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Liturgy: When a Priest Is in Mortal Sin

And More on the Purification of Vessels

ROME, FEB. 9, 2005 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: If a priest is in the state of mortal sin, is his Mass and/or consecration of the Eucharist viable? I understand someone would not know if a priest is in this state, but Our Lord would know. -- A.A., Springfield, Massachusetts

A: When receiving or celebrating the sacraments, the priest is subject to the same requirements of sanctity and state of grace as every other Catholic; that is, the state of grace is required for fruitful reception of all sacraments except those that actually forgive sins.

Therefore a priest who is in a state of mortal sin should seek to confess as soon as possible and refrain from celebrating the sacraments until he has done so.

Normally, to celebrate Mass or receive Communion while in a state of mortal sin would be to commit a sacrilege. Yet, the sacrament would be valid; that is, there would be a true consecration and a true sacrifice.

The reason is: Christ is the principal actor of the sacraments, so they are efficacious even when performed by an unworthy minister. As St. Thomas Aquinas says: Christ may act even through a minister who is spiritually dead.

However, a priest who has fallen into mortal sin, but who is unable to make his confession despite his desire to do so, may celebrate Mass for the benefit of the faithful without adding a further sin of sacrilege.

Thus, as Canon 916 of the Code of Canon Law states: "A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible (see also Canon 1335)."

Note that the code requires a grave reason in order to avail of this exception.

One such grave reason is based on the principle of the good of souls. If a priest is required to celebrate Mass or a soul requests the sacrament of reconciliation, the anointing of the sick, or indeed any other sacrament from this priest that would have to be performed before he can avail of confession, then he may, and usually must, administer the sacrament.

A second grave reason stems from the danger of infamy by publicly revealing the state of one's soul.

This can occur in the case of a priest in isolated circumstances when there is no one else to perform the usual celebrations. There is no need for him to do anything that might lead people to suspect his lack of a state of grace.

Even in the case that the priest, or any other person, has secretly committed a grave crime, which would normally lead to his or her being automatically forbidden to receive the sacraments, Church law (in Canon 1352) foresees the possibility of the penalty being suspended to avoid infamy or scandal, to wit:

"§1. If a penalty prohibits the reception of the sacraments or sacramentals, the prohibition is suspended as long as the offender is in danger of death.

"§2. The obligation to observe an undeclared 'latae sententiae' penalty which is not notorious in the place where the offender is present, is suspended totally or partially whenever the offender cannot observe it without danger of grave scandal or infamy."

While the possibilities of a layperson or a religious in a state of mortal sin being placed in a similar dilemma as the priest are far rarer, the same basic principles would apply should they occur.

Furthermore, while it is nobody else's business why somebody does not approach Communion, pastors should do all that they can to avoid creating public pressures that might induce a person in a state of mortal sin -- or otherwise unable to receive Communion -- to receive out of an objective fear of infamy or even out of human respect.

For example, when parish ushers move down the aisles during Communion to assure an orderly procession, it becomes very difficult for someone, especially if well known to the other parishioners and who for some hidden reason cannot receive Communion, not to go forward with the others because staying in the pew is often the equivalent of making a public self-denunciation.

In such cases, a less organized procession at Communion allows such people to pass unnoticed.

* * *

Follow-up: Purifying Vessels Away From the Altar

A surprising number of messages arrived requesting clarifications about the purification of sacred vessels (see Jan. 25). Since many of the missives contained similar questions, I will divide the answer into several subpoints.

A frequent request concerned the possibility of using the sacristy, instead of the credence table, to purify the vessels.

Although the liturgical books do not mention the sacristy, I believe that this possibility may be adopted in cases of necessity -- for example, if space within the sanctuary is too small to cater for a credence table of sufficient dimensions, or if the vessels must be purified after Mass and there is little time between scheduled Masses.

When this is done, great care must be taken so as not to convert the sacristy into a washing room. A proper credence table, or one of the vesting cabinets, must be prepared to receive the vessels.

This table should be covered with a white linen cloth and supplied with corporal, purificators and water.

The ablutions should also be carried out in a climate of silence out of respect for the sacred species as well as to maintain the traditional silence observed in Catholic sacristies.

Another frequently asked question regarded who may purify. As mentioned in our former reply, this task falls to the deacon or, in his absence, the instituted acolyte, or, lacking both, the priest.

In normal circumstances, extraordinary ministers of Communion may not purify the sacred vessels at Mass.

However, the United States -- and I believe, so far, only the United States -- has received a temporary indult derogating from the general norms.

