When the Priest Should Receive Communion

And More on the Sanctus

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ROME, DEC. 3, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: My parish uses something called the “servant model” of distributing Holy Communion. This is when the priest and Eucharistic ministers receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord last, after the people have received. They say this is more how Christ celebrated the Last Supper, and it is only what a polite and welcoming host would do when inviting guests to his house. They also point out that Vatican II only “warmly and fondly” (SC #55) recommends the practice of the priest receiving first; and while Redemptionis Sacramentum mentions it as an abuse, it does not list it as a grave abuse that needs to be corrected immediately. I am thinking that this “servant model” is not perfect because of the sacrificial nature of the Mass. Is the reception of Communion by the priest different in purpose and/or nature from the reception of Communion by the people? – M.B., Columbia, Maryland

A: First, let me say that the only true “servant model” is that in which the ministers serve the faithful by providing them with the Church’s liturgy as the Church establishes it. Adding or subtracting from that, and calling it true service, is mere hollow invention. I am sure that some ministers are probably acting in good faith, but it is an unfortunate act and unlikely to produce good fruit.

The text of Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 55, says: “That more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest’s communion, receive the Lord’s body from the same sacrifice, is strongly commended.”

This text has nothing to do with recommending the reception of Communion after the priest. This is simply a fact that is presumed. This is simply a fact that is presumed. The point made in the conciliar document is recommending that the faithful receive the Communion consecrated in the same Mass and not simply receive from the hosts reserved in the tabernacle. Using this text to defend the aforementioned abuse is at the least equivocation and more likely is weak sophistry.

It is a strange defense indeed for a Catholic parish to knowingly accept an illicit practice because it is not listed as a grave abuse. There should be no deliberate abuses whatsoever in any Catholic parish deserving of the name.

If the issue were not already clear, the Holy See has recently taken steps to clarify it even further. In an official “Responsa ad Dubia Proposta” (Response to a doubt) the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments answered the following question. We offer here an approximate translation of the official Latin original published in Notitiae 45 (2009) pages 242-243:

“Whether it is licit for the celebrating priest to take Communion only after the Holy Eucharist has been administered to the faithful or distribute Holy Eucharist and communicate at the same time as the faithful?

“Response: Negative to both”

After the official reply, there is a brief explanation of the reasoning behind it. Summing up, these arguments are:

All existing and traditional rites of the Church foresee that the bishop or priest first receive Communion. After the celebrant receives Communion, the various ministers receive according to their hierarchical order and then the faithful.

The priest receives first, not because of a human protocol but in virtue of the dignity and nature of his ministry. He acts in the person of Christ, for the purpose of the integrity of the sacrament and for presiding the people gathered together: “Thus when priests join in the act of Christ the Priest, they offer themselves entirely to God, and when they are nourished with the body of Christ they profoundly share in the love of him who gives himself as food to the faithful ( Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 13).”

Both the present missal and the extraordinary form foresee the priest as receiving Communion first, even though with some variations in formulas and order of the rites.

Finally, the document repeats the precise norm of Redemptionis Sacramentum, No. 97: “A Priest must communicate at the altar at the moment laid down by the Missal each time he celebrates Holy Mass, and the concelebrants must communicate before they proceed with the distribution of Holy Communion. The Priest celebrant or a concelebrant is never to wait until the people’s Communion is concluded before receiving Communion himself.”

It is hard to be clearer than that.

* * *

Follow-up: The Sanctus

In the wake of our comments on the Sanctus (see Nov. 17), a Polish reader asked: “You mentioned that ‘After singing the preface, the priest would recite the Sanctus in a low voice and with head bowed. Then he would stand erect as he begins the Benedictus, while making the sign of the cross. He then initiates the canon.’ What is the origin and history of the sign of the cross made while reciting (or singing), ‘Benedictus qui venit …‘ in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite?”

The recitation of the Sanctus with head bowed is quite ancient and is probably inspired by the concluding words of the preface, which invite all present to enter into an act of adoration.

There is no precise date for the introduction of the sign of the cross at the Benedictus. But the practice is mentioned as early as the 11th century in which an author mentions that the sign of the cross is made by the priest while he is still bowed; the priest straightens up only for the Te igitur at the beginning of the canon. A 12th-century author, John Beleth, mentions the sign of the cross and gives as a reason that the Benedictus is taken from the Gospel.

Analogous signs of the cross at this moment are also found in other liturgies such as the Egyptian, Armenian and Maronite.

According to the erudite 20th-century liturgist Joseph Jungmann, the basis for this sign of the cross during the Sanctus-Benedictus perhaps stems from the idea that the approaching glory of God signifies a blessing for the creature and a blessing that must transform the gifts upon the altar.

Another reader debated some of the finer points of Latin. She wrote: “Recently, you addressed a question about the phrasing of the English translation of the Sanctus in the Mass. In discussing how a Scriptural passage (Isaiah 6:3: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’) has been adapted for liturgical use, you say, ‘The liturgical text also transforms the cry into a personal address, Your glory, thus underscoring its character as a prayer.’ I believe this is a little bit misleading; the Latin text of the Sanctus in the Novus Ordo is: Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus dominus deus sabaoth. This is a complete sentence, of which the subject is dominus deus sabaoth (nominative case) and the predicate adjective (repeated) is sanctus; as occurs frequently in ordinary Latin usage, the verb est is left unstated. A direct English translation would be: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts’ (God referred to in the third person). It would be incorrect to translate this in the way that both the current and the newly approved English liturgical versions do, as if God were being addressed here — in that case, the text would say Domine (vocative case) not Dominus (nominative). Only in the second sentence of this acclamation is the Lord addressed directly, as evidenced by the use of the second person possessive pronoun, ‘Heaven and earth are full of thy (your) glory.’

“I am disappointed that the new English translation of the Mass, which was intended to render more closely and faithfully the normative Latin text, has retained the error of translating the first sentence as if it were simply an introductory phrase of address rather than a (grammatically complete) assertive statement being proclaim
ed as fact by everything in heaven and on earth.

“In addition to your own very informative discussion of the Sanctus, readers might also be interested in a similar discussion published in the Adoremus Bulletin (June 2002), which can be found online here: http://www.adoremus.org/0602Sanctus.html.”

I will leave the discussion of the correct English translation to the experts who made it. I am sure they had good theological and historical reasons for their choice.

I might have been incomplete on one point in my original article, however. I mentioned that the expression gloria tua (Your glory) underlined the personal aspect; here, I failed to mention that the change was with respect to the Latin Bible, which speaks of gloria eius (His glory). This change does in a way underline that the Sanctus, taken as a whole, is directed personally toward God and might help explain the translators’ choice in rendering the first line as they do.

* * *

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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