Toward Flexibility in Liturgical Form

Liturgical form refers to the words, actions, and vestments and other articles used in our expression of worship together, especially in the holy Mass, but also in other liturgical celebrations, such as funerals, baptisms, weddings, etc. Liturgical form falls into the realm of discipline, not doctrine. Therefore, liturgical form is changeable and ultimately dispensable.

There is no liturgical form in Heaven, nor on earth after the general Resurrection.

{21:22} And I saw no temple in it. For the Lord God Almighty is its temple, and the Lamb.
{21:23} And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine in it. For the glory of God has illuminated it, and the Lamb is its lamp.

The new City of Jerusalem, given by God to the world after the general Resurrection, has no churches or other places of worship. For the resurrected just have the Beatific Vision and Beatific Union of God. They worship God perfectly and perpetually. They have no need of any liturgical celebration: no Masses are held and there is no further need of the Sacraments for the resurrected elect. That is why there will be no church buildings.

Doctrine never passes away, for each doctrine expresses an important truth on a matter of faith, morals, or salvation. God is Truth. But God is not discipline. All discipline is dispensable. The Old Testament disciplines were given by Divine Revelation from God. And yet all these disciplines have passed away, in favor of the New Testament disciplines of the Church. And the Church has the authority to change any discipline. She does not have the ability or authority to change truth. But discipline is not truth. Good discipline is related to the truths of doctrine. But taking away or changing a discipline does not take away or change doctrine.

The Mass

Holy Mass is our most important liturgical form, since the Mass presents to us the teachings of Sacred Scripture, gives us the most blessed Sacrament, and helps us join together in public worship of God. What is the best form of the Mass? Should we not say that the best form must be the only Mass ever said in person (in the flesh) by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper? But that Mass took the liturgical form of a Passover celebration. No Mass since that time has had the same form. The Church has not chosen to use the same liturgical form used by Jesus, and no group of Christians is claiming that the Mass must be in that exact form.

Jesus established all seven Sacraments and the holy Mass. But He did not establish the Mass in immutable specifics. Jesus did not choose to establish one and only one form for holy Mass. And the Church has repeatedly and substantially changed the form of the Mass over the centuries. So it is clear that God does not desire one and only one liturgical form.

Some traditionalists will only attend a Mass in the traditional Latin form. They especially favor the 1962 (pre-Vatican II) form of the Mass. But this insistence is not supported by Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture. The New Testament teaches no particular form of the Mass. And we have the example of Saint Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians, at one point telling them essentially to change the form of the Mass they were using. They had incorporated ordinary food and drink into the Mass, along with the Eucharist. Paul tells them to omit the ordinary foods:

[1 Cor]
{11:20} And so, when you assemble together as one, it is no longer in order to eat the Lord’s supper.
{11:21} For each one first takes his own supper to eat. And as a result, one person is hungry, while another is inebriated.
{11:22} Do you not have houses, in which to eat and drink? Or do you have such contempt for the Church of God that you would confound those who do not have such contempt? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I am not praising you in this.
{11:23} For I have received from the Lord what I have also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus, on the same night that he was handed over, took bread,
{11:24} and giving thanks, he broke it, and said: “Take and eat. This is my body, which shall be given up for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
{11:25} Similarly also, the cup, after he had eaten supper, saying: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
{11:26} For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he returns.
{11:27} And so, whoever eats this bread, or drinks from the cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be liable of the body and blood of the Lord.
{11:28} But let a man examine himself, and, in this way, let him eat from that bread, and drink from that cup.
{11:29} For whoever eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks a sentence against himself, not discerning it to be the body of the Lord.
{11:30} As a result, many are weak and sick among you, and many have fallen asleep.
{11:31} But if we ourselves were discerning, then certainly we would not be judged.
{11:32} Yet when we are judged, we are being corrected by the Lord, so that we might not be condemned along with this world.
{11:33} And so, my brothers, when you assemble together to eat, be attentive to one another.
{11:34} If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you may not assemble together unto judgment. As for the rest, I will set it in order when I arrive.

