Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Is it proper for a seminarian who is on pastoral experience to be allowed to take those parts in Mass which the deacon says? I ask because our parish priest seems to allow this. The seminarian who is not ordained has been taking all the parts that a deacon would normally take if he is present. In the same vein, can a layperson be allowed to do the same if the pastor allows him to do so? What does the GIRM say? Is there any guidance? — E.C., Kabwe, Zambia
A: In principle each minister may carry out such tasks, and only such tasks, as correspond to his proper ministry.
Therefore a seminarian may not carry out such tasks as are exclusive to the deacon or priest. However, if he has received the ministry of acolyte he may carry out such actions that an instituted acolyte may do in the absence of a deacon.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) describes these tasks in the following way:
“98. The acolyte is instituted to serve at the altar and to assist the priest and deacon. In particular, it is his responsibility to prepare the altar and the sacred vessels and, if it is necessary, as an extraordinary minister, to distribute the Eucharist to the faithful.
“In the ministry of the altar, the acolyte has his own functions (cf. below, nos. 187-193), which he must perform personally. …
“100. In the absence of an instituted acolyte, lay ministers may be deputed to serve at the altar and assist the priest and the deacon; they may carry the cross, the candles, the thurible, the bread, the wine, and the water, and they may also be deputed to distribute Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers. …
“187. The duties that the acolyte may carry out are of various kinds and several may coincide. Hence, it is desirable that these duties be suitably distributed among several acolytes. If, however, only one acolyte is present, he should perform the more important duties while the rest are to be distributed among several ministers.
“The Introductory Rites
“188. In the procession to the altar, the acolyte may carry the cross, walking between two ministers with lighted candles. Upon reaching the altar, the acolyte places the cross upright near the altar so that it may serve as the altar cross; otherwise, he puts it in a worthy place. Then he takes his place in the sanctuary.
“189. Through the entire celebration, the acolyte is to approach the priest or the deacon, whenever necessary, in order to present the book to them and to assist them in any other way required. Thus it is appropriate, insofar as possible, that the acolyte occupy a place from which he can conveniently carry out his ministry either at the chair or at the altar.
“The Liturgy of the Eucharist
“190. If no deacon is present, after the Prayer of the Faithful is concluded and while the priest remains at the chair, the acolyte places the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the Missal on the altar. Then, if necessary, the acolyte assists the priest in receiving the gifts of the people and, if appropriate, brings the bread and wine to the altar and hands them to the priest. If incense is used, the acolyte presents the thurible to the priest and assists him while he incenses the gifts, the cross, and the altar. Then the acolyte incenses the priest and the people.
“191. A duly instituted acolyte, as an extraordinary minister, may, if necessary, assist the priest in giving Communion to the people. If Communion is given under both kinds, when no deacon is present, the acolyte administers the chalice to the communicants or holds the chalice if Communion is given by intinction.
“192. Likewise, when the distribution of Communion is completed, a duly instituted acolyte helps the priest or deacon to purify and arrange the sacred vessels. When no deacon is present, a duly instituted acolyte carries the sacred vessels to the credence table and there purifies, wipes, and arranges them in the usual way.
“193. After the celebration of Mass, the acolyte and other ministers return in procession to the sacristy, together with the deacon and the priest in the same way and order in which they entered.”
From this it is possible that it could appear that a seminarian was taking the place of the deacon without this being necessarily the case.
If the seminarian is not yet an instituted acolyte, then he could still serve at the priest’s side, assist him with the missal at the altar, offer him the paten and, if necessary, be named ad hoc as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.
If he is an instituted acolyte, then he could also purify the sacred vessels at the credence table. If he is not an acolyte, then the priest purifies the sacred vessels.
However, he may not carry out any function that is proper to the ordained minister.
Thus, during the Liturgy of the Word he may not read the Gospel or preach the homily. As the instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum” states:
“63. Within the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, the reading of the Gospel, which is ‘the high point of the Liturgy of the Word,’ is reserved by the Church’s tradition to an ordained minister. Thus it is not permitted for a layperson, even a religious, to proclaim the Gospel reading in the celebration of Holy Mass, nor in other cases in which the norms do not explicitly permit it.
“64. The homily, which is given in the course of the celebration of Holy Mass and is a part of the Liturgy itself, ‘should ordinarily be given by the Priest celebrant himself. He may entrust it to a concelebrating Priest or occasionally, according to circumstances, to a Deacon, but never to a layperson. In particular cases and for a just cause, the homily may even be given by a Bishop or a Priest who is present at the celebration but cannot concelebrate.’ …
“66. The prohibition of the admission of laypersons to preach within the Mass applies also to seminarians, students of theological disciplines, and those who have assumed the function of those known as ‘pastoral assistants’; nor is there to be any exception for any other kind of layperson, or group, or community, or association.”
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist the acolyte does not prepare the chalice by putting in wine and water but merely offers these to the priest. Nor does he help the priest in elevating the chalice for the final doxology. The priest, and not the acolyte, invites the faithful to make the sign of peace and dismisses the people at the end of Mass.
If the priest has allowed or told the seminarian to carry out any of these reserved functions, then he is in error. It is also very unwise, and a seminarian should refuse to do so.
In some cases it could even be considered as a usurpation of sacred functions which could even impede or delay a seminarian’s acceptance for sacred orders.
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Follow-up: “Blessed” Instead of “Saint”
Some priest readers disagreed with my position regarding the use of “blessed” rather than “saint” (see April 15). As one correspondent said:
“I am a fellow priest who has never played with or deviated from the rubrics of the Church until recently. I disagree with you in a comment you made about ‘blessed or saint.’ … I have noticed and have decided that it makes the Liturgy very difficult to say, hard to hear and very confusing. I have opted to use Saint in most occasions. As one who has never played with liturgy I am unhappy with the crazy literal translation we are suffering to endure.”
While I can understand the difficulty, and like quite a few priests doubt the wisdom of certain translation choices, I am overall very happy with the translation. However, even when less than satisfied I still think I should always follow the approved text and not improvise.
On a different level a reader asked: “Why is the Holy Mother Mary called ‘Blessed’ if sainthood is a higher degree than blessed? […] I think that she should be honored higher than our saints.”
We call Mary “blessed” above all because she herself proclaimed in the Magnificat that all generations would do so.
However, we should not be confused: The word blessed has at least two meanings depending on context.
In the canonical context of the canonization process the term refers to the step before sainthood in which the Church permits a limited liturgical veneration of a person who is considered to be in heaven and to whom we can confidently ask for intercession. We never refer to Mary in this way.
In another context it refers to the state of all the inhabitants of heaven. All the saints are truly blessed insofar as they enjoy the beatific vision of God for all eternity. As the medieval hymn “O quanta qualia” expresses in John Mason Neale’s Translation:
“O what their joy and their glory must be. Those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see! Crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest; God shall be all, and in all ever blest.”
This is the blessedness, and to an eminent degree, that we refer to in calling Mary “blessed.”
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. 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.