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New rules focus on role of priests

NCR Staff

New Vatican restrictions on the role of laity in distributing Communion signal a resurgence of a priest-centered vision of the Mass, in the view of some liturgical experts -- a step back from the emphasis on lay participation that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Especially galling to some American liturgists is the fact that the rules will apparently override a 1984 U.S. bishops’ document, approved by the Vatican, that allowed laity to perform many of the acts that Rome now says must be the exclusive province of priests.

Others, though, say the measures are a balanced response to 30 years of post-Vatican II liturgical experience.

The rules, issued by the Vatican on July 28, say that lay people:

  • may not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion;
  • may not place consecrated hosts into containers, known as “sacred vessels”;
  • must receive the sacred vessels from the priest, rather than removing them from the tabernacle or picking them up from the altar themselves;
  • may not assist in the cleansing of the sacred vessels after Mass;
  • may not consume leftover consecrated wine after Communion unless the priest administers it to them.

The document also prohibits priests from leaving the sanctuary to greet people during the sign of peace and offers the option of placing the tabernacle either in the sanctuary or a side chapel. It says only the Book of Gospels, never the lectionary, may be carried in procession. The Book of Gospels is a collection of the gospel passages assigned to be read at Mass.

Recent comments by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger notwithstanding, the new instruction endorses the post-Vatican II practice of priests facing their congregations while celebrating Mass. Many voices in the church, including that of Ratzinger, powerful prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, are pressing for a return to the pre-Vatican II custom of priests and people both facing east, which entails the priest standing with his back to the people.

The restrictions on lay people are “disturbing,” according to Fr. John Gurrieri, former chief of staff for the U.S. bishops’ committee on liturgy. “It almost reads as if lay people have a ministerial role in the Eucharist only by sufferance, as if the Eucharist is the priest’s exclusive reserve,” he said. “It seems to me that lay people are undervalued.

“This does not seem to be what those who crafted the council’s liturgical reforms had in mind,” he said.

That analysis was rejected by Fr. James Moroney, who holds the post once occupied by Gurrieri. While Moroney said there is a “re-emphasis on the role of the priest” in the instruction, he finds it heartening.

“In recent years the joy we have experienced in the restoration of lay ministries has been used by some as a way of denigrating or ignoring the indispensable role of the priest,” Moroney said. “As often happens in the American context, one is played off against the other.

“Catholic ecclesiology speaks of the indispensable role of the priest, and in the same breath refers to the unquestioned priority of full, conscious and active participation of all the baptized,” Moroney said. “You need both.”

The new rules came in a document called the “General Instruction on the Roman Missal,” traditionally viewed as the rulebook for celebrating the Catholic Mass. It forms the introduction to the collection of prayers for Mass called the “Roman Missal,” a new version of which is to be issued in the fall. The new stipulations will not take effect until then, though observers believe some bishops and pastors will begin to implement them immediately. This is the first revision of the general instruction since 1975.

In its language on lay ministers, the instruction contradicts previsions of a 1984 document of the U.S. bishops on Communion under both kinds, “This Holy and Living Sacrifice,” later approved by Rome. It authorizes lay people to help with the breaking of hosts before the priest receives Communion, the pouring of the consecrated wine and the cleansing of the sacred vessels.

The August issue of a newsletter put out by Moroney’s office states that the new Vatican instruction in effect repeals the American document.

“The provisions for distribution of Holy Communion under both species found in the [general instruction] should be followed,” the newsletter says. “In the near future, the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy plans to revisit ‘This Holy and Living Sacrifice’ in the light of the revised [general instruction].”

“It makes you wonder what the point is of getting these documents approved,” one former bishops’ conference official told NCR. “What changed between 1984 and 2000 to suggest this is no longer good pastoral practice?”

Gurrieri, who led the U.S. liturgy office from 1980 to 1988, said he believes some aspects of the new restrictions are impractical. “I’m a pastor with three Masses on Sunday,” he said. “I don’t purify the vessels; the lay ministers do. Meanwhile I’m out front greeting people in the 10 or 15 minutes I have before the next Mass.

“A third of the parishes in my diocese have only one priest, and you’re talking about four chalices, minimum, at every Mass, plus the plates for the hosts. This just isn’t realistic.”

Gurrieri said he hopes the U.S. bishops will update their appendix to the general instruction, adopted after the 1975 edition, which contains adaptations for American practice. The bishops’ committee on liturgy will consider revisions to the appendix at its November meeting.

In response to a specific request from the United States, the Vatican agreed July 25 to permit lay ministers of Communion in this country to pour consecrated wine into individual containers in parishes where large numbers of Mass-goers receive Communion under both kinds. The clarification came in a letter from Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino, the No. 2 official in the worship office in Rome.

Exactly what impact the new restrictions will have is not yet clear, particularly in parishes where they run counter to common practice. Priests walking into the body of the church during the sign of peace continues to be common practice in many U.S. parishes. The Vatican has attempted to curb the practice in response to several dubia, questions, put to it by bishops since the 1975 instruction.

“The instruction offers the general law of the church,” said one Vatican official. “Of course you’ll find differences in practice.” Much depends, according to the official, on how aggressive the U.S. bishops’ conference and individual bishops in their dioceses, choose to be about enforcement.

In its treatment of where consecrated hosts are stored and the position of the priest during Mass, the new instruction also wades into two other simmering liturgical controversies.

The 1975 instruction expressed a strong preference for placing the tabernacle in a separate chapel for private adoration and prayer. Some conservatives, however, objecting to what they see as a decline in eucharistic devotion in American Catholicism, have argued that the tabernacle should be prominently placed in the sanctuary (the area around the main altar).

The new instruction offers two options. The first is placement in the sanctuary, while the second is a side chapel. While both are approved, canon law generally treats the first of multiple options as preferred.

On the priest’s stance, the 1975 instruction said that altars “should be free-standing to allow the ministers to walk around it easily and Mass to be celebrated facing the people.” The new document maintains that language, and adds, “which is desirable whenever possible.”

Moroney called this “a very helpful clarification from the Holy See.”

In an unusual wrinkle, Moroney’s office produced an immediate English study translation of the instruction, a move that has drawn criticism from some liturgists who see it as a way of bypassing the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, an agency sponsored by 11 English-speaking bishops’ conferences. It is generally the commission’s role to translate liturgical documents, but in recent months the commission has come under severe Vatican criticism (NCR, May 12).

Moroney rejected the suggestion.

“It was clear to the committee on liturgy as much as six months ago that when the new instruction came out there would be an effort by special interest groups to read it through the filter of their own point of view,” he said. “If there hadn’t been a study translation, this week’s news would have been debating the meaning of Latin words rather than attempting to appreciate the instruction’s substance.”

The Australian bishops’ conference, like the U.S. bishops’ conference, a sponsoring member of the international commission, issued a news release Aug. 8 stating that the translation produced by Moroney’s staff is “in no way definitive.”

Sources in Rome said that while the Vatican does not release the names of those who contribute to its documents, key Americans probably included Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston and Francis George of Chicago, along with Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, all members of the congregation for worship. Moroney is the lone American consultor to the congregation.

Sources sympathetic to the Vatican said, however, it would be a mistake to look for a “smoke-filled room” where the new instruction was crafted. Rather, they say, it reflects 30 years of experience of post-Vatican II liturgical reform, drawing on input from all over the world.

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000