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LITURGY Q & A: Empty Chalice at Consecration Time

Could Signal a Grave Violation of Canon Law

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

Q: A few years ago I attended Mass (did not concelebrate) where it became obvious that the chalice had nothing in it. This was obvious when the priest lifted the chalice to drink from it, looked around, and handed it to the server. I asked in the sacristy afterward, and indeed it had been empty. I actually was at another Mass a year or so after that one, different city, where the same thing happened. In both cases, it was clearly the compos mentis of the priest, not heresy or malevolence, or any such thing. Is the host validly consecrated in such a circumstance? Can Communion be distributed to the faithful? – J.M., St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador

A: After so many years receiving liturgical questions I thought I was past being surprised. But I must admit that I was somewhat nonplussed by this situation. I find it difficult to grasp why a priest would undertake what would appear to be a subterfuge that would lead most of the faithful to believe the chalice was being consecrated.

The case described is different from a distracted priest who forgets to consecrate one of the species or the case of finding at the time of communion that there was only water in the chalice or the wine had turned to vinegar. Both cases can be remedied by discreetly saying the form of consecration, with new wine if necessary, before distributing Communion.

If celebrating with an empty chalice were done deliberately and in full possession of his faculties, then the priest has acted in such a way as to gravely violate canon law, particularly Canon 927:

“It is absolutely forbidden, (nefas est) even in extreme urgent necessity, to consecrate one matter without the other or even both outside the Eucharistic celebration.”

The Paulist Press commentary on this canon states the following:

“Theological opinion has not been in agreement on whether the consecration of only one of the elements suffices for the validity of the Mass. Neither the 1917 code (CIC 817) nor the revised code resolves the issue of validity, but instead, both use the authority of the Church to forbid absolutely the consecration of only one element in or outside of Mass, or the consecration of even both elements apart from the Eucharistic celebration. The phrase ‘it is absolutely forbidden’ (nefas est) most strongly conveys the Church’s desire to maintain the integrity of the Eucharistic celebration and the two signs of bread and wine. Excluded are even cases of extreme necessity, such as lack of time to celebrate an entire Eucharist in the case of a person in danger of death or lack of bread or wine due to war or persecution.”

It should be noted that the expression “nefas est” is very strong and is used very rarely in canon law. Practically its only other appearance is in Canon 983 §1 regarding the absolute prohibition to reveal what is heard in confession.

In the 1983 edition of the Code of Canon Law, the strong language was not accompanied by any specific penalty for violations. However, on April 30, 2001, Pope St. John Paul II promulgated a letter Motu propio “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela” which, along with other changes above all geared toward the protection of minors, added Canon 927 to the delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The specific norms regarding this canon were updated by Pope Benedict in 2010 and now read:

“Art. 3 §2. Also reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the delict which consists in the consecration for a sacrilegious purpose of one matter without the other or even of both, either within or outside of the Eucharistic celebration. One who has perpetrated this delict is to be punished according to the gravity of the crime, not excluding dismissal or deposition.”

Although this crime is specifically reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when it is committed for a sacrilegious purpose, it remains a canonical crime or delict in all cases.

If the element of inducing the faithful into believing that a proper Mass has been celebrated is added, then the crime of simulation of a sacrament (Canon 1379) may also be present.

What causes perplexity is why a priest should recur to such a measure as “celebrating” with an empty chalice.

Although, as our reader says, heresy or malevolence may not be present, ignorance of the gravity of this act should not be presumed since priests are supposed to know canon law.

Psychological barriers would require special treatment, but the priest would not be able to celebrate until he can do so according to the mind of the Church.

There should not be obstacles of a physical nature as the Church is generous in assisting priests who have special needs.

A priest who suffers from alcoholism is permitted to validly celebrate using mustum, which does not contain alcohol.

Even should a priest suffer from a rare intolerance to all fruits of the vine, he could be permitted to concelebrate and receive only under the species of bread.

However, except for these special concessions, in all Masses, it is necessary that both species be consecrated and consumed by a priest. Thus the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:

“97. A Priest must communicate at the altar at the moment laid down by the Missal each time he celebrates Holy Mass, and the concelebrants must communicate before they proceed with the distribution of Holy Communion. The Priest celebrant or a concelebrant is never to wait until the people’s Communion is concluded before receiving Communion himself.

“98. The Communion of Priest concelebrants should proceed according to the norms prescribed in the liturgical books, always using hosts consecrated at the same Mass and always with Communion under both kinds being received by all of the concelebrants. It is to be noted that if the Priest or Deacon hands the sacred host or chalice to the concelebrants, he says nothing; that is to say, he does not pronounce the words ‘The Body of Christ’ or ‘The Blood of Christ.’”

Although, as mentioned in the commentary cited above: “Theological opinion has not been in agreement on whether the consecration of only one of the elements suffices for the validity of the Mass,” I personally believe that the arguments and practice tend toward a negative response to the question. That is, the consecration of the bread brings about the Real Presence of Christ, but the sacrifice of the Mass is not validly celebrated because of the lack of both species.

For example, moral theology books from the early 20th century sometimes addressed the question of how to proceed if a priest got sick immediately after consecrating the hosts. The common response was that another priest could take up the Mass from that point on.

If this were not immediately possible, then the books indicated that all consecrated hosts and the unconsecrated chalice were to be placed in the tabernacle until a priest could come and finish the Mass. The hosts were not to be distributed to the faithful until the sacrifice was completed by the other priest consuming both species.

Although at least as far as I know, such detailed casuistry has not been addressed in recent documents, the above procedure would still be the most theologically sound solution in such a case.

The point is not the particular case, however, but the fact that such reasoning points to the importance given to the consecration and consumption of both species for the integrity of the sacrifice of the Mass.

Because of the grave nature of this question, the diocesan bishop and/or religious superior should be informed in all cases so that he can engage in an appropriate investigation and, if possible, help the priest return to sound practice.

Thus Redemptionis Sacramentum:

“178. Hence whenever a local Ordinary or the Ordinary of a religious Institute or of a Society of apostolic life receives at least a plausible notice of a delict or abuse concerning the Most Holy Eucharist, let him carefully investigate, either personally or by means of another worthy cleric, concerning the facts and the circumstances as well as the imputability.

“179. Delicts against the faith as well as graviora delicta committed in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other Sacraments are to be referred without delay to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which ‘examines [them] and, if necessary, proceeds to the declaration or imposition of canonical sanctions according to the norm of common or proper law.’

“180. Otherwise the Ordinary should proceed according to the norms of the sacred canons, imposing canonical penalties if necessary, and bearing in mind in particular that which is laid down by canon 1326. If the matter is serious, let him inform the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.”

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 Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. 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.

About Fr. Edward McNamara

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