Priests, Lay Faithful and Holy Mass
In his Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Holy Father
strongly reaffirms the apostolicity of the Eucharist (cf. nn. 26-33).
The Eucharist is apostolic in a triple sense: it dates back to the
apostolic foundation constituted by Christ, it must be celebrated in
conformity with the faith of the Apostles, and it requires the service
of the ministerial priest, acting in the person of Christ, Head and
Pastor of the Church, who brings about the Eucharistic Sacrifice (cf.
Ecclesia de Eucharist, nn. 27-29).
The "necessity of the ministerial priesthood, grounded in apostolic
succession", however, "is at times obscured", as the Holy Father notes
in his list of the "shadows" that cloud the authentic light of the
Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 10).
Hence, the Pope's concern to safeguard the close bond between the
Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood is also a recurring theme in
the norms of the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum.
The 'Mediator Dei' and the specific task of the priest
The doctrinal basis for the disciplinary explanations is found in a
correct relationship between the active participation of the faithful,
reasserted with special attention since Pius X's liturgical renewal, and
the specific task of the ordained priest.
The liturgical movement, rightly asking for the intense
involvement of all the faithful in the celebration of the Eucharistic
Sacrifice, tended at times to minimize the action of the priest that
culminates in the words of the consecration, through which the bread and
the wine become the Body and Blood of Christ that make the sacrifice on
Calvary present. The magna charta for distinguishing between the
grain and the chaff in liturgical theology was Pius XII's Encyclical
Mediator Dei (1947), which is surprisingly up-to-date, and
references to it are easy to discern in John Paul II's Eucharistic
Encyclical as well as in Redemptionis Sacramentum (cf.
Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nn. 7, 12, 29; Redemptionis Sacramentum,
nn. 10, 31, 42, 134, 146).
"There are... those who, approximating to errors long since condemned
[at the Council of Trent against the Protestant Reformation, DS
1767], teach that in the New Testament by the word 'priesthood' is meant
only that priesthood which applies to all who have been baptized; and
hold that the command by which Christ gave power to his Apostles at the
Last Supper to do what he himself had done, applies directly to the
entire Christian Church, and that thence, and thence only, arises the
hierarchical priesthood. Hence, they assert that the people are
possessed of a true priestly power, while the priest only acts in virtue
of an office committed to him by the community. Wherefore, they look on
the Eucharistic Sacrifice as a 'concelebration', in the literal meaning
of that term, and consider it more fitting that priests should
'concelebrate' with the people present than that they should offer the
sacrifice privately when the people are absent....
"[Against these errors] we deem it necessary to recall that the
priest acts for the people only because he represents Jesus Christ, who
is Head of all his members and offers himself in their stead. Hence, he
goes to the altar as the minister of Christ, inferior to Christ but
superior to the people.... The unbloody immolation at the words of the
consecration, when Christ is made present upon the altar in the state of
a victim, is performed by the priest and by him alone, as the
representative of Christ and not the representative of the faithful" (DS
3850, 3852; the Italian translation in Denzinger-Hünermann
3852 and in "Enchiridion delle Encicliche" 6, n. 516, which say
that consecration should be carried out by "the priest alone since he
represents the person of the faithful", is incorrect).
The connection that Pius XII perceived between a "democratic" vision
of the liturgical subject of Holy Mass and the principles of the
Reformation seems important.
Indeed, in recent times especially, it has been above all a confusion
in the ecumenical relations with Protestants that has fostered
misunderstandings about the relationship between ordained priests and
members of the lay faithful. It may not be an exaggeration to note that
all the "shadows" which Pope John Paul II mentions explicitly are rooted
in a certain "Protestantization" that strips Holy Mass of its
sacrificial meaning and of the need for the ministerial priesthood and
for apostolic succession, whereas it reduces the sacramental nature of
the Eucharist "to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation".
It does not appear to be by chance that the Holy Father speaks of
incorrect ecumenical practices (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n.
10) immediately after the above-mentioned list.
Pius XII makes the most of the priest's contribution, speaking of his
action "in the person of Christ, Head of the Church". The formula
agere in persona Christi first appears in Medieval theology which,
in turn, draws on biblical and Patristic sources.
The apostle is already an ambassador for Christ and acts on behalf of
the One who has sent him out (for example, cf. II Cor 5:20). Acting in
the person of Christ, St Thomas Aquinas says, includes the whole range
of priestly activity and culminates in the words of the consecration
(cf. Summa Theologiae, III q. 82 a. 1, etc.; cf. B.-D. Marlingéas,
pour une théologie
In persona Christi. In persona Ecclesiae, Paris, 1978, pp.
