Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: We recently had a discussion surrounding the Ordo statement that the “role of Christ should be reserved for a priest.” According to a 1988 Holy See circular letter on the Easter celebrations, in article No. 33, which deals with the readings of the Passion, it was determined that during the Passion reading the role of Christ should be reserved for the priest. Could you help direct me toward the liturgical theology that would support such a statement? The word “should” implies to me that it is not an absolute but more of courtesy out of respect – a way of involving the priest in the Passion reading at an important part of the liturgical cycle. Secondly, should a deacon be removed from the reading of the Passion completely in order to allow lay readers and lectors to engage in their ministry? — M.T., Winnipeg, Manitoba
A: The text of the 1988 circular letter referred to (Paschale Solemnitatis) is the following.
“33. The passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the part of Christ, the narrator, and the people. The passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of the Christ should be reserved to the priest.
“The proclamation of the passion should be without candles and incense; the greeting and the sings of the cross are omitted; and only a deacon asks for the blessing, as he does before the Gospel. For the spiritual good of the faithful, the passion should be proclaimed in its entirety, and the readings that proceed it should not be omitted.
“66. [On Good Friday] The readings are to be read in their entirety. The responsorial psalm and the chant before the gospel are to be sung in the usual manner. The narrative of the Lord’s passion according to John is sung or read in the way prescribed for the previous Sunday (cf. n. 33). After the reading of the passion, a homily should be given, at the end of which the faithful may be invited to spend a short time in meditation.”
The Roman Missal phrases the question slightly differently:
“The narrative of the Lord’s Passion is read without candles and without incense, with no greeting or signing of the Book. It is read by a Deacon or, if there is no Deacon, by a Priest. It may also be read by readers, with the part of Christ, if possible, reserved to a priest.”
In order to determine any priority involved, we should observe the order mentioned above: deacons, priests and lay readers. This implies a clear preference while giving some scope for practical solutions.
The ideal situation is that the Passion be sung or read by three deacons. In some places, the choir, or even the assembly, can take up a fourth role as the multitude as is done at papal celebrations.
If three priests are available, but no deacons, then they would have a preference in proclaiming the Passion.
If there is a combination of priests and deacons, the above norms would imply, but not require, that the priest take up the role of Christ. This would be a practical question depending on who can best sing or read the text.
The role of Christ is specifically reserved to the priest only in the case that the other two readers are lay readers. The rule of reserving the role of Christ to the priest when accompanied by lay readers obeys a certain liturgical logic insofar as he normally represents Christ in his ministerial role.
In this context, although the Missal says that the role of Christ should be carried out by a priest “if possible,” there would be few situations where it would not be possible for a priest to carry out this role, especially considering all of the other things he has to sing or say during this rite.
It is not, however, an absolute rule, and there may be exceptions if the greater good of the celebration requires it. For example, the Passion could be solemnly sung by lay cantors in situations where the priest or deacon might lack the necessary gifts to sing the requisite parts.
This throws some light on our reader’s second question: Should a deacon be removed from the reading of the Passion completely in order to allow lay readers to engage in their ministry? The short answer is no. He should not be removed if the only reason is to allow space for lay readers. The deacon has a certain priority even over the priest.
However, as mentioned above in the case of the priest, the deacon’s participation may be limited in order to favor a more solemn proclamation of the Passion, especially if sung.
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Follow-up: “Handing Over” a Mass
Pursuant to our question regarding a change of principal celebrant (June 4), especially during a wedding Mass, a deacon wrote: “If the deacon in question received the vows and was not the celebrant, would the sacrament still be considered valid yet illicit? Could this be grounds for a defect in form?”
Provided that the deacon had received the proper delegation to celebrate the wedding, the sacrament of matrimony would be valid and licit. The priest or deacon acts as an official witness, but the ministers of the sacrament are the spouses themselves.
The error involved does not affect the sacrament as such but the proper manner of celebrating the rites inherent to the nuptial Mass in which there should be no change of presiding celebrant.
There is also an error on the part of the parish priest in granting a delegation while knowing that a nuptial Mass will take place.
There is a caveat, however: The Vatican document I quoted is an official private reply but is not law as such. It is solid liturgical reasoning but is not legally binding. This being the case, some dioceses have given express permission for a deacon to preside at weddings during Mass “for pastoral reasons.” The bishop is within his right to grant this permission until such time that the Holy See deems that the issue merits an official clarification.
Such pastoral reasons should be objective, and one could think of several real-life situations that would justify an exception. For example, it sometimes happens when the spouses are from different cultural backgrounds, and the Mass is in one language and the wedding rite in another. If only the deacon knows the language of the wedding rite, he could officiate.
The fact that such permissions exist shows that there is no doubt regarding the validity and liceity of the sacrament – even though they may not respect the normal logic of liturgical precedence.
One clear exception does exist, and which has been recently reconfirmed in 2016 by Pope Francis through several changes in canon law. If one of the spouses belongs to an Eastern Church, either Catholic or non-Catholic, in which the presence of the priest is deemed essential to validity, then, in such cases, a deacon may never preside at the wedding. This holds true even if the actual ceremony is carried out in the Latin rite.
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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.