A Commentator's Role

Author: Father Edward McNamara


A Commentator's Role

ROME, 24 JUNE 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Can you provide any insight into the role of the commentator? The commentator is quite common here in the United States, and every church seems to have a different job description for this person. For example, in our parish before the start of Mass the commentator greets the people, asks if anyone is celebrating a birthday or anniversary or is visiting. Then there is the usual happy birthday or anniversary song. Then the commentator gives a 5- to 6-minute reflection and words of advice for the coming week. During the Mass the commentator sits in the sanctuary; directs the people via hand signals whether to sit, kneel, rise; calls out the music/song that we will be singing, etc. At the end of Mass, before the final benediction he/she reads the announcements; gives comments and their take on the homily; and thanks the people, etc. I have suggested this is taking the role of "commentator" a bit too far, but cannot find anything in the GIRM to help back up my claim. Can you help? — M.P., Keaau, Hawaii

A: I think you are correct that this is taking the role of commentator a bit too far.

The liturgical function of the commentator is described, along with that of sacristans, ushers, and those who take up the collection, in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 105:

“The commentator […] provides the faithful, when appropriate, with brief explanations and commentaries with the purpose of introducing them to the celebration and preparing them to understand it better. The commentator's remarks must be meticulously prepared and clear though brief. In performing this function the commentator stands in an appropriate place facing the faithful, but not at the ambo.”

No. 352 of the GIRM later insists on the need for preparation: “Since, indeed, a variety of options is provided for the different parts of the Mass, it is necessary for the deacon, the lectors, the psalmist, the cantor, the commentator, and the choir to be completely sure before the celebration which text for which each is responsible is to be used and that nothing be improvised. Harmonious planning and carrying out of the rites will great assistance in disposing the faithful to participate in the Eucharist.”

This is all that is said about the commentator. By saying that the commentator intervenes “when appropriate” could be interpreted that this function is best used whenever there is something special, such as a confirmation or ordination that requires some explanation.

The insistence that this office’s functions must be meticulously prepared and are specifically orientated toward helping the people live the celebration would seem to exclude spontaneous interventions and unprepared remarks based on the homily.

Likewise it is highly debatable that the assembly’s singing "Happy Birthday" is the most appropriate spiritual preparation for Mass.

It must also be remembered that GIRM, No. 31, specifically assigns the presentation of the rite and any concluding summaries to the presiding priest and not to the commentator: “It is also up to the priest, in the exercise of his office of presiding over the gathered assembly, to offer certain explanations that are foreseen in the rite itself…. In addition, he may give the faithful a very brief introduction to the Mass of the day (after the initial Greeting and before the Act of Penitence), to the Liturgy of the Word (before the readings), and to the Eucharistic Prayer (before the Preface), though never during the Eucharistic Prayer itself; he may also make concluding comments to the entire sacred action before the dismissal.”

GIRM, No. 50, however, foresees the possibility that the brief introduction to the Mass of the day may also be assigned to a lay minister.

Although it is not a specific function of the commentator to call out the songs or make the usual announcements at the end of Mass, it is practical so as not to multiply the number of people in the sanctuary. All the same, it would be better to find another means to designate the songs so as to limit interruptions to the prescribed rite.

The duty of indicating, whenever necessary, the posture to be adopted by the people has traditionally fallen on the deacon, or on the cantor. It is usually only necessary when some special rite is celebrated, such as the Litany of Saints during ordinations.

The duty of indicating, whenever necessary, the posture to be adopted by the people has traditionally fallen on the deacon or the cantor. But No. 43 of the GIRM also allows this task to be assigned to another lay minister if necessary: “With a view to a uniformity in gestures and postures during one and the same celebration, the faithful should follow the directions which the deacon, lay minister, or priest gives according to whatever is indicated in the Missal.”

I believe that such indications are usually only necessary when some special rite is celebrated, such as the Litany of Saints during ordinations or in places where there are frequent visitors from different parts of the world who might be used to other practices.

Otherwise I believe that it is better to leave aside choreographic gestures and indications for regular Sunday Masses. Some of these might have been necessary at the beginning of the reform until people got used to the new rite. But after nearly 40 years of practice I think most Catholics now know when to kneel, sit and stand.

Something similar can be said about the persistent habit of cantors raising their hands, or saying “Response” after each psalm verse or invocation of the prayer of the faithful. It was all very well when the responsorial psalm and the intercessions were liturgical novelties, but by now it is sometimes a bit theatrical and distracting.

It is worth noting that such gestures are studiously avoided in papal Masses celebrated in Rome. The faithful easily interpret the appropriate moment to intervene as indicated by a pause, the cadence of the melody, or the intervention of the organ.

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Follow-up: A Commentator's Role [7-8-2008]

Related to our piece on commentators (June 24), a Texas reader mentioned a specific situation: "I attended a Catholic Church in which after receiving the holy Eucharist, the priest would stand and ask the congregation if they had any Good News for that week. He would state that people could talk about anything they wished to share. This would lead into all sorts of comments from the congregation, from a visit from an aunt to a child going potty for the first time. Upon questioning, the priest he said it came under "announcements." Is this permissible to occur during the sacred liturgy?"

While "announcements" is a fairly broad concept and can cover a fairly wide range of matters, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 90, laconically states that following the prayer after Communion there may be "Brief announcements if they are necessary."

It is hard to consider the "announcements" heard by our reader as being very necessary, or even very useful.

Announcements are usually conceived as brief communications referring to the life of the parish, diocese or the Church in general. They usually cover such themes as upcoming retreats, courses, parish and diocesan events, special collections or prayer intentions, and occasionally some particular need of a parishioner.

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