Hosts From the Tabernacle

And More on Female Altar Servers

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ROME, FEB. 17, 2004 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: After the consecration, the Eucharistic minister proceeds to the tabernacle to obtain the consecrated Hosts needed to feed the faithful. He or she opens the door, then genuflects in adoration, and retrieves the container(s) of hosts and leaves the door open, exposing the presence of Jesus. Meanwhile, while this process is going on, the faithful recite the «Lamb of God,» after which they kneel in adoration. This has always been the norm. Now, this has been changed to standing, with the option of kneeling or sitting in thanksgiving after the reception of Communion. This is done with the repository door open. I do not see the reason for these changes. Can you clarify? — J.W., Waterloo, New York

A: There are several points in your question, which I will try to address in order. I hope you will forgive me for bringing in a related theme not explicitly formulated in your question.

The tabernacle is certainly worthy of all reverence and respect as the place where the reserved Hosts are kept for adoration outside of Mass and for distribution, above all, to the sick.

At the same time, the Church’s magisterium has several times expressed a strong preference for «that more perfect form of participation in the Mass by which the faithful, after the priest’s Communion, receive the Lord’s Body from the same Sacrifice» (see the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 13). Thus, insofar as possible the faithful should receive Communion from hosts consecrated during the Mass itself and not just receive from the tabernacle.

This practice requires a greater effort on the part of the priest and those who assist him in preparing the celebration. It is usually achievable after a while as the number of communicants at most parishes is fairly regular.

A sufficient number of hosts should be reserved in the tabernacle to assure that none ever be deprived of Communion due to miscalculation. And it will be sometimes necessary to use the tabernacle in order to renew the reserved hosts.

A further point mentioned in your question refers to the extraordinary minister of the Eucharist going to the tabernacle to retrieve and repose the hosts. This is not the normal practice during Mass.

The GIRM, in No. 162, states: «(If) … there is a very large number of communicants, the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, e.g., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been deputed for this purpose. … These ministers should not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion, and they are always to receive from the hands of the priest celebrant the vessel containing either species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the faithful.»

Likewise, after Communion is completed, No. 163 specifies: «[A]s for any consecrated hosts that are left, he (the priest himself) either consumes them at the altar or carries them to the place designated for the reservation of the Eucharist.» If a deacon or other priests are present they may also return the hosts to the tabernacle.

The fact you mention of leaving the tabernacle door open during the distribution of Communion does not usually imply an exposition. Indeed, liturgical law expressly forbids exposing the Blessed Sacrament during the celebration of Mass.

During Communion, Christ is equally present in the distributed hosts and so no special reverence is due to the tabernacle at that moment except for a genuflection by the minister on opening and closing its door, and even these are omitted should the tabernacle be near the altar upon which the Body and Blood of Christ is still present.

It is probably more prudent to close over the tabernacle door during distribution of Communion, if only to prevent flies and other insects from entering. This would be especially advisable if the host used for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament were clearly visible.

With respect to the proper posture during the liturgy of Communion, the GIRM in No. 43 specifies some norms approved by the U.S. bishops. One norm says the faithful should «kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise.» A few bishops have determined that the faithful should stand at this moment, and this practice is the norm within those dioceses.

Another phrase of the GIRM, No. 43, caused some controversy. It affirms that the faithful «may sit or kneel while the period of sacred silence after Communion is observed.»

Some liturgists, and even some bishops, interpreted this text to mean that nobody should kneel or sit until everybody had received Communion. The resulting debate led Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. bishops’ Liturgy Committee (BCL), to request an authentic interpretation from the Holy See on May 26, 2003.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, responded to the question on June 5, 2003 (Prot. N. 855/03/L):

«Responsum: ‘Negative, et ad mensum’ [No, for this reason]. The mens [reasoning] is that the prescription of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, no. 43, is intended, on the one hand, to ensure within broad limits a certain uniformity of posture within the congregation for the various parts of the celebration of Holy Mass, and on the other, to not regulate posture rigidly in such a way that those who wish to kneel or sit would no longer be free.»

