Use of Altars by Non-Catholics

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Use of Altars by Non-Catholics

ROME, 7 FEB. 2006 (ZENIT)

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

Q: Is it ever permissible for non-Catholic ecclesial communities to celebrate their "liturgy" on a dedicated (fixed) altar? An Episcopalian (Anglican) group which uses our community's guest facilities has been celebrating both their Office and "eucharist" in our basilica. — F.J., Nodaway, Missouri

A: This question is addressed in the Ecumenical Directory although there may also be particular norms issued by the bishops' conference or by the local bishop which apply these norms to concrete local situations.

Nos. 137-142 of the directory state:

"137. Catholic churches are consecrated or blessed buildings which have an important theological and liturgical significance for the Catholic community. They are therefore generally reserved for Catholic worship. However, if priests, ministers or communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church do not have a place or the liturgical objects necessary for celebrating worthily their religious ceremonies, the diocesan Bishop may allow them the use of a church or a Catholic building and also lend them what may be necessary for their services. Under similar circumstances, permission may be given to them for interment or for the celebration of services at Catholic cemeteries.

"138. Because of developments in society, the rapid growth of population and urbanization, and for financial motives, where there is a good ecumenical relationship and understanding between the communities, the shared ownership or use of church premises over an extended period of time may become a matter of practical interest.

"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.

"140. Before making plans for a shared building, the authorities of the communities concerned should first reach agreement as to how their various disciplines will be observed, particularly in regard to the sacraments. Furthermore, a written agreement should be made which will clearly and adequately take care of all questions which may arise concerning financial matters and the obligations arising from church and civil law.

"141. In Catholic schools and institutions, every effort should be made to respect the faith and conscience of students or teachers who belong to other Churches or ecclesial Communities. In accordance with their own approved statutes, the authorities of these schools and institutions should take care that clergy of other Communities have every facility for giving spiritual and sacramental ministration to their own faithful who attend such schools or institutions. As far as circumstances allow, with the permission of the diocesan Bishop these facilities can be offered on the Catholic premises, including the church or chapel.

"142. In hospitals, homes for the aged and similar institutions conducted by Catholics, the authorities should promptly advise priests and ministers of other Communities of the presence of their faithful and afford them every facility to visit these persons and give them spiritual and sacramental ministrations under dignified and reverent conditions, including the use of the chapel."

The principles outlined by the document, above all by No. 137, are fairly clear and little further comment is required.

Our correspondent should therefore assure that the Episcopalian community's use of the church and the altar has been duly authorized by the local bishop.

Likewise, and in accordance with the bishop's instructions, he should guarantee all due respect toward the Blessed Sacrament during the course of the Episcopalian services as they may not share our faith in Christ's real presence. ZE06020721

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Follow-up on Altars and Deacons' Vestments [2-21-2006]

My recent column on the use of a Catholic church by a group of Episcopalians (Feb. 7) concluded with the following sentence: "Likewise, and in accordance with the bishop's instructions, he should guarantee all due respect toward the Blessed Sacrament during the course of the Episcopalian services as they may not share our faith in Christ's real presence."

Judging from our readers' reactions this was a less than felicitous expression and has given rise to several misunderstandings.

My primary purpose was to ensure respect for the Blessed Sacrament. However, my comment that the Episcopalians "may not share" the Catholic understanding of Christ's real presence requires further clarification.

Official Episcopalian doctrine certainly does not adhere to the Catholic doctrine of Christ's real presence.

My use of the conditional "may not" stemmed from the fact that, notwithstanding the official line, some Episcopalian individuals and even a few parish communities would willingly confess their belief that Christ is present in the tabernacle of Catholic churches.

Since the original question did not proffer any information as to the particular beliefs of the Episcopalian group, I (perhaps unwisely) adopted a broader expression.

A more complex question however, is that of the objective validity of the Episcopalian "eucharist."

Pope Leo XIII officially declared that the line of apostolic succession was discontinued in the Anglican Communion for several historical and theological reasons. The Catholic Church therefore does not recognize the validity of Anglican orders and hence the validity of the sacraments which depend essentially on orders, above all, of the Eucharist.

Thus, no matter what the personal beliefs of some Anglicans and Episcopalians regarding the Eucharistic presence in their communion, there is in reality no true transubstantiation.

In some exceptional cases, however, such as when a Catholic priest abandons the Church and becomes an Anglican clergyman, there could be a valid transformation of the bread and wine into Christ's Body and Blood.

Of course a priest in this case would be compounding the grave sin of apostasy with that of sacrilege.

Some readers expressed surprise at the very fact that Catholic churches could be used at all for non-Catholic rituals and felt I was contributing to error. Others claimed that I was too restrictive altogether.

While I can understand their difficulties, I can only point out that the substance of my earlier reply was mostly a direct quote from a document of the Holy See approved by Pope John Paul II. In this document the Church, in seeking that unity desired by Christ and to overcome past and present diffidence, strives to strike a delicate balance. It sets clear boundaries that acknowledge the sometimes profound differences between Catholic belief and practice from that of some fellow Christians. At the same time, by emphasizing that which unites us more than our divisions, it allows for some fairly generous sharing of spiritual goods in areas where there is no danger of compromising the essential truths of the faith.

On another theme, several readers wrote regarding clarifications regarding the use of specific vestments.

Regarding the stole, one correspondent expressed doubts regarding my affirmation that the stole was not originally a symbol of dignity. The reader cited several Eastern sources to prove his point.

The origin of the stole is rather obscure and, according to some authors, the priest's and deacon's stole derive from different sources.

Its use as a sign for deacons is found around the same time in both East and West (above all, Spain and France) as a necessary instrument of their diaconal service at the altar which later developed into a symbol.

This interpretation is witnessed by St. Isidore of Pelusius in Egypt (died 440): "The stole with which the deacons perform their service in the sacred ministries, recalls the humility of the Lord when he washed and dried the feet of his disciples."

The priest's stole, however, may have derived from the "orarium," which in civil use was a kind of scarf of fine cloth which was worn by wealthy persons about the collar to protect from the cold in winter and sweat in summer. It was also used to wipe the face ("os" from which the name derives, and not, as was sometimes thought, from "orare," to speak or preach).

As the stole developed into a symbolic vestment its practical purpose in summer was taken up by the amice, a square white linen cloth worn about the neck.

The stole was unknown in Rome until about the beginning of the ninth century and was probably introduced into the Roman liturgy through the influence of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and his successors.

Some other readers were puzzled as to why permanent deacons in our correspondent's diocese were not permitted to wear cassock and surplice.

While I suggested a possible motive, I admit that I really failed to see the reason behind such a prohibition, since deacons, whether permanent or transitory, are members of the clergy and are entitled to wear clerical dress.

Certainly Canon 288 of the Code of Canon Law dispenses permanent deacons from the obligation of clerical dress unless the bishop decides that they should wear it for good reasons. A dispensation from an obligation means that they may wear clerical garb but are not obliged to do so.

It does not seem to follow, at least from the canonical point of view, that the bishop may therefore forbid them from wearing clerical dress. The code does not provide this faculty but only that of mandating clerical attire in certain circumstances.

In order to give a definitive opinion we would require more information than is currently available. ZE06022121

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