Bishop as a Concelebrant

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Bishop as a Concelebrant

ROME, 4 MAY 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: 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 his jubilee?"

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 of dismissal."

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 jubilee.

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 every Mass.

* * *

Follow-up: Bishop as a Concelebrant [5-18-2010]

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 own laws.

— 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 liturgical law.

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.  


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