The text of the indult (Prot. 1382/01/L) states: "In response to the request of His Excellency, the Most Reverend Joseph Fiorenza, Bishop of Galveston-Houston, President of the Conference of Bishops of the United States of America, made in a letter dated June 21, 2001, and in virtue of the faculties granted to this Congregation by the Supreme Pontiff, John Paul II, we grant that in the dioceses of this same Conference, for grave pastoral reasons, the faculty may be given by the diocesan Bishop to the priest celebrant to use the assistance, when necessary, even of extraordinary ministers in the cleansing of sacred vessels after the distribution of Communion has been completed in the celebration of Mass. This faculty is conceded for a period of three years as a dispensation from the norm of the 'Institutio Generalis,' 'edito typica tertia' of the Roman Missal."

The indult was effective from Holy Thursday of 2002 and, unless renewed or made permanent, will expire this March 28.

Thus, for the moment, within the confines of the United States or any other country that may have requested and obtained a similar indult, an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may assist in the purification for "grave pastoral reasons."

The expression "grave reasons" is not boilerplate, and the bishop and priest should weigh the circumstances heavily in deciding if this assistance is objectively necessary. If it is not, they should not call upon extraordinary ministers.

In most cases, an experienced minister can carry out this task combining dignity with alacrity. And most other countries seem to be getting by without any special indults, even those that also frequently distribute Communion under both species.

However, if the assistance of extraordinary ministers is deemed necessary, I think that this task should be assigned to no more than one or two at a time, to avoid the danger of sparking conversations around the credence table.

Also repeatedly requested was a description of the purification process, whether during or after Mass.

Before purification proper begins, it is necessary to gather any remaining fragments and consume any remaining Precious Blood. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 163, indicates: "When the distribution of Communion is finished, the priest himself immediately and completely consumes at the altar any consecrated wine that happens to remain; as for any consecrated hosts that are left, he either consumes them at the altar or carries them to the place designated for the reservation of the Eucharist."

This task belongs to the deacon or priest although in the United States. "When more of the Precious Blood remains than was necessary for Communion, and if not consumed by the bishop or priest celebrant, 'the deacon immediately and reverently consumes at the altar all of the Blood of Christ which remains; he may be assisted, if needs dictate, by other deacons and priests.' When there are extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, they may consume what remains of the Precious Blood from their chalice of distribution with permission of the diocesan bishop."

With regard to this latter point it is necessary to recall the admonition of "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 102.

To wit: "The chalice should not be ministered to lay members of Christ's faithful where there is such a large number of communicants that it is difficult to gauge the amount of wine for the Eucharist and there is a danger that 'more than a reasonable quantity of the Blood of Christ remain to be consumed at the end of the celebration.' The same is true wherever access to the chalice would be difficult to arrange, or where such a large amount of wine would be required that its certain provenance and quality could only be known with difficulty, or wherever there is not an adequate number of sacred ministers or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion with proper formation, or where a notable part of the people continues to prefer not to approach the chalice for various reasons, so that the sign of unity would in some sense be negated."

Either way, it is clear that all of the sacred species should be consumed before purification begins.

Continuing with GIRM, No. 163: "Upon returning to the altar, the priest collects (and consumes) any fragments that may remain."

The term "fragment" would seem to refer to larger parts easily taken up by the fingers and not to the tiny particles that remain upon the paten and in the ciborium.

"Then, standing at the altar or at the credence table, he purifies the paten or ciborium over the chalice then purifies the chalice..." This is usually done by placing the paten over the chalice at an angle so that the tiny fragments fall into it. If necessary, this process may be helped by moving the particles with the corner of a folded purificator or with the thumb, which in turn is rubbed over the chalice to loosen any particles that may have adhered. If necessary, especially in hot and humid climes, the fingers may also be purified with water.

The ciborium may be purified by hand in the same manner. But because of the large number of small particles in this vessel, it is often necessary to purify it directly with water. In this case, water is placed in the ciborium, gently swished to absorb all the particles and this water is then poured directly into the chalice. Extra chalices are likewise purified with water.

The minister then consumes the water containing the particles and should not pour it into the sacrarium.

The minister then dries the ciboria and the chalice or chalices with a purificator.

When this process is completed, and only then, may the sacred vessels be washed with other elements such as soap. This is usually unnecessary and should not be done on a daily basis except, perhaps, when many people partake of the same chalice. Excess washing can cause expensive damage to the metal parts of the chalice.


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Liturgy, Priest, Sin, Mortal, Eucharist

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