The Two Liturgical Rules I Wish Everyone Would Follow

There are lots of fights over the way that the Mass is celebrated, and about liturgical beauty more broadly. I think it would help to bear in mind two rules, both of which are borne out a simple reality: the Mass is the place in which we encounter Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. With that truth in mind, here are the two rules. They’re simple, really:

Liturgical Rule #1: Jesus is Present at the Mass, so it should be as beautiful as possible.

Israhel van Meckenem, The Mass of Saint Gregory (1515)

The Mass isn’t about my self-expression, or yours, or the priest’s or the cantor’s or the choir’s. It’s about encountering Jesus Christ, in the fullness of His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It’s about uniting my prayers, sacrifices and struggles to His eternal Sacrifice, so that He can offer it all up as an oblation to the Father. It’s about giving Him even my sins, so that He can refine my soul in the fires of His Mercy. If I’m in a state of grace, it’s even about communing with Jesus Christ, the highest act of man this side of Heaven. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life. Everything else flows from the Eucharist, and points towards the Eucharist.

Communing with Jesus Christ is the most amazing thing that you’ll ever do, period. And the externals should reflect that significance. I think that many (admittedly, not all) brides-to-be recognize this truth when it comes to their wedding: they’re about to enter into a lifelong union with their fiancees, and they want the external beauty to reflect this. How much more when we’re uniting, not with our spouse-to-be, but with the Divine Bridegroom, Jesus Christ Himself? Jesus actually uses just this imagery in Matthew 22:1-14, in which He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet, and describes the need to come attired in the appropriate “wedding garment” (Mt. 22:11-12).
There’s a good reason that the Old Testament has lots of instructions, given by God Himself, for proper worship: He governs everything from the architecture, to the vestments, to the music. He’s not apathetic about these things. At the risk of sounding cheesy, we should offer God the best that we’ve got, because He’s the best we’ve got.
All of this is complicated, of course, because tastes vary. Let me put this more bluntly: all of this is complicated because some people have bad taste, or they have bad theology. Often, people either fail to make the Mass what it should be, aesthetically, or succeed in making the Mass something that it shouldn’t be. Sometimes, it’s simply because people making important decisions don’t think with the mind of the Church about the focal point of the Liturgy: making it about us (either corporately, or certain “performers”) rather than about Him. Other times, it’s more subtle than that. Perhaps they think that they can sing, and can’t; perhaps they like a style of art or music that isn’t objectively beautiful (or perhaps they fall into the modern trap of believing that there’s no such thing as objective beauty), etc. Fortunately, the Church has developed guidelines governing all of these areas. If we listen to the Bride of Christ, we have a surefire way of offering worship fitting the Bridegroom, Christ.

Liturgical Rule #2: If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me. 

Alessandro Allori, Christ with Mary and Martha (1603)

What I described in Rule #1 is the ideal, what we ought to see at every Mass. For a lot of reasons, that’s not always what the Mass looks like. And that’s why Rule #2 is important: it’s easy to fall into griping and faultfinding when the Mass doesn’t look like we want it to, or when it doesn’t look like the Church wants it to (which are two different things). But as long as it’s a valid Mass, Jesus Christ is there in the Eucharist. If the Mass is good enough for Him to show up, it’s good enough for you. Don’t set higher standards than God.

When we fault-find during Mass, we can easily become distracted: instead of focusing upon Jesus (the reason we’re there), we’re focused on the externals. But that misses the point, entirely, since the externals are meant to draw us towards Him. If we fixate on the externals of themselves, we’re forgetting thatart is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.” Consider Luke 10:38-42:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Martha understands Rule #1 well. She’s welcoming Jesus into her home, so she wants it to be beautiful. She’s right to do so. But she is so fixated on wishing that everything was just so that she’s actually missing out on time she could be with Jesus.  She’s not following Rule #2, and as a result, she’s missing the point of Rule #1: to enhance our communion with Jesus Christ. How often do we become anxious and troubled about many things during Mass, or resentful of our sisters and brothers who we think should be doing more? That may be a sign that we’re missing the one thing needful.
But it’s worse than that. The wedding garment that Jesus is referring to in Matthew 22:11-12 isn’t physical, but spiritual. When we harbor ugly thoughts towards others for how they’re worshipping, we’re adding ugliness to the Mass. That is, we’re not just violating Rule #2. We’re violating Rule #1, the very rule that we supposedly care about. In Luke 11:39, Christ condemns the Pharisees for their obsession with external cleanliness, while their hearts weren’t cleansed. Let’s not forget the highest forms of beauty (Ps. 51:16-17):

