Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: It is a must for two deacons to serve at Mass in a small community with at least two priests with few lay Christian faithful of about 10 people? The difficulty here is the congregation has difficulty in singing parts of the liturgy such as responses and in playing the organ. So if there is only one deacon among the two who has musical talent, is it fitting for him to sit with the congregation, at least on Sundays, to assist them in the other parts of the liturgy or playing the organ? Or is it unlawful? — B.G., Uganda
A: This is a practical pastoral question that can be addressed pastorally.
Strictly speaking, a priest or deacon has the same obligation as every Catholic, that is, to attend Mass on Sunday. This may come as a surprise to many Catholics, but a priest is not strictly speaking obliged to celebrate Mass although the Church highly recommends daily celebration (Canon 904). The 1917 Code of Canon Law stipulated that priests celebrate several times a year, which commentators interpreted as little as three or four to fulfill the obligation.
This of course is not something to recommend. The Directory on the Ministry and Life of the Priest stresses the importance of the priest’s daily celebration of the Eucharist as “the central moment of his day and of his daily ministry, fruit of a sincere desire and an occasion for a deep and effective encounter with Christ.”
Some priests do have a certain obligation to celebrate Mass in virtue of an office. For example, parish priests and many religious superiors have to celebrate a Mass for those under their pastoral care at least once a week.
Given the above, I think that there is no question of it being unlawful if a deacon who is present does not exercise his ministry in order to promote and serve the liturgy in some other manner.
However, if he is the only deacon, it would be more appropriate for him to carry out his ministry, as the celebration is a fuller expression of the Church when all the ministries are exercised.
If there are, as in this case, two deacons one of whom has musical talent, it would be opportune to see his participation in fostering singing as a temporary measure while training a replacement. He should not be habitually deprived of exercising his ministry only for this reason.
He should not, however, try to combine both functions at once. If he attends to the organ he should refrain from participating at the Mass in sacred vestments. He may wear clerical garb according to the custom of the country.
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