ROME, 4 MAY 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
I wonder if you might know if there has been a statement
regarding a bishop concelebrating a liturgy with a priest as the
principal celebrant? The Ceremonial of Bishops offers the
possibility of a bishop "presiding" but not, strictly speaking,
concelebrating at a Mass in which a priest is the principal
celebrant. It would seem to create theological difficulties to
have a bishop as one concelebrant among many while a priest is
the principal celebrant. However, in reality this situation
occurs often enough. For example, a retired bishop, who is a
religious, returns to his priory and wants participate in the
conventual Mass. It would be an undue burden on both him and his
community if he were to celebrate every time he concelebrated.
T.P., Washington, D.C.
A: Actually, there is a recent statement on this point. An
official "Responsa ad dubia proposita" (response to a doubt) was
published in 2009 in Notitiae, the official organ of the
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. This is
therefore an authentic interpretation of the law.
The proposed question, in an unofficial translation, was:
"Whether it is licit for a bishop to concelebrate on occasion of
a priestly jubilee in which he takes a place among the priests
ceding the role of principal celebrant to the priest celebrating
The Vatican congregation in the laconic tradition of such
documents replied, "Negative."
It then proceeded to explain its reasoning that the liturgical
norm remains in force. This norm, which is rooted in theological
principles and the wisdom of the Church Fathers, is that the
bishop either presides over the Eucharistic celebration or
refrains from celebrating.
It then quotes No. 18 of the Ceremonial of Bishops: "Any
community of the altar, under the sacred ministry of the bishop,
stands out clearly as a symbol of that charity and unity of the
Mystical Body without which there can be no salvation.
"Thus it is very fitting that when the bishop, who is marked by
the fullness of the sacrament of orders, is present at a
liturgical celebration in which a congregation takes part, he
personally preside. The reason for this is not to give added
outward solemnity to the rite, but to make the celebration a
more striking sign of the mystery of the Church.
"For the same reason it is fitting that the bishop associate
presbyters with himself as concelebrants.
"When a bishop presides at the Eucharist but is not the
celebrant he does everything in the liturgy of the word that
belongs to the celebrant and he concludes the Mass with the rite
The rites referred to in the last paragraph are described later
in the Ceremonial in Nos. 176-186.
It must be noted that this official reply does not address the
precise case described by our reader. The Ceremonial of Bishops,
No. 18, clearly refers to a Mass in which a congregation takes
part, and this is not necessarily the case in a conventual Mass
although it would almost certainly be the case for a priestly
At the same time, the bishop is endowed with the fullness of the
priesthood, and this reality should be reflected in his role in
any celebration. It is also true that he always retains the
option of celebrating apart from the community Mass, so his
concelebrating here is never a necessity.
A situation could arise, however, in which a frail and elderly
bishop might be unable to offer Mass personally or preside over
the community Mass every day. I would say that if it were to
come down to a choice between concelebrating without presiding
or not celebrating Mass at all, then the former option would be
both legitimate and spiritually preferable.
Also, in view of the importance of the conventual Mass for a
religious community, the possibility remains open for a retired
religious bishop to petition the Holy See for an ad hoc
dispensation from the general principle of his presiding at
* * *
Follow-up: Bishop as a Concelebrant
A Canadian canonist sent me the following clarifying
note: "In response to your 4 May 2010 column, 'Bishop as
Concelebrant,' I would like to offer the following
clarification. The responses to proposed doubts (Responsa
ad dubia proposita) published in Notitiae are not
authentic interpretations of the law. Authentic
interpretations are treated in c. 16 of the 1983 Code of
Canon Law. What distinguishes an authentic
interpretation of law from, say, a private reply is the
following: (1) laws are authentically interpreted by the
legislator or the one to whom the same legislator has
entrusted the power of authentically interpreting; (2)
an authentic interpretation has the same force as the
law itself; (3) authentic interpretations put forth in
the form of law must be promulgated. "The legislator has
not, as far as I am aware, entrusted the Congregation
for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
with the power to authentically interpret laws. This is
reserved to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts
(Pastor bonus, arts. 154-155). What is published
in Notitiae is effectively an interpretation in the form
of an administrative act in a particular matter. Names
and particulars have been removed before publication.
Consequently, it does not possess the force of law and
it binds only those for whom and affects the matters for
which it was given (c. 16, §3). Responses to proposed
doubts should not be dismissed on account of this
distinction. In publishing them in Notitiae, the CDWDS
is revealing the praxis Curiae (cf. c. 19) and
suggesting that the response has a more general interest
and application. It is not, however, an authentic
interpretation of the law."
I am very grateful to our reader for this note. As I
have mentioned on other occasions, I am not a trained
canonist and so can easily err with regard to the
technical meanings of words.
At the same time, I am inclined to doubt that the
Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments has
no authority to interpret liturgical law. My reasoning
is the following:
Canon 2 specifically states: "For the most part the Code
does not define the rites which must be observed in
celebrating liturgical actions. Therefore, liturgical
laws in force until now retain their force unless one of
them is contrary to the canons of the Code." This canon
affirms the existence of a true body of law that falls
outside the aegis of the Code. This law is at the same
time narrower in scope and more extensive in volume than
the Code of Canon Law. This law is still found in
multiple sources and has not been formally codified.
It would seem strange that such a vast body of law has
no official interpretative authority. The Pontifical
Council for Legislative Texts does not appear to be the
appropriate body. Although it has made several authentic
interpretations regarding liturgical matters, all of
them refer exclusively to the Code. It has so far never
issued an interpretation regarding liturgical matters
not found in the Code.
Since the Congregation for Divine Worship officially
issues almost all liturgical law, it is the most likely
official organism for its interpretation. It would be
something of an anomaly that it could not interpret its
When this congregation interprets liturgical law it does
so in several ways. Sometimes it publishes private
replies without any name, and this is certainly an
example of the administrative act and the praxis
curiae mentioned above by our reader. On the other
hand, when it issues a "Response to a doubt," it adopts
a technical Latin language format similar to that used
by the Council for Legislative Texts when this body
issues authentic interpretations. At the very least it
has the appearance of the legislator's will to issue a
definitive interpretation of a doubtful point of
For these reasons, although perhaps the expression
"authentic interpretation" is not correct, I do believe
that the Congregation for Divine Worship has the
authority to interpret those liturgical laws not found
in the Code of Canon Law.