Masters of Ceremonies

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Masters of Ceremonies

ROME, 30 JUNE 2009 (ZENIT)

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

Q: At a conference organized by one of the ecclesial movements and attended by nine priests and two bishops, a Christian Brother was delegated by one of the lay-leaders to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the hall for adoration each day. At both the beginning and end of the 45-minute adoration, the Christian Brother proceeded to bless the people with the monstrance — not just a single blessing, but rather the triple blessing used by a bishop. I relate the details of this incident to inform you of how uninformed the lay-leaders were. Also, on each occasion at Mass the bishops were seated together near the altar with a lay master of ceremonies, and the priests were seated on a much lower level, at the front of the congregation, and at a distance of about 15 to 20 meters from the bishops — even though there was room for all or most of us to be seated with the bishops. When I complained before the last Mass about the unnecessary distance between priests and bishops, I was just ignored and left to believe that I should have more respect for the authority of the lay-leaders. Are priests obliged in these circumstances just to fall in with the wishes of lay-leaders? Have lay-leaders the authority to direct how and where priests should sit in matters like this? Lastly, does a celebrant or principal celebrant have a right to say that he has no need, or does not want a master of ceremonies (particularly a lay MC) at a Mass? At the conference mentioned above, a lay MC before one of the Masses commented to the principal celebrant that "I am the one in charge today." — T.M., Australia

A: There are basically three questions involved. I will address the first two briefly and expand a little on the third.

First, it was an abuse to have an extraordinary minister (the Christian Brother) exposing the Blessed Sacrament when ordained ordinary ministers were present. Furthermore it was a grave abuse for the religious brother to attempt to give a blessing with the Blessed Sacrament. This rite is strictly reserved to the ordained ministers, and the brother might even be subject to canonical penalties for illegitimately carrying out these rites.

Second, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal foresees that, insofar as possible, concelebrating priests should be seated within the sanctuary. If this is not possible due to elevated numbers, they should be as close to the presbytery as possible, with no other faithful seated between the ministers and the concelebrants.

Finally, the role of the master of ceremonies is outlined in the Ceremonial of Bishops, Nos. 34-36. The norms make it clear that he is at the service of the liturgy in order that a solemn celebration be carried out with grace, simplicity and order.

He is needed to "prepare and direct the celebration in close cooperation with the bishop and others responsible for planning its several parts." It continues: "He should seek to ensure an observance of liturgical laws that is in accord with the true spirit of such laws and those legitimate traditions of the particular Church that have pastoral value."

Before the celebration he should "arrange with the cantors, assistants, ministers and celebrants the actions to be carried out and the texts to be used, but during the celebration he should exercise the greatest discretion: he is not to speak more than is necessary, nor replace the deacon or assistants at the side of the celebrant. The master of ceremonies should carry out his responsibilities with reverence, patience and careful attention."

Regarding the qualities required of him, the document says: "He should be well-versed in the history and nature of the liturgy and its laws and precepts. But equally he should be well-versed in pastoral science, so that he knows how to plan liturgical celebrations in a way that encourages fruitful participation by the people and enhances the beauty of the rites."

The qualities mentioned in these norms in no way exclude the possibility of a lay master of ceremonies and, indeed, there are many excellent lay masters in churches and cathedrals around the globe.

In this sense the question of "obedience" toward a master of ceremonies or of his being "in charge" should be largely beside the point. Preparing a proper liturgical celebration is a collaborative effort in which the master of ceremonies coordinates beforehand with the various persons involved.

A master of ceremonies who arrives saying he is "in charge" has probably failed in his duties to adequately prepare the ceremonies in advance.

If anybody is properly speaking "in charge" of the celebration, it is the principal celebrant. For example, it is he, not the master of ceremonies, who determines the texts to be used, which optional ritual elements are included or omitted, and what is to be sung or recited. In preparing the celebration the master of ceremonies may make suggestions to the celebrant as to what is most appropriate. But the final decision rests with the celebrant. The celebration can even make changes during the course of the celebration if unforeseen circumstances recommend it.

The master of ceremonies is "in charge" of coordinating all those who assist at the Mass and these should diligently follow his instructions.

Although we have said that, strictly speaking, concelebrants do not owe obedience to the master of ceremonies, this statement must be qualified in some cases. There are situations in which a large number of concelebrants arrive shortly before the beginning of Mass, and it is materially impossible to prepare the celebration beforehand.

In such cases the priests should punctually follow the MC's indications, not so much out of obedience to his person as to obedience toward the reverent and dignified celebration of Mass.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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