Each Tuesday I field questions on a live, nationally syndicated call-in radio program. I've been doing this for more than a year. Nearly every show, someone calls in with a question about proper liturgical practices. I halfway hoped that the 1997 Instruction on Collaboration Between Laity and Priests would have resolved many liturgical aberrations, and maybe it has, on the whole—but I can't notice any diminution in the number of callers concerned about odd goings-on in the sanctuary.
The Instruction was the first document ever to be signed by officials from eight different curial offices (including the Congregations for the Clergy, the Doctrine of the Faith, and Divine Worship). In it, the Vatican has clarified the proper roles of clergy and laity. The latter may “collaborate with,” but may not “substitute for,” the former. In many parishes the roles have become confused, with lay people (and religious) performing tasks that only the ordained (bishops, priests, deacons) should perform. Among the points that caught my eye:
• The Vatican said it is “unlawful” for those who aren't ordained to use such titles as “pastor” and “chaplain.” This means Sister So-andSo, who ministers at the local hospital, may not be termed a hospital “chaplain.” Yet I'm still hearing about non-ordained “chaplains,” including not a few (men and women) who dress in alb and stole, which gives the false impression that they are clergy.
• The homily “must be reserved to the sacred minister, priest, or deacon, to the exclusion of the non-ordained faithful.” This means no lay person, no nun, and no seminarian who hasn't been ordained as a transitional deacon may give the homily. There are to be no run-arounds, such as “reflections” given by a layman in place of the homily. Granted, many of us, listening to a soporific homily, think to ourselves, “Hey, I could do better than that!” And we're probably right, but that's no reason to condone a violation of the rubrics. We shouldn't be too hard on our priests. Few of them have had the kind of formation in preaching that Protestant ministers usually get. What's worse, there is an unfortunate tendency for priests to speak extemporaneously is a serious mistake for all but the very best speakers. Even Fulton Sheen spent hours preparing his “off-the-cuff” remarks. I don't think I've run across ten priests who can pull off an extemporaneous speech. (As a public speaker myself, I know that I can't.)
The Vatican has clarified the proper roles of clergy and laity. The latter may “collaborate with,” but may not “substitute for,” the former
• The congregation may not say the Eucharistic prayer or any other prayer that is reserved for the priest during Mass. In some parishes, the people have been told they are “co-consecrators,” which is false (even heretical)—at least, many have fallen into the bad habit of acting like “co-consecrators,” mouthing the words of consecration, which indicates how little they know about what's going on. Parishioners need to be instructed regularly on what occurs at Mass, which is a kind of drama: one actor should not read another actor's lines.
• Vestments may not be worn by anyone other than the ordained. (This does not refer to choir robes or to altar servers’ albs.) Ours has become so much a visual society, because of television and movies, that the visual cues are more important now than ever.
• Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist may not receive Communion “apart from the other faithful as though concelebrants.” Another example of giving the wrong visual signals.
• Parishes are to avoid “the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass.” They may be used only when there is a serious need—which, in some parishes, may never occur. We all have visited parishes in which three extraordinary ministers help the priest distribute Communion to a hundred people, for an average of twenty-five communicants apiece. Even if the priest were infirm, there hardly could be a reason for so many helpers, but in nearly all these cases there is no need for any extraordinary ministers at all. It won't wash to say that the extraordinary ministers are needed “to save time.” Pull out a stopwatch and see how long Communion really takes. In the situation mentioned, dispensing with the three extraordinary ministers would extend Communion time by less than three minutes, presuming people come up to the priest in two lines.
• In the care of the sick, no one other than a priest may anoint with sacred oil. A layman certainly may visit and minister to the sick, but may not usurp a priestly role. The anointing of the sick is a sacrament, and, given the often tender mental and emotional situation of the ill, it would be improper for a layman to perform any action that might be interpreted by the ill as a sacrament.
Although the Instruction on Collaboration Between Laity and Priests breaks no new ground, it is a further reminder of the liturgical disarray around us. Its directives will surprise no one except those who, deliberately or innocently, haven't been following the regulations. I just wish that more people would attend to the Instruction's instructions.
Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers.