ROME, 21 NOV. 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: How far from the altar can the celebrant be for the consecration and
how many altars can he preside over at once? The situation I witnessed
was in a large conference hall where bread and wine were prepared at
each table where eight people sat around and the priest was at another
table at the end of the hall. I question the validity of consecration at
any of the tables except where the priest was. If this is valid, then
what is to keep a missionary or bishop from consecrating all the
elements on all the altars at a given time across his parish or diocese?
Some say valid location is based on intention, so you could have a very
broad intention, yes?
D.H., Salem, Missouri
A: There are several points that need to be addressed.
Needless to say, the situation described represents a very grave abuse
of liturgical norms and shows disrespect toward the Eucharist and very
poor theology. It would be too extensive to list all infractions of
liturgical law. But then, it is unlikely that fidelity to liturgical law
is of uppermost concern to the priest who performed this rite.
To take just one aspect, this function certainly went against the
instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," Nos. 38 and 77:
"The constant teaching of the Church on the nature of the Eucharist not
only as a meal, but also and pre-eminently as a Sacrifice, is therefore
rightly understood to be one of the principal keys to the full
participation of all the faithful in so great a Sacrament. For when
'stripped of its sacrificial meaning, the mystery is understood as if
its meaning and importance were simply that of a fraternal banquet.'
"The celebration of Holy Mass is not to be inserted in any way into the
setting of a common meal, nor joined with this kind of banquet. Mass is
not to be celebrated without grave necessity on a dinner table nor in a
dining room or banquet hall, nor in a room where food is present, nor in
a place where the participants during the celebration itself are seated
at tables. If out of grave necessity Mass must be celebrated in the same
place where eating will later take place, there is to be a clear
interval of time between the conclusion of Mass and the beginning of the
meal, and ordinary food is not to be set before the faithful during the
celebration of Mass."
A far graver point regards the validity of the supposed consecration at
the other tables. Here we must examine several points, since a definite
answer is not easy.
According to the doctrine of Council of Trent, the sacramental intention
must be to do as the Church does whenever it performs this rite. This
means that the celebrant must at least intend to consecrate the bread
It does not mean that he intends to follow all Church norms in doing so.
Provided that correct matter and form are united to the intention, the
Church would normally recognize the validity of an abusive Eucharistic
celebration where many norms were flouted.
At the same time, abuses can reach such a level that they would
demonstrate that the celebrant no longer intends to do as the Church
does. And hence the sacrament would be invalid even though correct
matter and form is used.
Thus, for example, the Church has officially declared that it does not
recognize the baptism of certain groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses or
Mormons. Although they might use a correct baptismal formula, they do
not believe in the Trinity
and so it is not baptism as Christians understand it.
In the case at hand it could be argued that the level of abuse was such
that the intention no longer corresponded to the Church's mind. The
argument is possible but not absolutely certain.
The question of distance must also be addressed. As our reader points
out, if intention alone is sufficient, what would prevent long-distance
consecration? Here the words of consecration themselves should help us.
There has to be some meaning to the words "Take this," and "This is my
body (blood)." The word "this" is not the same as "that" or "over
Liturgical norms usually require that all that is to be consecrated be
present before the priest on the altar and upon a corporal. On very
exceptional circumstances, such as large papal Masses, ciboria with
hosts have been held by priests and deacons who are around or
immediately behind the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer. Thus some
relationship between the altar and the hosts to be consecrated is always
maintained even though on some occasions the physical distance might be
On one or two occasions, when the number of people made it impossible
for the priests around the altar to distribute Communion to everyone
from the hosts consecrated at the Mass, hosts consecrated at another
Mass and reserved at a nearby church were used to distribute Communion
to those furthest away. Not even the Holy Father believed that he could
consecrate at a distance.
This point would also make it more likely that the attempted
consecration at other tables was invalid. Once more, the argument is not
airtight, but it is probable. And so the priest should not have
proceeded as he did, since we cannot play games with the validity of the
Such a case should be reported to the bishop who is responsible for
making sure that the priest in question fully understands the gravity of
his action and for assuring that there will be no repetition. ZE06112121
* * *
Follow-up: Consecration at a Distance [12-05-2006]
Two distinct themes emerged from our Nov. 21 comments on a "long
Some priests mentioned their participation in papal Masses where they
held up the hosts to be consecrated even though there was some distance
from the altar.
The point here is not so much the physical distance, which due to the
nature of some podiums can be relatively large, but the relationship
which the priests holding the hosts for consecration had with the altar.
In the vast majority of cases the priests who hold the ciboria at papal
Masses have some direct relationship with the altar. There is usually
nobody between the priests and the concelebrants at the altar and the
celebrant is aware of their presence.
If on some occasion this aspect was not observed, it was probably due
either to lack of organization or inexperience in planning the logistics
of papal Masses, especially in the early years of Pope John Paul II's
In the case we examined there was no such relationship between the hosts
supposedly consecrated and the "altar."
An attentive reader from New Haven, Connecticut, caught a theological
imprecision in an example I gave regarding the non-recognition of Mormon
He writes: "I recall reading in more than one place that belief as such,
on the part of the baptizer, is not necessary to validly administer the
sacrament of baptism, the dramatic formulation of this being that even
an atheist may baptize. No atheist, however, believes in the Trinity; as
I recall the traditional formulation, it is the atheist's intending to
do what the Church does (however obscure the atheist's motivations) that
makes the valid administration of the sacrament possible.
"In the cases of Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, then, it is not their
unbelief in the Trinity as such that renders their baptisms invalid, but
rather the corollary that, given their unbelief, they do not intend as a
rule to do what the Church does in baptizing. The sacrament fails from
lack of intention.
"Moreover, since atheists may baptize despite being atheists, it must
also be technically possible that Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses may
baptize as well, despite their own religious convictions, if in
particular cases (for whatever reasons) they should deliberately choose
to unite their intention with the intention of the Catholic Church in
Our reader's observations are fundamentally correct regarding the
distinction between belief and intention, and regarding the reasons for
the non-recognition of baptisms performed within the Mormon belief
system. The non-validity of these baptisms was officially declared in a
very brief note signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with the specific
approval of John Paul II on June 5, 2001. ZE06120523