Non-Celebrating Priests as Ministers of Communion

Photo Credit: David Eucaristía. CC0 1.0

I go to a larger church with a number of priests in residence. The mass I attend only has one presider and sometimes a deacon. The presider rotates among the various priests in the parish. Each Sunday before the distribution of communion, a number of priests wearing cassocks, surplices, and stoles swoop into the sanctuary from various doors in order to distribute communion. They have not been part of the assembly until this moment, and as soon as communion has been distributed, they disappear again, presumably returning to wherever they came from.

My experience at this parish is not unique. The phenomenon has become so prevalent I wanted to look at what the liturgical documents say.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) no. 162 says this about the ministers who distribute communion:

The priest may be assisted in the distribution of Communion by other priests who happen to be present. If such priests are not present and there is a very large number of communicants, the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, e.g., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the priest may depute suitable faithful for this single occasion.

This is confirmed in the Norms for the Distribution of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds, nos. 26-28.

In my estimation, there are several issues here with the practice of priests coming in for just the distribution of communion.

The first revolves around the phrase “by other priests who happen to be present (praesentes).” A generous read of this text would suggest that priests and deacons in the general vicinity of the church may be considered “present” and thus can and should function as ordinary ministers for the distribution of communion. However, given that the GIRM is talking about the Eucharistic celebration, a more accurate read of the text would suggest that only those who are participating in the actual celebration of the Mass are “present” and thus should serve as ordinary ministers of communion.

This seems the more accurate interpretation since Redemptionis Sacramentum nos. 154-160 envisions that clergy who have been present for the Eucharistic celebration should distribute communion as ordinary ministers of communion before calling upon extraordinary ministers of communion. But Redemptionis Sacramentum does not envision a scenario where clergy who have not been part of the whole Eucharistic celebration come in to distribute communion and then leave.

This leads, however, to a second more fundamental question: If a priest has not participated in the Eucharistic liturgy, should they be distributing communion? I would say that they should not.

First, the practice of priests coming in before communion and then leaving again after communion seems to fly in the face of Vatican II’s call for full, conscious, and active participation. These ministers are not modeling that type of participation. But more importantly, it seems to devalue the recovery of Christ’s presence in the whole Eucharistic celebration – Word proclaimed, Eucharistic species, priest, and assembly. It disrupts the careful balance sought in the conciliar documents between these various modes of Christ’s presence in the liturgy.

A parallel can be established here to the rules concerning the laity’s reception of communion in the GIRM. GIRM par. 85 indicates that the faithful should ordinarily receive communion from the same Mass:

It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass and that, in the instances when it is permitted, they partake of the chalice (cf. no. 283), so that even by means of the signs Communion will stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated.

The faithful are ordinarily to receive from the same elements consecrated at the Eucharistic celebration in order to solidify their participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice. At the same time, GIRM no. 85 makes it clear that while the reception of communion from the elements consecrated in that Eucharistic celebration is the ideal, communion from the tabernacle is also acceptable. As the late Robert Taft has noted:

Eucharistic Communion is not just the sacrament of the communion of the individual with God in the Body and Blood of his Incarnate Son, which Communion from the consecrated species reserved in the tabernacle provides. Eucharistic Communion is the ecclesial communion of the faithful with one another in Christ by sharing together his sacrificial and heavenly banquet. Communion from the tabernacle can hardly claim to signify this except, of course, in the case of Communion brought to those unable to attend the banquet. The stubborn refusal to perceive this seems the result of a shift of emphasis away from Christ’s presence in the community as the purpose of his Real Presence in the eucharistic gifts, to an almost exclusive focus on his presence in the consecrated gifts alone. “The practice of distributing Communion from the tabernacle…erodes the vital connection between the assembly celebrating Eucharist and the Eucharist they receive during the communion rite.” [Taft quoting Judith Kubicki][1]

In a similar way, the distribution of the body and blood of Christ by those who are not present throughout the Eucharistic celebration also disrupts the connection between the faithful’s reception of communion and the sacrifice being celebrated by the assembly. The distribution of communion by those who have not been part of the assembly disrupts the sign-value of the assembly at precisely the moment where the faithful experience the connection between the various modes of Christ presence in the Eucharistic species, in the presider, and in the assembly. While there may be some pastoral circumstances that call for the distribution of communion by ministers (ordained and lay) who have not been present throughout the whole Eucharistic celebration, ordinarily, the ministers for communion should be drawn from those who have been present.

