Deacons and the Passion Narrative

And More on the Chrism Mass

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ROME, APRIL 7, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In the reading of the Passion with several readers — where there is a deacon, should he, as normal minister of the Gospel, take the part of Christ? If so, what part should the priest take? — C.M., Drogheda, Ireland

A: In 1988 the Holy See published a circular letter on the Easter celebrations. No. 33 deals with the readings of the Passion:

«The passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the part of Christ, the narrator, and the people. The passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of the Christ should be reserved to the priest.

«The proclamation of the passion should be without candles and incense; the greeting and the signs of the cross are omitted; and only a deacon asks for the blessing, as he does before the Gospel. For the spiritual good of the faithful, the passion should be proclaimed in its entirety and the readings that precede it should not be omitted.»

In fact, this document omits another possibility, that of a choir taking up the part of the multitude so that there would be four and not three agents for the reading. This is the procedure at the Vatican on both Palm Sunday (when the text is sung in Italian) and Good Friday (when it is sung in Latin). The parts of Christ, the narrator and individual speakers are chanted by deacons whereas the text of multiple speakers is usually sung in polyphony by the choir.

From this document it appears that the ideal situation is for the Passion narrative to be sung or read by three deacons while the priest remains at the chair, a situation that occurs mainly in cathedrals and seminaries. This is because reading the Gospel is not considered a presidential function in the Roman rite, and the deacon is the proper minister of this liturgical action. Indeed, in normal circumstances, a priest should not read the Gospel if a deacon is present.

If no deacons are present, then it would appear that the next preferred situation is that the Passion narrative be read by three priests. This situation is more likely to occur on Good Friday, when there is only one celebration, than on Palm Sunday when the priests are occupied with several Masses.

If there are no deacons and only one priest, then the priest takes the part of Christ while lay readers take the other parts.

If there are one or two deacons, the indication that the deacon asks for a blessing would suggest that the priest may remain at the chair while the deacon proclaims the Passion narrative along with one or two lay readers.

In this case it is not stated that the deacon take the part of Christ. It would appear that he may take any part. For example, as the most experienced reader, it might be better for the deacon to take the extensive part of narrator on Good Friday’s reading of the Passion according to St. John.

The document speaks of deacons or priests and makes no mention of a priest reading with one or two deacons. I believe, however, that because these two days are somewhat out of the ordinary, this situation cannot be excluded a priori and is not prohibited by the norms. In some cases it might even be necessary. If this situation were to arise, it would be congruous to reserve the part of Christ to the priest.

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Follow-up: Deacons and the Chrism Mass

Several readers commented on our March 17 piece concerning the possibility of mentioning deacons in the Chrism Mass.

One reader referred to a 1997 Vatican document, the «Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest.» Article 8 of this document states:

«To avoid creating confusion, certain practices are to be avoided and eliminated where such have emerged in particular Churches: …

«– association with the renewal of promises made by priests at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, as well as other categories of faithful who renew religious vows or receive a mandate as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.»

While this document sheds some light on the topic, it nevertheless refers to the relationship between laypeople and priest whereas deacons are ordained clergy. We might add that the proposal was not so much the association of deacons with the renewal of priestly promises but with finding a way to recognize their presence in a celebration that gathers together the entire community.

Other readers approved of the idea of bishop and deacons coming together on certain days such as the feast of St. Lawrence or close to the bishop’s anniversary of consecration.

Still other readers suggested that these occasions are eminently suitable for a diaconal retreat in which the renewal of the ordination promises can be carried out as a devotional exercise in a manner similar to that in which those concluding spiritual exercises often renew their baptismal promises. In this case, such a renewal would not require any special permission from the Holy See or the development of new liturgical rites.

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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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