Sep 9, 2021

Rite Questions

Editor’s note: At some point, we pray, pandemic-inspired precautions will no longer be necessary in the Mass. The many adjustments meant to protect the health of participants will give way again to the normative form of worship described in the Roman Missal and other related instructions. Perhaps some readers would be glad to see many of the COVID omissions remain in place: no sign of peace, no music, no extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, etc. The more probable scenario will see the return of each. But when these elements do reappear, priests and liturgical leaders should do all in their power to see that these elements are reinstated according to the mens ecclesiae, the mind of the Church, truly serving the goal of a liturgical excellence that divinizes man unto the greater glory of God. The following “Rite Questions” seek to help pastors achieve this goal.

Q: How should my parish reintroduce singing at Mass?

A: The pandemic hit the liturgy hard, especially in the area of music. Many parishes either reduced congregational singing or discontinued congregational singing altogether. For some, having Mass with no music was a great trial. Others reveled in the experience of the quiet Mass. Why does the Church assert—and the history of the Church bear out—the integral nature of singing for the celebration of the liturgy?

Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) tells us that when parts of the liturgy are sung it “confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (SC, 112) and conveys “to the faithful a sense of the solemnity of the celebration” (Liturgiam Authenticam (LA), 61; see also LA, 108). Yet, the Church does not say this principally regarding singing at the liturgy. Rather, the main place is to be given to “singing the liturgical text” itself (Varietates Legitimae, 40). Indeed, liturgical music is truly “an integral part of the solemn liturgy” because it unites “sacred song…to the words” of the liturgy in such a way that they are integrated into a unified reality, a single thing (SC, 112). Indeed, liturgical music, by its nature, is music that has been “created for the celebration of divine worship” (Musicam Sacram (MS), 4) and therefore not just with the texts of the liturgy in mind, but primarily for the liturgical text. Sacred music is therefore the servant of the liturgy, not vice versa (see Tra le Sollecitudini (TLS), 22–23). Pope St. Pius X’s motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le Sollecitudini, makes clear that the “principal office” of sacred music is to “clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful” (TLS, 1). Thus, the perennial principles of the Church teach us that the role of music in the liturgy is primarily to “add greater efficacy to the [liturgical] text” in order to foster the participation of the faithful in the liturgical action (TLS, 1).

In terms of prioritizing what should be sung, “preference is to be given…especially to those which are to be sung by the Priest or the Deacon or a reader, with the people replying, or by the Priest and people together” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), 40, cf. MS, 7). Specifically, Musicam Sacram names as most important the greeting of the priest followed by the people’s response in the introductory rites, the Collect, the acclamations at the Gospel, “the prayer over the offerings; the preface with its dialogue and the Sanctus; the final doxology of the Canon, the Lord’s prayer with its introduction and embolism; the Pax Domini; the prayer after the Communion; the formulas of dismissal” (MS, 29). The next category consists mainly in the ordinary parts of the Mass: the Kyrie, Gloria and Agnus Dei, the Creed, and the prayers of the faithful (see MS, 30). Lastly are those parts of the Mass that are proper or unique to the Mass of the day: the songs at the Entrance and Communion processions; the responsorial psalm and the Alleluia before the Gospel; the song at the Offertory; and finally, the readings of Sacred Scripture (see MS, 31).

These priorities clearly express that the Mass is essentially a sung prayer. Indeed, the Church gives us these musical priorities so that the emphasis is on singing those liturgical texts that are most easily sung and gradually moving toward those that are more difficult to sing. What should immediately be striking in terms of these priorities laid down by the Church is that almost every parish reverses these priorities, singing hymns that substitute for the proper texts of the Mass, then singing the ordinary parts of the Mass, and lastly—and rarely—singing the dialogues. The current time affords us the opportunity to reboot our priorities of what is sung at Mass according to the mind of the Church.

Q: How should my parish reintroduce communion from the chalice?

A: Of all the liturgical practices that went away with the onset of the pandemic, the reception of Holy Communion from the chalice will likely take the longest to make a return. Whether one thinks drinking from the same cup is an extremely high-risk occasion of contagion or a low-risk activity, the optics on such reception do not favor its return during the days of the Delta variant of COVID-19. Regardless, the pandemic gives those of us in this country, who with little exception could previously receive Holy Communion under both species at most Sunday Masses, an opportunity to contemplate the nature of the reception of Holy Communion from the chalice and to review what the universal law has to say about “the reception on occasion of Communion under both kinds” (GIRM, 14).

In general, Holy Communion under both kinds is permitted “for Priests who are not able to celebrate or concelebrate Mass…, [for] the Deacon and others who perform some duty at the Mass…, [and for] members of communities at the Conventual Mass or the ‘community’ Mass, along with seminarians, and all those engaged in a retreat or taking part in a spiritual or pastoral gathering” (GIRM, 283). In addition to these general occasions, the GIRM gives the diocesan bishop “the faculty to permit Communion under both kinds whenever it may seem appropriate to the Priest to whom a community has been entrusted” (GIRM, 283). These opportunities for the reception of Holy Communion under both kinds are augmented on the occasion of different sacraments and sacramentals. For example, at the nuptial Mass the “bride and bridegroom, their parents, witnesses, and relatives may receive Communion under both kinds” (Order of Celebrating Matrimony, 76).