My understanding is that, in the earliest forms of the Mass, it was not uncommon for the participants to take ordinary food as well as the Eucharist. But this form soon changed, so that the Eucharist was the only food in the celebration.

Sacred Tradition does not require one and only one form.

The Church has used various forms in Her history, in different languages. The Last Supper probably used Hebrew for the solemn prayers and hymns of the celebration, but Aramaic for Jesus’ words to the Apostles. In the very early Church, Hebrew and Aramaic were most likely the languages of the Mass in and around Judea. But as Christianity spread, Greek and Latin were each used. For a time, Greek was considered the vernacular (common) language in the Church, not Latin. The many ancient New Testament manuscripts in Greek attest to this fact. But after a while, Latin became the vernacular language, and the Latin Bible became the most common version.

Even today, the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church includes Churches using Greek as their language for Mass, and a substantially different liturgical form as well. So we cannot say that Tradition requires one and only one liturgical form.


The purpose of the Mass is to worship God, to instruct the faithful by word, prayer, and example, and to increase our holiness by meeting Christ in prayer and in the Eucharist. Flexibility of form can help accomplish these goals by adapting the Mass, to a limited extent, to the culture, needs, and faithful reasonable desires of the flock of Jesus Christ.

The Latin Mass is preferred by some of the faithful, and that is good. But to compel the entire body of the faithful to attend only the Latin Mass, as some traditionalists desire, would make it much harder for many faithful souls to benefit fully from the Mass. Most Catholics today do not know Latin. The Latin-only approach to Mass makes it harder for the faithful to benefit from the Mass, because they have little idea what is being said. The Latin Mass is one useful form, but it is not fitting for every parish or diocese in every nation.

I have attended many Masses in which the priest varied the wording of prayers and, to a limited extent, varied the form of the Mass, with good effect. No harm was done to the essential elements of worship. And this type of flexibility of form does not imply liturgical error. It is true that some priests, in taking liberties with the Mass, have offended against the purpose of the Mass, making it less fit for the worship of God, and incorporating secular elements. But the solution to this problem is not to give absolute control over every element of liturgical form to one particular subculture within the Church. A well-catechized parish, with a faithful and holy priest, overseen astutely by a faithful bishop, should have no problem making minor changes to the form and the wording of prayers, without harm to the purpose of the Mass.


Some priests make minor changes to the wording of prayers, in accord with their faith and the grace of God. To deny any changes to recited prayers is to deny the work of the Holy Spirit in each person and in the priest who leads the faithful at Mass. We say “No” to grace and to the work of the Spirit when we say “No” to extemporaneous prayer and extemporaneous changes to prayers, within reasonable faithful limits.

At one parish I have attended, the priest usually ends the Mass, before the final prayer, by asking if anyone has a birthday this week. Some person raise their hands, and we applaud for them. Then he asks if any married couple has a wedding anniversary this week. “How many years?” And we clap for them also. Finally, he asks if there are any visitors to the parish. “Welcome.” And we applaud again.

The current vehement rejection of “hand clapping” at Mass has no basis in faith or reason. It is not intrinsically evil, nor is it some type of profane behavior that is incompatible with the Mass.

At a parish I have attended, the Mass begins with someone asking everyone: “Would you please stand and greet your neighbor?” And we say Hello to the persons near us in the pews. Then the Mass begins. How is this practice in anyway contrary to the teachings and example of Christ? It is not.

I recall a priest who was originally from my parish, but who became a missionary. At his missionary parish, the form of the Mass (in Haiti) included people dancing as they sang hymns at Mass. It also included a sermon of 45 minutes to an hour in length, and a total length of the Mass of about 2 hours. The people had to walk to Mass, some from a fair distance. So they might spend an hour or more walking to Mass, and the same time walking back home. How many Catholics in the U.S. would spend so much time and effort getting to Mass?

The traditionalist desire to compel all Catholics to adhere to their particular preferences and judgments on liturgical form is a desire for a sad religious dictatorship, where the judgments of bishops and priests and faithful Catholics can have no influence over any aspect of their own worship of God.

The Pope should write a document giving bishops and priests the ability and authority to makes changes to liturgical form, within certain specified limits.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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