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Church revises details of worship

For Catholics, changes eyed for Sunday Mass

Thirty-four years after the Catholic Church put into place dramatic changes in worship resulting from the Second Vatican Council, the Archdiocese of Boston this weekend will revise some details of the Mass in an effort to introduce more reverence and solemnity.

The new rules, which the US Conference of Catholic Bishops approved in response to a Roman missal published in 2000 by the Vatican, may slightly lengthen the duration of Sunday Mass, church officials said.

The rules require that, at the moment when worshipers shake hands or kiss in a sign of peace, priests remain in the area around the altar, and not go out to greet the crowd, except at special occasions such as funerals or weddings, in order not to disturb the celebration of Mass. Worshipers are now supposed to greet only those near them.

The diocese is also asking worshipers to express greater reverence at various parts of the Mass. Worshipers will be asked to bow their heads as they approach a priest or Eucharistic minister to receive Communion. There will be a greater emphasis on moments of silence at Mass during which worshipers are asked to reflect on Bible readings and the homily. And the church will ask worshipers to kneel at a key moment when some previously have stood.

Following a directive from the bishops conference, the archdiocese will also begin marking a day of penance each Jan. 22, to express sorrow for the US Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion. Clergy will wear violet, the color of penance, and a special Mass for peace and justice will be said.

The changes take effect Sunday, at the start of the season of Advent, which marks the beginning of the church's liturgical year.

"Most parishioners won't even notice -- there will be small adjustments, but in the long run these are not major changes of any kind," said Monsignor Dennis F. Sheehan, pastor of St. Paul Church in Cambridge. "Initially, like all small changes, it will be more confusing than controversial. I don't think you can expect 100 percent understanding or compliance."

Sheehan, a specialist on liturgy, said it is important in a universal church, such as the Roman Catholic Church, for worship practices to be standardized.

"Common postures and common behavior," he said, are "part of being a universal church. It's important that every congregation not pursue its own road."

Acknowledging that many Catholics are passionate and particular about liturgical practice, church officials have held nine workshops, published a seven-part series in the archdiocesan newspaper, and yesterday held a news conference to explain a series of required changes in posture and prayer practices to the estimated 2 million Catholics in Eastern Massachusetts.

"Church officials became concerned about a mixing of roles, and my perception is that they're trying to safeguard what is the unique role and function of the ordained," said the Rev. Bruce T. Morrill, an associate professor of theology at Boston College. "That may cause consternation to some laypeople, and even to some priests."

The archdiocese has attempted to communicate the liturgical revisions in a variety of ways. The director of the archdiocesan Office for Worship, the Rev. Brian E. Mahoney, is writing the series explaining the changes that is being published in The Pilot and will be posted on the archdiocese's website. Many pastors are putting inserts in their bulletins to explain the changes, or are explaining them from the pulpit.

"Change is an opportunity to look at how we have worshiped, and how we can do that in a better way," Mahoney said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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