I bring this up as we embark upon the Eucharistic revival in the United States because I have become increasingly concerned that in many places this revival is attending only to the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species and not the manifold presence of Christ in the liturgy, especially in the Word of God and in the assembly. I would even say that the priests who come in for just the distribution of communion draw attention to Christ’s presence in the ordained clergy in a way that is detrimental to Christ’s presence in the assembly. The end result is that the careful balance sought by the conciliar documents is not being upheld.

But where is this practice coming from? Perhaps it is motivated in some circles by clericalism and in other circles by practicalities. But regardless of the intentions of those who have adopted it, the practice seems to have its vestiges in pre-Vatican II forms of distributing communion before, after, or during Mass by another priest using “the rite for the distribution of communion outside of Mass” from the Rituale Romanum. This practice was common in the pre-Vatican II liturgy until new rubrics for the distribution of communion within Mass were issued in 1961.

The mixing of practices for the distribution of communion inside and outside of Mass may also help explain the vestments worn by these priests. The donning of the cassock, surplice, and stole seems to be in tension with GIRM no. 336, which notes that an alb is the proper garment for ordained ministers exercising a ministerial function within the Eucharistic celebration. The cassock and surplice, as noted in Redemptionis Sacramentum no. 128are for those clergy who are present but do not concelebrate. At the same time, Redemptionis Sacramentum no. 15 notes that those priests who are present but do not concelebrate should still distribute communion before any extraordinary ministers of communion are called upon. This would then imply the use of a cassock and surplice for these ministers as they distribute communion; however, no mention of the stole is made. The practice of wearing a stole seems be influenced by the current Rite of Distributing Holy Communion Outside of Mass no. 20, which notes that: “the minister of communion, if he is a priest or deacon, is to be vested in an alb, or a surplice over a cassock, and a stole.” The choice of vesture by these priests mixes practices from the distribution of the Eucharist outside of Mass within Mass itself, precisely what was often done in the pre-Vatican II liturgy. This is even more so the case when the priest distributing communion does not receive communion, which raises its own theological issues.

At times pastoral circumstances dictate practices outside of the norm, but the distribution of communion by those who have not been present for the Eucharistic celebration should not be the norm. Based on the liturgical principles outlined in the GIRM and other liturgical documents, the following is how the documents seem to rank the order of precedence of ministers for the distribution of communion:

  • Presider
  • Concelebrant(s) and ministering Deacon(s)
  • Priests and deacons who are present
  • Instituted acolytes
  • Extraordinary ministers of communion
  • Other faithful deputized for that single liturgy
  • Clergy who have not been present for the Eucharistic celebration

[1] Robert Taft, “‘Communion’ from the Tabernacle: A Liturgico-Theological Oxymoron,” Worship 88 (2014): 18.

The title of this post has been updated and the content lightly edited.

Rethinking Devotions and the Liturgy in a Catholic Context

Article 13 from Sacrosanctum Concilium strikes me each time I read it:

Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church, above all when they are ordered by the Apostolic See… But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.

When I teach the reception of Sacrosanctum Concilium, I always ask my students if the liturgical reforms after Vatican II have adequately attended to popular devotion. After giving my students some time to express their own thoughts, I always weigh in on the matter myself. I begin by noting my complete support for the reforms after the Council, especially the need to rebalance the relationship between the liturgy and popular devotion. But I always end by saying that as academics, liturgists, and ministers, we need to spend some time reflecting more intentionally on devotional practices and popular piety.

Church candles” by ASHBERT is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

While the liturgy must always have primacy over devotions, Sacrosanctum Concilium reminds us that there is a proper place for popular devotions and popular piety in the church as long as they are derived from the liturgy and lead people back to the liturgy. This was reaffirmed in the 2001 Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. The directory commended (and critiqued!) the devotional life of the church and its relationship to the liturgy, while at the same time calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church’s devotions.

While devotions and practices of popular piety are important to the spiritual development of the Christian, they are also intimately connected to our understanding of what it means to be Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.

As a master’s student, I remember being struck by the work of M. Francis Mannion and his articulation of the various approaches to liturgical reform after Vatican II. [1] Speaking from a Catholic context, and in light of the “liturgy wars,” Mannion argued that what was needed to move the liturgical reforms forward in a way that would heal and strengthen the Catholic communion was an approach he termed “recatholicizing the reform.” He describes this approach as follows:

When the church is truly catholic, it is characterized by a high trinitiarian consciousness; it reaches into the very depths of the human soul; it engages profoundly the spiritual heritage of historic Christianity; and its vision is centered on the glory of God and the coming of the kingdom. [2]

This description struck me as a vision of the Church that all churches and Christians should strive for, something Mannion likely signaled by using a lowercase “c.” It is about being Christian – a re-rooting of the Christian in the common baptism we all share. But Mannion also recommended a few suggestions for what recatholicizing the reform would look like within the Catholic context. Concretely it would entail:

