By Father Edward McNamara
Rome, 25 August 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Is it permissible at a concelebrated funeral Mass for the presider to share some parts of the rite with other concelebrants; for example, one concelebrant does the reception at the entrance of the Church, and one takes the final commendation and another does the burial, while the presider himself does the Mass? On a related point, can a concelebrant in a marriage liturgy take the nuptial blessing instead of the presiding priest? — B.T., Tamale, Ghana
A: While there is no official reply on the question of funerals, there is a private response from the Holy See related to the question of deacons presiding at wedding Masses that can throw light on this theme. This 2007 letter, issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, addresses the question from canonical and liturgical grounds, and these are the ones which concern us now.
The Vatican congregation states that a change of presider in the course of the same celebration is not admissible. Hence, neither a deacon (whether permanent or transitional) nor a priest other than the principal celebrant can preside over a wedding liturgy.
The document also explains why apparent exceptions do not detract from the rule of no change in presiding celebrant. These apparent exceptions — such as a non-concelebrating bishop who presides over some moments of the Mass, or the newly ordained bishop who becomes the principal celebrant — arise from the nature of the bishop's ministry.
The letter thus concludes that the priest who celebrates the Mass must be the one to preach, receive the vows and impart the nuptial blessing. At the discretion of the pastor, the deacon may preach the homily.
Admittedly, this letter is official but, as a private missive, has no force of law. It does, however, reflect the congregation's thinking and is based on sound liturgical reasoning.
If this is the case for a wedding, the same principle of no change in the presiding celebrant would also apply to other liturgical celebrations unless the rubrics specifically allow for the direct participation of other priests without, strictly speaking, implying a change in the presiding celebrant.
This is foreseen, for example, in a concelebration in which other priests may recite alone a part of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is also possible to divide some parts of the rite of the anointing of the sick. Thus No. 19 of the introduction to the Rite of Anointing of the Sick says:
"When two or more priests are present for the anointing of a sick person, one of them may say the prayers and carry out the anointings, saying the sacramental form. The others may take the remaining parts, such as the introductory rites, readings, invocations, or instructions. Each priest may lay hands on the sick person."
The Order of Christian Funerals does not appear to foresee any such division of the presiding minister's office for the funeral Mass. The rites presume a single presiding celebrant for those elements inherent to the rite such as reception of the body and the final commendation.
Concelebrating priests, however, are not excluded. As in any concelebration, a priest other than the principal could read the Gospel in the absence of a deacon, could preach the homily, and make the special commendation for the deceased for use in funeral Masses that are found in the Eucharistic Prayers.
There are some exceptions to this general rule, however. This is usually when the bishop is present at the funeral without concelebrating. For example, if the bishop attends the funeral of a priest's parent, he may prefer not to concelebrate so as to allow the priest to preside at the Mass while he carries out the final commendation at the end.
Therefore, while such a division of the funeral rites should not be a normal occurrence, there may be some special occasions in which it could be justified, especially with respect to the final commendation.
The other rites, outside of Mass, such as the vigil in the house of the deceased or the funeral home, and the rites of burial or committal, may certainly be entrusted to a different priest than the one who celebrates the funeral Mass. Although in some places burial immediately follows the funeral, so as to form a single rite, this is most often not the case and thus, they are usually considered as separate rites which a different priest may preside.