Abuse Or Error? I Choose The Latter

One term I find grossly inaccurate and in need of retirement is “liturgical abuse.”

Recently, one of the retired priests with whom I work appeared to get a bit distracted while preparing altar and gifts. He tends to take time with rituals and texts. We got through all four verses of a hymn, and I signaled my musicians to continue playing. We did one instrumental verse and stopped. The hand washing had not been done. It was an early Mass, and the one server was standing behind with water, basin, and towel. My guess is that the priest was not used to the music being done, and maybe it was early, too. He continued with the post-lavabo text and the dialogue. The server returned her items to the credence table and Mass went on.

I’ve known liturgical sticklers to go apespit over far lesser infractions. In this instance, I think “liturgical error” would be a stretch. I’ve served at a few weddings here in the Northwest in which the presider skipped over the prayers of the faithful. I’ve asked them each about it, and their assessment was that these prayers are part of Mass, but not the rite with Liturgy of the Word. I would characterize that belief as an error. Hardly an abuse.

Abuse is a term I reserve in the church context for sexual or other attack by clergy or other leader on a vulnerable person.

Errors can be serious or not. They can involve quality of performance or mistakes. Certainly there are clergy and other liturgical personnel who know what the ritual instructs, but then choose to do it their own way anyway. Even then, “abuse” is the wrong word.

Let’s reserve the term “abuse” for the instances when it causes actual harm to a person, and not their sensibility for perfection, correction, or similar attitudes.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Abuse Or Error? I Choose The Latter

  1. Liam says:

    It’s not clear from this account who is the person ostensibly saying an abuse happened, and that lack of clarity muddles the perspective of the rest of the post.

    I would not restrict abuse so narrowly as that (though I can’t quite tell how literal you mean “attack”). For example, when a priest hectors (yelling) at a congregation to recite “Lord, I AM worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my soul will be healed” and refuses to proceed unless and until he gets the volume and participation desired, that’s abusive. (Personally experience here.) For another example, when a priest strides through a congregation completing Forty Hours Devotion yelling, “We don’t do this any more!”, it’s abusive. I’ve lived my share of such things.

    Also, I would distinguish between the photo and the movie, as it were: between a temporary situation and a chronic behavior/attitude – in the case of the latter, one may say that there’s an abusive habit, pattern or disposition shown in repeated errors et cet.

    Mostly, however, in the moment I am not in the business of categorizing, but trying to maintain focus in spite of the distracting act/omission on the part of minister. I am long out of the circle of people who provide undbidden feedback to ministers (other than the musician friends seeking specific feedback on how things went, et cet., requests for which I do get periodically), as I’ve long ago realized that those in power only want feedback that supports further rationalization of their habits.

    So, when a priest regularly insists on providing glosses and mini-homiletic notes in the middle of proclaiming the Gospel (yesterday, Satan tempted Jesus not just by bread, but a [interpolated adjective went missing as my aural contemplation got derailed] warm loaf of bread, and Satan also snapped his fingers, among other things). Those actions in the moment were not abusive, but I can tell you from observation that I am hardly the only person whose reception of the Good News gets distracted by the use of the the priest’s personality to spice it up into something Bigger! Bolder! Better! It’s not an attack, and I am not inclined to categorize it as abuse. Error or infraction is not quite it, either. I could just say it’s clericalism rationalized as pastoral outreach to children in the seats. When I am in a charitable mood. Because this tic doesn’t always involve things that are likely to reach children better, and only affirmation is wanted when he engages in this; if it doesn’t land well, as it were, he’s visibly unsettled at best. (In a less charitable but still professional mood, I’d ask him to consider who it really serves. Except those kinds of questions go unanswered if they can’t be spun back in an affirming way.)

    In the end, when dealing with complaints or reservations, it’s usually not helpful to respond by marginalizing them for being wrongly categorized or worded – that analysis is more self-serving than helpful in a pastoral way. Move beyond what may rightly be received as over-argument and instead try to move directly to what’s really going on. People learn argument styles from their families and from what’ modeled on the public stage – meaning, they typically learn bad forms of argument (and not only in dysfunctional families). When they come to you with those, unfortunately the servant minister’s job is to not let the ego engage that in a defensive way.

    Which. is. hard.

  2. Todd says:

    Agreed, in large part, except for the diagnosis that yelling and hectoring is liturgical. It isn’t. “Lord I am worthy” in a calm voice can be a lot of things–an abuse survivor, too much ego, the wrong workshop. Personally I prefer Thomas’ acclamation, “My Lord and My God” and keep the false unworthiness out of the picture entirely, keeping the focus on Christ. But that’s another topic.

    I wouldn’t say that errors and mistakes shouldn’t be addressed. My suggestion is to keep abuse in perspective. It’s a serious charge, and seriously overused in liturgical circles. Like heresy, which is more often stupidity and arrogance when uttered, and more often “I disagree” when experienced.

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