Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I noticed in the missal for the days of Lent there is included after the Prayer after Communion, a Prayer over the People. On weekdays this is optional, according to the rubric there. Is one to assume for the Sundays of Lent the Prayer over the People is to be said, that is, obligatory? I knew this innovation of sorts was to be included in the new missal. But now I see how it is in the missal and want to be certain that I and other curious celebrants are prepared to use it. They are lovely texts! – E.F., Morristown, New Jersey
A: They are indeed lovely texts, and it was a noble intuition that has restored them to the missal.
As our reader mentions, an optional prayer over the people is offered for each weekday. On Sundays there is also such a prayer but lacking the rubric “for optional use.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the following about solemn blessings and prayers over the people:
“166. On certain days and occasions this blessing, in accordance with the rubrics, is expanded and expressed by a Prayer over the People or another more solemn formula.
“185. If a Prayer over the People or a formula of Solemn Blessing is used, the Deacon says, Bow down for the blessing. After the Priest’s blessing, the Deacon, with hands joined and facing the people, dismisses the people, saying, Ite, missa est (Go forth, the Mass is ended).”
The missal also has a section following immediately after the order of Mass containing solemn blessings and prayers over the people for specific times and seasons of the year. Some special feasts and celebrations have proper solemn blessings. The overarching rule is that these may be used “at the discretion of the priest at the end of the celebration of Mass, or of a Liturgy of the Word, or of the Office, or of the Sacraments.”
It is to be noted that the missal does not contain any solemn blessing for Lent in the section containing solemn blessings, although there is one for the “Passion of the Lord.”
Therefore, I would say that since the general rule leaves the use of the prayers to the priest’s discretion, the absence of an indication that they are optional on Sundays does not translate into an obligation to use them.
It would indicate, however, a strong encouragement to use them every Sunday. Likewise, the fact that they are printed for each day of Lent also motivates their daily use.
According to eminent scholars the tradition of these orations has its roots as far back as the third century. The deacon’s invitation to the people to bow the head for the blessing is also very ancient, even though the present Latin formula does not appear before the year 800.
One characteristic of these formulas is that the personal object of these blessings is not usually designated as “us” but rather as “your people,” “your servants,” “your faithful,” “those who bow before your majesty,” “those who make supplication to you,” “those who call upon you.” Another characteristic is that the spiritual graces sought in the prayer are sought not in a general way as in other prayers but for the indefinite future with phrases such as “always,” “perpetual protection,” “constantly,” etc.
What is not fully understood is why these prayers became reserved to the Lenten season in the Roman liturgy, since many of the ancient sources contain similar prayers for all seasons of the year. Perhaps it is because Lent and the Easter triduum have usually retained the older traditions.
When the first edition of the revised missal was published in 1970, it restored the possibility of prayers over the people throughout the year as witnessed by the earlier sources of the Roman rite. But it did so in an appendix and at the cost of eliminating the tradition of specific daily prayers for Lent.
The third typical edition has happily restored the daily Lenten prayers while still offering a wide selection of possibilities for other liturgical seasons.
I believe that this is one example where a return to tradition has proved beneficial for the liturgy in its present form.
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Follow-up: Masses on Saturday Evenings
With respect to our February 7 column on the Saturday celebration of Sunday Mass, a reader from Malta asked: “Please refer to your reply on the obligation of Sunday Mass and how to spend the day on Sunday. My wife and daughter work as nurses on a shift basis, and on some Sundays they are obliged to work. I am sure that they are excused in respect to the Sunday obligation. My difficulty is the following. Why does the Catechism of the Catholic Church not mention the situation of those that are required to work on Sunday, at least in that part which you referred to in your reply?”
I did not refer to this aspect in my reply, as the main thrust of the question was elsewhere. The questions addressed by our reader are treated in Canons 1247 and 1248 in the Code of Canon Law.
Canon 1247 states the obligation to assist at Mass on Sundays, while No. 1248 Subsection 2 says that if assistance at Mass is impossible due to the lack of a minister, or for some other grave cause, then it is recommended that the faithful assist at the Liturgy of the Word if this is celebrated in the parish church.
The sense of canon law is clear. Assistance at Mass is obligatory, except for a “grave cause.” The use of the expression “grave cause” indicates that the obligation is a very serious one. For obligations that admit more readily to exceptions, canon law usually uses expressions such as “a just cause.”
These norms apply the canonical and moral principle “ad impossibilia nemo tenetur” (nobody is obliged to do the impossible): When an objective impossibility exists, then the consequent obligation disappears. For this reason the Church recommends, but does not oblige, that Catholics sanctify Sunday in some other way, such as assisting at a Communion service, following a televised Mass, or praying at home.
An objective impossibility need not always be a dramatic situation. Examples of objective impossibility could be age, illness, the need to care for a sick relation, or seasonal variations which make leaving home a hazardous task. Catholics involved in necessary Sunday occupations such as police, medical personnel and flight attendants are also exempt while on duty.
It is not always easy to judge what is objective, as conditions vary from person to person. However, Catholics should not be too light in assessing their difficulties and should be willing to make reasonable sacrifices to assist at Mass.
Therefore, in the case of our reader’s wife and daughter, whenever they are on a Sunday shift at the hospital they can be considered as being exempt from the obligation if the shift objectively impedes assistance at any Sunday Mass.
They should, if possible, attend a Saturday evening Mass, or at least strive to sanctify the Sunday in some other way.
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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.