Communion for Non-celebrating Priests

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Communion for Non-celebrating Priests

Must Receive Through a Minister

Rome, 1 January 2019 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.  

Q: May non-concelebrating priests who are part of the congregation receive directly from the ciborium held by a priest distributing Communion? If they are not allowed, may I ask which document contains the guidelines that forbid this? Also, the GIRM guidelines say that “a cross with the figure of Christ” must be on the altar or close to it. If it’s not on the altar, how close must it be? If there is a large crucifix on the back of the sanctuary, does that count as “close” to the altar? Or what if there’s a crucifix nearer to the congregation than to the altar? I’d appreciate an explanation. — M.S., Manila, Philippines

A: Our reader has asked two diverse questions that might cover details left out in earlier replies to similar questions. My answers here are necessarily approximative as current liturgical norms do not specify everything in detail and have to be deduced from general principles.

The first question seems to be if a non-concelebrating priest may take Communion himself from the ciborium and chalice in the manner of concelebrants. The answer is no. A non-concelebrant priest may receive Communion under both species but does so in the manner of the faithful through a minister. I remember observing Pope St. John Paul II toward the end of his pontificate receive Communion from a deacon at a Mass he attended but did not celebrate.

The missal foresees this in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):

“160. The Priest then takes the paten or ciborium and approaches the communicants, who usually come up in procession. It is not permitted for the faithful to take the consecrated Bread or the sacred chalice by themselves and, still less, to hand them on from one to another among themselves ….

“283. In addition to those cases given in the ritual books, Communion under both kinds is permitted for:

“a) Priests who are not able to celebrate or concelebrate Mass.”

The instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum says:

“98. The Communion of Priest concelebrants should proceed according to the norms prescribed in the liturgical books, always using hosts consecrated at the same Mass and always with Communion under both kinds being received by all of the concelebrants. It is to be noted that if the Priest or Deacon hands the sacred host or chalice to the concelebrants, he says nothing; that is to say, he does not pronounce the words ‘The Body of Christ’ or ‘The Blood of Christ.’”

The reason the deacon says nothing is because the priest is a concelebrant and therefore the deacon is not, in this case, ministering to the priest but fulfilling a service for the agile communion of priests in a large concelebration. However, he would be a minister in the case of a non-concelebrating priest who was present at the Mass.

While there are no express norms as to how close to the altar the crucifix should be, there are several norms which would indicate that it should be clearly in relationship with the altar.

The first option of having the crucifix upon the altar is, obviously, very close indeed and leaves no doubt. Such a crucifix should, however, be of sufficient dimensions so that it can be seen by the faithful and therefore should not be so small as to be practically invisible. This was Pope Benedict XVI’s preferred solution.

Another valid option is to use the processional cross as the altar crucifix. In this case, it is usually placed very close to one side or at the center, no more than a few inches distance from the altar itself.

In both cases above, the figure of Christ faces the altar and not the people.

Another common option is to have a large crucifix either directly above the altar or behind it. The distance will depend on the size of the chapel and the crucifix, but they should combine so as to show the clear relationship of crucifix and altar. The norms for incensing offer the possibility of incensing this cross not at the beginning but when passing by the cross in front of the altar.

The norms indicate that there should be only one altar cross.

Other crosses, even if they are in the sanctuary area, but which are closer to the assembly than the altar and face away from the altar, would not be suitable for use as an altar cross even though they may be an object of devotion.

The relevant norms from the GIRM would be the following:

“117. The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession. On the altar, itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.

“122. On reaching the altar, the priest and ministers make a profound bow. The cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified and perhaps carried in procession may be placed next to the altar to serve as the altar cross, in which case it ought to be the only cross used; otherwise, it is put away in a dignified place. In addition, the candlesticks are placed on the altar or near it. It is a praiseworthy practice that the Book of the Gospels be placed upon the altar.

“123. The priest goes up to the altar and venerates it with a kiss. Then, as the occasion suggests, he incenses the cross and the altar, walking around the latter.

“188. In the procession to the altar, the acolyte may carry the cross, walking between two ministers with lighted candles. Upon reaching the altar, the acolyte places the cross upright near the altar so that it may serve as the altar cross; otherwise, he puts it in a worthy place. Then he takes his place in the sanctuary.

“277. The priest, having put incense into the thurible, blesses it with the Sign of the Cross, without saying anything. Before and after an incensation, a profound bow is made to the person or object that is incensed, except for the incensation of the altar and the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass.

“The following are incensed with three swings of the thurible: the Most Blessed Sacrament, a relic of the Holy Cross and images of the Lord exposed for public veneration, the offerings for the Sacrifice of the Mass, the altar cross, the Book of the Gospels, the Paschal Candle, the priest, and the people.

“The following are incensed with two swings of the thurible: relics and images of the Saints exposed for public veneration, which should be done, however, only at the beginning of the celebration, after the incensation of the altar.

“The altar is incensed with single swings of the thurible in this way:

“a. if the altar is freestanding with respect to the wall, the priest incenses walking around it;

“b. if the altar is not freestanding, the priest incenses it while walking first to the right-hand side, then to the left.

“The cross, if situated on or near the altar, is incensed by the priest before he incenses the altar; otherwise, he incenses it when he passes in front of it.

“The priest incenses the offerings with three swings of the thurible or by making the sign of the cross over the offerings with the thurible before going on to incense the cross and the altar.

“308. There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations.”

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