In a note titled Gestis verbisque — “By gestures and words” — approved by Pope Francis and made public on February 3, 2024, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith reminds priests that they cannot alter the liturgy on their own initiative, as this can render the sacrament “invalid.”
Rome affirms that any creativity in the words or form of the sacraments is “always a gravely illicit act and merits exemplary punishment.”
In presenting this 10-page note, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, explains that the members of the Dicastery unanimously approved the document at their plenary assembly on January 25.
The text, he reports, is intended as a response to the “multiplication” of situations where “serious modifications” to the liturgy have rendered a sacrament “null and void,” forcing the rite to be redone.
The prefect mentions in particular baptisms during which priests have modified the established formula, pronouncing for example: “I baptize you in the name of the Creator …”, or “In the name of daddy and mommy … we baptize you.”
On August 6, 2020, the same dicastery, then headed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, had published a note ruling on the invalidity of baptisms celebrated with any variation in the formula.
On occasion, priests “have painfully discovered the invalidity of their ordination and the sacraments they have celebrated,” says Cardinal Fernández.
Warning pastors against the “temptation to feel that they own the Church” or against a “desire for manipulation,” the dicastery affirms that “modifying the form of a sacrament or its matter is always a gravely illicit act and deserves exemplary punishment.”
Cardinal Fernández explained that “while in other areas of the Church’s pastoral action there is ample room for creativity,” in the realm of sacramental celebration this “turns instead into a ‘manipulative will.’”
The 29-paragraph document recalls that codifying the liturgy is the prerogative of Church authorities and cannot depend on personal initiative. Proposing a theological development on the nature of the sacraments, Rome refrains from indulging in “rigid rubricism,” but leaves no room for “inventiveness” or “unbridled creativity.”
While the liturgy, the note concedes, may admit of “adaptations,” depending on the cultures in which it takes place, it nevertheless remains “a discipline to be respected.”
Priests are called upon to preserve “the essential elements of the sacraments” in “full fidelity to the prescribed rites,” to ensure their “validity” and the “unity” of the Church.