Using Deacons as Readers and Servers

And More on Priests’ Funerals

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ROME, JAN. 10, 2006 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: This year our superiors said that due to the large number of transitional deacons at the seminary, we will be scheduled to serve as readers and altar servers. Is it appropriate? I have never seen something like this. — (initials withheld) Denver, Colorado. Q: Please speak about a layperson participating in more than one ministry during any given Mass (for example, a member of the choir being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist) and the situation of one person being in two or more ministries (for example, both a lector and an usher) during the same pastoral year. — M.B., The Hague, Netherlands.

A: As both questions dealt with ministries I opted to deal with them together.

Since, apart from my professorial duties, I am also a spiritual director in Rome’s largest international seminary for future diocesan priests, I can appreciate the superior’s genuine concern for finding an adequate liturgical role for a large number of deacons (a blessed problem indeed). The proposed solution, however, is not the most liturgically appropriate.

It is a general principle in liturgy that each one of the different ministries perform its proper role. And those who have received a ministry have, so to speak, precedence in undertaking this ministry over those who have not received this ministry or even over those who have received the sacrament of holy orders.

As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Nos. 98-99, say in dealing with the roles of lector and acolyte: «In the ministry of the altar, the acolyte has his own functions (cf. below, nos. 187-193), which he must perform personally.» And «In the Eucharistic Celebration, the lector has his own proper office (cf. below, nos. 194-198), which he must exercise personally.»

Certainly all deacons have received both ministries and may perform the tasks of lector and acolyte if the need arises and no other ministers are available.

However, since there are also many seminarians who have received the instituted ministries, they should be called upon to serve at the ambo and the altar, reserving the deacons for their proper liturgical role.

The solution might be found in a change of system in organizing diaconal service. It is possible to design a rotation so that every day different deacons serve at Mass and preside over the Divine Office.

Also, full use of all the possibilities of using deacons in the liturgy may be adopted even on ordinary days. For example, by habitually using two deacons at Mass, and by having a deacon expose the Blessed Sacrament and accompany the priest for Benediction and even, if necessary, give the benediction himself.

The second question does not involve so much instituted ministers as lay people who are delegated to perform some of the functions of the instituted ministers or other necessary functions in the course of the celebration.

In principle there is no difficulty whatsoever in such a person fulfilling more than one ministry providing they are physically and temporally compatible.

It is difficult, for example, to serve as part of the choir and simultaneously serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, but since only people who are duly prepared may serve in the latter capacity it is not impossible.

Sometimes it is necessary for lay people to generously undertake several functions that others are unable and unwilling to share.

More than the number of offices, what is important is the spirit that is brought to these acts of service. They should be carried out simply and truly from a desire to serve and give glory to God and never from a vain desire to be a protagonist.

A person who carries out a ministry with such a spirit is always delighted to receive help and cooperation from others and never worries about who does what.

* * *

Follow-up: Formula at Priest’s Funeral

After our comments on the position of a priest’s casket reflecting his place in the liturgical celebration (Dec. 13) a reader asked: «Is this in the rubrics or is it just a custom? Also in light of the normative posture of priests prior to 1962, was this changed after the Second Vatican Council?»

This norm is found in the rubrics, for example, in the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 823, which describes it as a custom fittingly continued, for indeed it is a custom which predates the Council by many centuries.

Regarding the expression «The coffin … is placed in the direction that a person held in the liturgical assembly,» an English reader considered the phrase «bizarre.»

He wrote: «Apart from the odd picture this presents — of the priest customarily lying on his back with feet facing the assembly — it should not be assumed that all priests now celebrate Mass facing the people. There is no liturgical law requiring them to do so.»

The expression, whether bizarre or not, is taken directly from the Ceremonial of Bishops.

While it is true that Mass is not obligatorily celebrated facing the people, it can still be said that this is the priest’s proper position if the entire liturgy is taken into account. The priest usually faces the people to invite them to pray, when imparting a blessing, as well as in some other forms of liturgical prayer and devotion.

A reader from Germany wrote: «Is it liturgically OK for the priest-celebrants to wear black vestments for requiems? What reasons are there for it if so? Is there any liturgical procedure for the procession with the coffin after Mass to the grave?»

Before Vatican II, black was commonly used for funerals and most Masses for the deceased. The liturgical reforms have retained the possible use of black vestments for funerals, but also permit violet and white to be used. As a consequence, black, while legitimate, has fallen into almost total disuse in most of the world.

Since colors sometimes have different cultural connotations, bishop’s conferences may solicit permission from the Holy See to use a color typically associated with mourning in that country instead of the usual three options.

There are norms in the Order of Christian Burials, but since funerals, like weddings, frequently have particular local customs, the Holy See usually grants wide berth to bishops’ conferences to adapt the rites to local needs, and publish their own orders based on the Latin «Ordo Exsequiarum.»

Although these books contain numerous practical details they do not cover everything. Most practical questions, such as reserving seats for relatives, transport to the gravesite, and appropriate music, can be handled by the family, the officiating priest and the undertaker.

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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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