It is impossible to extrapolate from his action in the person of
Christ both the priest's function as guide or his preaching. In spite of
this, Medieval theology (bringing the Patristic accounts into the
limelight) rightly underlines the importance of the Lord's words at the
Last Supper as, subsequently, does the Magisterium of the Church (cf.
DS 1321, 1640, 3556; Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn.
1353, 1375; Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nn. 2, 5, 29).
The words of the institution narrative have a consecratory role, but
at the same time should be seen in the context of the whole of the
Eucharistic Prayer, which can be said only by an
ordained priest (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 28;
Redemptionis Sacramentum, nn. 52, 54).
The active participation of the lay faithful
The explanation in Mediator Dei also concerns the role of the
lay faithful as bearers of the common priesthood.
"It is because the priest places the divine victim upon the altar
that he offers it to God the Father as an oblation for the glory of the
Blessed Trinity and for the good of the whole Church. Now the faithful
participate in the oblation, understood in this limited sense, after
their own fashion and in a twofold manner, namely, because they not only
offer the sacrifice by the hands of the priest, but also, to a certain
extent, in union with him. It is by reason of this participation that
the offering made by the people is also included in liturgical worship.
Now it is clear that the faithful offer the sacrifice by the hands of
the priest from the fact that the minister at the altar, in offering a
sacrifice in the name of all his members, represents Christ, the Head of
the Mystical Body. Hence, the whole Church can rightly be said to offer
up the victim through Christ.
"But the conclusion that the people offer the sacrifice with the
priest himself is not based on the fact that, being members of the
Church no less than the priest himself, they perform a visible
liturgical rite, for this is the privilege only of the minister of God
who has been divinely appointed to this office; rather, it is based on
the fact that the people unite their hearts in praise, impetration,
expiation and thanksgiving with prayers or the intention of the priest,
even of the High Priest himself, so that in the one and same offering of
the victim and according to a visible sacerdotal rite, they may be
presented to God the Father" (cf. Enchiridion delle Encicliche 6,
nn. 516 ff.; AAS 39, 1947, pp. 555 ff.; Mediator Dei,
Vatican website version, nn. 92-93).
Lumen Gentium refers to the passage quoted by Pius XII in a
footnote to its most emblematic text on the relationship between the
priest and the faithful in the liturgy, especially during Holy Mass:
"Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common
priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical
priesthood are nonetheless ordered one to another; each in its own
proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial
priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly
people; in the person of Christ he effects the Eucharistic Sacrifice and
offers it to God in the name of all the people. The faithful, indeed, by
virtue of their royal priesthood, participate in the offering of the
Eucharist. They exercise that priesthood, too, by the reception of the
sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life,
abnegation and active charity" (Lumen Gentium, n. 10).
John Paul II's Encyclical on the Eucharist refers to the text cited (Ecclesia
de Eucharistia, nn. 28-29; cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum, nn.
36, 42) with a forceful reassertion that the ministry of priests, who
act in the person of Christ, "is a gift which radically transcends
the power of the assembly..." (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n.
The Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum has much to say on
the importance and correct meaning of active participation (cf. nn.
36-47). The consequences for liturgical language are noted.
The Eucharistic Sacrifice is not to be considered a "concelebration",
in the univocal sense, of the priest along with the people present.
Certain expressions, therefore, such as "celebrating assembly" and
similar terms, should not be injudiciously used (ibid., n. 42).
It is not lawful to use the term "special minister of the Eucharist"
when it is a matter of an "extraordinary minister of Holy Communion" (ibid.,
nn. 154, 156). Both the "clericalization" of lay people and the
"laicization", so to speak, of the sacred minister are to be avoided
(cf. ibid., n. 45).
Ministerial priesthood and the sacrificial dimension of Eucharist
The specific task of the priest in the consecration is also based on
the preeminently sacrificial character of Holy Mass: the Eucharistic
celebration is not only a banquet but also and above all (etiam et
praecipue) represents Christ's sacrifice (cf. ibid., n. 38).
This assertion was already manifest in John Paul II's summary of the
Eucharistic Mystery in his Encyclical: presenting all the essential
aspects of the Eucharist, the Pope gives pride of place to the
commemoration of the sacrifice of the Cross (cf. Ecclesia de
Eucharistia, nn. 11-13).
The Eucharistic banquet, on the other hand, presupposes "the saving
efficacy of the sacrifice" which "is fully realized when the Lord's Body
and Blood are received in communion" (ibid., n. 16).
The criticism of certain abuses can be explained in the light of this
relationship between consecration and Communion: it is not permissible
for the faithful at Mass to take [sacramental] Communion by themselves
and, still less, to hand it from one to another (cf. Redemptionis
Sacramentum, nn. 94, 104), thus forgetting that Communion is not
"taken" but received from the priest, an "icon" of Christ, or in case of
need also from other ministers as prescribed by the liturgical norms
(cf. ibid., n. 88).
