Right or Rite?
Rev. William Rowe, a Roman Catholic priest, had already been removed from his parish when Bishop Edward Braxton of the Belleville, IL, diocese, took the extra step of forbidding him to exercise any public ministry. Rowe announced the move on Monday, July 9, and observed that he had been scheduled to preside at five weddings and a funeral this summer.
Rowe’s crime? He routinely altered the Mass, deviating from the wording of the missal’s prayers in order to make them easier to understand and also to reflect the theme of his message for the day. Rowe has been doing this for a very long time, but it became an issue when the Catholic Church began to enforce the recent revision of the Mass in English. Some Catholic news sources have been quick to point out that Bp. Braxton was within his rights to remove Rowe for this behavior, and I am in no position to determine how effective his changes to the Mass really were. Yet from the standpoint of the Catholic hierarchy, it’s not about Rowe being right but about being rite.
The story interests me as a Lutheran historian of the Middle Ages because it illustrates the Roman Catholic understanding of liturgy—an understanding that is diametrically opposed to a Reformation understanding of worship. The similarities between the forms of Lutheran and Roman Catholic liturgical worship obscure (particularly for those not well versed in Reformation history) deep and fundamental differences. The precise manner of the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper are far from the only difference. The entire aim of each service is different. For the Lutheran Reformers, the service provided an opportunity for the proclamation of the Word and thus for God to do his work through that Word. So the Word had to be preached, read, sung, and prayed in words that the people could understand. The Roman Mass, on the other hand, could remain in Latin because the understanding of those gathered was not the point. The point was for the ritual actor (the priest) to correctly perform the ritual (the Mass) in order to obtain the desired result of receiving grace from God. It all had to be done “right” to be a “rite.” Even when there was preaching connected to the Mass, it was understood not as the Word of God through which God himself was at work but as mere instruction concerning God’s provision of salvation and what was required to receive it (chiefly the Sacraments).
Let’s fast forward to today. Although Lutherans argue about forms of worship, and some insist on liturgical forms, our discussions are not the same as those that go on within the Roman Church surrounding something like a revision of the Mass in English. Even when we produce a new hymnal, we are not constructing a single, correct, and, therefore, mandatory ritual. Because our worship is not our sacrifice or work directed toward God—something that has to be done “rite”—but God’s work for us in his Word.