Having received this response, the BCL Newsletter commented: «In the implementation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, therefore, posture should not be regulated so rigidly as to forbid individual communicants from kneeling or sitting when returning from having received Holy Communion» (p. 26).

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Follow-up: Female Altar Servers

Regarding the column on female altar servers (Feb. 3), a priest from Illinois asked if it were possible to place the issue in a theological context.

He suggests several arguments against their use and asks: «based on the same theology of the body that Pope John Paul II has so profoundly explained, how can girls serving at the altar not be perceived as a move towards women’s ordination? The role of the altar server is not just functional. Also, actions speak louder than words; by the Pope allowing altar girls in the context of the cultural politicization of the liturgy and the role of women, he does send the message that women’s ordination will come about despite statements to the contrary.»

Personally I do not think it is wise to try to establish doctrinal grounds for every aspect of liturgical discipline. The very fact that the Holy Father approved of this change clearly shows that he does not consider this issue to have serious doctrinal implications.

While our correspondent is correct in saying that the role of altar servers is not merely functional, I think it is necessary to distinguish between minister, either ordained (bishop, priest and deacon) or instituted (acolyte and lector) and those who may be delegated in some cases to substitute for them.

Thus the formal ministries of the Church are open only to males, while altar servers, readers and extraordinary ministers of Communion, whose function is to substitute for the lack of proper ministers, may be delegated to Catholics of either sex.

Even when these functions are carried out frequently, or even daily, they will always be essentially delegated and substitutive. In this context the canonical decision to open service at the altar to girls was logical since every other delegated ministry had already been opened up.

This is certainly a break with a very long-standing custom of having only males ser
ve at the altar even in substitutive roles. But it does not appear to be an issue of doctrine.

Nor does the Holy Father’s decision open the way toward women’s ordination. The papal declaration in «Ordinatio Sacerdotalis» that the Church has no power to ordain women is no mere statement of opinion but, as confirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an exercise of the gift of infallibility and therefore binding.

Another reader, also from Illinois, asked if there were any norms regarding adults serving at Mass.

All instituted ministers (acolytes and lectors) are adult men, most of whom receive these ministries in their early 20s. Adult servers are very common all over the world especially in daily Masses or very early Sunday celebrations.

One or two female readers took exception to my comments that this debate should not use political categories such as rights, equality and discrimination.

One correspondent from Boston writes: «Since when have human rights and human equality become a ‘political category.’ Any brief survey of Church documents would reveal that such rights and equality are part of morality. Too frequently, it sounds as if the Church doesn’t have to worry about breaking the moral law because it follows a higher liturgical law. Also, the last time I checked, by virtue of baptism, the Code of Canon Law says that every Catholic has a right to the sacraments. Does liturgical law also override canon law?»

Perhaps my choice of examples might have been better, but I think our correspondent read too much into my words.

She is totally correct, of course, in suggesting that rights, above all human rights, are essentially rooted in morality and thus should be beyond politics. I would also observe that there are other classes of rights less closely tied up to morality, such as the right to vote at 18 instead of 21.

At the same time, many of these rights have a political dimension and in this way are also political categories.

The social equality of women, for example, was not caused by a sudden surge of male morality sweeping away all discriminatory laws. Rather, it was eked and pried out by dogged, determined and sometimes heroic political action by women themselves.

Likewise, who can deny that the supposedly unalienable right to life has not tragically become the stuff of political activity?

Getting back to our subject, while the rights enjoyed by every Catholic are spelled out clearly by canon law, and include among other entitlements a right to the sacraments (see Canon 214), which is certainly not political, this fact has little to do with the question of a «right» to serve at the altar.

Serving at Mass, unlike the Catholic’s right to assist at Mass and receive Communion, is a privilege and in some cases a vocation. But it can never be called a right. Therefore, I repeat that no one has a right to do so and to frame the question in these terms is to use political categories to seek to demand what can only be humbly accepted.

Finally, a reader from Kenya suggested that St. Margaret Clitherow could complement St. John Berchmans as patron of altar servers. This English wife and mother was martyred in 1586 because she kept the forbidden vestments, chalices, books and bread in her home and arranged that priests could secretly celebrate Mass there. It is an interesting suggestion and may prosper.

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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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