Non-Catholics Distributing the Precious Blood

ROME, DEC. 2, 2003 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

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Q: I went to a Mass once on a retreat at a religious house where one Protestant read the epistle and a Protestant minister helped to distribute the Precious Blood. Is that allowed? — K.D., Warren, Michigan

A: In most cases, no. Any formal participation in the liturgy, whether as reader, server or eucharistic minister is a sign of communion of faith in all that is implied in the celebration.

Therefore in most cases only a Catholic in good standing should serve in any liturgical role. Likewise, before serving, each individual Catholic should be reasonably sure that he or she is in the state of grace.

There may be some rare exceptions. The Holy See’s 1993 Ecumenical Directory states that the proclamation of sacred Scripture at Mass is done by Catholics. In exceptional circumstances and for a just cause, the diocesan bishop may permit a member of another church or ecclesial community to carry out the function of reader (see No. 133). The homily, however, is always reserved to the priest or deacon.

The reason should be fairly clear: because of the intimate relationship between the table of the Word and the Eucharist during the celebration. Reading the Word in this context is acting as a (sub-delegated) minister of the Church and normally only a Catholic may serve this function.

Indeed, many theologically aware Protestants would not choose to read in a Catholic Mass, even if it were allowed, as it would naturally imply acceptance of the ecclesial theology behind the selection of readings and, hence, be in contradiction with the (Protestant) principle of private interpretation.

In fact, after the publication of the revised Catholic Lectionary, some Protestants desired to adopt it for their services because of the rich selection of texts. Others, however, entertained serious doubts as to the wisdom of this proposal because of the «risk» of surreptitiously accepting the Catholic theology implied in the Church’s collation of certain scriptural passages from the Old and New Testament, especially those underlying doctrines such as the sacraments.

If this is the case for reading Scripture, which at least is something we largely have in common with Protestants, then with even more reason is it the case with respect to participating and administrating the Eucharist. John Paul II has reminded us in his recent encyclical «Ecclesia de Eucharistia» that sharing in the celebration of the Eucharist can only be the culmination, never the starting point, of our search for unity.

This does not exclude Catholics and other Christians from sharing God’s Word in other circumstances, especially those of a specifically ecumenical nature. The Ecumenical Directory provides ample indications and norms regarding non-Catholic assistance at Catholic celebrations and the possibilities and limits of Catholic participation in non- Catholic services.

While Christian unity is a very desirable goal, it can never be achieved by papering over the very real differences between us, but only by honestly facing up to them.

Excessive zeal in facilitating intercommunion not only constitutes a grave lack of respect for our most sacred things but, in a way, also slights our non-Catholic interlocutors by saying that we ourselves don’t take seriously what for them are crucial and essential points of doctrine. This procedure probably does far more harm than good to the ongoing ecumenical dialogue.

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Follow-up: Hand-Holding at the Our Father

Judging from the response to our reply regarding holding hands during the Our Father (see Nov. 18), it would appear that the world is divided into hand-holders and arm-folders with the occasional hand-upholder wedged in the middle.

If anything, the widespread division of opinion seems to show that holding hands does not occur spontaneously, at least not in large groups. Several readers made very interesting comments and I will try to address some of their concerns.

A correspondent from British Columbia suggested that the origin of hand-holding might stem from an interpretation of the liturgical norms themselves, particularly: the Ceremonial of Bishops No. 159: «After the doxology of the Eucharistic prayer, the bishop, with hands joined, introduces the Lord’s Prayer, which all then sing or say; the bishop and the concelebrants hold their hands outstretched» and No. 237 of the New General Instruction of the Roman Missal: «(the priest) with hands outstretched and with the congregation … pray the Lord’s Prayer.»

First, for the sake of precision, may I point out that our correspondent seems to be quoting from the earlier study translation of the GIRM. The definitive approved text states: «Then the principal celebrant, with hands joined, says the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer. Then, with hands extended, he says the prayer itself together with the other concelebrants, who also pray with hands extended and with the people.»

Some liturgists might refer to these documents to uphold the hypothesis that the whole congregation or, at least the concelebrants, hold hands during the Our Father. I do not believe, however, that it is a correct interpretation of the text. In English the expression «to hold one’s hands» almost always refers to raising one’s own hands and not another person’s, in which case the gerund «holding» is usually adopted.

Whether one uses the earlier or the definitive translation the same expression «hands extended» (or outstretched) is used in all cases that the priest adopts this posture, for example, during the Eucharistic Prayer. Thus there appears to be no justification for interpreting it as holding hands only during the Our Father.

An Australian subscriber also points out: «The best argument for not holding hands is that the holding of hands anticipates and then negates the sign of peace.» I must confess that I had never thought of this argument but it does have a certain internal logic.

Personally I would not go so far as to say that the gesture negates the sign of peace, but it does anticipate and duplicate it from the symbolic point of view and, as a consequence, probably detracts from its sign value.

A California reader observes that I said there is little difficulty with a family holding hands during the Our Father. He asks: Should not hand-holding also be appropriate, then, for a larger group, if we consider the parish as family? He also objects to «the idea it might make some feel uncomfortable. […] Then let’s not have them say the creed either. It might make them feel uncomfortable. Faith is all about being uncomfortable. Growth starts with discomfort.»

As is often the case, the analogous value of words can lead to misunderstanding. Yes, the parish is, in a way, a family, but then so is the universal Church, and so is the human race. The point is that holding hands is a normal expression of affection for nuclear families or relatively small groups of people who know each other well.

It is not a usual expression for larger groups of people even though they may be united by spiritual bonds, such as membership in Christ’s Mystical Body. I do not deny that it may happen but it is rarely spontaneous and is usually provoked by an organizing agent.

Our reader’s second point expresses a great verity but I fear also misses the mark. It is very true that growth starts with discomfort and certain liturgical elements, such as the «Thy will be done» of the Our Father, should leave most of us decidedly discomfited. But one thing is the internal and spiritually nourishing discomfort caused by confronting our daily reality with God’s Word or the truths of our faith, quite another the discomfort brought about by some avoidable human initiative.

Some readers asked if the U.S. bishops’ vote against allowing the «orantes» posture meant that this gesture was forbidden in the United States. The bishops, in deciding
not to prescribe or suggest any particular gesture during the Our Father, did not therefore proscribe any particular gesture either.

The bishops’ conference decision does limit the possibility of another authority such as a pastor or even a diocesan bishop from prescribing this gesture as obligatory. But it need not constrain an individual from adopting the «orantes» posture nor, in principle, stop a couple or small group from spontaneously holding hands.

While holding hands during the Our Father is very much a novelty in the millenarian history of Catholic liturgy, the «orantes» posture, as one reader from Virginia reminds us, is as old as Christianity, is depicted in the catacombs, has always been preserved in the Eastern rites and was not reserved to the priest until after several centuries in the Latin rite — and even then not everywhere.

The controversy regarding the use of the «orantes» posture for the Our Father appears to be confined to the English-speaking world. In many other places, it is pacifically accepted as an optional gesture which any member of the community is free to perform if so inclined.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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