  • A living into the reformed liturgy
  • An allowance for inculturation
  • The recreation of the ethos of the Catholic liturgy – “beauty, majesty, spiritual profundity, solemnity”
  • Spiritual, not structural, changes – a renewal of “the spiritual, mystical, and devotional dimensions of the revised rites.”
  • The recovery of the “numinous” against modern “sterility and rationalism”
  • A turn to the aesthetics in worship
  • A turn away from pure ritual-functionalism
  • And finally, a respect for liturgical history

Ultimately, this approach “tak[es] the present rites and work[s] to celebrate them in a much more profound, dignified, and spiritually edifying manner than has generally been the case since the advent of postconciliar revision.” [3] This, Mannion felt, would also lead to a rapprochement between the progressive and traditionalist wings of the Catholic Church.

The last twenty years or so since Mannion published this piece has shown that he was probably too optimistic. Nevertheless, I still think Mannion was on to something. I have also always thought that Mannion could be taken further, and that his recatholicizing the reform must also include a call for the renewal of the devotional life of the Church.

In fact, I have always thought that a concerted renewal of popular piety in the Church – always derived from and directed back to the liturgy! – might do well to heal divides as well as help reign in misdirected devotions that have continued (or have popped back up) since the Council. But more importantly, it might also foster Catholic identity in a time when the Catholic Church could definitely use some (positive) communal identity.

So, what would it mean to reexamine Sacrosanctum Concilium art. 13 in light of a “recatholicizing the reform” approach to liturgical renewal? I think it would mean to re-enliven a number of traditional Catholic devotional practices and to connect them to the liturgical life of the Church. Here I am thinking especially of:

  • Adoration, benediction, and the devotional practices that accompany them
  • The practice of saying the rosary
  • Fostering more pilgrimages
  • The more frequent use of public processions
  • Promoting a number of Marian devotions
  • The recovery of certain novenas
  • Fostering devotional practices around the cult of the saints
  • Catechizing the faithful on relics
  • Continuing to foster the use of the stations of the cross
  • Re-enlivening the passion plays
  • Ensuring there are votive candles in our liturgical spaces
  • and much more!

Some of these devotions and popular practices are already being done well and are successful in our churches. A perfect example is the popularity of the stations of the cross during Lent. Others are somewhat easy to implement, like the presence of votive candles in our liturgical spaces. Still others, like adoration and benediction, require ongoing catechesis and reflection on best practices.

For each of these devotions to be re-enlivened and have their proper place as servants to the liturgy, the faithful will have to be properly trained in these devotional practices. This will have to include catechesis on the liturgy and each devotion.

Liturgists and ministers will also need to ensure that in the renewal of Catholic devotional practices, they remain rooted in the common baptismal identity we share with our Orthodox and Protestant sisters and brothers. Any practice that increases divisions within or between the churches is not “centered on the glory of God and the coming of the kingdom,” [4] and thus is not truly c/Catholic.

While this post has been light on the specifics, I have intended it as an invitation to myself and others on the blog to think through concrete ways the devotional life of the Church can be renewed today. Thus, I invite others to post on specific devotional practices, and how they think they could be fruitfully renewed. I hope to do that myself in a few planned blog posts. But if you have any particular devotional practices you think I should look at, please tell me in the comments below!

[1] M. Francis Mannion, “The Catholicity of the Liturgy: Shaping A New Agenda,” in Beyond the Prosaic, edited by Stratford Caldecott, 11-48 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998). Reprinted in M. Francis Mannion, Masterworks of God: Essays in Liturgical Theory and Practice (Chicago: HillenbrandBooks, 2004), Ch.9. Page numbers taken from Masterworks of God.

[2] Mannion, p. 214.

[3] Mannion, p. 219.

[4] Mannion, p. 214.

A Timely Tract…The Sanctimony of the Legion of Decency

Every time I teach introduction to liturgy to undergrads, grad students, or even ministers I always seek to accentuate the relationship between right prayer and right living – between liturgy and social justice. What a hollow trope it seems though. “How,” I am always asked, “does the liturgy in the church actually connect to the way we live? And isn’t it just enough to go to liturgy and do what the liturgical books prescribe? After all, liturgy is about ‘getting grace.’”

While I have gotten better at answering those questions, increasingly it feels like no one even wants to ask them, let alone hear my answer. For so many, “getting the grace” is all that matters. To “get the grace,” I am told, all we need to know is how to say the black and do the red.

