Non-ordained Presider

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Non-ordained Presider

ROME, 22 JAN. 2008 (ZENIT)

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

Q: I was present at a Mass where a male, non-ordained religious was seated in the sanctuary amid a large group of priests who were concelebrating at a Mass celebrated by a bishop. The religious was the president of the school and was listed as "presiding." Is this in accord with liturgical norms? Can a religious or layperson ever be permitted to preside in the sanctuary at a Mass? — W.F., New York

A: This is perhaps a demonstration of the ambiguity and limitations of the noun "presider" to refer to the celebrant or presiding concelebrant of a Mass.

Only an ordained minister can, strictly speaking, preside at any liturgical act. In the case at hand it was certainly the celebrating bishop who presided at the Mass.

While I have no more information on the role of the non-ordained religious than contained in the question, I would suppose that the Mass formed part of a series of liturgical and non-liturgical acts on an occasion such as a graduation or the inauguration of an academic year.

In such a case, reference to the religious as presiding probably referred to the totality of the acts. It would certainly be incorrect to refer to him as presiding at the Mass.

It is possible for laypersons to be seated in the sanctuary, usually when they have a specific ministry to fulfill, such as reader and server or in some cases when they receive a sacrament.

There are also some specific customs allowing for persons having some civil or non-ordained ecclesiastical dignity to be seated in the sanctuary area during Mass. This would appear to be the case regarding the president of the school.

The general tendency of the liturgical norms is to move away from such special protocols, but some are legitimately preserved out of long-standing custom.

In such cases the person should have a place that is distinct but clearly separate from that of the concelebrating priests and other lay ministers so as to avoid any confusion.

This kind of distinction honors a person's particular function rather than the individual as such. It does not, however, mutate or enhance the person's role as a member of a hierarchically constituted liturgical assembly.

* * *

Follow-up: Non-ordained "Presider" [2-5-2008]

In our article on non-ordained "presiders" (Jan. 22), we stated: "Only an ordained minister can, strictly speaking, preside at any liturgical act."

This led some attentive readers to point out that both the Catechism (No. 1669) and canon law (Canon 230.3) explicitly mention that laypeople may "preside" over certain liturgical acts such as blessings, Liturgies of the Word with Holy Communion, and similar acts.

I thus believe that I owe my readers a clarification of my thought on this matter.

If the word "preside" means no more than liturgical leadership, then of course laypeople may preside over certain liturgical acts, especially when an ordained minister is not present. This, I believe, is the sense used in canon law.

It is not necessarily the sense used in the Catechism, as this number regards blessings, some of which laypeople may impart in virtue of the common priesthood and not as substitutes for an absent minister.

When I used the term "preside" in my earlier article, I used the term in a theological-liturgical and not in canonical context and probably should have made some pertinent distinctions.

For example, a layperson may lead a group in a liturgical act such as the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. But the leader does not, strictly speaking, preside. This is demonstrated by certain norms and changes in the rites such as the fact that he or she does not use the presidential chair and does not impart a blessing at the end.

Similar norms are observed when lay ministers lead Liturgies of the Word with distribution of Holy Communion. In these cases it is also recommended that if there are several ministers present, they should take charge of different moments of the celebration so that none appear to preside over the celebration.

From a theological perspective, the liturgical exercise of the royal or common priesthood either of an individual or of an assembly always requires hierarchical communion with the ordained ministry.

When an ordained minister is present, he thus presides in the sense that hierarchical communion is established through him. Thus the greeting and response: "The Lord be with you" / "And with your spirit," and others like it.

If no ordained minister is present, then the assembly still implicitly establishes hierarchical communion with the ordained ministry by following the Church's rites and texts through which it manifests the Church at prayer. In such cases the lay minister who leads guides or even presides (in the wider sense) over the assembly performs a liturgical service but is not the means through which the assembly establishes communion.

Although many blessings may be imparted by laypeople, No. 18 of the General Introduction to the Shorter Book of Blessings says that it belongs to bishops/priests/deacons to "preside" at certain blessings, but when referring to lay ministers it does not use the word "preside." Rather, it says that lay ministers may "impart" or "celebrate" a blessing in virtue of their baptism and confirmation.

There are also different rites and formulas for when the blessing is given by an ordained or lay minister. Also, the canon cited as a source in the footnote to No. 1669 of the Catechism (Canon 1168) does not use the word "preside" but rather "administer" a blessing.

There are so many Church documents touching upon liturgy that the occasional apparent contradiction or confusion in terminology should not surprise us.

I hope that this clarifies our readers' doubts and will not produce further fog. As always I am grateful for the care and attention given to these poor words.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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