"Through Him, With Him …"

ROME, FEB. 10, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

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Q: In our parish, the priest has invited people to join him in the “Through him, with him and in him.” I thought this was reserved especially for the priest — am I wrong? If it is not appropriate, what would be the most charitable way to approach him? — K.S., Utica, New York

A: You are quite correct. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 151, clearly states: “At the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest takes the paten with the host and the chalice and elevates them both while alone singing or saying the doxology, ‘Per ipsum’ (Through him). At the end the people make the acclamation, Amen. Then the priest places the paten and the chalice on the corporal.”

The priest says or sings this prayer alone (or with other priest concelebrants) because it forms an integral part of the Eucharistic Prayer, which has always been reserved exclusively to the priest.

The people give their assent to the priest’s words through their saying or singing the Amen, often called the great Amen as being the most important of the Mass. This Amen is seen as the definitive conclusion to the Eucharistic Prayer and its doxology (a prayer of praise) symbolized by the fact that the priest does not lower the chalice and paten until the people conclude the Amen.

True, the present rite of the Mass includes the assembly’s proclamation of the mystery of faith after the consecration. But this is not, strictly speaking, a part of the Eucharistic Prayer, and this rite is omitted if for some good reason a priest celebrates alone or concelebrates with no ministers or assembly present.

This practice of the people joining in the doxology is found in several places, sometimes due to a priest’s mistakenly inviting the people to join in. More often, it probably sprung up shortly after the introduction of the vernacular, from the people’s spontaneously joining in a rhythmic text. If this was not corrected in time, a habit formed — and this usually proves very hard to eliminate.

As to how you should approach your priest? I suggest that you kindly point out to him the relevant norms but at the same time suggest an alternative way of distinguishing the importance of this moment.

One possible suggestion is to ask him to sing the doxology so that the people’s response is also sung. Another possible way of solemnizing this Amen is to follow the practice, now common at papal Masses, of repeating it three times in a simple but uplifting tone. This also provides a key for making the musical transition to the Our Father.

This solution, along with an appropriate catechesis, might also help ease the change in custom in those churches where joining in the doxology has become an ingrained habit. In these cases it is necessary to move toward fidelity to liturgical law while avoiding unnecessary confrontation by apparently impinging and curtailing the assembly’s range of action.

Just as in the moral life, the most effective way of combating a bad habit is not to concentrate so much on repressing the vice as to form the contrary virtue.

* * *

Follow-up: Where the Tabernacle Should Be

Our reply on the proper location of the tabernacle (Jan. 27) generated lots of e-mail. Several readers asked why it is no longer permitted to have the tabernacle on the altar of celebration.

To answer this question I think it is first necessary to reflect on the relationship between the Mass and devotion to the real presence of Our Lord.

The Church’s highest and holiest action is the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass. John Paul II reminds us in his encyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia”: “The Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church.” No other action of the Church can compare to the Mass in importance.

While the Church has always reserved the Eucharist — above all, to make sure Communion was available to the sick and dying — there was no particular devotion to the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle for almost a thousand years.

Thus in the writings of great Church Fathers such as saints Ambrose, Augustine and Pope Leo the Great, one finds nothing about visits to the Blessed Sacrament yet much about the greatness of the Eucharistic celebration.

The martyrs of Roman times had no Eucharistic devotions. Yet, when the martyrs of Abitene were arrested in 304 for illegal gatherings, they boldly stated that they could not live without their Sunday Eucharist. In more recent persecutions, such as in my native Ireland, it was impossible to have the reserved Eucharist. But people took great risks in order to assist at Mass in the hills. The priests who celebrated these Masses were hunted and risked arrest.

Of course, the gradual development of Eucharistic devotion in the Church is one of the Holy Spirit’s greatest gifts and is one of the bulwarks of the Church. But the point I want to make is that in the Mass is contained, in the words of the Catechism, No. 1324, “the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself our Pasch,” and No. 1327 describes it as: The sum and summary of our faith.”

The celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass is the center and focal point of the Church’s life to which all other aspects, including those intimately bound up with celebration itself, must take second place.

