ROME, 22 JAN. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: I was present at a Mass where a male, non-ordained religious was
seated in the sanctuary amid a large group of priests who were
concelebrating at a Mass celebrated by a bishop. The religious was the
president of the school and was listed as "presiding." Is this in accord
with liturgical norms? Can a religious or layperson ever be permitted to
preside in the sanctuary at a Mass?
W.F., New York
A: This is perhaps a demonstration of the ambiguity and limitations
of the noun "presider" to refer to the celebrant or presiding
concelebrant of a Mass.
Only an ordained minister can, strictly speaking, preside at any
liturgical act. In the case at hand it was certainly the celebrating
bishop who presided at the Mass.
While I have no more information on the role of the non-ordained
religious than contained in the question, I would suppose that the Mass
formed part of a series of liturgical and non-liturgical acts on an
occasion such as a graduation or the inauguration of an academic year.
In such a case, reference to the religious as presiding probably
referred to the totality of the acts. It would certainly be incorrect to
refer to him as presiding at the Mass.
It is possible for laypersons to be seated in the sanctuary, usually
when they have a specific ministry to fulfill, such as reader and server
or in some cases when they receive a sacrament.
There are also some specific customs allowing for persons having some
civil or non-ordained ecclesiastical dignity to be seated in the
sanctuary area during Mass. This would appear to be the case regarding
the president of the school.
The general tendency of the liturgical norms is to move away from
such special protocols, but some are legitimately preserved out of
In such cases the person should have a place that is distinct but
clearly separate from that of the concelebrating priests and other lay
ministers so as to avoid any confusion.
This kind of distinction honors a person's particular function rather
than the individual as such. It does not, however, mutate or enhance the
person's role as a member of a hierarchically constituted liturgical
* * *
Follow-up: Non-ordained "Presider"
In our article on non-ordained "presiders" (Jan. 22), we stated: "Only
an ordained minister can, strictly speaking, preside at any liturgical
This led some attentive readers to point out that both the Catechism
(No. 1669) and canon law (Canon 230.3) explicitly mention that laypeople
may "preside" over certain liturgical acts such as blessings, Liturgies
of the Word with Holy Communion, and similar acts.
I thus believe that I owe my readers a clarification of my thought on
If the word "preside" means no more than liturgical leadership, then of
course laypeople may preside over certain liturgical acts, especially
when an ordained minister is not present. This, I believe, is the sense
used in canon law.
It is not necessarily the sense used in the Catechism, as this number
regards blessings, some of which laypeople may impart in virtue of the
common priesthood and not as substitutes for an absent minister.
When I used the term "preside" in my earlier article, I used the term in
a theological-liturgical and not in canonical context and probably
should have made some pertinent distinctions.
For example, a layperson may lead a group in a liturgical act such as
the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. But the leader does not,
strictly speaking, preside. This is demonstrated by certain norms and
changes in the rites such as the fact that he or she does not use the
presidential chair and does not impart a blessing at the end.
Similar norms are observed when lay ministers lead Liturgies of the Word
with distribution of Holy Communion. In these cases it is also
recommended that if there are several ministers present, they should
take charge of different moments of the celebration so that none appear
to preside over the celebration.
From a theological perspective, the liturgical exercise of the royal or
common priesthood either of an individual or of an assembly always
requires hierarchical communion with the ordained ministry.
When an ordained minister is present, he thus presides in the sense that
hierarchical communion is established through him. Thus the greeting and
response: "The Lord be with you" / "And with your spirit," and others
If no ordained minister is present, then the assembly still implicitly
establishes hierarchical communion with the ordained ministry by
following the Church's rites and texts through which it manifests the
Church at prayer. In such cases the lay minister who leads guides or
even presides (in the wider sense) over the assembly performs a
liturgical service but is not the means through which the assembly
Although many blessings may be imparted by laypeople, No. 18 of the
General Introduction to the Shorter Book of Blessings says that it
belongs to bishops/priests/deacons to "preside" at certain blessings,
but when referring to lay ministers it does not use the word "preside."
Rather, it says that lay ministers may "impart" or "celebrate" a
blessing in virtue of their baptism and confirmation.
There are also different rites and formulas for when the blessing is
given by an ordained or lay minister. Also, the canon cited as a source
in the footnote to No. 1669 of the Catechism (Canon 1168) does not use
the word "preside" but rather "administer" a blessing.
There are so many Church documents touching upon liturgy that the
occasional apparent contradiction or confusion in terminology should not
I hope that this clarifies our readers' doubts and will not produce
further fog. As always I am grateful for the care and attention given to
these poor words.