Priest's Role in the Passion Reading

Author: Father Edward McNamara

Priest's Role in the Passion Reading
Rome, 18 June 2019 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: We recently had a discussion surrounding the Ordo statement that the “role of Christ should be reserved for a priest.” According to a 1988 Holy See circular letter on the Easter celebrations, in article No. 33, which deals with the readings of the Passion, it was determined that during the Passion reading the role of Christ should be reserved for the priest. Could you help direct me toward the liturgical theology that would support such a statement? The word “should” implies to me that it is not an absolute but more of courtesy out of respect — a way of involving the priest in the Passion reading at an important part of the liturgical cycle. Secondly, should a deacon be removed from the reading of the Passion completely in order to allow lay readers and lectors to engage in their ministry? — M.T., Winnipeg, Manitoba

A: The text of the 1988 circular letter referred to (Paschale Solemnitatis) is the following.

“33. The passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the part of Christ, the narrator, and the people. The passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of the Christ should be reserved to the priest.

“The proclamation of the passion should be without candles and incense; the greeting and the sings of the cross are omitted; and only a deacon asks for the blessing, as he does before the Gospel. For the spiritual good of the faithful, the passion should be proclaimed in its entirety, and the readings that proceed it should not be omitted.

“66. [On Good Friday] The readings are to be read in their entirety. The responsorial psalm and the chant before the gospel are to be sung in the usual manner. The narrative of the Lord’s passion according to John is sung or read in the way prescribed for the previous Sunday (cf. n. 33). After the reading of the passion, a homily should be given, at the end of which the faithful may be invited to spend a short time in meditation.”

The Roman Missal phrases the question slightly differently:

“The narrative of the Lord’s Passion is read without candles and without incense, with no greeting or signing of the Book. It is read by a Deacon or, if there is no Deacon, by a Priest. It may also be read by readers, with the part of Christ, if possible, reserved to a priest.”

In order to determine any priority involved, we should observe the order mentioned above: deacons, priests and lay readers. This implies a clear preference while giving some scope for practical solutions.

The ideal situation is that the Passion be sung or read by three deacons. In some places, the choir, or even the assembly, can take up a fourth role as the multitude as is done at papal celebrations.

If three priests are available, but no deacons, then they would have a preference in proclaiming the Passion.

If there is a combination of priests and deacons, the above norms would imply, but not require, that the priest take up the role of Christ. This would be a practical question depending on who can best sing or read the text.

The role of Christ is specifically reserved to the priest only in the case that the other two readers are lay readers. The rule of reserving the role of Christ to the priest when accompanied by lay readers obeys a certain liturgical logic insofar as he normally represents Christ in his ministerial role.

In this context, although the Missal says that the role of Christ should be carried out by a priest “if possible,” there would be few situations where it would not be possible for a priest to carry out this role, especially considering all of the other things he has to sing or say during this rite.

It is not, however, an absolute rule, and there may be exceptions if the greater good of the celebration requires it. For example, the Passion could be solemnly sung by lay cantors in situations where the priest or deacon might lack the necessary gifts to sing the requisite parts.

* * *

Follow-up: Priest’s Role in the Passion Reading [7-16-2019]

In the wake of our June 18 reply regarding the proclamation of the Passion Gospel, a reader from Boston has contributed some useful supplementary information for which I am grateful. To wit:

“May I suggest that it might be helpful for your reader(s) to also consult the very clear Praenotanda of the book ‘The Passion of the Lord’ — whether with music or without. These rubrics are far more detailed and both introduce a number of details and clarify a number of points regarding the proclamation of the Passion. They are often overlooked, but the ‘Passio Domini nostri Iesu Christi’ is recognized by Liturgiam Authenticam 110 as a liturgical book of the Roman Rite.

“An English translation (with a couple of minor adaptions) can be found, for example, at the beginning of the Passion Gospel texts approved by the USCCB and widely used for the reading ‘in parts.’ The fact that this introduction is printed in non-musical editions, and the phrasing of the rubrics themselves, make it clear that these rubrics apply to the Passion even when read/not chanted.

“The rubric in this book makes the priority of ministers clearer than in Paschale Solemnitatis, specifying that deacons must be absent for priests to take on the role, and likewise the ordained for the non-ordained. In the USCCB translation, the relevant portion reads:

“‘The story of the Passion of the Lord is sung or proclaimed by three voices… The Passion is to be presented by deacons, or, in their absence, by priests, or in their absence too, by lectors. In the last case, however, the part of Christ should be reserved for the celebrant.’

“The version of the sung Passion printed in the U.S. contains a further modification of this rubric in favor of non-ordained singers, though it is not clear whether that modification was ever explicitly approved in the usual manner.”

This throws some light on our reader’s second question: Should a deacon be removed from the reading of the Passion completely in order to allow lay readers to engage in their ministry? The short answer is no. He should not be removed if the only reason is to allow space for lay readers. The deacon has a certain priority even over the priest.

However, as mentioned above in the case of the priest, the deacon’s participation may be limited in order to favor a more solemn proclamation of the Passion, especially if sung.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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