Lest we think this is a new problem, over 80 years ago Hans Anscar Reinhold in a Timely Tract critiqued what he called the “Legion of Decency,” a riff on the National Legion of Decency. This group was established in the 1930’s to protest against films that offended Christian decency and morals.[1]

Reinhold recounts a story about a seminary professor who taught his students 4 central things about the liturgy. The first was (the myth!) that the current “liturgy is good, because it is old, as old as the Church.” The second was that obedience is the most important thing in the Church, “especially for seminarians.” As a result, “let us be obedient and carry out all the rubrics, and that is, of course, liturgy.” Third, he taught the seminarians that “the liturgy is beautiful,” but this can carry with it the danger of the senses. Nevertheless, he consoled them, telling them: “don’t worry, boys, you can’t go wrong, even when your senses come in, provided you obey…Just close your eyes…where you are alone with God.” Finally, he leveled with them that the faithful “need holy shows and sacred actions,” so “let us also stoop and descend to their level.” In the end, the liturgy, according to this seminary professor, is nothing more than a tool by which the faithful are led “to things that really count.”


This is the vision of liturgy laid out by the “Legion of Decency” and the “pious people.” What a depressingly sanitized vision of liturgy. It takes no risks. It strips of the liturgy of its challenging and prophetic dimensions – it waters down the radical call to discipleship and transformation that eating and becoming the Body of Christ demands.

It strikes me as exactly the kind of liturgical mentality that Nathan Mitchell has warned us about: “It is assumed that liturgy’s purpose is to convert parable to myth, so that people can leave church feeling ‘reconciled’ and ‘good about themselves.’”[2] It makes the parable of the widow’s mite, for instance, a tale of a pious old lady, rather than someone who gives her whole self and all that she has to God.

What the vision of liturgy as articulated by Reinhold’s professor really does is prevent the Church from actualizing the reality of the liturgy in our parishes and in our lives. This vision of liturgy strips the liturgy of its prophetic end: “Ritual’s strategy…is to urge us beyond our comfort zone, to let ourselves be ‘parabled’ or ‘koan-ed’ in the direction of a wisdom that exceeds human reason and challenges us…to change our lives.”[3] But, as Reinhold notes, it is much easier if the liturgy is “all neatly tucked away in little file boxes with labels, numbers and according to a system,” even if it means that our religious life ends up “quite dead too.”

The “Legion of Decency” has a very strong attraction, even today. It sure is comfortable to feel comforted. The “Legion of Decency” of the “pious people” today even repeats many of the same points as Reinhold’s professor:

  • The liturgy is unchanging, or if it does change only in small ways and without much human intervention.
  • To do the liturgy right – and therefore “get the grace” – all we need to do is follow the rules.
  • The liturgy is beautiful, ergo:
    • It must be celebrated with pomp and circumstance;
    • It must be protected and preserved from the tarnish of human hands.
  • The liturgy must be performed for, not by, the laity.


I sigh because I often feel like the battle between the Legion of Decency and the trained liturgist is like the battle between David and Goliath. But like the Israelites, the trained liturgists are “dismayed and terrified.”

So, what is the way forward? I am only half-heartedly joking when I say that perhaps it is time we start a legion of in-decency and impious people! I am not particularly fond of the name, but I do like the sentiment. It is time that we be willing in our classrooms and churches to take the liturgy out of the little file boxes in which we have placed it, break the labels, and challenge the system where it needs to be challenged. Perhaps doing so will breathe some new life into our churches and also help us see that the goal of liturgy is to be “parabled” so that we can change our lives and the world. If we can do that, then we really will help lead the faithful “to things that really count.”

[1] For more, see this Time’s article.

[2] Nathan Mitchell, Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006), 127–28.

[3] Ibid., 125.

Reflecting on the Church in Iraq after Pope Francis’ Trip

Amid the long shadow of the pandemic, the Senate’s passage of the next round of stimulus, and Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry, it was easy (sadly) to miss Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq – the first by any Pope.

While things can undoubtedly be said about the liturgies, in particular the Pope’s use of the Eastern Rite, my attention was drawn to the image of Pope Francis leading prayer in front of a bombed-out church in Mosul. (For more photos, check out CNN.)

Pope Francis declares hope 'more powerful than hatred' during visit to Iraq - CNN

In seeing this image, I am drawn back to 2014 when ISIS/ISIL took control of Qaraqosh and Mosul, a tragic event that I reported on for Pray Tell at the time. Pray Tell even heard voices from the ground in Iraq, including Fr. Najeeb Michaeel and Archbishop Bashar Warda, the bishop of Erbil. They were crying out, telling the Church that “We must save the minorities of Iraq.” I drew our readers’ attention to the crisis as it continued to unfold in 2015. I should likely have done more to keep our attention focused on their plight.

