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Liturgy Q & A: St. Michael Prayer at Mass

And More on Communion in the Hand

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

 Q: Several bishops have recently recommended the use of the prayer of St. Michael after Mass. For example, Archbishop Sample of Portland in Oregon recommended that it be prayed “after the final blessing and at the foot of the altar would be the appropriate time and place, after which the recessional hymn, could begin.” Is it permissible to say this prayer after the final blessing and before the recessional hymn at Mass? Does Mass end before the recessional hymn? Does an archbishop have the authority to reverse the decision of the September 1964 instruction Inter Oecumenici, 48: “j. …the Leonine Prayers are suppressed.” – J.L., Melbourne, Australia

 A: The Leonine prayers are a set of prayers first promulgated by Pope Leo XIII in 1884 for use after Low Mass but not as part of Mass itself. St. Pius X added an invocation to the Sacred Heart. In its final form the Leonine prayers consisted of the Hail Mary (three times); Hail, Holy Queen; O God our Refuge and strength; the Prayer to St. Michael; and the invocation to the Sacred Heart (three times), striking the breast each time at “have mercy on us.” The prayers were usually said kneeling at the foot of the altar.

 These prayers were offered for different intentions over the years, always in some way interceding for the protection and progress of the Church.

 Although abolished in 1964 they are still sometimes used after Masses in the extraordinary form.

 Pope Francis, in the light of recent crises, has recommended to all Catholics to recite the prayer to St. Michael and the ancient Marian antiphon “Sub Tuum Praesidium” within the context of the rosary.

 Some bishops, as we have seen above, have recommended reciting the prayer to St. Michael after Mass. Thus, Archbishop Sample of Portland in Oregon wrote to his priests:

 “September 14, 2018 – The Exaltation of the Holy Cross My Dear Brother Priests, Praised Be Jesus Christ! We find ourselves in very distressing times with continued revelations about the failures of our brother priests and bishops. It seems to me that the evil one has intensified his war against the Mystical Body and its members. There are many things we can do as a local church to play our part in the purification of the Church at this time, however, prayer will also be the foremost and most appropriate response, on which all other efforts will build. I would like to strongly encourage you therefore to pray the St. Michael Prayer after each parish Mass and in turn encourage your parishioners also to personally say this prayer daily. I think that after the final blessing and at the foot of the altar would be the appropriate time and place, after which the recessional hymn, could begin. The St. Michael Prayer composed by Pope Leo XIII, is a forceful weapon in our armory of devotions, and St. Michael the Archangel is an intercessor of great power. The Office of Divine Worship has prepared some prayer cards which can be purchased for distribution to your parishioners and most pew missals contain this prayer. St. Michael the Archangel – Pray for Us. Sincerely yours in Christ.”

 Our reader is concerned that bishops might be overstepping their authority by reinstating in part the Leonine prayers abolished by St. Paul VI and by introducing an element into the liturgy which does not correspond to the authority of an individual bishop.

 Although I respect our reader’s interest in upholding liturgical law, I do not believe this is the case.

 First, bishops have the authority to mandate the recitation of public prayers within their diocese. In the present circumstances, however, they have not issued decrees but in general, have limited themselves to letters recommending the practice after Mass. Each priest can decide to adopt it or not.

 Second, they have been specific in recommending that the prayers are after Mass in the manner of the Leonine prayers. Although the recitation of the Leonine texts was obligatory, they did not form part of the Roman Missal.

 Since there is no change in the liturgical books the bishops do not violate Canon 846 §1: “The liturgical books, approved by the competent authority, are to be faithfully followed in the celebration of the sacraments. Accordingly, no one may on a personal initiative add to or omit or alter anything in those books.”

 Another question raised by our reader is whether Mass is ended before the final hymn.

 The General Instruction of the Roman Missal describes the conclusion of Mass:

 “168. Immediately after the Blessing, with hands joined, the Priest adds, Ite, missa est (Go forth, the Mass is ended) and all reply, Thanks be to God.

 “169. Then the Priest venerates the altar as usual with a kiss and, after making a profound bow with the lay ministers, he withdraws with them.

