Communion Hosts at Papal Masses

ROME, DEC. 9, 2003 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

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Q: At large papal Masses, it seems that the consecrated hosts don’t come from the main altar. First of all, it doesn’t look like all the hosts could fit on the altar. And second, the priests who distribute the Eucharist seem to arrive at their stations within seconds instead of minutes. Where do the hosts come from? — J.E., Cleveland, Ohio.

A: Papal Masses are always solemn, reverent and beautiful, yet in many ways they are also unique. In some cases certain ancient liturgical traditions are maintained that are exclusive to the papal liturgy.

Another factor derives from the special characteristics of the celebrant, thus, the Holy Father, as universal shepherd of the Church, may incorporate certain traditional rites that are otherwise limited to certain parts of the world, especially in those Masses on an international character such as canonizations and synods.

Other unique elements of papal Masses stem from the location and the number of participants. These particular elements at times require special solutions not foreseen in the universal liturgical norms, which must always be observed even though one may have seen things done differently on television.

As to your question regarding the hosts consecrated at pontifical Masses: On some occasions ciboria and chalices are placed on the altar, especially for concelebrating bishops and priests, but this is not the most common practice as the number of communicants usually exceeds the available space.

Most frequently there is a group of deacons and (normally) non-concelebrating priests who volunteer their services for distributing the Eucharist. During the preparation of gifts they each receive a filled ciborium and take their places to the side and behind the papal altar. This procedure is quite visible to the Pope and to those present but would not necessarily come out on television. The Holy Father consecrates these hosts during the Mass.

During the singing of the «Lamb of God,» when Mass is celebrated within St. Peter’s Basilica, or during the Our Father when celebrated in St. Peter’s Square, the priests begin to move, and assistant masters of ceremony lead them to designated sections of the basilica or the square for the distribution of Communion which begins, as usual, after the «Lord I am not worthy» and the Pope’s Communion.

When they have finished distributing Communion the priests and deacons bring the ciboria to the Blessed Sacrament chapel for reservation and the purification of the sacred vessels.

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Follow-up: Gradual Consecration?

Our response on the possibility of a «gradual consecration» (see Nov. 25) generated some very illuminating and informative correspondence. As our readers will appreciate, the brief nature of this column precludes my entrance into the more arcane aspects of eucharistic or sacramental theology, but I will do my best to clear up any doubts while hoping not to contribute to further confusion.

A writer from St. Louis, Missouri, while expressing overall appreciation for the response found the following expression problematic: «the concept of a gradual transformation from bread to Eucharist is no more sustainable than the idea of a nonhuman embryo becoming an almost human, or a not quite human, fetus, gradually transforming itself into a human being. There can be no stages in the eucharistic mystery: It is either bread or it is Christ, there is nothing in between.»

Our correspondent comments: «What?! Bread / wine is bread / wine. Human is human. At which point does either become something more? Bread become body, or human become Christ?»

My intention in this statement was to draw an analogy between the arguments of pro-abortion writers who sustain that the embryo is not human and becomes so later, and of those who propose a gradual or progressive consecration in which bread and wine gradually become Christ’s body and blood.

My point was that neither argument held up. I thought that the point was obvious, but the very fact that a very perceptive reader did not see it proves that I was not as clear as I should have been.

Another source of confusion seems to be the oft-repeated statement that in a way the entire Eucharistic Prayer is somehow consecratory and that this is not limited to the essential words of the sacramental rite «This is my body» and «This is (the cup of) my blood.»

It is suggested that this thesis is proved by the fact that the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of certain ancient eucharistic prayers, such as that of Addai and Mari, still in use in some Middle Eastern churches, which does not contain an explicit formula of consecration.

Here we touch upon some very difficult questions regarding the power of the Church to determine the essential elements of the sacraments, questions which are in some cases not yet fully resolved.

From the point of view of settled Catholic doctrine, if by consecration we mean the moments in which the bread ceases to be bread and the wine ceases to be wine and becomes the body/blood, soul and divinity of Christ, then these moments are the words: «This is my body» and «This is (the cup of) my blood» (see the Catechism, Nos. 1353, 1376 and 1377).

This idea does not contradict the concept that the entire Eucharistic Prayer is somehow consecratory. But we asking a different question which goes beyond the sacramental Real Presence and involves the full richness of the eucharistic mystery taken in its entirety as memorial, sacrifice, thanksgiving, mediation, communion, etc.

Once more the Catechism enlightens us as it deals with the institution narrative within the context of the entire Eucharistic Prayer and indeed of the celebration as a whole (Nos. 1348-1355).

The idea of the Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory is also an important element in some disputed questions such as if it is possible for a priest to consecrate using just the essential words outside the context of the Mass. Some theologians provide solid and persuasive arguments against this possibility, but the question has not been definitively settled by the Church.

While the Church has defined what is essential for the consecration in her own rites she does not thereby declare that this is the only possibility. And thus she has recognized the validity of those very rare exceptions of ancient eucharistic prayers that consecrate in another way and in which it is not possible to determine a precise moment.

On a less theological plane a correspondent from Los Angeles sent me a reply on ringing bells from the Secretariat for Liturgy of the U.S. bishops’ conference asking if this response should be considered more «official» than mine:

«The ringing of bells during the eucharistic prayer is no longer required by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. In a day when the people could neither see nor hear what the priest was doing, bells provided a ‘signal’ that something important was about to happen. This need is no longer present. The Order of Mass shows a keen appreciation for the eucharistic prayer as the one ‘great prayer’ of priest and people. It is indeed the entire eucharistic prayer which is consecratory. In order to foster an appreciation of this seamless character of the eucharistic prayer, the ringing of bells is optional.»

Almost any reply to liturgical questions could be considered more official than mine as I make no pretensions to authority beyond that of the official documents I cite.

Regarding the above reply I think that there is a difference of emphasis, perhaps conditioned by the way in which the original question was framed. Thus whoever replied on behalf of the secretariat emphasized the non-obligatory character of ringing a bell during the consecration; I stressed the fact that it was still permitted.

Whether omitting the bell for the institution narrative fosters an appreciation
of the seamless character of the Eucharistic Prayer is a debatable point. From a pastoral standpoint it could aid in strengthening faith in the Real Presence which several surveys have shown to be in jeopardy among many Catholics.

Certainly, as stated above, the eucharistic mystery is far greater than the Real Presence, but if this aspect is undermined it is futile to hope to foster the others.

* * *

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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