Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: A few Sundays ago in some churches in France and Italy persons of Muslim faith assisted at Mass as a sign of solidarity with Catholics following the murder of Father Jacques Hamel close to Rouen in Normandy by two Islamic extremists. In ancient times, penitents, heretics and even catechumens were obliged to leave the celebration before the sacrificial part of the Mass, not being able to know the Eucharistic mysteries. Has this practice been abandoned by the Church? Can Muslims attend Mass in its entirety including the Liturgy of the Eucharist? — R.C., Rome
A: It is true that during a certain period of history certain classes of people were not permitted to remain for the entirety of the Eucharistic celebration but were required to leave before the Prayer of the Faithful. Even today the rites preceding the baptism of adults foresee such a dismissal as a symbolic reminder of this earlier practice.
Those most commonly dismissed were catechumens, who were still learning the Gospel and its ways, and penitents who performed public penance and were excluded from Communion for a fixed period of time.
The initial motives for such demands were both practical and theological. In the early stages of the Church, surrounded by an often hostile environment, it was not always safe nor proper to admit just anyone to the sacred mysteries. Because the catechumens were still outside the Church, though already “believers,” they were considered untried and not yet made firm in the faith. The Church was not yet willing to permit them to be present when the awesome mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ was celebrated.
They were therefore dismissed in order to receive instruction, although in some cases the full explanation of the mystery of the Eucharist was not imparted until after baptism itself.
Theologically the catechumens were excluded because they did not yet form part of the Body of Christ.
Thus in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (150-215), the catechumens depart, after they have shared in the singing of the Psalms [De odor, in spir. et verit. 12.]. A little later they join in some of the prayers.
In the work known as the Apostolic Constitutions (circa 375-380) we find successive dismissals, each class having its own prayers. First, there was a warning to unbelievers not to be present: “Let none of the listeners, none of the heathen, be present.” A litany followed, consisting of a series of petitions for the catechumens, and then a prayer for them, and then they were dismissed. The catechumens having first prostrated themselves, the deacon says:
Let us pray earnestly for the Catechumens.
The people: Κύριε ἐλέησον
Let us stand well.
Let us pray.
That the all-merciful and pitiful God may hear their supplications.
That he may open the ears of their hearts,
and instruct (κατηχήσῃ) them in the word of truth.
That he may sow his fear in them, and confirm his faith in their minds.
That he may reveal to them the Gospel of righteousness.
That he may give them a godly mind, prudent counsel, and a virtuous conversation, always to think and design and care for the things that belong to God, to walk in his law day and night, to remember his commandments, to keep his statutes.
Still more earnestly let us beseech on their behalf;
That he may deliver them from every evil and unbecoming deed, from every diabolic sin, and from every assault of the enemy.
That he may make them worthy in due time for the laver of regeneration, the forgiveness of sins, and the clothing of immortality.
That he may bless their coming in and their going out, all their manner of life, their houses and households, and their children, that he may bless them as they grow up, and give them wisdom according to their age.
That he may make straight the way before them for their well-being.
The angel of peace do ye request, O catechumens.
That all your future may be peaceful.
That the present day and all your days may be peaceful, pray ye.
That your end may be Christian.
For the good and profitable.
Present yourselves to the living God and his Christ. [end] After the sixth century, with the prevalence of infant baptism and the advent of private, rather than public, penance, the different dismissals tended to disappear as there were few adult catechumens and no public penitents. The dismissal of the penitents, however, was not as universal a practice as that of catechumens and it disappeared earlier. Thus when the emperor Theodosius submitted to penance in 390 for a massacre he had ordered, he was allowed to be present at the sacred rites, but not to communicate until he had been solemnly readmitted.
However, in some Eastern rites certain elements remain from the ancient practice, although the prayers for the catechumens are usually said silently by the priest, including the call to exit the Church. Another element in these rites is that before the recitation of the Creed, the deacon cries out, “The doors! The doors!” This is a relic of the ancient discipline in which the doors of the church would be guarded so that non-Christians, those “outside” the Church, would literally remain outside the church during the Eucharist.
As time went on, Europe became almost universally Christian and Christian doctrine became public knowledge, so the need for such safeguards essentially disappeared. Anybody could attend Mass and practically nobody present could tell who was eligible to be able to participate in the Eucharist or not.
The idea of a non-Catholic participating in a Catholic Mass, either out of curiosity or out of respect for Catholics, is not new and, while not common, it has happened before. George Washington several times attended Mass as a sign of his opposition to anti-Catholicism as did several other members of the Constitutional Convention. Almost every year the Muslim leader of the Palestinian territory assists at Midnight Mass at Bethlehem. Such demonstrations of respect for the religious beliefs of fellow citizens are acts of courtesy and are in a completely different context from the situation in the early Church that we have seen above.
The recent participation at Mass by some Muslims following upon the murder of an elderly priest can probably be seen in this light as a sign of respect and solidarity toward their Catholic neighbors as well as of condemnation of those who commit heinous acts in the name of their religion.
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