The Third Edition of the GIRM makes clear that in the reception of Holy Communion under both kinds “the sign of the Eucharistic banquet is more clearly evident…as also [is] the connection between the Eucharistic banquet and the eschatological banquet in the Kingdom of the Father” (281). As one liturgical scholar points out, a new feature of the 2002 GIRM permits the priest to hold the particle of the host “slightly raised above the…chalice” while inviting the faithful to “Behold the Lamb of God…” (GIRM, 157), suggesting that in the invitation to Holy Communion both species are held forth to the faithful as the sign of the Lord’s body and blood. Nevertheless, the Church continues to insist that the reception of Holy Communion under the form of bread alone suffices, by the principle of concomitance, to communicate Christ’s entire presence, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in each and every particle of the Sacred Host. On this point, the Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America notes a possible reason for limiting occasions for the reception of Holy Communion under both kinds: “In practice, the need to avoid obscuring the role of the Priest and the Deacon as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion by an excessive use of extraordinary minister might in some circumstances constitute a reason either for limiting the distribution of Holy Communion under both species or for using intinction instead of distributing the Precious Blood from the chalice” (24). The continued context of COVID-19 may invite use to contemplate more deeply the reception of the entire Christ in the reception of the Host alone.

The hiatus in reception from the chalice provides another important occasion for catechizing the parish. In the above-mentioned Norms for Distribution and Reception, the bishops detail the contents of instruction that ought to precede the reception of the Precious Blood. “When Communion under both kinds is first introduced by the Diocesan Bishop and also whenever the opportunity for instruction is present”—such as during a pandemic-induced pause—“the faithful should be properly catechized on the following matters in the light of the teaching and directives of the General Instruction:

a. the ecclesial nature of the Eucharist as the common possession of the whole Church;

b. the Eucharist as the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice, his death and resurrection, and as the sacred banquet;

c. the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements, whole and entire—in each element of consecrated bread and wine (the doctrine of concomitance);

d. the kinds of reverence due at all times to the sacrament, whether within the eucharistic Liturgy or outside the celebration; and

e. the role that ordinary and, if necessary, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are assigned in the eucharistic assembly.”

There is, then, a great deal of pastoral work that ought to take place before the chalice is offered again to the people. Now is truly a precious opportunity!

Q: How should my parish reintroduce the sign of peace at Mass?

A: In 2005, years before the onset of the current pandemic, the bishops celebrating the Synod XI and the conclusion of the Year of the Eucharist expressed concerns over the present practice of the exchange of peace at Mass. Pope Benedict XVI summed these up in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (SaC). He relates that, even though the sign is a “valuable” and “eloquent” expression of the peace of Christ, “during the Synod of Bishops there was discussion about the appropriateness of greater restraint in this gesture, which can be exaggerated and cause a certain distraction in the assembly just before the reception of Communion” (SaC, 49). The suspension of the exchange of the sign of peace in many places over recent months offers the chance to review and revive the gesture so that its full spiritual content can again become available to the faithful.

A first step prior to reintroducing the gesture consists in reminding all that it, like every other liturgical sign or symbol, makes possible an encounter with Christ. Peace surrounds Christ’s saving work. Prior to his passion, in the Upper Room, Christ says to the apostles, “Peace I leave you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27). At his first appearance to them following his passion, he says once again, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-23). In the Mass, too, the exchange of peace surrounds the re-presentation of the Paschal Sacrifice of Jesus made present upon the altar. While some Eastern traditions place the exchange of peace at the end of the Liturgy of the Word, observing Christ’s exhortation that “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24), the Roman tradition associates the exchange of peace with Christ’s Paschal Mystery. Seen in this way, the sign of peace draws participants more fully into the sacrifice of Jesus and prepares them to receive the peace that only his saving work can bring.

Second, and relatedly, the sign of peace should be seen in the larger context of the Communion Rite, as well as the events surrounding Christ’s Passion. The first prayer for peace comes during the “embolism” after the Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days….” The last petition for peace comes at the end of the Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace.” Between these two petitions, the Church observes the ritual exchange of peace, introduced by the priest’s words: “Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will.” The exchange of peace, then, is an integral part of the larger communion rite.

Finally, and given that sign is an encounter with Christ and a preparation to receive him in communion, the actual gesture should, as the Synod of Bishops and Pope Benedict desired, be a true revelation of Christ and not a distraction from him. For this reason, the GIRM goes so far to describe the exchange in these restrained terms: “According to what is decided by the Conference of Bishops, all express to one another peace, communion, and charity. While the Sign of Peace is being given [among the faithful], it is permissible to say, The peace of the Lord be with you always, to which the reply is Amen.” Whether or not the exchange of peace has ever been offered along these lines in a parish, it is clear that if the sign of peace is reintroduced, “it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest” (GIRM, 82).

The Editors