Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Our bishop passed away a couple of years ago. The see is now vacant. We only have the college of consultors, appointed by the bishop before his death. Recently the senior one of the college of consultors blessed or dedicated a church. My question is, can he can use the formulas of dedication of the church, usually used by a bishop? Is it a blessing or a dedication in this case? Is the effectiveness of the rite different if done by a bishop? — D.Z., Beijing
A: This is perhaps more a question of canon law than liturgy, but I will attempt to respond as best I can.
First of all, we can see what canon law says about who has authority in a diocese and what happens when the diocese is vacant.
“Can. 134 §1. In addition to the Roman Pontiff, by the title of ordinary are understood in the law diocesan bishops and others who, even if only temporarily, are placed over some particular church or a community equivalent to it according to the norm of can. 368 as well as those who possess general ordinary executive power in them, namely, vicars general and episcopal vicars; likewise, for their own members, major superiors of clerical religious institutes of pontifical right and of clerical societies of apostolic life of pontifical right who at least possess ordinary executive power.
“§2. By the title of local ordinary are understood all those mentioned in §1 except the superiors of religious institutes and of societies of apostolic life.
“§3. Within the context of executive power, those things which in the canons are attributed by name to the diocesan bishop are understood to belong only to a diocesan bishop and to the others made equivalent to him in can. 381, §2, excluding the vicar general and episcopal vicar except by special mandate. […]
“Can. 368 Particular churches, in which and from which the one and only Catholic Church exists, are first of all dioceses, to which, unless it is otherwise evident, are likened a territorial prelature and territorial abbacy, an apostolic vicariate, and an apostolic prefecture, and an apostolic administration erected in a stable manner. […]
“Can. 416 An episcopal see is vacant upon the death of a diocesan bishop, resignation accepted by the Roman Pontiff, transfer, or privation made known to the bishop. […]
“Can. 419 When a see is vacant and until the designation of a diocesan administrator, the governance of a diocese devolves upon the auxiliary bishop or, if there are several, upon the one who is senior in promotion. If there is no auxiliary bishop, however, it devolves upon the college of consultors unless the Holy See has provided otherwise. […]
“Can. 421 §1. The college of consultors must elect a diocesan administrator, namely the one who is to govern the diocese temporarily, within eight days from receiving notice of the vacancy of an episcopal see and without prejudice to the prescript of can. 502, §3.
“§2. If a diocesan administrator has not been elected legitimately within the prescribed time for whatever cause, his designation devolves upon the metropolitan, and if the metropolitan church itself is vacant or both the metropolitan and the suffragan churches are vacant, it devolves upon the suffragan bishop senior in promotion.
“Can. 422 An auxiliary bishop or, if there is none, the college of consultors is to inform the Apostolic See of the death of a bishop as soon as possible. The one elected as diocesan administrator is to do the same concerning his own election.
“Can. 423 §1. One diocesan administrator is to be designated; any contrary custom is reprobated. Otherwise, the election is invalid. […]
“Can. 425 §1. Only a priest who has completed thirty-five years of age and has not already been elected, appointed, or presented for the same vacant see can be designated validly to the function of diocesan administrator.
“§2. A priest who is outstanding in doctrine and prudence is to be elected as diocesan administrator.
“§3. If the conditions previously mentioned in §1 have been neglected, the metropolitan or, if the metropolitan church itself is vacant, the suffragan bishop senior in promotion, after he has ascertained the truth of the matter, is to designate an administrator in his place. The acts of the one who was elected contrary to the prescripts of §1, however, are null by the law itself.
“Can. 426 When a see is vacant, the person who is to govern the diocese before the designation of a diocesan administrator possesses the power which the law grants to a vicar-general.
“Can. 427 §1. A diocesan administrator is bound by the obligations and possesses the power of a diocesan bishop, excluding those matters which are excepted by their nature or by the law itself.
“§2. When he has accepted election, the diocesan administrator obtains power and no other confirmation is required, without prejudice to the obligation mentioned in can. 833, n. 4.
“Can. 428 §1. When a see is vacant, nothing is to be altered.