Nevertheless, the Lord does not abandon his children.

As I look at that image of Pope Francis in Mosul, I am taken back to the words of Archbishop Bashar Warda in 2014. Then he said: “there are maybe one or two [Christians] in Qaramless…And none that we know of in Mosul. This is the end.” But we know now that it was not the end. Pope Francis (a POPE!) just visited Mosul! The Lord does not abandon his children.

The War in Iraq devastated the Christian community in Iraq and ISIS/ISIL appeared to be the death knell for the community. The number of Christians in Iraq declined from about 1.5 million in the early 2000’s to about 200,000-400,000 today. Despite it all, the Church remains, albeit in a fragile state. As Archbishop Warda said ahead of the Pope’s visit: “As Christians, of course, I know that our problems and challenges will remain. However, the whole media, local and international, will tell the story of Christians in Iraq, which is 2,000 years [old].”

The Lord does not abandon his children.

While many are cautiously optimistic about what the Pope’s visit will mean for Christians in Iraq in the long term, I think his visit should not only serve as a balm for the Christians there but a reminder to the Church across the world of the plight of Christians in the ancient cradle of the faith.

Amid it all, I have no doubt that the Lord does not abandon his children, but we should not either. This, I think, is the central message of Pope Francis’ visit. The Lord works in mysterious ways and will not abandon his children, but a little help and attentiveness from the rest of his children wouldn’t hurt either…

And as M. Francis Mannion reported at the time, our sisters and brothers in the faith around the world could really use our help.

I will end by echoing what I said in 2015: Please join me in keeping things in perspective, advocating for our Christian brothers and sisters being persecuted, taking concrete steps to relieve their pain, praying for them in their time of need, and creating liturgies that are rooted in social transformation.







Pope Francis: The Zaire Rite, a Model for the Amazon

Today Crux news is reporting that in Pope Francis’ preface to a new collection of essays titled Pope Francis and the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire: A Promising Rite for Other Cultures [English trans.], the pope called the Zairean Rite a “promising model” for the proposed Amazonian Rite and liturgical inculturation more broadly.

This is huge news! Especially since at times the pope himself has appeared to cast some doubt on Querida Amazonia’s call for the creation of a new liturgical Rite in the Amazon.

That the pope has become very interested in the Zaire Rite should be no surprise. In fact, the Rite was celebrated by the pope at St. Peter’s Basilica one year ago today!

As someone who has studied the Western Non-Roman Rites as well as the Zaire Rite and its formation in detail, I know that the Zaire Rite is a good example of liturgical inculturation. Sadly, it also remains pretty much the only model, at least with regard to the Eucharist.

As Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue recently noted in an earlier post on the proposed Amazonian Rite, the process of liturgical inculturation is – rightfully – a slow one. In fact, the Zaire Rite is in some ways unfinished. It represents the inculturation of one, albeit important, part of the Christian ritual and sacramental system – the Eucharist – but it has largely left untouched the other rites and sacraments. Furthermore, its reception and celebration, I have been told, has not been uniform in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with some areas preferring to use the “typical” form of the Roman Rite.

Attempts at liturgical inculturation after Vatican II, including that of the Zaire Rite, also reveal a reticence on the part of Roman authorities to allow for modest, let alone farther-reaching, forms of liturgical inculturation. One need only point here to Varietates legitimae (1994). It seems that a Eurocentrism at best, or a sort of liturgical imperialism at worst, has long guided the process of liturgical inculturation in Rome, even after Vatican II. The title of the Zaire Rite can serve as a helpful example of this. As Nwaka Chris Egbulem has noted:

On April 30, 1988…the Congregation for Divine Worship gave the formal approval of the Zairean rite of the Eucharist with the official title ‘Missel Romain pour les Dioceses du Zaire’ (Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire). The Zairean church did not propose this title, nor is the title well accepted in Zaire. The title was suggested and forced on the Zairean church by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.[1]

What is needed today, and what bishops from the Amazon to Africa to Asia appear to be asking for, is a policy toward liturgical inculturation that is informed by postcolonial theory and indued with a spirit of liberation. Pope Francis’ actions appear to point to the movement of such a spirit in the halls of the Vatican.

The Zaire Rite should absolutely be considered a prophetic model for liturgical inculturation. It is perhaps one of the best liturgical gifts given to the Church after Vatican II. But what it also shows is that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond the vision of the council has only been partially fulfilled.

[1] Nwaka Egbulem, The Power of Africentric Celebrations: Inspirations from the Zairean Liturgy (New York: A Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 47.