Editor’s note: In the September 2021 issue we addressed a number of questions about how to reintroduce elements of the Mass that had become casualties of COVID-19 precautions: How should my parish reintroduce singing at Mass? How should my parish reintroduce communion from the chalice? How should my parish reintroduce the sign of peace at Mass? We continue to take up similar questions this time. The elimination or modification of normative practices has in some instances disfigured the liturgy—and disfigured the liturgical portrayal of Christ. Bringing these elements back according to current ritual books, ecclesial law, and the liturgical tradition is an opportunity for all liturgical leaders.
Q: How can the offertory procession be reinstated?
A: To avoid any unnecessary, close contact between persons, as well as to limit any extra handling of the Eucharistic bread and wine to be consumed by parishioners, many parishes or dioceses removed the offertory procession from the Mass and simply moved the elements from the credence table in the sanctuary to the altar during the preparation of the gifts. Additionally, in some churches, baskets or other containers were placed at the entrance of the nave for parishioners to leave envelopes. These are safe and efficient means to get gifts to the altar and to the bank. But should these adaptations continue?
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states, “It is desirable that the participation of the faithful be expressed by an offering, whether of bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist or of other gifts to relieve the needs of the Church and of the poor” (140). In another section, the GIRM not only calls the offertory procession “desirable” but “praiseworthy,” adding that “even though the faithful no longer bring from their own possessions the bread and wine intended for the liturgy as was once the case, nevertheless the rite of carrying up the offerings still keeps its spiritual efficacy and significance” (73). What is the significance of the offering of the bread and wine (and gifts for the poor) that make it desirable and praiseworthy to reintroduce?
One way to provide an answer begins from the doctrine that the Church makes the Eucharist at the same time that the Eucharist makes the Church. There exists, in other words, the most intimate connection between the Sacramental Body of Christ which is the Eucharist and the Mystical Body of Christ which is the Church. We begin our membership in the Church at baptism, and we grow into living cells of the Church by the worthy reception of the Eucharist. It is the Church and her members who offer the Eucharistic sacrifice, and the life of the Church and her members are the fruit of the sacrifice. Each of the baptized, then, offers his prayers, works, joys, and sufferings—his whole self—along with Jesus, to the Father, by the hands of the priest. The presentation of bread and wine—and even that $5 bill—symbolize and express the giving of self to God.
The three young men from the Book of Daniel—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—prefigure from the fiery furnace the type of offering that is supposed to take place today at Mass. Although they have nothing externally to facilitate an offering—“no prince, prophet, or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits” (Daniel 3:38)—they give to God that which he really wants in the first place—their hearts. “But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today, as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame. And now we follow you with our whole heart” (Daniel 3:39-41).
When returning the offertory procession to the post-COVID Mass, the faithful ought to be taught that the visible gifts coming through the nave and to the altar express the inner giving of the heart to God—which is why the offertory procession is praiseworthy. Indeed, once these gifts—these hearts—are upon the altar, the priest prays (quietly) the very prayer of Azariah from the furnace, saying: “With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God” (Order of Mass, 26). Then returning to the center of the altar and facing the people, he commands them to “Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.” The proper restoration of the offertory procession will contribute the faithful’s role in offering themselves to God.
A: For starters, recall that, as the name of this role indicates, the function of an “extraordinary minister of Holy Communion” is an extra-ordinary one. This means that the role of distributing Holy Communion falls, under normal circumstances, to an “ordinary” minister: a bishop, priest, or deacon. The connection of the priest and the sacrificial offerings is both theological and etymological.
Theologically, the priest is one who mediates between God and man by means of a sacrificial gift. On behalf of man, he offers precious gifts to God; on behalf of God, he distributes graces and blessings to men. In the Mass, all gifts arrive at the altar through his hands (or those of is assistant, the deacon); bread and wine are not placed directly on the altar by acolytes or altar servers (see General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), 140, 178, 190). After the offering of the sacrifice, it then falls to the priest (or his assistant, the deacon) to return these gifts, now received by God and blessed by him, to the people. It is a part of a priest’s identity that he present human gifts to God from the people and return sanctified gifts to the people from God.
This theological truth is also suggested by the etymology of both pastor and panis (bread): the root of each word, pa-, means to “to feed,” even and especially with bread: a pantry is a room for the bread, a companion is one who shares bread, and a pastor is one who feeds with bread. Thus, not only is giving the Eucharist to the people an essential part of his priesthood, feeding with food is a part of his definition. A pastor who doesn’t feed is a contradiction in terms. Hence, as is codified in Church law, “the ordinary minister of holy communion is a bishop, presbyter, or deacon” (Canon 910 §1).