Thus, the liturgical norms direct that when the tabernacle is present in the sanctuary a genuflection of adoration is made at the beginning of Mass before the priest kisses the altar and at the end after kissing the altar before leaving the sanctuary. But no genuflections are made to the tabernacle during the celebration of Mass itself except when the priest reserves consecrated hosts left over after Communion. Thus, full attention must be given to the celebration itself in each of its parts.

The same logic is behind the relatively new rule that the tabernacle should not be on the altar itself although for several centuries it had been placed at the center of the high or principal altar of the Church. This practice arose after the Council of Trent as a means of emphasizing the Church’s doctrine on the Real Presence.

It appears that it was first promoted by Bishop Matteo Giberti of Verona from 1524 to 1543, who first placed the tabernacle on the high altar of his cathedral. This initiative was taken up by St. Charles Borromeo and by Pope Paul IV. In 1614 it was officially introduced into the Roman Ritual by Pope Paul V, after which it became the normal manner of reserving the Eucharist until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

There is also an official explanation as to why the tabernacle should not be on the altar of celebration given in the document “Eucharisticum Mysterium” (1967) No. 55:

“In the celebration of Mass the principal modes of Christ’s presence to his Church emerge clearly one after the other: first he is seen to be present in the assembly of the faithful gathered in his name; then in his word, with the reading and explanation of Scripture; also in the person of the minister; finally, in a singular way under the Eucharistic elements. Consequently, on the grounds of the sign value, it is more in keeping with the nature of the celebration that, through reservation of the sacrament in the tabernacle, Christ not be present Eucharistically from the beginning on the altar where Mass is celebrated. That presence is the effect of the consecration and should appear as such.”

There are also practical considerations to be taken into account.

Today almost all Masses are celebrated facing the people and the presence of the tabernacle on the altar would be more of a distraction than a spiritual aid. It would necessarily have to be placed in front of the priest, thus preventing the people from seeing the sacred action being carried out on the altar. This would also probably require the use of very small tabernacles, of little use i
n a typical parish situation.

However, the very fact that liturgical law indicates what practice is to be followed when the tabernacle is within the sanctuary also shows that — contrary to the opinions of some liturgists — there is no intrinsic opposition in having the tabernacle within the sanctuary itself.

These liturgists have argued that the visible presence of the tabernacle in the sanctuary — as distinct from on the altar — distracts attention away from the sacred action of the celebration.

While this might appear true in theory, pastoral experience seems to confirm that it is rarely a problem for the vast majority of faithful who are normally attentive to the sacred rites, and at least in some countries, are more likely to be distracted by lighting votive lamps to their favorite saint than by the tabernacle.

A correspondent from North Carolina, a member of a parish liturgy committee, asked if the tabernacle may be placed behind the altar.

Although the final decision as to where to locate the tabernacle falls to the bishop and not the committee, this body, being closer to the concrete reality of the parish, may make recommendations.

The tabernacle may be placed to one side, but in a duly prominent manner or even placed in an old high altar no longer used for celebration (see the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Nos. 303, 310 and 315).

Since the old high altar is almost certainly located directly behind the new altar, this indication of the GIRM would seem to imply that the tabernacle may also be located directly behind the altar even in newer or renovated churches that have no old altars. The priest’s chair, however, should never be placed under or immediately in front of the tabernacle (see GIRM, No. 310).

There are several options which allow for the tabernacle to be duly prominent while observing the norms regarding security, practicality and the proper dignity due to the tabernacle.

One is to fix the tabernacle to a column or insert it into the wall in the manner of a safe, perhaps setting it off using some decorative element preferably in harmony with the other architectural elements such as altar and ambo.

If possible there should be some form of shelf before the tabernacle so as to facilitate movements and allow priests to set down the Blessed Sacrament while opening the tabernacle door. Apart from the obligatory sanctuary lamp the tabernacle may also be highlighted by special light fixtures which could be turned off during the celebration of Mass.