For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. / The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. 

Finally, remember that Jesus Christ is present at the Mass. A valid Mass can never be truly ugly, at least not completely. Remember that the Second Temple was externally inferior to the First Temple, to the extent that “many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes” (Ezra 3:12). But God promised that “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:9), that is, that the Second Temple was going to be more beautiful. This prophesy was fulfilled when Christ was presented in the Temple (Luke 2:22), and Malachi 3:1 was fulfilled. 
When Christ was carried into the Second Temple, it was forever ennobled in a way that the First Temple could never rival. Likewise, when the priest carries Christ in his hands at the Mass, the church is rendered more beautiful than anything man can make by his own skill.
So there it is. When it is within your power to make the externals of the Mass more beautiful, do so; when it isn’t, ennoble the Liturgy by offering Him your heart. 
Beauty Draws Others to Christ
Bogorodica Trojeručica, an icon traditionally said
to have been written by or for St. John Damascene
(8th-14th century)

Last thoughts on beauty: it draws others into communion with Christ. Here’s what the Catechism says about beauty, in discussing iconography:

1162 “The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.

The starting quotation is from St. John Damascene’s eighth-century Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, which (as you might suspect) has a lot to say about liturgical beauty, and particularly iconography.
But there’s another quotation that I want to close on, from a surprising author:

We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravina supposes, through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.

Who said this? Edgar Allan Poe. I couldn’t hope to say it any better.


  1. Hi Joe, brilliant article. What would you then say to those non Catholics who are of the belief that Catholics place importance to the externals? Bear in mind that many of them have sanctuaries that are stripped bare. Asking for your answer out of curiosity.

    God love you.

    1. Sean,

      Good question. Short answer: God lays out all sorts of requirements for external beauty in the Old Testament. These things aren’t condemned; nor can they be, since they were Divinely-ordained. In the New Testament, look at John 12:1-8. Mary Magdalene uses expensive, beautifully fragrant perfume to anoint Jesus’ Body. Judas, not Jesus, is the one with a problem with this. And Jesus rebukes Judas for it. The spirit that seeks to strip the sanctuary bare is the same spirit that was guiding Judas.

      Add to this the fact that the Seventh Ecumenical Council condemns iconoclasm as a damnable heresy, and I think that the case against the stripping of the altars is overwhelming.



  2. If clown/creepy puppet/balloon masses are good enough for Jesus, are they then also good enough for us?

    But if you say, well there’s no need. Don’t go to the dancing clown/creepy puppet mass, but rather go down the street where there is liturgical reverence because Jesus is there without the silliness….

    …Then I would respond that just down the street a little farther is a liturgy where Jesus is also, except that it doesn’t have dancing clowns or creepy puppets. Or neon paintings of the Virgin Mary, all glass tabernacles, hymns by Lutheran heretic Marty Haugen, and the priest holding hands with the altar girls during the Our Father.

    For those of you surrounded by reverent NO liturgies, or the EF, or the Byzantine Rite…good for you.

    Me? I’d rather light a candle at the Saturday ROCOR vigil, than curse the darkness of liturgical ugliness Sunday morning at almost all of the local NO parishes.

    1. Daniel,

      A few things:

      1) I assume that you’re exaggerating about clowns, creepy puppets and balloons. Am I correct?

