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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Cardinal Mahony Wants Liturgy Purged of all European Elements

by Teresa Cepeda

Descriptive Title

Cardinal Mahony Wants Liturgy Purged


Teresa Cepeda comments on the countless doctrinal errors, including a total ignorance of the sacramental nature of the Mass, that are found in the draft of Cardinal Mahoney's pastoral letter on the liturgy.

Larger Work

The Wanderer

Publisher & Date

The Wanderer Printing Company, June 19, 1997

LOS ANGELES—In a desperate attempt to bring some vibrancy to the anemic liturgies common in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, its archbishop, Roger Cardinal Mahony, is preparing a pastoral letter on the liturgy which calls for the complete de-Europeanization of the Mass and the institutionalization of a thoroughly Americanized liturgy.

In the 54-page document, now in its second draft, Mahony complains incessantly about the poor quality of liturgies in Los Angeles, berates priests and people alike for failing to achieve the vision of the "liturgical renewal" of Vatican II, and provides a "vision" of his ideal liturgy which represents a dramatic break with Catholic tradition.

The tone of the document is "vintage Mahony"—brash, arrogant, authoritarian, condescending, and ill-informed—and is exemplified by such phrases as:

"In all honesty, we have hardly begun to give the basic shape of the eucharist the sounds and movements and gestures and arts of our many cultures."

"Imagine Sunday liturgies where all acclaim in rhythms known from household and community. "

"And though there is no magic time a homily should last, both homilists and listeners seem best at about ten minutes."

"The 'right' of the baptized Catholic was to have an ordained person there to 'offer' (or it was even customary to say, to 'read') the Mass. Vatican II freed us from this misunderstanding."

"A warning label ought to be attached to 'full' participation: It can wear you out even as it lifts you up because it isn't just your mind or your voice or your heart or your feet or your money that is involved. It is full. So it is good when you need to nap a bit after the Sunday liturgy. "

To his priests, in the second part of the letter, Mahony says:

"We will focus on the liturgy and will do so very concretely with goals and even deadlines for implementation of good practice."

"It will be necessary to set goals, timetables. It will be necessary to decide on means of presenting good liturgical practices to the parish as a whole."

To his rhetorical question: Why does liturgy so often "fall short"?, he answers: "Because we have not acted as if we were an assembly celebrating the liturgy."

"After the Council, nowhere did the institutional church know how to do what the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy saw as absolutely essential for the renewal it dictated. "

"You must know that the goal of this letter is not the mechanical implementation of some of the things that will follow here. Yes, those must be done."

"A good presider is thoroughly attentive to the liturgy.... This is an attitude, a way of being and conducting oneself. It can only happen when we have left behind all magical notions of liturgy and priesthood."

"At Sunday eucharist, there is no reverence for the body of Christ when we have not sought bread that is bread to all the senses, when we have not the habit of enough wine for the cup to be shared by every communicant.... "

"The assembly is to be gathered round, if possible, right around the altar, for what occurs here involves not only the bread and wine, but those standing around. We too are consecrated, changed, shared."

First Reaction

Immediately upon receiving the leaked document, The Wanderer showed it to several highly regarded liturgists with national reputations.

The startled reaction of one was: "This is straight heresy."

Another commented: "Cardinal Mahony wants a worthy celebration of the liturgy, but he doesn't know how. He has a complete lack of understanding of the Roman rite. He ignores the real problems: People don't know the Mass and people don't know their roles.

"He thinks that liturgy is nothing more than a human action that leaves you exhausted at the end. There's no recognition that the Mass is a sacrifice. There's no recognition that you can't have a sacred event when the language is so banal. He has a congregationalist concept of ministry; he has no sense of sacred liturgical music; he thinks the most powerful element of liturgy is people gazing into one another's eyes; there's no notion of the Catholic understanding of the Mass as an action redolent of the Trinity, Christ, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"In his 'vision,' there's no notion that liturgy is the worship of Christ; the eschatological al character of the Mass is gone: Nothing in it makes you think of heavenly things or the Four Last Things.

"Mahony thinks that liturgy can be manipulated to his pet cause of 'social justice'—but where's the justice for his orthodox priests and lay people who know what the Roman rite is supposed to be, and who want it?"


The Cardinal announced the letter at last November's Los Angeles Liturgy Conference. That annual gathering, hosted by Mahony's Office for Worship, headed by Fr. Richard Albarano, was quietly discontinued this year after three consecutive conferences were closely scrutinized by the Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission newspaper, with conference tapes sent to the Vatican.

The Mission article covering the 1996 conference analyzed the apparent rejection of the Real Presence expressed in many of the workshops.

The cardinal's announcement about the letter, and the subsequent article in his archdiocesan newspaper, The Tidings, indicated that changes would include removing the last of the archdiocese's altar rails and ending the practice of kneeling, in the interest of "fulfilling" the liturgical reform called for by the Second Vatican Council.

The resulting letter (as represented in its second draft, dated May 17th, 1997) is a far cry from the council's liturgical vision. Mahony's only reference to council documents is the call for "active participation" in the Mass, but he leaves the impression that everything else is up to the local bishop.

Many of the practices called for in the document are clearly contrary to liturgical regulations, and many others could be questioned on theological grounds. By the year 2000, says the cardinal, every parish in the archdiocese must institute the following "reforms":

Members of the "assembly" will gather around the altar, led by the "presider" in the eucharistic prayer of "thanksgiving" (possibly one written by the mandatory parish liturgy director or committee). All must remain standing until Communion is finished, then sit for quiet reflection. Priests' functions will be limited to leading the opening prayer and the eucharistic prayer. The team of parish "homilists" will meet weekly to plan the following week's sermon and critique the previous week's. Instead of hosts, parishes must use "bread that is bread to all the senses," and Communion must always be distributed under both Species.

