On Paraliturgies

And More on the Book of the Gospels

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ROME, DEC. 2, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I recently participated in what was called a «paraliturgy» in which there was no priest or deacon but Eucharistic ministers. This paraliturgy consisted of the Confiteor, an Epistle reading and the reading of the Gospel. I was asked to read the Epistle and the Gospel; and the Pater Noster. Afterward there was distribution of consecrated hosts from the tabernacle. Is there such a thing as a paraliturgy? What are the norms of the liturgy when a priest and deacon are not present? Is it permissible for a layperson, who is not ordained a priest or deacon, to publicly read the Gospel? — F.B., Coral Gables, Florida

A: The term paraliturgy is of relatively recent coinage and is used inappropriately to describe the Celebration of the Word with distribution of Communion (at which you assisted). As far as I know the term paraliturgy is not used in universal Church documents.

The term was first used in the context of the liturgical movement before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The term described celebrations and forms of worship inspired by the liturgy but which do not form part of official liturgical texts.

Before Vatican II many groups developed paraliturgical services. These usually involved some form of celebration of the Word along with litanies, prayers and rites inspired by the liturgy but in the vernacular.

In some cases rites born in a paraliturgical context were eventually incorporated into the liturgy. Perhaps the most significant example is the renewal of baptismal promises. This practice began among groups of young Catholics around the year 1900 and became very popular in retreats and similar gatherings as an expression of commitment to the faith. Half a century after its inception Pope Pius XII decided to include the renewal of baptismal promises among the rites of the restored Easter Vigil.

In other cases a new theological perspective led to a changed category. For example, before Vatican II the possibility of realizing a liturgical act depended on having a canonical delegation. For this reason a layperson who prayed the Divine Office technically performed a pious act but not a liturgical one. A nun, who prayed the same text in virtue of a canonical deputation, was deemed as participating in the liturgy.

After Vatican II the capacity to act liturgically was no longer grounded canonically but rather on the basis of having received the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. Thus, any Catholic who prays the Liturgy of the Hours as the prayer of the Church acts liturgically.

In the context of the present liturgy, a community celebration of the Word, with or without the distribution of Holy Communion, should not be called a paraliturgy, because it is in fact a liturgical act ordered and determined by Church authority.

Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may lead these celebrations when no ordained minister can be present. In such cases the liturgical norms recommend that the extraordinary ministers avoid the impression that they substitute the presiding role of the priest. They should not, for example, use the presidential chair. And tasks such as reading the Gospel and distributing Communion should be divided among various ministers.

Some bishops’ conferences have developed special books for these celebrations, especially when carried out on a Sunday, so as to clearly distinguish them from the celebration of Mass.

Although the term paraliturgy should not be used for the above celebrations, the term may still be applied to a host of other rites and celebrations that use a quasi-liturgical format. Among these could be numbered the rites used by some religious communities and ecclesial movements to induct new members. The elements of these ceremonies are often inspired by the rituals of the sacraments, blessings and religious profession, without corresponding to any officially approved text.

Other possible applications of this term could describe penitential and other services during retreats, parish missions and the like that rely heavily on liturgical models but which also include other elements such as readings and prayers from other spiritual writers.

Some authors class as paraliturgies the texts of litanies, novenas and pious exercises that might have received episcopal approval for private devotion but which are frequently recited publicly in churches without ever being considered as the Church’s official prayer. This is a possible use of the term, although it makes it difficult to distinguish between paraliturgies and what official documents refer to as community pious practices.

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Follow-up: Honoring the Book of the Gospels

After our Nov. 18 comments on the honors attributed to the Book of the Gospels, a reader from Sweden asked: «I would like to ask, is it right that the deacon gives the Book of the Gospels to the bishop after reading the Gospel, so that the bishop can kiss the book? Someone told me that this does not belong to the Roman rite. When we are celebrating a Pontifical Mass, this is how it is usually done in our parish. I think this is a beautiful sign of veneration for Christ, but is this gesture foreign to the Roman rite?»

It is most certainly not foreign to the Roman rite but is a legitimate option offered in the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 141, to wit:

«After the gospel reading, the deacon takes the book to the bishop, who kisses it, saying inaudibly, ‘May the words of the Gospel [wipe away our sins]’; alternatively, the deacon himself kisses the book and inaudibly says the same words.»

The Book of the Gospels is usually kept open on the text that has been read while the deacon brings it to the bishop, who customarily kisses it at the passage’s opening words.

The 2001 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (No. 176) also provides that on solemn occasions the bishop may also impart a blessing with the book after having kissed it. This custom was probably introduced on the initiative of Pope John Paul II, who frequently imparted this blessing.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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