It is appropriate that the priest who confects the consecration in
Christ's name also distributes the Body of Christ. The intervention of
lay persons as extraordinary ministers of Communion is not a sign of a
"fuller participation of the laity", but rather, a supplementary and
provisional measure in those cases when it is truly necessary (cf.
ibid., nn. 151-152, 155, 157-160).
The connection between the consecration and the homily
The close connection between the ministerial priesthood and the
common priesthood is also expressed in the different way in which each
participates in the proclamation of the Word of God. In the celebration
of the Eucharist, the homily is an integral part of the liturgy, as the
Second Vatican Council reaffirms (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n.
52). The homily is therefore reserved to the priest or deacon. Hence,
preaching at Holy Mass by lay people, including "pastoral assistants",
is an abuse (cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum, nn. 64-66).
The norms regulating the preaching of lay persons outside Holy Mass
should be kept in mind and this must continue to be a very exceptional
measure (cf. ibid., n. 161). Lay people may give testimonies
during Holy Mass only on exceptional occasions and this must never
become a regular practice. In these cases, such testimonies are to be
given after the priest has proclaimed the Prayer after Communion. They
must not replace the homily given by the priest or deacon (cf. ibid.,
There must be no sense of stripping the priest of his specific
representation of Christ in his preaching and guidance of the community
by reducing him to his ritual function, which may even be reduced to the
mere recitation of the words of the consecration as, unfortunately,
occurs in certain ecclesiastical regions. Consequently, the general
notes on extraordinary lay ministries are more than opportune (cf.
ibid., nn. 146-153).
Special attention should be paid to those specific Sunday
celebrations which, however, in no way replace Holy Mass. This is also
particularly applicable to ecumenical rites (cf. ibid., nn.
The right of the lay faithful to an authentic liturgy
The Instruction reaffirms the specific responsibility of the
ministerial priesthood, but at the same time, it counters the arrogance
of clerics (and lay people) who claim that the liturgy is their private
property (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 52; Redemptionis
Sacramentum, n. 18).
The Council insisted: "Liturgical services are not private functions
but are celebrations of the Church which is 'the sacrament of unity' (Sacrosanctum
Concilium, n. 26). It is intolerable that "a misguided sense of
creativity and adaptation" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 52)
alters the liturgical texts which are, precisely, a precious treasure in
the celebration of the Eucharist, the source and summit of the whole
life of the Church (the Second Vatican Council also placed great
emphasis on this point: cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 22 § 3;
Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 31).
Consequently the Instruction formulates the "right" of the faithful
to expect of their Pastors the authentic Catholic liturgy and not an
arbitrary product of a private individual (in particular, the unaltered
use of the Missal should be respected: cf. ibid., nn. 10-12,
The requirements of penal law
To get the better of abuses concerning the extraordinary functions of
lay people (cf. ibid., chap. VII, nn. 146-168), it is essential
to remember the Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio of 1997 (L'Osservatore
Romano English edition, [ORE], 19 November 1997, p. I-VII),
compiled by several Pontifical Dicasteries: "On Certain Questions
Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred
Ministry of Priests". If the directives of this Document to which
Redemptionis Sacramentum refers several times (cf. nn. 45, 6466, 74,
146-147, 151, 154-155, 158, 161, 168) had been observed everywhere, it
would certainly not have been necessary to deplore the same painful
points once again.
They concern above all the homily during Mass that must never be
given by lay pastoral assistants (cf. ibid., nn. 64-66, 74, 161),
the undue intervention of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (cf.
ibid., nn. 154-155, 158) and the replacement of the Eucharistic
celebration on Sundays by other services (cf. ibid., nn. 162-167,
and Ecclesiae de Mysterio, Practical Provisions, art. 7). "There
can be no substitute whatsoever for the ministerial priesthood" (cf.
Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 146).
It is therefore necessary to recognize "that the daily practice of
the collaboration of lay people [that is, pastoral assistants] with the
responsibilities of the ordained minister... must be considered as an
emergency measure and we must be concerned about the sacramental sign of
ordination.... A further presupposition consists in redoubling all our
efforts in the pastoral care of vocations. I am not yet convinced that
in our Diocese we are doing all that is possible and necessary in that
regard" (Bishop Kurt Koch of Basel, Switzerland, Insieme responsabili
per la nostra diocesi, Soletta, 1998, pp. 12 ff.).
For further clarification, the Instruction Redemptionis
Sacramentum devotes an entire chapter to this matter: Remedies
(chap. VIII, nn. 169-184).
It would seem that today it is once again necessary to act in the
same way as the early Church, which also intervened as a last resort
with penal sanctions (cf., for example, Mt 18:15-18; I Cor 5:1-13).
