What the New Rules Mean

ROME — “Eucharistic ministers” are a thing of the past. They are now to be called “extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.” And flagons (decanters or pitchers) on the altar for the Precious Blood, glass chalices and earthenware ciboria are no longer permitted.

Those are the new elements of Redemptionis Sacramentum (The Sacrament of Redemption), the latest document on the liturgy. But for the most part, bishops and priests are exhorted to follow the rules already in place.

In dioceses where the holy Mass is already offered as prescribed in the liturgical books of the Church, the latest instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments requires little, if any, change. In those dioceses where liturgical abuses are manifold, the local bishop will have a lot of work to do — perhaps even starting with his own liturgical offices.

Redemptionis Sacramentum, dated March 25 and released April 23, is the follow-up by the congregation to Pope John Paul II's encyclical of last year, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Eucharist in Relation to the Church).

In that document, the Holy Father presented anew the theological and spiritual aspects of the Eucharist and announced that a more specific practical document would follow to correct liturgical abuses. Redemptionis Sacramentum, which is already in force, completes the work of the encyclical.

The instruction is not a complete “compendium of the norms regarding the Most Holy Eucharist” (No. 2) but is a reminder of what the rules already are regarding the celebration of the Eucharist. It mostly repeats, clarifies and, to be sure, insists that those rules be followed as a sign of the unity of the Church expressed in the liturgy. Noting that “in some places the perpetration of liturgical abuses has become almost habitual” (No. 4), the instruction calls upon local bishops to correct them quickly.

And in a not-so-veiled criticism of diocesan liturgical commissions and officers, the instruction notes that they operate only under the bishop's authority and that “there has long been the need for the bishops to consider whether their working has been fruitful thus far” (No. 25).

Redemptionis Sacramentum has a twofold thrust. First, it clarifies the proper roles of the priest and the lay faithful during Mass, emphasizing the link between the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist. Second, it promotes reverence for the Eucharist in the reception of holy Communion.

Singular Role of Priest

Redemptionis Sacramentums emphasizes that only the ordained priest can validly confect the Eucharist and that his role in the whole of the Mass cannot be diminished or replaced. For example, it is stressed that the Eucharistic Prayer must be recited only by the priest (No. 52), with no parts said by the deacon or the congregation except for the “Memorial Acclamation” and the “Amen.” The practice of the whole congregation, for example, reciting the “through him, with him …” is not permitted.

Bishops, priests and deacons are likewise reminded that they are servants, not masters, of the liturgy and so are not permitted to “alter or vary at will the texts of the Sacred Liturgy that they are charged to pronounce” (No. 59). While this principle was enunciated by Vatican II, the latest instruction reminds celebrants that in changing the words on their own, they “render the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy unstable and not infrequently distort the authentic meaning of the liturgy.”

The instruction repeats the prohibition on lay people preaching during Mass, emphasizing that the homily is not merely a spiritual talk but a liturgical action that flows from the ordination of a deacon or priest. Even seminarians are not to preach (No. 66).

Priests themselves are reminded that their liturgical vesture expresses their irreplaceable role at Mass. Specific mention is made of using the cincture, the liturgical “belt” traditionally associated with the virtue of purity (No. 122). A clarification is made regarding concelebration, where it is common for only the principal celebrant to wear a chasuble while the concelebrants wear only the alb and stole. While that option is permitted, Redemptionis Sacramentum clearly encourages all concelebrants to wear chasubles, even if they have to wear white ones while the principal celebrant wears the color of the day (No. 124). And while deacons retain the option of not wearing the dalmatic — the rectangular “version” of the chasuble proper to their order — they are encouraged to wear it (No. 125).

Finally, in a change that will likely affect almost all parishes, the term “extraordinary minister of the Eucharist” is no longer to be used. Because only the priest can confect the Eucharist, only a bishop or priest is to be called a “minister of the Eucharist.” The deacon, who himself cannot celebrate Mass, is the “ordinary minister of holy Communion.” Likewise, all lay faithful who distribute holy Communion are to be called “extraordinary ministers of holy Communion,” which more accurately describes their role (No. 154).

Reverence in Reception

Redemptionis Sacramentum isn't only for priests. It reminds the laity as well that proper reverence for holy Communion requires them to be properly disposed. The requirement to go to confession for grave sins before receiving holy Communion is reiterated, and it is clarified that the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass is not sufficient for the forgiveness of “graver sins” (Nos. 80-84).

Holy Communion is always to be received from the priest or deacon, or a designated extraordinary minister of holy Communion. Therefore it is not permitted for lay people to take Communion for themselves or to pass it from one to the other. For this reason, the novelty of spouses giving Communion to each other at the nuptial Mass is also prohibited (No. 94).

Perhaps the provision of Redemptionis Sacramentum that will most result in changes in many parishes is the new prohibition of the use of flag-ons or large decanters to contain the altar wine to be consecrated. In order to remove the danger of spilling, the chalices are now to be put on the altar along with the principal chalice (Nos. 105-106).

The sacred vessels themselves are to be, in accord with longstanding norms, made of precious metals in a noble fashion. Existing doubts about what else could be used have now been resolved: “Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay or other materials that break easily” (No. 117).

What Will Change?

How will Redemptionis Sacramentum be implemented? Though it is already in force, that critical question remains to be answered.

Exactly 20 years ago, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments issued an instruction, Inaestimabile Donum (The Inestimable Gift), which also sought to correct liturgical abuses. Much of what was said there is repeated in Redemptionis Sacramentum, though the latter is more comprehensive.

Twenty years later, a different generation of bishops is in place. The success of Redemptionis Sacramentum will depend in large part on how they receive it.

Father Raymond J. de Souza writes from Kingston, Ontario.