Women as Masters of Ceremonies

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: There seems to be a trend in some U.S. dioceses to appoint female laity as masters of ceremonies. Is this liturgically correct? The Ceremonial of Bishops, under the section entitled «Offices and Ministries in the Liturgy of Bishops,» speaks in paragraphs 34, 35 and 36 as pertaining only to the masculine gender, stating that «he (the master of ceremonies) shall be responsible for or should do this or that.» In contrast, the next section, on the sacristan, speaks as «he or she should do this or that» — clearly allowing for the use of either gender. Please comment on the legitimate use of female laity in the role of masters of ceremonies. — G.F., New Orleans, Louisiana

A: I will address this question from the point of view of interpretation of liturgical law as I believe it now stands. It must be admitted, though, that the law as such is not perfectly clear.

As our reader points out, the Ceremonial of Bishops refers to a male in referring to the master of ceremonies and clearly makes a distinction when it comes to the sacristan. The question is: Does this reflect a legislative intent or does it simply presume the reality at the time of publication?

My personal opinion is that the Ceremonial of Bishops did not have a specific intention of excluding women but simply reflected the law in force at its publication in 1984. This law precluded services at the altar being carried out by women.

Likewise, the Ceremonial also likely presumed that this task would be carried out by the bishop’s secretary or another cleric designated to accompany the bishop on his visits in the diocese. In fact, in the previous legislation the bishop’s master of ceremonies was necessarily a priest at least 25 years old. The law said that all those involved in the celebration should be attentive and obey him without discussion. During the celebration he was director and not a server.

Assistant masters of ceremonies could be subdeacons or even younger. If an ordained master of ceremonies was lacking, then he could be substituted by another minister. But the law indicated that in this case he should not give orders to ordained ministers.

The present Ceremonial of Bishops makes no mention of obedience to the master of ceremonies nor specifically requires him to be a priest. In fact, No. 35 says that during the celebration «he should exercise the greatest discretion: he is not to speak more than is necessary, nor replace the deacons or assistants at the side of the celebrant. The master of ceremonies should carry out his responsibilities with reverence, patience, and careful attention.»

The use of «he or she» when referring to the sacristan also reflects the reality on the ground, as women have often served as sacristans in churches and convents.

Therefore, I would say that the use of distinctive pronouns in the Ceremonial simply reflects the fact that the possibility of a female master of ceremonies was probably never even imagined. Since this is insufficient to answer the question regarding the present legality of female masters of ceremonies, we must look elsewhere for the reply.

In 1994 the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts published an interpretation of Canon 230.2 of the Code of Canon Law. This canon states that «Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law.»

The same pontifical council was asked if the liturgical functions which, according to the above canon, can be entrusted to the lay faithful, may be carried out equally by men and women, and if serving at the altar may be included among those functions, on a par with the others indicated by the canon.

The council replied affirmatively, according to the instructions given by the Holy See.

This interpretation specifically addressed the question of female altar servers, but the criteria used would logically appear to cover the case of a female master of ceremonies among the «other functions» mentioned by the canon.

Therefore, I would say that, lacking any specific instructions to the contrary from the Holy See, a female master of ceremonies is possible from the point of view of liturgical law.

It should be remembered that Canon 230.2 has a permissive, and not a preceptive, character. There is no right on the part of the faithful to aspire to this function.

Also, permissions given in this regard by some bishops can in no way be considered as binding on other bishops. In fact, it is the competence of each bishop to make a prudential judgment on what to do, with a view to the ordered development of liturgical life in his own diocese.

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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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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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