Consecration at a Distance


Consecration at a Distance

ROME, 21 NOV. 2006 (ZENIT)

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

Q: How far from the altar can the celebrant be for the consecration and how many altars can he preside over at once? The situation I witnessed was in a large conference hall where bread and wine were prepared at each table where eight people sat around and the priest was at another table at the end of the hall. I question the validity of consecration at any of the tables except where the priest was. If this is valid, then what is to keep a missionary or bishop from consecrating all the elements on all the altars at a given time across his parish or diocese? Some say valid location is based on intention, so you could have a very broad intention, yes? — D.H., Salem, Missouri

A: There are several points that need to be addressed.

Needless to say, the situation described represents a very grave abuse of liturgical norms and shows disrespect toward the Eucharist and very poor theology. It would be too extensive to list all infractions of liturgical law. But then, it is unlikely that fidelity to liturgical law is of uppermost concern to the priest who performed this rite.

To take just one aspect, this function certainly went against the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," Nos. 38 and 77:

"The constant teaching of the Church on the nature of the Eucharist not only as a meal, but also and pre-eminently as a Sacrifice, is therefore rightly understood to be one of the principal keys to the full participation of all the faithful in so great a Sacrament. For when 'stripped of its sacrificial meaning, the mystery is understood as if its meaning and importance were simply that of a fraternal banquet.'[38]

"The celebration of Holy Mass is not to be inserted in any way into the setting of a common meal, nor joined with this kind of banquet. Mass is not to be celebrated without grave necessity on a dinner table nor in a dining room or banquet hall, nor in a room where food is present, nor in a place where the participants during the celebration itself are seated at tables. If out of grave necessity Mass must be celebrated in the same place where eating will later take place, there is to be a clear interval of time between the conclusion of Mass and the beginning of the meal, and ordinary food is not to be set before the faithful during the celebration of Mass."[77]

A far graver point regards the validity of the supposed consecration at the other tables. Here we must examine several points, since a definite answer is not easy.

According to the doctrine of Council of Trent, the sacramental intention must be to do as the Church does whenever it performs this rite. This means that the celebrant must at least intend to consecrate the bread and wine.

It does not mean that he intends to follow all Church norms in doing so. Provided that correct matter and form are united to the intention, the Church would normally recognize the validity of an abusive Eucharistic celebration where many norms were flouted.

At the same time, abuses can reach such a level that they would demonstrate that the celebrant no longer intends to do as the Church does. And hence the sacrament would be invalid even though correct matter and form is used.

Thus, for example, the Church has officially declared that it does not recognize the baptism of certain groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons. Although they might use a correct baptismal formula, they do not believe in the Trinity — and so it is not baptism as Christians understand it.

In the case at hand it could be argued that the level of abuse was such that the intention no longer corresponded to the Church's mind. The argument is possible but not absolutely certain.

The question of distance must also be addressed. As our reader points out, if intention alone is sufficient, what would prevent long-distance consecration? Here the words of consecration themselves should help us. There has to be some meaning to the words "Take this," and "This is my body (blood)." The word "this" is not the same as "that" or "over there."

Liturgical norms usually require that all that is to be consecrated be present before the priest on the altar and upon a corporal. On very exceptional circumstances, such as large papal Masses, ciboria with hosts have been held by priests and deacons who are around or immediately behind the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer. Thus some relationship between the altar and the hosts to be consecrated is always maintained even though on some occasions the physical distance might be relatively large.

On one or two occasions, when the number of people made it impossible for the priests around the altar to distribute Communion to everyone from the hosts consecrated at the Mass, hosts consecrated at another Mass and reserved at a nearby church were used to distribute Communion to those furthest away. Not even the Holy Father believed that he could consecrate at a distance.

This point would also make it more likely that the attempted consecration at other tables was invalid. Once more, the argument is not airtight, but it is probable. And so the priest should not have proceeded as he did, since we cannot play games with the validity of the sacraments.

Such a case should be reported to the bishop who is responsible for making sure that the priest in question fully understands the gravity of his action and for assuring that there will be no repetition. ZE06112121

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Follow-up: Consecration at a Distance [12-05-2006]

Two distinct themes emerged from our Nov. 21 comments on a "long distance" consecration.

Some priests mentioned their participation in papal Masses where they held up the hosts to be consecrated even though there was some distance from the altar.

The point here is not so much the physical distance, which due to the nature of some podiums can be relatively large, but the relationship which the priests holding the hosts for consecration had with the altar.

In the vast majority of cases the priests who hold the ciboria at papal Masses have some direct relationship with the altar. There is usually nobody between the priests and the concelebrants at the altar and the celebrant is aware of their presence.

If on some occasion this aspect was not observed, it was probably due either to lack of organization or inexperience in planning the logistics of papal Masses, especially in the early years of Pope John Paul II's itinerant papacy.

In the case we examined there was no such relationship between the hosts supposedly consecrated and the "altar."

An attentive reader from New Haven, Connecticut, caught a theological imprecision in an example I gave regarding the non-recognition of Mormon baptism.

He writes: "I recall reading in more than one place that belief as such, on the part of the baptizer, is not necessary to validly administer the sacrament of baptism, the dramatic formulation of this being that even an atheist may baptize. No atheist, however, believes in the Trinity; as I recall the traditional formulation, it is the atheist's intending to do what the Church does (however obscure the atheist's motivations) that makes the valid administration of the sacrament possible.

"In the cases of Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, then, it is not their unbelief in the Trinity as such that renders their baptisms invalid, but rather the corollary that, given their unbelief, they do not intend as a rule to do what the Church does in baptizing. The sacrament fails from lack of intention.

"Moreover, since atheists may baptize despite being atheists, it must also be technically possible that Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses may baptize as well, despite their own religious convictions, if in particular cases (for whatever reasons) they should deliberately choose to unite their intention with the intention of the Catholic Church in baptizing."

Our reader's observations are fundamentally correct regarding the distinction between belief and intention, and regarding the reasons for the non-recognition of baptisms performed within the Mormon belief system. The non-validity of these baptisms was officially declared in a very brief note signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with the specific approval of John Paul II on June 5, 2001. ZE06120523

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