 “170. If, however, another liturgical action follows the Mass, the Concluding Rites, that is, the Greeting, the Blessing, and the Dismissal are omitted.”

 It should be noted that the missal makes no mention whatsoever of the closing hymn. This hymn, while quite common, is not required and is not, strictly speaking, part of the Mass, which ends when the priest withdraws from the altar.

 It is true that on some occasions, such as the Chrism Mass or the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, a hymn is prescribed, but this is because the Eucharist or the holy oils are carried in procession to the sacristy or to the altar of repose.

 I conclude, therefore, that the bishops are not violating any liturgical norm by recommending the use of the prayer of St. Michael after Mass has ended.

 * * *

 Follow-up: Objecting to Communion in the Hand

Pursuant to my reflections on Communion in the hand (October 2), a reader from France claimed that “It is totally justified to claim that Communion in the hand is necessarily less reverent or inevitably leads to abuses. I am a daily witness at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre (Paris).”

 I beg to differ. I used the word necessarily as an equivalent to “in and of itself.” There is no inherent reason why Communion in the hand is less reverent. The problem of lack of reverence stems not from the manner of receiving Communion but from the lack of faith, awe, and gratitude before this great mystery. I have celebrated Mass in places where there is no Communion in the hand and yet have observed some people approach the Eucharist in a slovenly and distracted manner with nary a trace of reverence in sight.

 If our reader had said that he believed that Communion in the hand was more prone to dangers of accidents and profanation, I would accept the argument. This is precisely why there are occasions when pastoral prudence can lead to suspend the permission.

 Several readers pointed out that I made no mention of a text of St. Cyril when mentioning the historical foundations of the practice.

 One said: “When [the practice was] introduced in the U.S. Cyril of Jerusalem was quoted ‘make your hands a throne for the King, take and eat.’ Is anyone denying the quote?”

 Also, a Canadian cleric wrote:

 “Concerning Communion in the hand, please consult the Mystical Catechesis of St. Cyril of Jerusalem for a description of the practice around A.D. 345. Rather maddeningly, it is the Anglicans who in the West have retained the practice as described by St. Cyril, while contemporary Latin-rite Catholics tend to consume the Host as if it were a potato chip.”

 In the original article I stated:

 “From the historical point of view, we can say that there is strong evidence that the practice existed in early centuries in some areas of the Church. It is not clear as to how widespread it was or if it was a regular practice. As with all historical practices, one must examine the context and circumstances which are usually not repeatable.”

 I quite deliberately eschewed entering the historical argument as it would have digressed from the main point of that article.

 However, while this text is undoubtedly ancient evidence of the existence of Communion in the hand, it is, like many patristic texts, fraught with interpretative conundrums.

 Some scholars claim that this part of the Mystical Catechesis is not originally from St. Cyril but a later interpolation into the text.

 Others claim that in the context of the discourse St. Cyril was referring to the clergy and not to the lay faithful.

 Even if we presume the authenticity of the text we still do not know how long the practice lasted, whether leavened or unleavened bread was used and whether the practice was exclusive to the Church of Jerusalem.

 Therefore I stand by what I wrote in the original:

 “In this context I think it is fair to say that the present practice of Communion in the hand is not a simple restoration of a historical custom but rather introduced a new practice in new circumstances which, while it has some historical justification, is essentially motivated by current pastoral concerns in some parts of the world.”

 In this way, the practice of Communion in the hand is different from other liturgical elements restored after centuries of disuse, such as the prayer of the faithful and the exchange of peace.

 These practices have wide evidence of use and in some ways never died out completely. Yet even here, the experts sometimes forgot the unrepeatable reality of original circumstances so that restoration is never quite the same.

 For example, there is ample evidence that the exchange of peace between the people was practiced well into the Middle Ages in several European countries. However, it was a brief exchange with one’s immediate neighbors and at a time when men and women occupied separate aisles in the church.

 The restorers of the rite probably had the beautiful simplicity and symbolism of the medieval rite in mind but did not take the changed circumstances sufficiently into account. They probably never foresaw its subsequent, and occasionally chaotic, development in some parts of the Church.

 * * *

 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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Fr. Edward McNamara

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

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