A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Omitting the Washing of the Hands


ROME, 24 FEB. 2004 (ZENIT).

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: At the weekday Mass our priests drop the ritual washing of the hands from the liturgy. Is this acceptable? I understand from what I read that no priest is allowed to change the Mass as prescribed in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. They also only dress in the alb and stole rather than proper vestments. One of them also says the entire first part of the Mass (Confiteor, etc.) from the front aisle and, after his homily, sits in the pews with the congregation rather than in the chair in the sanctuary. I find many of these things very distracting.—R.M., Kansas City, Missouri

A: You are correct in saying that no priest is allowed to change the prayers and rites of the Church except where the rubrics specifically authorize him to do so, and you touch upon some very delicate themes.

We have dealt in an earlier column about the use of proper vestments at Mass (Oct. 7). The examples you cite are just a few among many that in themselves may seem slight but which cumulatively weaken the overall spiritual effectiveness of the rites.

The fact that you, and probably many others, find these anomalous practices distracting should serve as a reminder to us priests that we are first and foremost servants, not owners, of the divine mysteries. The Catholic faithful have a sacred and inviolable right to participate in the liturgy that the Catholic Church recognizes as its own, and we priests have a corresponding duty to fulfill that right.

In many cases these errors are due less to acts of willful disobedience as to an inadequate liturgical and canonical formation in the seminary.

In my travels I have met priests who categorically affirm that they learned in the seminary that “Rome” or “the Vatican” had abolished, mandated, mitigated or otherwise modified certain liturgical practices that I knew with certainty the Holy See had said nary a word about. Or indeed had said the exact opposite.

Sometimes a priest is doing these things in perfectly good faith and believes he is doing the right thing. Often a gentle request and an explanation of why you find these things distracting can clarify things for all concerned.

Before speaking to your priest, pray to the Holy Spirit so that he may enlighten both of you and that charity should reign supreme in your conversation.

In order to practice Catholic liturgy, one must know it. An advantage of Internet access to the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and many other documents is that priests, deacons and lay people can read the norms themselves and find out how the Church desires that Mass be celebrated.

In most cases the GIRM is itself sufficiently clear to allow most parishes to easily apply most of its dispositions without any need to recur to the aid of liturgical specialists (including me).

Certainly some minor adaptations will always be necessary due to contingent elements such as church design and the size of the presbytery. But these are quite easy once the general principles are respected.

To complete the response I will comment briefly.

The washing of hands at the end of the offertory rites may never be omitted at any Mass. It is a significant rite and expresses the priest’s need for purification before embarking on the great Eucharistic Prayer.

The omission of the rite may stem from a theory of its origin, popular a few years ago, that the rite was originally practical and was required because dust from the loaves handled during the offertory during the ancient celebration needed to be removed from the celebrant’s hands. Only later was a spiritual meaning given to the rite.

Thus, some argued, the advent of pre-prepared hosts had rendered the rite obsolete. This theory, while coherent, has the disadvantage of being wrong.

Further research into the ancient rites has shown that the rite of washing of hands (dating from the fourth century) is older than the procession of gifts, and even after this practice was introduced the celebrant often washed his hands before, not after, receiving them.

Thus the rite has always had the sense of spiritual purification and validly retains this meaning today.

The penchant for leading the assembly from the pews rather than from the priest’s chair is a far more recent phenomenon.

The GIRM in No. 310 says that this chair “must signify his [the priest’s] office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer. ... Any appearance of a throne, however, is to be avoided. It is appropriate that, before being put into liturgical use, the chair be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.”

Thus the chair’s use and location is not indifferent, as it represents the role of the priest, who is not just a team leader. Rather, as the bishop proclaims in the prayer of ordination, priests are united to the order of bishops “in the invocation of your mercy for the souls entrusted to them and for the entire world.”

The chair, by calling to mind the bishop’s cathedra, also symbolizes the assembly’s communion, through the priest, with the whole diocese and the universal Church.

Although we perhaps rarely consider them, the totality of our symbols, postures, gestures and suchlike manifests who we are and what ecclesiological ideas underlie our actions. History teaches us that a change in symbolism, given time, can provoke a change in mentality and even advance heterodox opinions.

Thus presiding from the chair or leading from the aisle could be taken as representing two distinct concepts of Church and of priesthood. And while this does not mean that the priest you mention holds any erroneous ideas, it is necessary to consider seriously the possible long-term consequences of our parting from established liturgical norms. ZE04022423

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Follow-up: Washing of the Hands [03-09-2004]

Reacting to our Feb. 24 column, a priest from Maine stated his hope that "the practical value of the washing of hands would be more appreciated" in our modern germ-conscious society.

"I've asked the Eucharistic ministers to gather in the sacristy before the distribution of Holy Communion, especially in cold season, and wash their hands," he writes.

While a practical practice of this type could be seen as an act of charity, I would hesitate to draw out a spiritual meaning of inner purification, which is the sense of the priest's washing of hands.

There is also some practical washing of hands foreseen in the liturgy such as after distributing ashes, and after any rite that implies anointing.

Modern society is of course more acutely aware of hygienic questions, so simple acts of basic cleanliness may be appreciated and seen as an act of respect for the congregation, although without falling into exaggerations.

After all, in most cases one is far more likely to catch something at the office, or from hugging one's own children and grandchildren, than by receiving Communion at Mass.

In this context, as another reader suggested, it is better for the priest, while distributing Communion, to avoid touching the head, while blessing young children or others who do not receive Communion as this practice may create some queasiness in those who are approaching, especially those who prefer to receive on the tongue.

At the same time it is probably going too far to expect the priest to refrain from shaking hands with those about him during the rite of peace, although there can be exceptions, as happened in Canada during the SARS epidemic, when several bishops recommended exchanging the sign of peace by means of a simple bow.

Another reader asks if the practice of purifying the fingers after distributing Communion has been abolished. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 278, says: "Whenever a fragment of the host adheres to his fingers, especially after the fraction or the Communion of the faithful, the priest is to wipe his fingers over the paten or, if necessary, wash them."

Therefore the practice of purifying the fingers after distributing Communion is still in force although it is not always necessary to do so with water.

Although the GIRM speaks only of the priest the same principle hold true for other ministers of Communion and a vessel with fresh water and a purificator (the small linen cloth used for purifying sacred vessels after use) should be provided for them at the credence table or in another convenient place. ZE04030921

 

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