“§2. Those who temporarily care for the governance of the diocese are forbidden to do anything which can be prejudicial in some way to the diocese or episcopal rights. They, and consequently all others, are specifically prohibited, whether personally or through another, from removing or destroying any documents of the diocesan curia or from changing anything in them.
“Can. 429 A diocesan administrator is obliged to reside in the diocese and to apply Mass for the people according to the norm of can. 388.”
Although our reader has not specified the matter, I think that, given that the vacancy has lasted over two years, we can presume that the priest he calls the senior member of the College of Consultors is, in fact, the diocesan administrator and has thus most of the powers of the bishop except in some special matters — for example, those that require episcopal character such as the conferral of the sacrament of orders. There are also some other juridical acts that he may never carry out, others only with the consent of the college of consultors, and others only after a year of vacancy has passed.
The Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 867, says the following regarding the dedication of churches:
“Since the bishop has been entrusted with the care of the particular Church, it is his responsibility to dedicate to God new churches built in his diocese. If he cannot himself preside at the rite, he should entrust this function to another bishop, especially to one who is his associate and assistant in the pastoral care of the community for which the church has been built, or, in altogether special circumstances, to a presbyter, to whom he shall give a special mandate.”
In the light of the above, and especially considering that the vacancy has persisted for over a year and it is unclear when the current situation will change, the diocesan administrator would have the authority and jurisdiction to celebrate the rite of dedication of a new church.
In celebrating the rite he would omit those ritual elements which are tied to the episcopacy such as the use of miter and pastoral staff. In this, the diocesan administrator differs from other priests who are equivalent in law to bishops in a stable manner such as a territorial abbot or an apostolic prefect. These are often granted the right to use some episcopal insignia in the exercise of their office.
Apart from these external elements, however, the dedication of the church would be perfectly valid and no supplementary rites would be required when a new bishop eventually arrives.
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Follow-up: Carrying the Book of the Gospels
In the wake of our July 16 comments on the Book of the Gospels a reader from Wagga Wagga, Australia, asked: “Would it be correct to say that when the Church in her liturgical books speaks about a ‘lector’ carrying the Book of the Gospels, she is referring specifically to a person who is formally instituted in that ministry, and not simply a ‘reader’? In that case, it would seem that only an ordained deacon or an instituted lector should carry the Book of the Gospels for Mass. Furthermore, in the absence of a deacon or lector, could a priest carry the Book of the Gospels?”
Although the Missal presumes that the ideal is the presence of instituted ministers, I do not think that the norms are so restrictive as to exclude that a delegated reader could carry out this function. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:
“101. In the absence of an instituted lector, other lay people may be deputed to proclaim the readings from Sacred Scripture, people who are truly suited to carrying out this function and carefully prepared, so that by their hearing the readings from the sacred texts the faithful may conceive in their hearts a sweet and living affection for Sacred Scripture.”
And it describes the entrance procession thus:
“120. When the people are gathered, the Priest and ministers, wearing the sacred vestments, go in procession to the altar in this order:
“a) The thurifer carrying a smoking thurible if incense is being used;
“b) ministers who carry lighted candles, and between them an acolyte or another minister with the cross;
“c) the acolytes and the other ministers;
“d) a reader, who may carry a Book of the Gospels (though not a Lectionary), slightly elevated;
“e) the Priest who is to celebrate the Mass.
“If incense is being used, before the procession begins, the Priest puts some into the thurible and blesses it with the Sign of the Cross without saying anything.”
In the light of this, if the legislator had desired to limit carrying the Book of the Gospels to instituted lectors, it would have to have clearly determined this in liturgical law. If instituted lectors are present, however, they would obviously have priority in carrying out this ministry.
Although it would require somewhat unusual circumstances in which there are no deacons or any readers, or the readers cannot for some reason participate in the entrance procession, a priest could carry the Book of the Gospels. Normally the use of the Book of the Gospels is on Sundays and festive days where there is almost always a reader.
However, should the procession not be feasible, the missal also offers the possibility of placing the Book of the Gospels on the altar before Mass begins.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.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.