Readers from both Australia and Canada suggested that perhaps Church laws on this subject are too vague and allow for easy abuses. Another asked if the official documents indicated a preference on the part of the Holy See for either the option of the tabernacle in the sanctuary or the Eucharistic chapel.

I think that many people would appreciate clear and precise norms from the Holy See on many subjects. Yet the reality of the Church is that it is a far less centrally organized institution than many suppose, and the Holy See seems to prefer it that way.

The norms emanated from the Holy See usually give general principles while the task of making precise legislation applying these norms to concrete situations is left to the episcopal conference or to the local bishop. For example, the U.S. bishops have published a document, “Built of Living Stones,” providing norms and guidelines for building and renovating churches.

Both the norms emanated from the Holy See and those decreed by the bishops presuppose the good faith and common sense of those who interpret them.

Some authors do suggest that the fact that earlier documents tended to mention first, and even recommend, the option of the Eucharistic chapel, while more recent documents, including the new GIRM, place it last and give more weight to the tabernacle’s clear visibility denotes a shift in emphasis away from the chapel option and toward the sanctuary. Whatever preference the Holy See may have, the essential fact remains that the final choice is up to the local bishop.

Although I have no particular training in architecture, I would hazard the following pastoral suggestions in deciding whether to opt for a chapel or the tabernacle in the sanctuary. Given the very wide range of possibilities I make no pretense of being either exhaustive or decisive.

— The character of the faithful: This should always be taken into account. A parish with a highly mobile population has spiritual needs that differ from one with a stable base. Long-term parishioners tend to develop a personal relationship with their church. They have their favorite corners and generally occupy the same pew year after year, especially in older churches that have lots of nooks and crannies.

Likewise in many parishes a significant number of faithful like to arrive early to pray privately before Mass, or remain afterward for an extended thanksgiving.

In these situations the tabernacle in the sanctuary seems the best option as the faithful usually prefer to pray before the Blessed Sacrament from the same place that they will participate at Mass. These factors may be less important in parishes with a high turnover or irregular assistance. Very large parishes, however, with almost no time between Sunday Masses, might find that parishioners’ desire for private prayer would be best catered for by a special chapel.

— Location: An urban parish that receives many drop-in visitors during the course of the day would probably best keep the tabernacle in the sanctuary as this would be the natural focal point. Suburban or rural parishes which are rarely visited on the spur of the moment and usually require a trip to reach them would often be better off with a chapel, especially when other factors of modern life are taken into account such as heating, air conditioning and insurance. Some parishes have managed to get the best of both worlds with a chapel built behind the sanctuary wall in which a single tabernacle with doors back and front serves both the main and daily chapel.

— Activities: Since the primary purpose of the tabernacle is to foster adoration and private prayer, large parishes with frequent activities in church such as weddings and funerals, or with many daily Masses would probably be best served by a Eucharistic chapel. This would also be true of parishes that practice perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament so as avoid having to constantly interrupt the adoration.

There are surely many other factors involved such as the size of the church and sanctuary and the availability of a suitable place to set up a Eucharistic chapel.

If the option of setting up a Eucharistic chapel is preferred it is necessary to remember that the location of the chapel must be clearly visible from the main body of the church. It should also be readily accessible from the sanctuary if extra hosts are required during Mass or to reserve hosts left over. Thus a chapel near the church entrance is rarely suitable and has the added inconvenience of people having the Blessed Sacrament at the backs.

The chapel should allow for private prayer, thus it should be a chapel and not merely an alcove. There should be sufficient space for several people at once depending on the size of the parish. It should also not be located too close to doors or other areas of frequent transit so not to distract the faithful at prayer and to avoid having people pass it without realizing or even fall into the habit of not making a genuflection.

Sadly quite a few readers wrote to mention some woefully unsuitable examples of tabernacle location as well as some less than worthy responses from priests when asked about the issue. We must all pray so that the desire that Pope John Paul II has expressed for a general recovery in the sense of wonder before the Eucharistic mystery may be abundantly fulfilled.

* * *

Readers may send questions to news@zenit.org. 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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