The cardinal adds: ". . . The practice of taking hosts consecrated at a previous Mass is nowhere allowed in the rubrics. Nor would it be allowed by a right understanding of the eucharistic prayer and the assembly. It should be done only when some rare lack of planning has led to too little consecrated bread from the present liturgy. I cannot imagine what would ever cause such poor planning."

"Inclusive language" must be used in homilies and announcements (the letter refers to the possibility that texts approved by Rome might not be "inclusive," but it also allows for parish liturgy teams to write their own eucharistic prayers, a practice currently in use at several L.A. parishes). The letter also calls for feminist images for God: "Further, let us be at least as rich and broad as scripture when in homily or song we employ images for God. God is not male. But our exclusive use of male imagery risks a kind of idolatry."

The "Perfect" Parish

The cardinal opens his pastoral letter with a long description of the "perfect" parish of the year 2000. The description of Mass at the fictional "Our Savior's Parish" stresses only the horizontal. References to God, Jesus, and sin are absent. The people don't praise or petition God, they think about each other. The vertical aspect of the Communion of Saints is left out, with no references to saints or to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"At Our Savior's, the renovation put people on three sides of the area where the altar and the ambo are so members of the assembly are nearly always seeing other members of the assembly," says the cardinal. As the entrance procession goes by, "they are turning toward one another, becoming conscious of one another's presence as the church begins its liturgy."

According to the letter, the purpose of liturgy is "community." Traditional Catholic terminology is avoided in favor of everyday terms like "cup," "plate," "bread," and "wine" (or, occasionally, "consecrated bread" and "consecrated wine"). We will have an authentic liturgy, says Mahony, "only when we have left behind all magical notions of liturgy and priesthood. "

What is the purpose of liturgy, according to Cardinal Mahony? "The Council mandated reform and renewal because they knew that without our liturgy we will hardly know how to teach well, how to do justice, how to love the world as God loves the world."

Other indications of Mahony's nontraditional interpretation of Catholicism include his call to: "Come into the new millennium doing gospel deeds throughout all realms of human life because a compelling and contemplative celebrating of eucharist is our doing and God's, Sunday after Sunday." ("Gospel deeds"? Like throwing the money changers out of the Temple or shaking the dust of an unrepentant town off one's feet?)

Predicting the results of such "reform" at his fantasy parish, Mahony says: "For years no one in this parish could have told you anything about the eucharistic prayer except that 'the priest does the consecration.' Now they can tell you a lot. They can talk about how it feels to stand around this table and sing God's praise together, about how they begin to see how much their lives need to be filled with thanksgiving, about how their presence to one another at this table is filled with remembering, about solidarity, about sacrifice, and above all about the dawning of a powerful sense for the presence of Christ in the simple gifts of bread and wine and in the mystery that is this church."

The act of standing, rather than kneeling, symbolizes, to Mahony, "that this banquet is communal." Acknowledging that kneeling implies reverence toward God, he indicates that this is not the appropriate goal at Mass: "Here [standing] there is true reverence, not simply token gestures, but the sense the, these people are discovering what it means to live with reverence for each other and for all creation."

The letter mentions symbolism but calls for new traditions and symbols to be devised, rather than submitting to those passed on to us by our ancestors. Mahony's new symbolism will be "a language of fire and smoke and honey and milk and bread and cup and water and oil.... "


The document makes passing reference to the cultural diversity of the Church in Los Angeles, but does not discuss implementation of the proposals among these ethnic groups. The truth is that Hispanic, Filipino, and Vietnamese laity and priests are usually more traditional than their Anglo counterparts, and would likely resist such innovations. If the cardinal's call to "let the still largely European liturgy take on the pace and the sounds and the shape that other cultures bring" were actually allowed to happen the plan could backfire on him— people would be kneeling throughout most of the Mass, refusing to have lay rectors and eucharistic ministers, and so forth.

"Without waiting for further Roman or American liturgical legislation, we can do most of what needs to be done," says Mahony. He notes that, in some parishes in the archdiocese, these changes have already been made. He calls for all parishes to be following his "Our Savior's" model by the Jubilee Year.

Several references are made to the possibility that some priests might resist the changes. In his comments presented at the May 28th review committee meeting, Msgr. Tim Dyer suggested that some parishes will have to have lay leaders, not priests, run the reform, saying, "There are many ecclesiologies currently operating."

A parenthetical comment in the draft also notes that the personnel board would be an important tool in promoting the changes. According to one archdiocesan source, this means that priests who refuse to go along with the innovations will be transferred to parishes or positions where they will not be able to hold up the reforms.

According to the letter's "Schedule of Implementation," by the fall of 1997, every parish must have a liturgy coordinator or committee, trained by the Office for Worship and must adopt a formal plan for liturgical renewal. By the First Sunday of Advent, 1997, the parish liturgy team must begin evaluating four areas: church furnishings (he references the controversial, unapproved document, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, as the standard for this), acoustics, lay ministries, and "presiding and preaching."

The plan continues: "Between now and the first Sunday of Ad. vent, 1999, every Sunday liturgy is celebrated with the eucharistic prayer and the communion rite as described in this document."

Notes from a May 28th meeting of the Pastoral Letter Review Committee revealed that all committee members praised the document. Msgr. Bill Leser commented that the letter is "poetic"—apparently not noticing the poor grammar and poor word usage it displays. The meeting notes stated that the group would convene again June 3rd to go through the pastoral letter page by page, taking out "confusing language and jargon."

A person who has read the document suggests that if the committee would follow up on the latter recommendation, Mahony's liturgical pastoral would be reduced to two or three sentences.

This article was taken from the June 19, 1997 issue of "The Wanderer," 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733. Subscription Price: $35.00 per year; six months $20.00.


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