On Paraliturgies

Author: Father Edward McNamara


On Paraliturgies

ROME, 2 DEC. 2008 (ZENIT)

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

Q: I recently participated in what was called a "paraliturgy" in which there was no priest or deacon but Eucharistic ministers. This paraliturgy consisted of the Confiteor, an Epistle reading and the reading of the Gospel. I was asked to read the Epistle and the Gospel; and the Pater Noster. Afterward there was distribution of consecrated hosts from the tabernacle. Is there such a thing as a paraliturgy? What are the norms of the liturgy when a priest and deacon are not present? Is it permissible for a layperson, who is not ordained a priest or deacon, to publicly read the Gospel? — F.B., Coral Gables, Florida

A: The term paraliturgy is of relatively recent coinage and is used inappropriately to describe the Celebration of the Word with distribution of Communion (at which you assisted). As far as I know the term paraliturgy is not used in universal Church documents.

The term was first used in the context of the liturgical movement before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The term described celebrations and forms of worship inspired by the liturgy but which do not form part of official liturgical texts.

Before Vatican II many groups developed paraliturgical services. These usually involved some form of celebration of the Word along with litanies, prayers and rites inspired by the liturgy but in the vernacular.

In some cases rites born in a paraliturgical context were eventually incorporated into the liturgy. Perhaps the most significant example is the renewal of baptismal promises. This practice began among groups of young Catholics around the year 1900 and became very popular in retreats and similar gatherings as an expression of commitment to the faith. Half a century after its inception Pope Pius XII decided to include the renewal of baptismal promises among the rites of the restored Easter Vigil.

In other cases a new theological perspective led to a changed category. For example, before Vatican II the possibility of realizing a liturgical act depended on having a canonical delegation. For this reason a layperson who prayed the Divine Office technically performed a pious act but not a liturgical one. A nun, who prayed the same text in virtue of a canonical deputation, was deemed as participating in the liturgy.

After Vatican II the capacity to act liturgically was no longer grounded canonically but rather on the basis of having received the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. Thus, any Catholic who prays the Liturgy of the Hours as the prayer of the Church acts liturgically.

In the context of the present liturgy, a community celebration of the Word, with or without the distribution of Holy Communion, should not be called a paraliturgy, because it is in fact a liturgical act ordered and determined by Church authority.

Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may lead these celebrations when no ordained minister can be present. In such cases the liturgical norms recommend that the extraordinary ministers avoid the impression that they substitute the presiding role of the priest. They should not, for example, use the presidential chair. And tasks such as reading the Gospel and distributing Communion should be divided among various ministers.

Some bishops' conferences have developed special books for these celebrations, especially when carried out on a Sunday, so as to clearly distinguish them from the celebration of Mass.

Although the term paraliturgy should not be used for the above celebrations, the term may still be applied to a host of other rites and celebrations that use a quasi-liturgical format. Among these could be numbered the rites used by some religious communities and ecclesial movements to induct new members. The elements of these ceremonies are often inspired by the rituals of the sacraments, blessings and religious profession, without corresponding to any officially approved text.

Other possible applications of this term could describe penitential and other services during retreats, parish missions and the like that rely heavily on liturgical models but which also include other elements such as readings and prayers from other spiritual writers.

Some authors class as paraliturgies the texts of litanies, novenas and pious exercises that might have received episcopal approval for private devotion but which are frequently recited publicly in churches without ever being considered as the Church's official prayer. This is a possible use of the term, although it makes it difficult to distinguish between paraliturgies and what official documents refer to as community pious practices.

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Follow-up: On Paraliturgies [12-16-2008]

In our column on the theology and status of paraliturgies (Dec. 2), we mentioned that we did not know of their figuring in any official documents.

An attentive reader has managed to find four mentions of paraliturgy in official documents published since 1975. The word was found in two papal documents: Paul VI's exhortation on the missions "Evangelii Nuntiandi," and John Paul II's exhortation on penance "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia." It also appeared in a document on migration from the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers and in the 1994 "Instrumentum laboris" of the special synod of bishops for Africa.

None of these documents can be classified as liturgical legislation, and the mention of paraliturgy merely acknowledged the existence of this category of celebration without attempting any definition.

From the response of some readers, it appears that there is widespread confusion between the two categories of liturgy and paraliturgy. It appears that for many, the concept of liturgy is reduced to the celebration of Mass, the other sacraments, and, for some, the Liturgy of the Hours, while all other rites are classed as paraliturgies.

This is not correct. In short, practically every celebration for which the Church has provided, or even outlined, an official rite can and should be legitimately classified as liturgical. This includes solemn ceremonies such as the Good Friday celebration of the Passion, practically all the blessings contained in the Book of Blessings, and most instances of community celebration of the Word.

It would also include all forms of official rites for the distribution of Communion outside of Mass, though the distribution of Communion in this manner to a parish community must be duly authorized by the local bishop (see instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," Nos. 165-166).

The denomination of a celebration as liturgy does not always require the physical presence of an ordained minister — but, yes, it does require his virtual presence — as an assembly can act in a truly liturgical manner only if in hierarchical communion.

Thus a Sacramento, California, reader asked: "In the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Nos. 85-89 gives a 'Model for a Celebration of the Word of God.' If an RCIA team composed entirely of laity perform one of these celebrations, choosing the readings 'for their relevance to the formation of the catechumens' (RCIA, No. 87), does this constitute a liturgy or a paraliturgy?"

Here a distinction must be observed due to the special condition of the Christian Initiation process.

From what we have said above, this rite would be objectively a liturgical act insofar as it is based on a model proposed by the Church.

From the subjective point of view, it would be liturgical only for those already baptized as only the baptized may act liturgically as members of Christ's Mystical Body participating in his priesthood.

Although the candidates for baptism participating in this celebration cannot act liturgically, and consequently they do not receive a bolstering of sanctifying grace (one of baptism's effects), it is an occasion of increase in actual graces that solidifies and deepens their intention of receiving the sacrament.

The celebration would not be paraliturgical because the fruitful celebration of a paraliturgy also requires the gift of baptism.

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