Deacons and the Passion Narrative

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Deacons and the Passion Narrative


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. Q: In the reading of the Passion with several readers — where there is a deacon, should he, as normal minister of the Gospel, take the part of Christ? If so, what part should the priest take? — C.M., Drogheda, Ireland

A: In 1988 the Holy See published a circular letter on the Easter celebrations. No. 33 deals with the readings of the Passion:

"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 signs 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 precede it should not be omitted."

In fact, this document omits another possibility, that of a choir taking up the part of the multitude so that there would be four and not three agents for the reading. This is the procedure at the Vatican on both Palm Sunday (when the text is sung in Italian) and Good Friday (when it is sung in Latin). The parts of Christ, the narrator and individual speakers are chanted by deacons whereas the text of multiple speakers is usually sung in polyphony by the choir.

From this document it appears that the ideal situation is for the Passion narrative to be sung or read by three deacons while the priest remains at the chair, a situation that occurs mainly in cathedrals and seminaries. This is because reading the Gospel is not considered a presidential function in the Roman rite, and the deacon is the proper minister of this liturgical action. Indeed, in normal circumstances, a priest should not read the Gospel if a deacon is present.

If no deacons are present, then it would appear that the next preferred situation is that the Passion narrative be read by three priests. This situation is more likely to occur on Good Friday, when there is only one celebration, than on Palm Sunday when the priests are occupied with several Masses.

If there are no deacons and only one priest, then the priest takes the part of Christ while lay readers take the other parts.

If there are one or two deacons, the indication that the deacon asks for a blessing would suggest that the priest may remain at the chair while the deacon proclaims the Passion narrative along with one or two lay readers.

In this case it is not stated that the deacon take the part of Christ. It would appear that he may take any part. For example, as the most experienced reader, it might be better for the deacon to take the extensive part of narrator on Good Friday's reading of the Passion according to St. John.

The document speaks of deacons or priests and makes no mention of a priest reading with one or two deacons. I believe, however, that because these two days are somewhat out of the ordinary, this situation cannot be excluded a priori and is not prohibited by the norms. In some cases it might even be necessary. If this situation were to arise, it would be congruous to reserve the part of Christ to the priest. 

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Follow-up: Deacons and the Passion Narrative [4-28-2009]

In the wake of our April 7 comments on reading the Passion narrative, several readers asked further questions.

An Ohio reader asked: "I would like to know if it is appropriate to play background music (on organ or piano) during the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday/Good Friday. If it is not appropriate, please cite the rule that defines this. I have read through various sections of the Roman Missal, and I cannot find any specific rule prohibiting this practice."

I would first comment on a question of liturgical interpretation. Usually the missal and other liturgical documents say what is to be done and not the reverse. Therefore the fact that nothing is written against a practice does not mean that it is automatically permitted. Indeed, since Church law generally follows the principles of Roman law, and not Anglo-Saxon common law, the presumption is that what is not expressly permitted is forbidden.

Explicit prohibitions usually arise as the result of people initiating practices that are not contemplated in the norms and that are perceived as going against the letter or the spirit of the liturgical norm.

That said, I would reply that the playing of instrumental music during the Passion reading, and indeed during any readings except the psalms, does not correspond to Catholic tradition which emphasizes the priority of the Word. Throughout the history of the Latin liturgy the readings have been chanted according to simple tones without musical accompaniment.

If this is true of all readings, It is especially so during the proclamation of the Passion in which habitual liturgical solemnities such as incense are left aside.

Finally, on Good Friday the use of all musical instruments is excluded — hence, also during the Passion narrative.

Another American reader asked: "What is the official stance of the Church regarding members of the assembly, the people in the pews, reading the chorus parts of the Gospel during the proclamation of the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday?"

As far as I know, there is no official position on this. I once held the opinion that this was possible, deducing that since a choir can take the part of the multitude, the people could substitute a choir. Both reflection and pastoral experience led me to change my opinion. The proclamation of God's word is best assimilated in silence. I found that when the people were asked to take an active part in this reading, many were so attentive to intervening at the right moment that they lost track of the whole reading. Therefore, based on the legal principle mentioned above and on personal experience, I would not recommend this practice.

A reader from Birmingham, England, asked: "Can a deacon officiate as the only minister at the solemn Commemoration of the Passion on Good Friday afternoon? In our parish, we now have two churches but with only one priest. Our priest celebrates the solemn liturgy in one church at 3 p.m., whilst our deacon celebrates the same solemn liturgy simultaneously in the other church. (Both churches enjoy a full congregation for this particular service.) The deacon even wears his red dalmatic Mass vestments. I have been told that the solemn liturgy on Good Friday can only be celebrated by a priest. Please let me know which is correct."

Effectively, this rite is reserved to the priest, although not necessarily the same priest. Moreover, since the Mass of the Lord's Supper and the Celebration of the Passion are intimately connected, the norms are explicit that both must be celebrated in the same church. It is forbidden to reserve or transfer the Blessed Sacrament to another church for the purpose of adoration or distribution of holy Communion.

Consequentially for there to be two celebrations of the Passion, there would necessarily have to be two separate Masses of the Lord's Supper, one in each church. This is certainly allowable, but the priest would also have to celebrate two rites of the Passion, perhaps one at 3 p.m. and the other at 6.

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