Q: At what point in time during Mass it is considered too late for anyone coming into the Mass to receive Communion? These days I see a lot of people who enter the Mass even as Communion is being given and they head straight to receive. Is this right? — E.M., Port Harcourt, Nigeria
A: Like most priests, I am loath to give a straight answer to this question because, in a way, it is a catch-22 question for which there is no right answer.
It is true that before the Second Vatican Council some moral theology manuals placed arrival before the offertory as the dividing line in deciding whether one fulfilled the Sunday obligation of assistance at Mass. But after the liturgical reform, with its emphasis on the overall unity of the Mass, modern theologians shy away from such exactitude.
Mass begins with the entrance procession and ends after the final dismissal and we should be there from beginning to end. Each part of the Mass relates and complements the others in a single act of worship even though some parts, such as the consecration, are essential while others are merely important.
To say that there is a particular moment before or after which we are either “out” or “safe,” so to speak, is to give the wrong message and hint that, in the long run, some parts of the Mass are really not all that important. It may also give some less fervent souls a yardstick for arriving in a tardy manner.
Although I prefer not to hazard giving a precise cutoff moment, certainly someone who arrives after the consecration has not attended Mass, should not receive Communion, and if it is a Sunday, go to another Mass.
Arriving on time is not just a question of obligation but of love and respect for Our Lord who has gathered us together to share his gifts, and who has some grace to communicate to us in each part of the Mass.
It is also a sign of respect for the community with whom we worship and who deserves our presence and the contribution of our prayers in each moment. The liturgy is essentially the worship of Christ’s body, the Church. Each assembly is called upon to represent and manifest the whole body but this can hardly happen if it forms itself in drips and drabs after the celebration has begun.
Thus people who arrive late to Mass have to honestly ask themselves, Why? If they arrive late because of some justified reason or unforeseen event, such as blocked traffic due to an accident, they have acted in good conscience and are not strictly obliged to assist at a later Mass (although they would do well to do so if they arrive very late and it is possible for them).
Likewise for many elderly people, even getting to the church is an odyssey, and one must not burden their consciences by counting the minutes.
If people arrive late due to culpable negligence, and especially if they do so habitually, then they need to seriously reflect on their attitudes, amend their ways, and if necessary seek the sacrament of reconciliation.
Depending on how late they arrive they should prefer to honor the Lord’s day by attending some other Mass, or, if this is not possible, at least remain in the Church after Mass is over and dedicate some time to prayer and reflection on the readings of the day.
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Follow-up: Words After the Gospel
In the wake of the column on the words spoken after the Gospel (see Oct. 21), I found a related question from a priest in Salem, New Hampshire. He asked why so few priests give a brief commentary before the Scripture readings.
Actually there are about four moments when the priest may make brief comments or introductions during Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 31, makes clear that the priest “may give the faithful a very brief introduction to the Mass of the day (after the initial Greeting and before the Act of Penitence), to the Liturgy of the Word (before the readings), and to the Eucharistic Prayer (before the Preface), though never during the Eucharistic Prayer itself; he may also make concluding comments to the entire sacred action before the dismissal.”
It is very important that these commentaries be very brief and to the point so as to avoid the impression of giving multiple homilies or of being longwinded. And, of course, there is no obligation to make use of all four opportunities. Probably many priests prefer not to introduce the readings so as not to detract from the homily that comes immediately afterward.
The priest may, however, delegate these brief remarks to a commentator who, according to GIRM, No. 105.a, “provides the faithful, when appropriate, with brief explanations and commentaries with the purpose of introducing them to the celebration and preparing them to understand it better. The commentator’s remarks must be meticulously prepared and clear though brief. In performing this function the commentator stands in an appropriate place facing the faithful, but not at the ambo.”
The priest should either write the commentaries himself or at least revise them so as to ensure that they are appropriate and doctrinally correct. Failure to do this can lead to difficulties as happened to a priest friend when the commentator introducing the Scripture readings undermined the main point of his homily.
Some priests give a shorter than usual homily for a few weeks each year so as to explain the symbolic and spiritual meaning of the different parts and rites of the Mass and so encourage active participation in the celebration (taking “active” in its deepest and fullest meaning as conscious and devout).
This can be done providing a proper balance is maintained and the above norms regarding the proper moments for these commentaries are respected.
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