Christmas Vigil Masses; Options on Readings

And More on Bishops’ Names

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ROME, DEC. 8, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q1: In my parish, they have scheduled more Masses on Christmas Eve than on Christmas Day. Isn’t it inappropriate to celebrate more vigil Masses than Sunday Masses? Moreover, the pastor generally selects one set of readings (of the four available for Christmas) and uses them at every Mass. Is this proper? Mass at 7 p.m. on Dec. 24 should not use the readings and prayers for the Mass at Midnight, and so forth. Also, is an 11 p.m. Mass adequate to use the «Mass at Midnight»? And when exactly should the «Mass at Dawn» be used? — A.P., Saginaw, Michigan

Q2: In preparing for the upcoming Christmas liturgies, a pastor chose the readings he wanted to use from the four sets of Christmas Mass readings found in the lectionary. Is it permissible to mix the readings from the four sets? Is it permissible to use the first reading from the «Midnight Mass,» the second reading from the «Mass During the Day,» and then switch back to the «Midnight Mass» for the Gospel? And would it be permissible to use this new set of readings at the 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Christmas Eve Masses and the 10 a.m. Christmas Day Mass? — J.W., Columbus, Ohio

A: Although it is quite unusual for there to be more vigil Masses scheduled than Masses on Sunday, there is no law that expressly prohibits it. It would, however, be inappropriate during Ordinary Time, since pastors should favor as much as possible the celebration and sanctification of the Lord’s Day itself, notwithstanding the faithful’s possibility of fulfilling their obligation to attend Mass on Saturday evening.

The celebration of more Masses on Christmas Eve might be due to the fact that most parishes celebrate the vigil Mass and the Midnight Mass. This latter is actually the first Mass of Dec. 25 and hence not a vigil Mass.

It might also be an adaptation based on pastoral experience, for example, if the priests recognize that the majority of parishioners attend the vigil and Midnight Masses while attendance is lighter on Christmas Day. In such a case, the priests would be offering a realistic pastoral response.

While there is leeway regarding the celebration of the Mass at Dawn, it should be celebrated fairly early while still dark or with crepuscular light. With the exception of some Northern Hemisphere parishes, I would say that if the Mass begins after 8 a.m. or so, the Mass During the Day should be preferred. In other words, the Mass During the Day is used once normal daylight is established.

Regarding readings: A rubric in the lectionary for Christmas indicates that it is permitted to choose among the readings for the three Masses for Christmas Day, depending on pastoral needs. This choice must respect the proper liturgical order of: Old Testament, psalm, epistle and Gospel.

Notably, the rubric appears in the lectionary only after the readings of the vigil Mass and refers only to the three Christmas Day Masses (Midnight, dawn and during the day). It would appear, therefore, that the readings for the vigil Mass fall outside the possibility for selection.

The pastoral choice offered for the readings does not necessarily extend to the other liturgical formulas, and I believe that these must be respected in accordance with the time of celebration.

For the above reasons, I maintain that it is not liturgically correct to anticipate the celebration of the formulas of Midnight Mass to an earlier hour. At the very least, a celebration should begin at such a time that most of the Mass takes place after midnight.

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Follow-up: Mentioning Bishops in the Eucharistic Prayers

Pursuant to our article on naming bishops (Nov. 24) a canonist reader observed: «With regard to naming an administrator in the Eucharistic Prayer: While a diocesan administrator and an apostolic administrator are different things, perhaps that distinction is not one which all your readers grasp.»

Our reader has a valid point. As mentioned in the U.S. bishops’ conference Web site on this theme ( «An apostolic administrator — whether the see is vacant or not — with either a temporary or permanent appointment, who is a Bishop and actually is fully exercising his office, especially in spiritual matters» is named in the Eucharistic Prayer.

There are two possible meanings of apostolic administrator.

According to Canon 371.2, apostolic administration is a portion of the people of God erected on a stable basis but not as a diocese due to special and grave reasons. The pastoral administrator is legally equivalent to the diocesan bishop. There are about 10 such apostolic administrations in the world.

Second, present practice uses the term apostolic administrator for a prelate whom the pope appoints for grave and special reasons to a vacant or filled see, either for a period or perpetually. He would be appointed sede plena if, for example, the diocesan bishop were incapacitated by illness or advanced age. In this case, the jurisdiction of the resident bishop would be suspended. (Canon 312 of the 1917 Code referred to apostolic administrators; the current code does not.)

Since it is easer nowadays for bishops to retire if incapacitated, this use of the apostolic administrator is less common. The figure is used, however, on some occasions. For example: If a bishop is transferred, and the Holy See foresees that it might take some time to find a suitable successor, then either the former bishop himself or another prelate is sometimes named to administer the diocese in the meantime.

A diocesan administrator, on the other hand, is not named in the Eucharistic Prayer. He is usually a priest who is elected by the diocesan council of consultors to administer a vacant see until a new bishop is appointed and takes possession. The priest has most of the powers and obligations of the bishop but with some restrictions; and he cannot introduce any important innovations.

Finally, although it was implied in our previous article, it is worth noting that the bishop emeritus is not mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer.

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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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