Face-to-Face Confessions, and Other Queries

And More on Laymen

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ROME, JAN. 8, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: With regards to several of the changes implemented with and after the promulgation of the Novus Ordo of Paul VI, are the following "optional" for the celebrant? These are all practiced at my very traditional parish, but I'm wondering if they are OK. -- J.D., Detroit, Michigan

A: As our reader gives a list, we shall attempt to answer one by one. By necessity the replies will be somewhat telegraphic without indicating all the sources and leaving aside some pastoral considerations that would nuance the responses.

-- "No face-to-face confession."

This falls within the rights of the priest, who may insist on the use of the confessional even when the penitent requests face-to-face confession. Most priests exercise flexibility on this point, but some have strong reasons for not participating in face-to-face confessions. The penitent should also exercise flexibility in respecting the priest's conscience.

-- "Communion is distributed by intinction only (therefore, no communion in the hand); kneeling at communion rail to receive Communion (can stand at communion rail to receive if need be)."

Normally it is the individual Catholic who decides the manner of receiving holy Communion in those countries where Communion in the hand is permitted. If, however, the priest opts to administer both species by intinction, then the option of receiving in the hand automatically falls by the wayside. If, for a good reason, a particular member of the faithful did not wish receive under the species of wine, then he or she must be allowed to choose to receive the host either in the hand or on the tongue.

The bishops of the United States have determined that the normal means of receiving Communion is standing and approaching the altar in procession. Rather than a law cast in stone, this norm describes what is in fact the most common practice in the country. It is still possible to kneel if this is the custom of the place and the use of the communion rail is not prohibited.

-- "No 'kiss of peace' even on Sundays ('Offer each other a sign of peace' is passed over)."

Surprising as it may seem for many, this is actually an optional gesture even on a Sunday.

-- "No female altar servers. ... No extraordinary ministers of holy Communion."

As indicated by various documents of the Holy See, the bishop may permit, but not oblige, a pastor to use female altar servers. If the pastor does not wish to take this option, then he is within his rights. Likewise, if the pastor considers that the parish has no need of "extraordinary ministers" because there are sufficient priests, then he need not have any.

-- "No female lectors."

If all the readers are lectors formally instituted by the bishop (a ministry reserved to males), then women would be excluded by default. This would be a very unlikely situation in a parish and so the readers are probably all laymen. If this is the case, then it is not correct to exclude women from reading as liturgical law makes no distinction regarding who may exercise the non-instituted ministry of reader.

-- "Recitation of the prayer to St. Michael before the final blessing."

This prayer no longer forms part of the liturgy of the Mass and would now be classed as a devotional exercise. As such, it could be recited as a long-standing custom but preferably after Mass has concluded and not incorporated into the liturgy itself.

-- "Exposition and Benediction immediately following Sunday Mass. (This is done in place of the final blessing by the priest and is very short: Jesus is exposed, Divine Praises recited, blessing given with monstrance, Jesus is returned to the tabernacle)."

This is most certainly an error. Liturgical norms expressly forbid exposition just in order to give Benediction. It is always necessary to have a congruous, albeit brief, period of adoration before Benediction. While I do not know of any required legal minimum time of exposition, I would suggest around 20 to 30 minutes as being sufficient.

-- "Mass said with priest facing east at original high altar (free-standing Novus Ordo altar remains in middle of sanctuary but not used)."

While the rubrics of Paul VI's missal foresee the possibility of celebrating Mass facing east, they do ask that there be only one main altar and that insofar as possible the altar should be free-standing so that it can be incensed all around.

The priest could still celebrate facing east, but it would be more correct to celebrate the present Roman rite using the new altar and not the old high altar.

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Follow-ups: Layman's Gestures, and Televised Masses

After our Dec. 25 column regarding a layman making the priest's gestures, a reader inquired: "Is your response primarily for those saying the prayers at certain times of the Mass, [or is it] true as well just before the Gospel when the priest makes the three signs of the cross on forehead, lips and heart? I've always thought that was reserved for the one proclaiming the Gospel, but it seems that the entire congregation does it."

My earlier response referred to a general, but not absolute, rule of thumb for presidential prayers. The example cited by our reader is actually not a presidential prayer but a monition made by the deacon or priest reading the Gospel.

The rubrics already foresee that the entire congregation makes the gesture of the triple sign of the cross together with the deacon or priest.

Another reader wrote in regarding some remarks I made in an earlier reply regarding using screens at Mass: "Like millions of people over the globe I viewed the Pope's midnight Mass taped at Vatican City. I viewed it from 11:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., Eastern Standard Time in the United States. I believe the first papal midnight Mass I watched was offered by Pope Pius XII. To write '[T]he last thing the faithful need at Mass is more television. By their very nature, television and cinema induce mental passivity and polarize attention and thus are more likely to impede rather than enhance active participation at Mass which consists in much more than merely seeing the action on the altar' -- appears to be going against the Pope and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Personally, I did not substitute the Pope's midnight Mass for attending Mass in my home parish. I was a lector at the children's vigil Mass on Christmas Eve and a minister of holy Communion on Christmas Day. Possibly you could rethink your position."

I sincerely don't believe that I need to rethink my position at all because I was writing about an entirely different situation in which I disagreed with the proposal to use screens during the celebration to enhance visibility even though the altar was clearly visible to the entire assembly.

Watching the Holy Father's midnight Mass or indeed any televised Mass is a commendable spiritual exercise, above all for those unable to attend Mass, but also for any Catholic who desires to unite heart and soul in prayer together with the Pope and the Church.

Most Catholics understand that following a televised Mass cannot, strictly speaking, fulfill the festive obligation. But it is a source of spiritual comfort and growth to those legitimately impeded, and thus dispensed, from attending Mass due to age, infirmity, distance or some other just cause.

It may also be a further source of spiritual nourishment for those who, like our reader, both attend Mass as well as follow the televised Mass.

Even while appreciating the good done by televised Masses, however, I believe there can be no comparison to the actual experience of being physically present at the august Sacrifice.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.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.