The use of laity to assist in the distribution of Holy Communion is, then, an extra-ordinary function. Such a role is not a part of the baptismal “job description”—although it very much is so for an ordained minister. As the Code of Canon Law says, “When the need of the Church warrants it and ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not [instituted] lectors or acolytes, can also supply certain of their duties, namely, to exercise the ministry of the word [i.e., preach], to preside over liturgical prayers, to confer baptism, and to distribute Holy Communion, according to the prescripts of the law” (Canon 230 §3). Notice the rather strict conditions: the needs of the Church must warrant the extraordinary use of laity; ministers must be lacking; and laity can only perform certain of the duties of the ordained.
Some of these conditions have not always been followed regarding the use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. In its 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (RS) (bearing the subtitle, “On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist”), the Holy See reemphasized the supplementary nature of extraordinary ministers: “Only out of true necessity is there to be recourse to the assistance of extraordinary ministers in the celebration of the Liturgy.” It continues: “Such recourse is not intended for the sake of a fuller participation of the laity but rather, by its very nature, is supplementary and provisional. Furthermore, when recourse is had out of necessity to the functions of extraordinary ministers, special urgent prayers of intercession should be multiplied that the Lord may soon send a Priest for the service of the community and raise up an abundance of vocations to sacred Orders” (151).
The present Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America even warns, “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 ministers 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). Indeed, until communion from the chalice returns, it may not be necessary at all to use extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.
In short, the first consideration before returning extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to Mass will determine if, in fact, they are necessary at all.
If they are needed to facilitate the distribution of Holy Communion, then a further consideration about the nature and qualifications of such ministers is in order. First, and more generally, “the lay Christian faithful called to give assistance at liturgical celebrations should be well instructed and must be those whose Christian life, morals and fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium recommend them. It is fitting that such a one should have received a liturgical formation in accordance with his or her age, condition, state of life, and religious culture. No one should be selected whose designation could cause consternation for the faithful” (RS, 46).
Secondly, and more directly related to the role of the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, candidates ought to have a great love for the Blessed Sacrament, one that they will work to deepen not only for their own sakes but for the good of the parish. Pastors might look to the instituted acolyte (a permanently instituted minister devoted to service at the altar), who is among the first of extraordinary ministers to be called upon. Pope Paul VI said of this minister that he “should learn all matters concerning public divine worship and strive to grasp their inner spiritual meaning: in that way he will be able each day to offer himself entirely to God, be an example to all by his gravity and reverence in church, and have a sincere love for the Mystical Body of Christ, the people of God, especially for the weak and the sick” (motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam). The group of extraordinary ministers whom the pastor selects (and whom the bishop approves, according to Redemptionis Sacramentum, 155), ought to come from parishioners who fit this description.
Like many elements of the Mass that have been omitted or obscured by the pandemic, the use of the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion is now able to be reintroduced in a manner more in keeping with traditional theology and current norms.
Q: How can holy water be returned to the church’s stoups?
A: The absence of holy water from the fonts and stoups has been one of the most jarring things about going to church during the pandemic. Indeed, in many parishes, holy water stoups ran dry almost immediately. While parish reservoirs of holy water remained available to take holy water home for domestic use, parochial use largely evaporated.
Sightings of holy water in the stoups of parish churches is a more regular occurrence these days. Many parishes have gotten creative, employing “touchless” holy water dispensers that release a dribble of holy water as you place your hand underneath the unit. While these get the job done, the resemblance to soap or sanitizer dispensers is out of place and they often dispense more holy water than needed, leaving a puddle on the floor. Some parishes have fonts that send the water through a filtration system, while other parishes are simply cleaning their fonts more often than before. Regardless of the delivery mechanism, the return of holy water calls us to learn again how to use it.
Holy water is arguably one of the most widely used sacramentals in the Church. Water “is one of the signs that the Church often uses in blessing the faithful” (Book of Blessings, 1388). As we sign our bodies with water in the form of the Holy Cross, we call to mind our baptism, praying for a renewal of the covenant first forged in those holy waters. Indeed, at the Mass of Christian Burial, the casket is sprinkled with holy water with these words: “In the waters of baptism N. died with Christ and rose with him to new life. May he now share with him eternal glory.”
From rebirth in baptism to Christian burial, holy water accompanies us throughout our Christian life. But holy water isn’t liquid grace. Like all sacramentals, holy water does not work mechanically. As a sacramental, holy water draws its spiritual power from Christ, through the intercession of the Church, preparing “us to receive grace and disposing us to cooperate with it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1670). But sacramentals not only dispose us to cooperate with grace, they also depend on our dispositions if we are to receive grace when we make use of them. For example, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the sprinkling of holy water can “conduce to the remission of venial sins” not simply because it is blessed, but because its use implies “a movement of reverence for God and Divine things” on the part of the user (STh., III q.87 a.3 resp). In this way the power of holy water is dependent on engaging actively in its use—believing and trusting in God and his Holy Church as we sprinkle it or use it to trace the Holy Cross over ourselves. Perhaps returning the use of holy water can be an occasion of learning to engage more actively and prayerfully in its use!