ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
28. In liturgical celebrations each person, minister, or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy.
Paragraph 28, although brief, establishes a basic principle of sacramental celebration: the rites are not the exclusive domain of the presiding clergyman but a shared venture of specific functions exercised by those trained and designated for the rite. The spirit of para. 28 is that, as far as possible, the parts of the Mass, for example, that pertain to deacons—such as proclaiming the Gospel—should be filled by deacons. This is universally true regardless of the number of priests (and bishops) concelebrating the Mass. Deacons are ordained to proclaim the Word and the integrity of their ordination demands that they can do what the Church ordained them to do. Although we see it nearly every Sunday, the celebrant is not the ordinary minister to proclaim the Gospel. He does so in the absence of a deacon.
The principle applies across the board to other ministries of the Mass. The two major ministries of liturgical significance that do not involve sacramental ordination are lector and acolyte. There is a formal institution by the Church for these two ministries, which are required for candidates for the priesthood, but under present law the formal installation is reserved to men only. Outside of the seminary, the installation of a man to the order of lector and acolyte is rare but it can be done. The lector proclaims the Word (roughly equivalent to the “reader” or “readers” at Mass.) The acolyte “is instituted to serve at the altar and to assist the priest and deacon. In particular, it is his responsibility to prepare the altar and the sacred vessels and, if it is necessary, as an extraordinary minister, to distribute the Eucharist to the faithful. In the ministry of the altar, the acolyte has his own functions (Roman Missal, cf. nos. 187-193), which he must perform personally."
The practical function of the acolyte in the United States has been broken down into two ministerial populations: altar servers and Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. The reason the word “extraordinary” describes the laity who distribute communion is that, legally speaking, lay ministers of communion can only function in the absence of an “ordinary” minister of communion: an instituted acolyte, a deacon, priest, or bishop. I should add that each conference of bishops can determine if its country will permit the use of lay extraordinary ministers at all.
The hue and cry over “altar girls” that arose after Vatican II and still lingers today in some quarters reflects the reality that females ministering at the altar do so in place of male acolytes instituted by the Church, though in the U.S. our altar servers do not distribute communion as minors. It is hard to imagine a Sunday Mass today without lay ministering of the Word, distribution of Eucharist, “serving,” and cantoring, but formal Church documents will continue to speak cautiously about these lay ministries to avoid prejudice and misunderstanding of the Sacrament of Orders and the minor orders of lector and acolyte.
If I can change gears for a moment, I must note today’s (July 22) Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. After everything I have written above about the “maleness” of official Church ministry, it is ironic that the prayers of today’s Mass and Liturgy of Hours acknowledge that Mary of Magdala was the first to witness the Resurrection, ahead of the Apostles. There is no consistent scriptural and/or historical data to support the idea that Mary Magdalene was a converted prostitute or the woman from whom Jesus “cast seven devils.” Nor can we say with certainty that Mary Magdalene is the same Mary who lived with Martha and Lazarus. Using the biblical rule of “multiple attestation,” Mary Magdalene comes down to us as the first witness of the resurrected Jesus and the first to pay him homage. It is time to acknowledge her critical role in the birth of the Church.
The next Sacramental Saturday post will be August 19, as I am taking a break to clear my head and recharge my batteries.