Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I have a question regarding the sprinkling rite. In the case of the infirmity of the priest celebrant of a Mass at which the sprinkling rite is to be used, may the actual sprinkling — not the prayers before and after — be carried out by a deacon or even an acolyte or other lay minister? — G.S., Washington, D.C.
A: Along with this question our reader also sent in some preliminary research on the topic which we will use as part of the reply.
For those using the extraordinary form of the Roman rite the rule is quite clear. Although the “Asperges rite” does not form part of the Mass, and the priest wears the cope not the chasuble, “the celebrant of the Mass that follows, and not another priest, performs the “Asperges” (Fortescue-O’Connell-Reid, “The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described,” 2003, page 108).
In this form there would be no question of a deacon or lay person performing the sprinkling as this was considered integral to the blessing which was reserved to the priest.
With regard to the sprinkling rite in the Novus Ordo Mass, in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 51, we read:
“From time to time on Sundays, especially in Easter Time, instead of the customary Penitential Act, the blessing and sprinkling of water may take place as a reminder of Baptism.” (“Die dominica, praesertim tempore paschali, loco consueti actus paenitentialis, quandoque fieri potest benedictio et aspersio aquae in memoriam baptismi.”)
In the Roman Missal, Appendix II, Rite for the Blessing and Sprinkling of Water, 1, we read:
“On Sundays, especially in Easter Time, the blessing and sprinkling of water as a memorial of Baptism may take place from time to time in all churches and chapels, even in Masses anticipated on Saturday evenings. If this rite is celebrated during Mass, it takes the place of the usual Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass.” (“Huiusmodi ritus locum tenet actus poenitentialis initio Missae peragendi.”)
In the quote from GIRM, No. 51, the English has “the customary Penitential Act,” and the Missal has “the usual Penitential Act,” though in the latter text there does not seem to be a Latin original for the qualifier “usual.” The way I read it, the English texts do not make it clear whether the sprinkling rite is simply another form of the Penitential Act (but not the “customary” or “usual” one), or an outright substitution for the Penitential Act.
What commentaries I have found say this: “Asperges is the older name for the Rite for the Blessing and Sprinkling of Water, now an option at the beginning of Sunday Mass, replacing the Penitential Act” (Driscoll and Joncas, “Order of Mass,“ 2011). And this:
“This rite is not a penitential act like the pre-Vatican II Asperges; rather, it is a joyful memorial of the baptism that gives admission to the eucharistic banquet…. If the assembly is sufficiently large or spread out to warrant it, the deacon might also sprinkle them (although the rubrics are silent about this)” (Kwatera, “Liturgical Ministry of Deacons,“ 2005).
Our reader then adds:
“This last quote raises the issue that is the subject of my question.
“I looked for analogous situations. In the third form of the Penitential Act, while the priest gives the introduction and the absolution, the invocations themselves are said by the priest, deacon, ‘or another minister’ (Roman Missal, Order of Mass, 6.). This would seem to be a close analogue to a deacon or another minister sprinkling water between the priest’s introductory and closing prayer, even if the sprinkling rite is a form of the Penitential Act.
“In the blessing and distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday as well, there seems to be a similar situation. The Roman Missal says that on that day, ‘The Penitential Act is omitted, and the Distribution of Ashes takes its place.’ In this clear replacement for the Penitential Act, the Book of Blessings (U.S. adaptation), No. 1659, says: ‘This rite may be celebrated by a priest or deacon who may be assisted by lay ministers in the distribution of the ashes. The blessing of the ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or deacon.’ Again, the prayers are not in question, only the distribution of ashes, or, in the case of the sprinkling rite, the aspersion of holy water.
“My own conclusion is that in the sprinkling rite, even if it is a form of the Penitential Act, the sprinkling itself can be done by someone other than the priest celebrant, who in any case would say the opening and closing prayers.”
I wonder why this reader even bothered to ask me, as he seems more than able to maneuver through the jungle of liturgical norms.
However, as providence would have it, I had the privilege of being among the priest concelebrants at Pope Francis’ Mass of Pentecost on May 15 in St. Peter’s Basilica. This Mass began with the rite of sprinkling. At the moment of the sprinkling, the Holy Father remained at the chair and sprinkled those immediately around him and, somewhat symbolically, the concelebrants who were at a certain distance. Meanwhile, however, several deacons processed down the aisles of the basilica sprinkling the people.
While the practice of papal Masses cannot always be extended to other situations, I think that this practice at least makes it clear that deacons can assist in the sprinkling if there is sufficient reason for doing so. It must be remembered that deacons in the ordinary form can now perform many blessings which were previously reserved to the priest alone. In many Eastern Churches deacons may not impart any blessings whatsoever.
I do not think that the deacon could replace the priest entirely. If a priest is infirm and has difficulty moving, he can sprinkle from the chair, and then the deacon or another priest could walk down the aisles to sprinkle the people.
I do not believe that this could be extended to laypeople in the context of Mass. The above-mentioned quotes from the GIRM and the appendix make it clear that the sprinkling rite takes place within Mass, and not outside of it as in the extraordinary form. The rite of sprinkling is a continuation of the rite of blessing and forms an integral part of it. Therefore those who cannot bless the water would not be able to complete the rite.
If there were no deacon and the priest were unable to move, he could still sprinkle those immediately around him and the rest of the people in a virtual way.
After all, even when the priest does move around the church, the holy water does not reach a sizable part of the assembly. They nonetheless benefit from all the spiritual goods of the rite.
Finally, I would also say that the same texts show that the rite replaces the penitential rite but is not itself a penitential rite. If this were so, it would be simply another alternative penitential rite and, rather than printing it in an appendix, it would fall naturally alongside the other penitential formulas. Therefore it replaces the penitential rite as happens in several other ritual situations such as when the Divine Office is united to Mass.
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Follow-up: Ministries of Lector and Acolyte
In the wake of our May 3 piece on ministries a Nebraska reader asked: “If an acolyte is reposing the Blessed Sacrament after a time of exposition, can he say the invocation and prayer normally done by the priest or deacon (i.e., everything except the Benediction itself), or should he only do the parts normally done by all, the hymn and Divine Praises?”
The prayers and songs that are used during exposition are not strictly liturgical, but are rather acts of popular piety. Therefore any layperson, and not just an instituted acolyte, may use them.
It is true that in some places it is customary for the priest or deacon to recite some prayers or litanies immediately before intoning the “Tantum Ergo” before Benediction. But in fact such prayers and litanies can be used at any moment of the exposition and can be directed or guided by anyone.
In consequence, wherever this custom exists, it is possible to recite these prayers before reserving the Blessed Sacrament.
It would not be correct, however, to sing the “Tantum Ergo” and its accompanying prayer as this is tied up with the rite of incensing before Benediction and its use could cause confusion.
Some other Eucharistic hymn, or the recitation or singing of the Divine Praises, may accompany the simple reservation.
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