      2) Although the Orthodox have a valid Eucharist, Communion is more fully expressed by participating in, and receiving at, the Catholic Liturgy, since Catholics are only in an imperfect union with the Orthodox. Same logic would apply to SSPX Masses: they’re valid, but their union with the Church is imperfect. Unlike the Orthodox situation, SSPX Masses are also illicit.

      3) The ugliness of schism is worse than the ugliness of bad liturgy (as it relates to you, as congregant; obviously, it’s possible that the celebrant or liturgist is committing the sin of sacrilege). As a congregant with no control over the externals, you’re not responsible for any of the ugliness in the Liturgy (unless you add to it by being embittered, etc.). On the contrary, you’re enduring that misery out of love for Christ and His Church, which is a beautiful sacrifice.

      4) This question is actually an easy one for Catholics: Can. 1248 §1 doesn’t give the option of fulfilling your Sunday obligation at an Orthodox Liturgy. So it doesn’t matter where you’re “rather” light your candle, to put the matter bluntly.

      5) When you feel the urge to complain that the local Novus Ordo isn’t beautiful enough for your liking, recall two things: (a) your fathers in the faith often had to travel great distance just to find a Mass (as do many Catholics around the world today), and (b) the various peoples who went years without any access to the Mass at all, like the Korean Catholics in the 18th century.

      In comparison, the fact that the Mass is at an inconvenient time, or is some distance from your house, or isn’t as beautiful as it ought to be seems almost trivial, in light of the fact that you get to encounter Jesus Christ in the Flesh. I mean, imagine if you had tickets to a papal audience, and complained about the chairs the whole time. The complaint just misses the big picture.

      Now, obviously, having said that, I realize that some of the liturgical ugliness is actually sacrilegious, and in those cases, obviously, it’s better to find another Mass… but barring some truly exceptional circumstance, it needs to be one in full communion with the Church.

      If all of your options are bad (or at least radically imperfect), just unite your sufferings with Our Lord, who voluntarily underwent humiliation for our sake, and continues to do so.



  3. Well there’s certainly a lot to comment on.

    1) The ‘good enough for Jesus’ standard doesn’t work unless you are willing to say that dancing clown/balloon masses are also ‘good enough for Jesus’ and are also an ever greater opportunity to unite our sufferings to Christ’s.

    My contention is that those masses are point of fact NOT good enough for Jesus. And I would also argue that the irreverence that I have personally seen is also contrary to the spirit of worship commanded by Christ for the liturgy.

    2) That isn’t applicable if “…the mystery of the Church subsists fully in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.” Bishop Samra’s controversial words have been on the Melkite’s website for a year and a half. Qui tacet consentire videtur.

    But we don’t have to look at silence to reject the narrow interpretation of “subsists in” as articulated by the CDF. John F. Long was on the committee that actually drafted those very words in Lumen Gentium, and has shouted from the rooftops that the narrow interpretation of subsists is not what neither the committee nor the Council meant by those words.

    And that narrow view has been rejected at Balamand and at Ravenna.

    3. Whatever the ‘so-called schism’ is–to use a phrase from JPII–it isn’t something that requires confession of the mortal sin of schism to receive Orthodox converts into the RCC or for Orthodox with good reasons to receive the Eucharist at a Catholic liturgy.

    4. CIC 1248 says a “Catholic rite” not a “Catholic Church.” The Byzantine rite is a Catholic rite in that is a rite officially and permissibly used by the Eastern Catholic Churches.

    Now how do we know that this is an acceptable meaning of CIC 1248?

    Well, specifically the Ecumenical Directory of 1967 *specifically* stated that the Sunday obligation was fulfilled at an EO DL. True enough that was repealed in the 1993 Directory for the Application of the Principles and Norms on Ecumenism. That would seem to indicate to me that it is a discipline since it can be completely disregarded on the whims of a committee.

    How what about the CCEO?

    CCEO 881 The Christian faithful are bound by the obligation to participate on Sundays and feast days in the Divine Liturgy, or according to the prescriptions or legitimate customs of their own Church sui iuris, in the celebration of the divine praises.

