Liturgy Matters – What is liturgical law?

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

By Dr. Judy Bullock

The liturgical laws that govern the celebration of liturgy are frequently quoted in these “Liturgy Matters” columns. What this may prompt you to ask is: What are liturgical laws, what is the source and where may they be found?

Even though the term “canon law,” if used in the broadest sense, includes liturgical law, for the most part the Code of Canon Law does not regulate the celebration of the liturgy.

The vast majority of the laws that govern the liturgy are found in the introductions of each official liturgical book. For the celebration of the Mass the primary sources of the law are the introductions of the Roman Missal, the Lectionary and the Book of the Gospels.

There are also specific directions within the rite itself, called rubrics (written in red ink).

In addition to these laws that come from the Holy See, the conference of bishops in each country and the specific bishop of each diocese also have the authority to set certain liturgical directives, as long as they are in accord with the Holy See.

What is included within these laws?

One noted canonist remarked, “Law is a form of communication.” For example, in these laws, not only do we find the regulations that direct liturgical action, but perhaps more important, we find the theological and pastoral explanations of the rites.

The introductions to each rite provide a great deal of catechetical information. In addition to learning how to celebrate a particular rite, we also learn what each part means and why we do it.

Rubrics, on the other hand, are quite brief, give precise directions that guide the ministers on how to perform the liturgical rites. Rubrics contain little of the “why” that is included in the introductions.

For example, in the introduction to the missal, the purpose, content and options for the manner of singing the Communion song are given. The rubrics simply say when the Communion song is to begin.

Are there degrees of importance of liturgical laws and are options provided?

The ranking of each liturgical law depends on the primacy of the element. The verb that is used in each instruction is usually indicative of the intention. If the particular instruction is given in a declarative statement, there is the expectation that it is to be followed as closely as possible.

The word “may” usually indicates a degree of freedom, indicating there are options which may be taken into consideration for pastoral reasons. In almost all circumstances the options are stated rather than left to invention.

Why is it important to respect liturgical law?

The purpose of the liturgical laws is to ensure that the liturgy of the church celebrated all around the world is authentic and that there is a unity in the order, structure, spirit and purpose.

Altering the liturgies beyond what options are already offered can change the meaning, or at the very least alter the focus, diminishing an important aspect or placing undue significance on an insignificant part.

Liturgical laws are not respected in order to follow the law for its own sake but to enact the prayer forms, rites and rituals that express faith. The final canon in the code expresses this sentiment. It says, “the salvation of souls is always the supreme law of the Church.”

Embodied in these laws are the traditions passed down through the centuries, the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit, the benefits of the scholastic community and finally the cultural gifts that are continually incorporated to respond to the world in which we live.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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