Liturgy: Communion for Homebound Moms
And More on Crowded Altars
ROME, MAY 19, 2004 - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: Would canon law allow for a ministry for homebound young mothers to receive Holy Communion in their homes during the week for spiritual strength? Difficult pregnancies, sick infants, lack of transportation, etc., could prevent a young, overly stressed mother, much in need of spiritual strength to live her vocation, from attending weekday Masses. Several young mothers have approached me for this answer. -- B.W., Dayton, Ohio
A: Such a ministry would fall under the more general concept of ministry to the sick and so there should be no canonical objections to bringing Communion to these mothers.
Certainly, pregnancy is not an illness but a blessing. However, it is certain that, especially in the later stages, many mothers are unable to leave home.
Their situation would be analogous to that of otherwise healthy elderly people who normally attend Mass, even on a daily basis, but may find the winter cold or summer heat too much to bear.
Such a ministry could be carried out on the parish level by the priests or other authorized ministers who usually attend the sick and shut-ins by simply adding another call to their rounds.
A specific ministry, especially dedicated to bringing the Eucharist to young mothers, would require greater coordination.
If this ministry were to be carried out within the confines of a parish, then the pastor could coordinate the initiative, although if the minister is not a priest, he or she would require the usual authorization from the bishop to act as an extraordinary minister.
If such a ministry were to be promoted on a diocesan level, then the details would have to be worked out with the bishop. He could grant the necessary authorization and suggest ways to coordinate this initiative so that it harmonizes with the usual pastoral services carried out on the parish level.
Pregnant mothers or mothers with infants should not underestimate the importance of the positive testimony conveyed by their presence at Mass as a sign of hope and joy for many Catholics, and so should always strive to attend.
However, when circumstances prevent this, the initiative proposed by our correspondent would respond to a real need and impart many spiritual benefits.
* * *
Follow-up: Crowded Altars
Several questions arose regarding our comments on crowded altars (May 4). One reader observed that often it is not so much the number of people in the sanctuary as their behavior that causes distraction. He has a valid point.
Acolytes, readers and especially priests should strive to maintain a general ambiance of reverence and recollection while within the precincts of the sanctuary. They should avoid surveying the assembly, waving, nodding and smiling to people they know, commenting among themselves -- or even falling asleep during the homily.
In other words, they should avoid any gestures that draw attention to themselves and away from the sacred action.
A correspondent from San Diego, California, asked about the practice of "Life Teen Masses." She wrote: "At my parish they are called up to the altar just before the Our Father and don't leave until after they receive Communion. Is this not in line with GIRM?"
Other readers had previously sent in questions about similar practices although referring to gathering around the altar during the entire Eucharistic Prayer.
I must admit to having very little experience regarding Life Teen. I have encountered some excellent priestly vocations that have sprung from their midst. But this does not mean that all of their liturgical practices are commendable. From the point of view of liturgical law the practice described would not be correct.
While it is true that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal or other recent documents do not specifically forbid the faithful from surrounding the altar, this is understood by the general context and by the documents determining the location of the ministers and the faithful.
With respect to the proper place for the faithful, GIRM No. 311 says:
"Places should be arranged with appropriate care for the faithful so that they are able to participate in the sacred celebrations visually and spiritually, in the proper manner. It is expedient for benches or seats usually to be provided for their use. The custom of reserving seats for private persons, however, is reprehensible. Moreover, benches or chairs should be arranged, especially in newly built churches, in such a way that the people can easily take up the postures required for the different parts of the celebration and can easily come forward to receive Holy Communion. Care should be taken that the faithful be able not only to see the priest, the deacon, and the lectors but also, with the aid of modern technical means, to hear them without difficulty."
Thus the practice described not only blurs the distinction between sanctuary and nave but creates a visual impediment and distraction to the rest of the congregation.
While not doubting the good faith of the promoters of these initiatives I would question if they are really necessary for the goal of bringing teens closer to Christ. Perhaps the long-term disadvantages with respect to developing a true understanding of liturgy outweigh the short-term benefits of an apparently greater active participation.
The very flexibility of the reformed liturgy surely allows for adaptation to the particular needs of adolescents while fully respecting the laws and nature of liturgy itself.
Another correspondent, from Los Altos, California, asks: "Our pastor has recently begun a new format wherein the two people who bring up the gifts are to stand on either side of the altar. The priest will then take the bread, offer prayer, then the wine, offer his prayer. When he finishes and sets the chalice back on the altar, the two people are dismissed. So, directly at the altar in this time frame is the priest, the acolyte and two gift bearers. Is this permissible?"
GIRM No. 73 states: "At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist the gifts, which will become Christ's Body and Blood, are brought to the altar. First, the altar, the Lord's table, which is the center of the whole Liturgy of the Eucharist, is prepared by placing on it the corporal, purificator, Missal, and chalice (unless the chalice is prepared at the credence table). The offerings are then brought forward. It is praiseworthy for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted at an appropriate place by the priest or the deacon and carried to the altar."
GIRM No. 140 stipulates that if there is no deacon, the priest receives the gifts at a suitable place assisted by an acolyte.
Thus the practice described is not correct. Instead, the gifts should be received together by the priest and then carried to the altar, preferably by the deacons and acolytes so that the priest does not need to carry anything while proceeding to the altar.
The appropriate place for receiving the gifts is usually standing at the front of the sanctuary. The function of assisting the priest at the altar belongs properly to the deacon and acolyte and not to those who have brought up the gifts.
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