    Divine liturgy is divine liturgy.

    5) The historical reality is that the early church took participation in the divine office waaay more seriously than weekly participation at Mass. The obsession about every jot and tittle in the rules of attendance is an anachronism. But when one *does* go to liturgy, it needs to be done by a bishop or a priest with the bishop’s blessing, and it needs to be done reverently. Reverence is far above the importance of whether or not so-and-so’s name is in the diptycs.

    But anyway, I haven’t suggested anything that Fr. Hardon of blessed memory hasn’t said.

    1. Daniel,

      Let me address your second point separately, and at greater length, because I think it’s the heart of your argument: you’re treating Orthodoxy and Catholicism as basically the same (“Divine Liturgy is divine liturgy”).

      2a. I think that this argument is specious. Basically, a bishop, somewhere on the Internet, says that “the mystery of the Church subsists fully in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches,” and you’re saying that silence implies consent… even though the CDF has issued an interpretation directly contrary to this claim? Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the CDF, explained the meaning of the phrase in Dominum Iesus:

      “The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity — rooted in the apostolic succession53 — between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church: “This is the single Church of Christ… which our Saviour, after his resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care (cf. Jn 21:17), commissioning him and the other Apostles to extend and rule her (cf. Mt 28:18ff.), erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth’ (1 Tim 3:15). This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in [subsistit in] the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him”.54  With the expression subsistit in, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that “outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth”,55 that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church.56 But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that “they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”.57

      17. Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.58 The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches.59 Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.60″

      So sure, the Magisterium doesn’t have a footnote specifying that Bishop Samra is wrong. But they don’t need one. Likewise, unlike Fr. Long (who was just a staffer for Cardinal Bea, if I’m not mistaken), the CDF actually has Magisterial authority. Given this, I don’t see any way to hold the interpretation that you’re advocating. What sort of ecclesiology elevates informal comments by individual bishops and staffers over the Cardinal Secretary of the CDF, speaking in his official capacity?

    2. 2b. Of course, even if the CDF hadn’t clarified the issue, the interpretation that you’re advocating would be impossible: it would essentially be the Branch Theory … that the Great Schism was a splitting of the One Church into Two, each equally qualified to be called the True Church. But both Orthodoxy and Catholicism have always rejected that theory, and it’s simply impossible, since it runs directly contrary to the first of the Four Marks of the Church.

      Additionally, Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi:

      “13. If we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christ – which is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church [12] – we shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression “the Mystical Body of Christ” – an expression which springs from and is, as it were, the fair flowering of the repeated teaching of the Sacred Scriptures and the Holy Fathers.

      14. That the Church is a body is frequently asserted in the Sacred Scriptures. “Christ,” says the Apostle, “is the Head of the Body of the Church.”[13] If the Church is a body, it must be an unbroken unity, according to those words of Paul: “Though many we are one body in Christ.”[14] But it is not enough that the Body of the Church should be an unbroken unity; it must also be something definite and perceptible to the senses as Our predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Satis Cognitum asserts: “the Church is visible because she is a body.[15] Hence they err in a matter of divine truth, who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, a something merely “pneumatological” as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are untied by an invisible bond.”

      A few years later, in Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII rebuked those who “say they are not bound by the doctrine, explained in Our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago, and based on the Sources of Revelation, which teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing.

      And Lumen Gentium reiterates that “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” And the Council explained that “They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops.”

      You can’t take a single ambiguous phrase from a conciliar document, and interpret it in such a way that it rejects two millennia of defined Catholic doctrine. What you’re calling the “narrow interpretation” is the only interpretation consistent with Tradition.

