law, but rather to highlight that following the Church’s rubrics makes sense in order for us to worship well as a community of faith.
Think of a baseball umpire, for a moment. While there is room for the umpire to interpret the strike zone (though I may disagree with him vehemently about that last pitch), there is no room for him to allow me to have more or less than three strikes. If the number of strikes is left to the whim of the umpire, it is impossible to joyfully play the game. In a similar way, the rubrics provide some options, but if the priest changes or ignores rubrics, it becomes difficult to celebrate the Church’s liturgy well. On a grander scale, the Church sometimes issues directives about the celebration of Mass or a particular practice so that proper discipline in the celebration of Mass can be observed and the unity of the Church’s worship can be maintained.
This understanding of rubrics and the Church’s liturgical directives can help us understand the why behind the Church’s liturgy. It can inform what happens at weddings, funerals, Sunday or daily Masses. It can explain why we do what we do in some of the most important celebrations of the liturgical year, and at some of the most significant occasions in our lives. Next week, we will investigate some of the rubrics as they apply to particular celebrations.