For our subject it suffices to remember that the "concelebration" of
the Eucharistic Sacrifice with a Protestant minister, whose Ecclesial
Community does not have apostolic succession (cf. Redemptionis
Sacramentum, n. 172), is one of the graviora delicta [most
serious offences], while the serious offences (which put at risk the
validity and dignity of the Eucharist: cf. ibid., n. 173)
include: the use of Eucharistic Prayers that have not been approved by
the Holy See, any alteration to the approved texts of these Eucharistic
Prayers (cf. ibid., n. 51), the recitation of even only some
parts of the Eucharistic Prayer by individual lay persons or deacons
(cf. ibid., n. 52), the distribution of Communion by
non-authorized lay persons (cf. ibid., nn. 94, 104) and the
celebration of the Eucharist without the sacred vestments prescribed by
the liturgical norms (cf. ibid. n. 126); it is also forbidden for
lay people to don liturgical vestments (or similar clothing) proper to
the deacon or priest (cf. ibid., n. 153).
The Bishops (and other Ordinaries) are obliged to refer to the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith any information concerning
the most serious delicts; these serious abuses must also be reported to
the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
(cf. ibid., nn. 179-182).
In addition, the other abuses mentioned by the Instruction are not to
be seen as "of little account" but must be carefully avoided and
corrected (cf. ibid., n. 174).
Every member of the Catholic faithful has the right to lodge a
complaint about abuses, in truth and charity, with the diocesan Bishop
or directly with the Holy See (cf. ibid., n. 184).
Mary prefigures the common priesthood
For the correction of abuses, penal law, although necessary, is
inadequate. A rediscovery of the whole treasure of the faith is pressing
Here the Mother of God, "having entered deeply into the history of
salvation... in a way, unites in her person and re-echoes the most
important doctrines of the faith" (Lumen Gentium, n. 65).
John Paul II reaffirms the importance of Mary as a "woman of the
Eucharist" (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nn. 53-58;
Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 185). The comparison that the Holy
Father makes between the Incarnation and the Eucharist is particularly
significant: "There is a profound analogy between the Fiat which
Mary said in reply to the Angel, and the Amen which every
believer says when receiving the Body of the Lord" (Ecclesia de
Eucharistia, n. 55).
The "yes" of Mary and of the faithful to the Eucharist makes the
presence of the Incarnate Word possible in the world and in the soul of
Mary's fiat is prolonged throughout her life beside Christ and
reaches its culmination on Calvary (cf. ibid., n. 56). Mary's
presence beneath the Cross can in a certain sense be compared with the
participation of the faithful in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
Just as it is Christ, the God-man, who redeemed the world on the
altar of the Cross, so through the ordained priest, representing Christ,
the effective memorial of the sacrifice on Golgotha takes place.
For the redemption of the world, Christ's sacrifice suffices in
itself; likewise, the Eucharistic Sacrifice is valid and fruitful even
when the lay faithful are unable to be present (cf. Presbyterorum
Ordinis, n. 13; Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 31;
Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 110).
In spite of this, Mary's presence beneath the Cross is important, as
likewise is the greatest possible participation of the lay faithful in
the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
In his papal coat-of-arms, John Paul II also reasserts Mary's
cooperation in the bringing about of Redemption.
Commenting on Mary's cooperation in salvation, the Supreme Pontiff
notes, according to Lumen Gentium (n. 58), that "her consent to
Jesus' immolation is not passive acceptance but a genuine act of love,
by which she offers her Son as a 'victim' of expiation for the sins of
all humanity" (General Audience, 2 April 1997, n. 2; [ORE],
9 April 1997, p. 11; cf. also Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, n. 20).
Mary's maternal sacrifice should not be confused with Christ's
sacrificial act, but it is thus that the Mother of God associates
herself with her Son's sacrifice in her heart, thereby becoming the
mother of all the faithful in the order of grace (cf. Lumen Gentium,
nn. 58, 61).
What happened in the bringing about of (objective) Redemption,
happens likewise in a similar way in the arrival of the fruits of the
Cross for men and women (subjective Redemption): joining in the
sacramental action of the priest who acts in the person of Christ during
Holy Mass, the faithful "offer the sacrifice not only by the hands of
the priest", but in a certain way also together "with him" (Pius XII,
Mediator Dei, AAS 39, 1947, pp. 555 ff.). With their participation,
they ensure that the grace of Christ, merited on the Cross, has the
greatest possible outreach in this world.
Thus, the mystery of Mary, a "woman of the Eucharist", can also
illumine the ecclesial controversies of our time and establish a just
balance between the "Petrine principle", understood as a special
realization of the ministerial priesthood, and the "Marian" principle an
eminent prefiguration of the common priesthood (cf. John Paul II,
Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 27).