ROME, 24 FEB. 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of
liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: At the weekday Mass our priests drop the ritual
washing of the hands from the liturgy. Is this acceptable? I understand
from what I read that no priest is allowed to change the Mass as
prescribed in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. They also only
dress in the alb and stole rather than proper vestments. One of them also
says the entire first part of the Mass (Confiteor, etc.) from the front
aisle and, after his homily, sits in the pews with the congregation rather
than in the chair in the sanctuary. I find many of these things very
distracting.—R.M., Kansas City, Missouri
A: You are correct in saying that no priest is
allowed to change the prayers and rites of the Church except where the
rubrics specifically authorize him to do so, and you touch upon some very
We have dealt in an earlier column about the use of
proper vestments at Mass (Oct. 7). The examples you cite are just a few
among many that in themselves may seem slight but which cumulatively
weaken the overall spiritual effectiveness of the rites.
The fact that you, and probably many others, find
these anomalous practices distracting should serve as a reminder to us
priests that we are first and foremost servants, not owners, of the divine
mysteries. The Catholic faithful have a sacred and inviolable right to
participate in the liturgy that the Catholic Church recognizes as its own,
and we priests have a corresponding duty to fulfill that right.
In many cases these errors are due less to acts of
willful disobedience as to an inadequate liturgical and canonical
formation in the seminary.
In my travels I have met priests who categorically
affirm that they learned in the seminary that “Rome” or “the Vatican” had
abolished, mandated, mitigated or otherwise modified certain liturgical
practices that I knew with certainty the Holy See had said nary a word
about. Or indeed had said the exact opposite.
Sometimes a priest is doing these things in
perfectly good faith and believes he is doing the right thing. Often a
gentle request and an explanation of why you find these things distracting
can clarify things for all concerned.
Before speaking to your priest, pray to the Holy
Spirit so that he may enlighten both of you and that charity should reign
supreme in your conversation.
In order to practice Catholic liturgy, one must
know it. An advantage of Internet access to the new General Instruction of
the Roman Missal (GIRM) and many other documents is that priests, deacons
and lay people can read the norms themselves and find out how the Church
desires that Mass be celebrated.
In most cases the GIRM is itself sufficiently clear
to allow most parishes to easily apply most of its dispositions without
any need to recur to the aid of liturgical specialists (including me).
Certainly some minor adaptations will always be
necessary due to contingent elements such as church design and the size of
the presbytery. But these are quite easy once the general principles are
To complete the response I will comment briefly.
The washing of hands at the end of the offertory
rites may never be omitted at any Mass. It is a significant rite and
expresses the priest’s need for purification before embarking on the great
The omission of the rite may stem from a theory of
its origin, popular a few years ago, that the rite was originally
practical and was required because dust from the loaves handled during the
offertory during the ancient celebration needed to be removed from the
celebrant’s hands. Only later was a spiritual meaning given to the rite.
Thus, some argued, the advent of pre-prepared hosts
had rendered the rite obsolete. This theory, while coherent, has the
disadvantage of being wrong.
Further research into the ancient rites has shown
that the rite of washing of hands (dating from the fourth century) is
older than the procession of gifts, and even after this practice was
introduced the celebrant often washed his hands before, not after,
Thus the rite has always had the sense of spiritual
purification and validly retains this meaning today.
The penchant for leading the assembly from the pews
rather than from the priest’s chair is a far more recent phenomenon.
The GIRM in No. 310 says that this chair “must
signify his [the priest’s] office of presiding over the gathering and of
directing the prayer. ... Any appearance of a throne, however, is to be
avoided. It is appropriate that, before being put into liturgical use, the
chair be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.”
Thus the chair’s use and location is not
indifferent, as it represents the role of the priest, who is not just a
team leader. Rather, as the bishop proclaims in the prayer of ordination,
priests are united to the order of bishops “in the invocation of your
mercy for the souls entrusted to them and for the entire world.”
The chair, by calling to mind the bishop’s
cathedra, also symbolizes the assembly’s communion, through the priest,
with the whole diocese and the universal Church.
Although we perhaps rarely consider them, the
totality of our symbols, postures, gestures and suchlike manifests who we
are and what ecclesiological ideas underlie our actions. History teaches
us that a change in symbolism, given time, can provoke a change in
mentality and even advance heterodox opinions.
Thus presiding from the chair or leading from the
aisle could be taken as representing two distinct concepts of Church and
of priesthood. And while this does not mean that the priest you mention
holds any erroneous ideas, it is necessary to consider seriously the
possible long-term consequences of our parting from established liturgical
* * *
Follow-up: Washing of the Hands [03-09-2004]
Reacting to our Feb. 24 column, a priest from Maine stated his hope that
"the practical value of the washing of hands would be more appreciated" in
our modern germ-conscious society.
"I've asked the Eucharistic ministers to gather in the sacristy before the
distribution of Holy Communion, especially in cold season, and wash their
hands," he writes.
While a practical practice of this type could be seen as an act of
charity, I would hesitate to draw out a spiritual meaning of inner
purification, which is the sense of the priest's washing of hands.
There is also some practical washing of hands foreseen in the liturgy such
as after distributing ashes, and after any rite that implies anointing.
Modern society is of course more acutely aware of hygienic questions, so
simple acts of basic cleanliness may be appreciated and seen as an act of
respect for the congregation, although without falling into exaggerations.
After all, in most cases one is far more likely to catch something at the
office, or from hugging one's own children and grandchildren, than by
receiving Communion at Mass.
In this context, as another reader suggested, it is better for the priest,
while distributing Communion, to avoid touching the head, while blessing
young children or others who do not receive Communion as this practice may
create some queasiness in those who are approaching, especially those who
prefer to receive on the tongue.
At the same time it is probably going too far to expect the priest to
refrain from shaking hands with those about him during the rite of peace,
although there can be exceptions, as happened in Canada during the SARS
epidemic, when several bishops recommended exchanging the sign of peace by
means of a simple bow.
Another reader asks if the practice of purifying the fingers after
distributing Communion has been abolished. The General Instruction of the
Roman Missal, No. 278, says: "Whenever a fragment of the host adheres to
his fingers, especially after the fraction or the Communion of the
faithful, the priest is to wipe his fingers over the paten or, if
necessary, wash them."
Therefore the practice of purifying the fingers after distributing
Communion is still in force although it is not always necessary to do so
Although the GIRM speaks only of the priest the same principle hold true
for other ministers of Communion and a vessel with fresh water and a
purificator (the small linen cloth used for purifying sacred vessels after
use) should be provided for them at the credence table or in another
convenient place. ZE04030921