Removing the Blessed Sacrament

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Removing the Blessed Sacrament

ROME, JUNE 19, 2012 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Under what conditions should the Blessed Sacrament be removed from the church? For example, when a concert or secular event is held in church, or when an ecumenical prayer service is held, should the Blessed Sacrament be removed? — J.L., Pittsfield, New Hampshire

A: There are several occasions when the Blessed Sacrament should or may be removed from the church.

The principal situation when this would take place would be when a concert is held in a church. In 1987 the Congregation for Divine Worship published a declaration on concerts in church (Prot. 1251/87).

Although centered on the theme of concerts, this document articulated some principles on the character and purpose of churches which would apply to other situations as well:

"5. According to tradition as expressed in the rite for the dedication of a church and altar, churches are primarily places where the people of God gather, and are 'made one as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one, and are the Church, the temple of God built with living stones, in which the Father is worshipped in spirit and in truth.' Rightly so, from ancient times the name 'church' has been extended to the building in which the Christian community unite to hear the word of God, to pray together, to receive the sacraments, to celebrate the Eucharist and to prolong its celebration in the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (Cf. Order of the Dedication of a Church, ch. II, 1).

"Churches, however, cannot be considered simply as public places for any kind of meeting. They are sacred places, that is, 'set apart' in a permanent way for divine worship by their dedication and blessing.

"As visible constructions, churches are signs of the pilgrim Church on earth; they are images that proclaim the heavenly Jerusalem, places in which are actualized the mystery of the communion between man and God. Both in urban areas and in the countryside, the church remains the house of God, and the sign of his dwelling among men. It remains a sacred place, even when no liturgical celebration is taking place.

"In a society disturbed by noise, especially in big cities, churches are also an oasis where men gather, in silence and in prayer, to seek peace of soul and the light of faith.

"That will only be possible in so far as churches maintain their specific identity. When churches are used for ends other than those for which they were built, their role as a sign of the Christian mystery is put at risk, with more or less serious harm to the teaching of the faith and to the sensitivity of the People of God, according to the Lord's words: 'My house is a house of prayer' (Lk 19:46)."

The document also indicated some practical directives:

"8. The regulation of the use of churches is stipulated by canon 1210 of the Code of Canon Law: 'In a sacred place only those things are to be permitted which serve to exercise or promote worship, piety and religion. Anything out of harmony with the holiness the place is forbidden. The Ordinary may, however, for individual cases, permit other uses, provided they are not contrary to the sacred character of the place.'

"The principle that the use of the church must not offend the sacredness of the place determines the criteria by which the doors of a church may be opened to a concert of sacred or religious music, as also the concomitant exclusion of every other type of music. The most beautiful symphonic music, for example, is not in itself of religious character. The definition of sacred or religious music depends explicitly on the original intended use of the musical pieces or songs, and likewise on their content. It is not legitimate to provide for the execution in the church of music which is not of religious inspiration and which was composed with a view to performance in a certain precise secular context, irrespective of whether the music would be judged classical or contemporary, of high quality or of a popular nature. On the one hand, such performances would not respect the sacred character of the church, and on the other, would result in the music being performed in an unfitting context.

"It pertains to the ecclesiastical authority to exercise without constraint its governance of sacred places (Cf. canon 1213), and hence to regulate the use of churches in such a way as to safeguard their sacred character.

"9. Sacred music, that is to say music which was composed for the Liturgy, but which for various reasons can no longer be performed during a liturgical celebration, and religious music, that is to say music inspired by the text of sacred scripture or the Liturgy and which has reference to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, to the saints or to the Church, may both find a place in the church building, but outside liturgical celebration. The playing of the organ or other musical performance, whether vocal or instrumental, may: 'serve to promote piety or religion.' In particular they may:

"a. prepare for the major liturgical feasts, or lend to these a more festive character beyond the moment of actual celebration;

"b. bring out the particular character of the different liturgical seasons;

"c. create in churches a setting of beauty conducive to meditation, so as to arouse even in those who are distant from the Church an openness to spiritual values;

"d. create a context which favors and makes accessible the proclamation of God's word, as for example, a sustained reading of the Gospel;

"e. keep alive the treasures of Church music which must not be lost; musical pieces and songs composed for the Liturgy but which cannot in any way be conveniently incorporated into liturgical celebrations in modern times; spiritual music, such as oratorios and religious cantatas which can still serve as vehicles for spiritual communication;

"f. assist visitors and tourists to grasp more fully the sacred character of a church, by means of organ concerts at prearranged times.

"10. When the proposal is made that there should be a concert in a church, the Ordinary is to grant the permission per modum actus. These concerts should be occasional events. This excludes permission for a series of concerts, for example, in the case of a festival or a cycle of concerts.

