Correspondence with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments Concerning the Celebration of Mass, 7-8 February 2000. Private.


Bishop Foley’s Letter, February 7, 2000:

In the course of my episcopal ministry as bishop of Birmingham, Alabama, I have encountered some difficulty with a number of assertions which appear to me to be seriously misleading to priests and laity alike. I would be grateful if the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments would provide some clarification on these matters.

pg. 33

pg. 34
The first question regards the orientation of the priest celebrant when is at the altar celebrating Mass. Certain individuals and groups have maintained that of the two positions which are permitted to the celebrant by current liturgical law, facing the people (versus populum) or facing the apse, away from the people (ad orientem), the second (ad orientem) is a theologically preferable or a more orthodox choice for a priest who wishes to be true to the church’s authentic tradition. I disagree with the arguments advanced in support of this stance, which has been thrust upon my diocese.

The second question regards the four eucharistic prayers introduced into the Roman rite by Pope Paul VI. The assertion has been made that only the Roman Canon is really orthodox. They assert that the other eucharistic prayers are heterodox or at least of dubious theological, liturgical or ecclesial value. They urge that, in the light of the perceived inadequacy of the other eucharistic prayers, the priest celebrant always use the Roman Canon, whether he celebrates in Latin or in the approved vernacular. Once again, I have serious questions and concerns regarding this assertion.

I would be grateful if Your Eminence could provide an authoritative clarification on these most contentious matters.

Confident of your pastoral solicitude for the good people of Birmingham in Alabama, and with grateful prayers for your ministry to the universal church, I remain sincerely in Christ.




Response by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, February 8, 2000:

Thank you for your letter of Feb. 7, 2000, asking this Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments for clarification of certain questions regarding liturgical celebration and the various options permitted by the Roman Missal. Thank you also for the confidence that Your Excellency has shown toward this congregation.

As regards the position of the celebrating priest at the altar during Holy Mass, it is true — as Your Excellency indicates — that the rubrics of the Roman Missal, and in particular the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, foresee that the priest will face the body of the people in the nave while leaving open the possibility of his celebrating toward the apse. These two

pg. 34

pg. 35
options carry with them no theological or disciplinary stigma of any kind. It is therefore incorrect and indeed quite unacceptable that anyone affirm, as Your Excellency sums up this view, that to celebrate toward the apse “is theologically preferable or more orthodox to the church’s authentic tradition.”

Your Excellency’s second question concerned the three eucharistic prayers introduced into the Roman Rite by Pope Paul VI by means of a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on May 23, 1968. In answer to the assertion that “only the Roman Canon is really orthodox … The other eucharistic prayers are heterodox or at least of dubious theological, liturgical and ecclesial value” and that “in the light of the perceived inadequacy of the other eucharistic prayers, the priest celebrant [should] always use the Roman Canon, whether he celebrates in Latin or in the approved vernacular,” it must be said firmly that such a view is in direct conflict with the position of the Holy See, as Your Excellency has rightly understood. The three eucharistic prayers in question are each to be considered lawful, and the liturgical law of the church establishes no gradation with respect to their orthodoxy. There is therefore no question of the first eucharistic prayer or Roman Canon being “more orthodox” than the others, and such an idea is without any foundation.

A distinction could be made rightly between the different eucharistic prayers with respect to their appropriateness for pastoral use in different circumstances and in the setting of different liturgical celebrations. As is clear to Your Excellency, the varying length of the eucharistic prayers, the fact that the fourth prayer has an invariable preface, that special embolisms and intercessions are given for different feast days and circumstances in this or that prayer, all makes for a happy variety that allows the bishop or priest celebrant to make appropriate pastoral choices for the good of the people, opting for one or other eucharistic prayer with its variant internal parts. While the first eucharistic prayer is a venerable text which deserves all respect, having been in continuous use for perhaps a millennium and a half, the other three eucharistic prayers are also in one way or another ancient and in any case worthy of the veneration and deep respect of priests and faithful. To suggest otherwise is at least erroneous and irresponsible. The second eucharistic prayer represents a liturgical tradition found in the early centuries in Rome and diffused in distant lands. The third eucharistic prayer enjoys a rich history with its origins in the Hispanic or Mozarabic

pg. 35

pg. 36
rite. The fourth eucharistic prayer likewise is of venerable origin, being based upon the Antiochene tradition.

This congregation is grateful to Your Excellency for raising in such a focused manner these serious questions and for offering the occasion to formulate and make known an appropriate answer. According to your pastoral judgement, Your Excellency is free to refer publicly to the content of this letter or to publish it in whatever form seems appropriate.

With every good wish and kind regard, I am sincerely yours in Christ.




Private Reply, Origins 29 (1999-2000): 598-600; RRAO (2000): 33-35.