    3. Daniel,

      Now on to your other points:

      1. I think that the dancing clown/balloon Masses are largely a bogeyman. Even if such Masses do exist, I know of nowhere in the world where they would be so prevalent that they couldn’t be easily avoided. But in any case, I think you’re muddling the issue. When you say that the Masses aren’t good enough for Jesus, do you mean that the celebrants shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing (puppetry, or whatever)? Or that the congregants shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing (worshiping, in spite of the liturgical abuses)? So yeah, I think that the two rules still apply. Bad on the celebrants for abusing the Liturgy. Good on the oft-abused laity for uniting yet more sacrifices to Christ’s. I certainly am not hearing any principled reason to believe otherwise.

      3. Those born into Orthodoxy are in a very different position from those who turn away from Catholicism (either by leaving the Church for Orthodoxy, or by rejecting Catholicism for Orthodoxy after being made aware of the truth of Catholicism). For the former camp, they’re not guilty of schism. They were simply mal-formed. For the latter camp, it is damnable, as Lumen Gentium expressly says.

      4. A Divine Liturgy done in an Eastern Orthodox church is not a “Catholic Rite” in the sense that CIC 1248 means. So going to a ROCOR liturgy doesn’t fulfill your Sunday obligation as a Catholic. CCEO isn’t teaching something otherwise (your “Divine Liturgy is divine liturgy” argument notwithstanding). It obviously has in mind Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgy, since that’s what the Code explicitly deals with.

      Whether it’s a discipline or not is irrelevant. Knowingly violating the precepts one is bound to by the Church is sinful, and mortally so in this case. (Likewise, if a Latin priest secretly attempted marriage, it would be no defense at the Last Judgment that clerical celibacy is a discipline).

      5.”Reverence is far above the importance of whether or not so-and-so’s name is in the diptycs.” That’s not what Ignatius of Antioch says. Nor is it what canon law says. Disobedience and schism are uglier than you’re giving them credit for being.



  4. FYI, I spent a little time a while ago trying to track down the clown Masses. I could only find a couple of concrete instances in Catholic parishes – all others I found were Anglican/Episcopalian.

    This was one of the weirdest Masses I found

  5. Dear Joe,
    Thanks for the thoughtful article. I agree with point one and the summary point as well but would not be in as strong agreement with point two from a priest’s perspective. While I do not to like to use western liberal language too much, I would say that people have a “right” to authentic sacred liturgy, especially the Mass.

    People have a right, for example, to receive the correct and full formula for absolution when they go to Confession. As a frequent penitent myself, I say eight times out of ten the priest does not offer the full or accurate form of absolution.
    Because the Ordinary Form is such a rational liturgy and almost all of the prayers are meant to be heard, it is even more important priests properly pray the words correctly. No one, not even a priest has a right to add, change or delete anything in the Sacred Liturgy on his own authority.

    Many people are disturbed by the changes made. Imagine going back to watch a favorite movie but every time you do so, the great lines are changed and adapted. Imagine watching the Godfather and instead of hearing, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” you hear, “Let’s get out of here” or “Make sure you leave the weapon and take the dessert.” It would negatively affect the experience.

    Priests have discretion in the way they celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, including the Mass. What we choose to chant, how to extend our hands, Roman or gothic vestments, what is meant by a small bow, etc…” In this area, I agree with you. To focus on those is an unhelpful distraction. But when a priest intentionally changes words it causes harm to the faithful in their ability to prayerfully enter into active participation.

    1. Father,

      I agree entirely. In the last sentence of the second point, I tried to summarize the two points this way: “When it is within your power to make the externals of the Mass more beautiful, do so; when it isn’t, ennoble the Liturgy by offering Him your heart. “

      I see it as an extension of the Serenity prayer, which asks God for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (Rule #2); the courage to change the things I can (Rule #1); and the wisdom to know the difference.”

      So Rule #1 would apply to the priest, at least inasmuch as he has control over the Mass (obviously, an associate or a concelebrant may find himself in a more complex position), whereas Rule #2 tends to apply more to the congregant with no control over the externals.

      The very passivity that would be meritorious for a congregant could be sinful negligence of the Liturgy, a violation of the justice owed to God and His people.



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