Liturgy of the Catholic Church

Liturgy and Para-Liturgical Celebrations

Archive for Cloths

What a Deacon Can Do

And More on Altar Cloths

ROME, OCT. 2, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In our parish we have a temporary overseas priest and a married deacon. During Benediction our married deacon consistently wears the full vestments that a priest wears for Benediction; says the Divine Praises; and elevates the monstrance while the overseas priest either sits watching in the pew or acts as an acolyte, swinging the thurible. The priest only wears an alb or even just plain clothes with no vestments, and remains kneeling. Several parishioners are much disturbed and have said so. I have asked the deacon why he wears the priest’s vestments. His answer: “I’m an ordained minister.” My reply was, “But you are not a priest.” I asked, “Who has given you authority to do this?” He stated that the bishop has. There are other irregularities which he persists in during the Mass. He stands throughout the prayers; takes the host from the ciborium given to him by the overseas priest; mouths the doxology; and even holds the paten containing the host. — R.I., state of New South Wales, Australia

A: Some distinctions should be made. Although the deacon is an ordained minister, he is of a lower grade than a priest and therefore he should not preside over the community if a priest is present.

Therefore in normal cases a deacon may not give a blessing, and even less so Benediction, if a priest is present and available.

He may do so if the priest is legitimately impeded, for example, if the priest were hearing confessions during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and could not leave the confessional to impart Benediction.

In those cases where the deacon legitimately imparts Benediction, either because there is no priest or the priest is impeded, the deacon may wear the same vestments as the priest: the stole albeit worn in the manner of a deacon, the cope and the humeral veil. He may also recite or sing the same prayers as the priest. He does not need any special permission from the bishop to wear these vestments as the rubrics already foresee it.

The other actions that our correspondent describes are aptly termed irregularities. The deacon should usually kneel for the consecration, silently hold up the chalice (not the paten) for the doxology, and should always receive Communion from the priest and not self-communicate.

Rather than any special permission or dispensation from the bishop (who is unlikely to dispense from basic liturgical law for no reason), such errors are more probably due to bad habits and imperfect liturgical formation. The person responsible for correcting them is the pastor, the priest celebrant, or even the bishop if the local priest is unwilling.

When a deacon is ordained he promises the bishop and the Church that he is willing to carry out the diaconal service with humility and love as a cooperator of the priestly order and for the good of the Christian people. If he lives up to his promise, then he will gladly correct any errors that might have crept in.

The Web site of the U.S. bishops’ conference has a useful document “The Deacon at Mass,” based on the latest norms from the Holy See.

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Follow-up: Altar Cloths

A priest reader from British Columbia sent in some more information regarding cloths that may be placed upon the altar (see Sept. 18 column).

He wrote: “There is the practice, not universal, of placing a cerecloth, a cloth made waterproof by being soaked in wax. It was placed immediately under the altar cloth to prevent, in the case of accident, any spilled Precious Blood seeping through to other cloths or coverings. Apparently this type of cloth was also used in wrapping a corpse. Hence, the mind might allow for a connection between the Bloody Sacrifice of Calvary and the Un-bloody Sacrifice of the Holy Mass.”

A reader from Israel asked: “Is there or was there a rite or prayers to prepare an altar that hasn’t been used recently for Mass and hasn’t had the Blessed Sacrament present for a while? Perhaps called ‘dressing the altar’?”

In most cases an altar that has been unused for some time does not lose its original dedication and there is no need to be dedicated or blessed anew.

A suitable way of underlining the return to use is with a new set of liturgical objects, such as a new altar cloth and other linens. These may be blessed at the beginning of Mass using the appropriate rites and formulas described in the Book of Blessings.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.



Altar Cloths

And More on Media at Homilies

ROME, SEPT. 18, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Could you clarify why three cloths are used on the altar? We have a discussion ongoing in our parish where there are two schools of thought: Either this has a symbolic reference to the Trinity or, alternatively, has a symbolism linked to the shroud cloths of Christ. — A.F., Sheffield, England

A: The question of cloths on the altar is dealt with in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 304, which states:

“Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar’s design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color.”

Therefore, only one white cloth is obligatory in the present rite unlike the extraordinary form of the Roman rite (the Missal of John XXIII) which specifies three cloths, one of which covers the entire altar table and hangs down the sides almost to the floor. The other two cover at least the table or the stone containing the sacred relic.

The attribution of possible symbolic references for these cloths is not uniform and their history is often entangled. Sometimes in liturgy an object is first used for one reason, for example, covering a sacred object with a cloth as a sign of respect and care.

This was a fairly common practice in the ancient world and is not exclusive to Christianity or even to the specifically religious sphere. It was sometimes applied to civil objects such as symbols of authority or formal copies of imperial decrees.

During the Middle Ages many well-established liturgical customs were interpreted allegorically as bearing on some doctrinal aspect or representing some moment of the Redemption.

In this way some authors interpreted objects such as the altar cloths as representing the Lord’s shroud, others as the Trinity. Finally, the allegorical interpretation was sometimes reinforced by being incorporated into the design and decoration of the object itself.

The Church itself has usually refrained from granting official sanction to these allegorical interpretations. In some cases more than one interpretation might be legitimate and even useful for illustrating some particular doctrinal point. In other cases excessive use of allegory can even lead us to miss the main theological point, for example, in explaining the essentially sacrificial nature of the Mass.

Another cloth which may be used on the altar is the antependium, or frontal, which hangs down in front of the altar, usually reaching the ground.

In the Western tradition, it is white or some similar color although in some countries it follows the seasonal liturgical color. It may be adorned or embroidered according to local custom and culture. An antependium enhances the dignity of the altar and helps to clearly define the liturgical season.

Other practical cloths may also be placed on the altar such as an under-cloth and a dust cover which is placed over the altar cloth when not in use so as to keep it clean at all times.

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Follow-up: Slide Shows at Homilies

In response to our piece on slide shows during homilies (Sept. 4) a reader from Evansville, Indiana, mentioned a case which went beyond a presentation: “Once, our parish priest replaced the homily with a film. As you noted that images may remind people of television, this action by our priest reminded me of a movie theater. It was as if I were watching a movie that did not interest me. While the lights in the church were dimmed, I am sure others felt the same way and some of them may have even taken a short nap in the darkness.”

While the homily may not be the place for the use of such media as DVD’s and presentations, they can be most useful evangelization tools in other contexts such as catechesis and the continual Christian formation of adults. As another reader pointed out, such modern means are “easy to use, pleasant to view, and draw wonderfully focused lessons and applications. They are often prepared by religious sisters and are the fruit of a lifetime of professional communication in the classroom.”

If truly useful, it is even possible to use such means in the church, as it is not always possible or practical to convoke the people at other times or venues. For example, with adequate foresight the pastor could invite the faithful to remain a few minutes after Mass to view a video or presentation on some topic of pastoral or spiritual concern.