Bishop as a Concelebrant

And More on Statues

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ROME, MAY 4, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I wonder if you might know if there has been a statement regarding a bishop concelebrating a liturgy with a priest as the principal celebrant? The Ceremonial of Bishops offers the possibility of a bishop «presiding» but not, strictly speaking, concelebrating at a Mass in which a priest is the principal celebrant. It would seem to create theological difficulties to have a bishop as one concelebrant among many while a priest is the principal celebrant. However, in reality this situation occurs often enough. For example, a retired bishop, who is a religious, returns to his priory and wants participate in the conventual Mass. It would be an undue burden on both him and his community if he were to celebrate every time he concelebrated. — T.P., Washington, D.C.

A: Actually, there is a recent statement on this point. An official «Responsa ad dubia proposita» (response to a doubt) was published in 2009 in Notitiae, the official organ of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. This is therefore an authentic interpretation of the law.

The proposed question, in an unofficial translation, was: «Whether it is licit for a bishop to concelebrate on occasion of a priestly jubilee in which he takes a place among the priests ceding the role of principal celebrant to the priest celebrating his jubilee?»

The Vatican congregation in the laconic tradition of such documents replied, «Negative.»

It then proceeded to explain its reasoning that the liturgical norm remains in force. This norm, which is rooted in theological principles and the wisdom of the Church Fathers, is that the bishop either presides over the Eucharistic celebration or refrains from celebrating.

It then quotes No. 18 of the Ceremonial of Bishops: «Any community of the altar, under the sacred ministry of the bishop, stands out clearly as a symbol of that charity and unity of the Mystical Body without which there can be no salvation.

«Thus it is very fitting that when the bishop, who is marked by the fullness of the sacrament of orders, is present at a liturgical celebration in which a congregation takes part, he personally preside. The reason for this is not to give added outward solemnity to the rite, but to make the celebration a more striking sign of the mystery of the Church.

«For the same reason it is fitting that the bishop associate presbyters with himself as concelebrants.

«When a bishop presides at the Eucharist but is not the celebrant he does everything in the liturgy of the word that belongs to the celebrant and he concludes the Mass with the rite of dismissal.»

The rites referred to in the last paragraph are described later in the Ceremonial in Nos. 176-186.

It must be noted that this official reply does not address the precise case described by our reader. The Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 18, clearly refers to a Mass in which a congregation takes part, and this is not necessarily the case in a conventual Mass although it would almost certainly be the case for a priestly jubilee.

At the same time, the bishop is endowed with the fullness of the priesthood, and this reality should be reflected in his role in any celebration. It is also true that he always retains the option of celebrating apart from the community Mass, so his concelebrating here is never a necessity.

A situation could arise, however, in which a frail and elderly bishop might be unable to offer Mass personally or preside over the community Mass every day. I would say that if it were to come down to a choice between concelebrating without presiding or not celebrating Mass at all, then the former option would be both legitimate and spiritually preferable.

Also, in view of the importance of the conventual Mass for a religious community, the possibility remains open for a retired religious bishop to petition the Holy See for an ad hoc dispensation from the general principle of his presiding at every Mass

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Follow-up: Eastertide Holy Water and Statues

Pursuant to our comments on the use of a statue of the Risen Christ at Eastertide (see April 20), a reader from Lagos, Nigeria, asked about statues during Lent. The question was: «Please, why do we cover up all the statutes and crucifixes in the church with purple cloth, two weeks [prior] to Easter? Do we extend the practice to our individual homes by covering all the statues and crucifixes in our offices, homes, etc.? Any historical explanation?»

Although the custom is evidently a sign of sadness and penance that goes well with the overall Lenten climate, the historical origin of the custom is probably found elsewhere.

In all probability the custom derives from a medieval usage of extending a large veil or curtain in front of the altar at the beginning of Lent, hiding it completely from view. This fabric, of which there is evidence from the ninth century, was called the cloth of hunger (Hungertuch) in Germany.

This veil was removed on proclaiming the words «The veil of the temple was rent in two» during the reading of the Passion on Holy Wednesday.

There are probably several reasons for this practice. First of all, it was a practical way of informing an illiterate population that Lent had begun. It might also have been a vestige of the ancient practice of expelling public penitents from the church at the beginning of Lent. In time, public penance disappeared, but with the advent of Ash Wednesday all Christians in a sense ritually entered into the order of penitents. It being no longer possible to expel everybody from the church, this was done symbolically by shrouding the Holy of Holies until all were reconciled with God at Easter.

Following the same principle, many churches in the later Middle Ages began to cover the statues and crosses from the beginning of Lent. In the 17th century the bishops’ ceremonial manual limited the veiling to Passiontide or from the Fifth Sunday of Lent, and this custom may still be followed. If not covered at this time, the images should be veiled or removed after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.

Given the historical context of the origin of this practice, there is no requirement to extend it to the home, school or other areas where sacred images are set up for devotional purposes.

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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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