"When the Ordinary considers it to be necessary, he can, in the conditions foreseen in the Code of Canon Law (can. 1222, para. 2) designate a church that is no longer used for divine service, to be an "auditorium" for the performance of sacred or religious music, and also of music not specifically religious but in keeping with the character of the place.

"In this task the bishop should be assisted by the diocesan commission for Liturgy and sacred music.

"In order that the sacred character of a church be conserved in the matter of concerts, the Ordinary can specify that:

"a. Requests are to be made in writing, in good time, indicating the date and time of the proposed concert, the program, giving the works and the names of the composers.

"b. After having received the authorization of the Ordinary, the rectors and parish priests of the churches should arrange details with the choir and orchestra so that the requisite norms are observed.

"c. Entrance to the church must be without payment and open to all.

"d. The performers and the audience must be dressed in a manner which is fitting to the sacred character of the place.

"e. The musicians and the singers should not be placed in the sanctuary. The greatest respect is to be shown to the altar, the president's chair and the ambo.

"f. The Blessed Sacrament should be, as far as possible, reserved in a side chapel or in another safe and suitably adorned place (Cf. C.I.C., can 928, par. 4).

"g. The concert should be presented or introduced not only with historical or technical details, but also in a way that fosters a deeper understanding and an interior participation on the part of the listeners.

"h. The organizer of the concert will declare in writing that he accepts legal responsibilities for expenses involved, for leaving the church in order and for any possible damage incurred.

"11. The above practical directives should be of assistance to the bishops and rectors of churches in their pastoral responsibility to maintain the sacred character of their churches, designed for sacred celebrations, prayer and silence."

The same rules would apply to secular events held in churches, provided that they are duly authorized and not contrary to the holiness of the place.

With respect to ecumenical services, the Ecumenical Directory only touches upon this subject when addressing the possibility of shared ownership of a worship space by more than one community:

"139. When authorization for such ownership or use is given by the diocesan Bishop, according to any norms which may be established by the Episcopal Conference or the Holy See, judicious consideration should be given to the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, so that this question is resolved on the basis of a sound sacramental theology with the respect that is due, while also taking account of the sensitivities of those who will use the building, e.g., by constructing a separate room or chapel."

This recommendation, however, that the question be resolved on the basis of a sound sacramental theology, due respect and the sensitivities of those who take part, can be applied when preparing an ecumenical service.

Earlier the directory spoke about the location of such moments of shared prayer:

"112 Although a church building is a place in which a community is normally accustomed to celebrating its own liturgy, the common services mentioned above may be celebrated in the church of one or other of the communities concerned, if that is acceptable to all the participants. Whatever place is used should be agreeable to all, be capable of being properly prepared and be conducive to devotion."

There is no mention here of removing the Blessed Sacrament so as to allow for such an agreement.

Indeed, the Eucharistic presence could be a determining factor as to whether specific Christian communities would find it agreeable to pray in a Catholic church. Some will have no difficulties and will show due respect to Catholic beliefs. In other cases the groups might still be so far apart that it is better to organize the prayer service in some other venue.

I do not believe that removing the Blessed Sacrament so as to favor some form of common prayer in a Catholic church is a good idea ecumenically. It would hardly bode well for fruitful dialogue for one party to set aside such a central aspect of its religious practice so as to appear to be open to the other.

True ecumenism acknowledges the differences as well as underlining those things which are held in common.

* * *

Follow-up: Removing the Blessed Sacrament [7-3-2012]

In the wake of our comments on removing the Blessed Sacrament (see June 19), a reader asked: "When the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for the community, is a layperson worthy to put the Eucharist in the monstrance, and, when over, to take it out and put it in the tabernacle? I see this is being done in many churches. Does the Pope agree with this? What's canon law on this matter?"

Ordained ministers are the ordinary ministers of exposition and reservation. An instituted acolyte is an ex-officio extraordinary minister of exposition and reservation when circumstances require it.
Only the ordained ministers may impart Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament.

In special circumstances the bishop may authorize lay ministers to expose and reserve the Blessed Sacrament.

For example, if a parish practices daily adoration for several hours a day, but the adoration is interrupted during the night or for a period during the day, the bishop can authorize a lay extraordinary minister to expose and repose the Blessed Sacrament if no priest or deacon is available at the necessary times (see the 1973 document "Eucharistiae Sacramentum" of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Nos. 91-92).

Exposition and reposition by an extraordinary minister is always simple. The host is simply placed or removed from the monstrance and the pyx placed in the tabernacle. No incense is used and no servers are required, although the congregation may sing an appropriate Eucharistic hymn.

Does the Pope agree? Well, the Holy Father would certainly desire that there were sufficient ordinary ministers available for every parish in the world. Since this is not the reality, I think that he would certainly support the use of approved extraordinary ministers in order to promote the continued practice of daily or perpetual adoration.

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