|ROME, 2 DEC. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: I recently participated in what was called a "paraliturgy" in which
there was no priest or deacon but Eucharistic ministers. This
paraliturgy consisted of the Confiteor, an Epistle reading and the
reading of the Gospel. I was asked to read the Epistle and the Gospel;
and the Pater Noster. Afterward there was distribution of consecrated
hosts from the tabernacle. Is there such a thing as a paraliturgy? What
are the norms of the liturgy when a priest and deacon are not present?
Is it permissible for a layperson, who is not ordained a priest or
deacon, to publicly read the Gospel?
F.B., Coral Gables, Florida
A: The term paraliturgy is of relatively recent coinage and is
used inappropriately to describe the Celebration of the Word with
distribution of Communion (at which you assisted). As far as I know the
term paraliturgy is not used in universal Church documents.
The term was first used in the context of the liturgical movement before
the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The term described
celebrations and forms of worship inspired by the liturgy but which do
not form part of official liturgical texts.
Before Vatican II many groups developed paraliturgical services. These
usually involved some form of celebration of the Word along with
litanies, prayers and rites inspired by the liturgy but in the
In some cases rites born in a paraliturgical context were eventually
incorporated into the liturgy. Perhaps the most significant example is
the renewal of baptismal promises. This practice began among groups of
young Catholics around the year 1900 and became very popular in retreats
and similar gatherings as an expression of commitment to the faith. Half
a century after its inception Pope Pius XII decided to include the
renewal of baptismal promises among the rites of the restored Easter
In other cases a new theological perspective led to a changed category.
For example, before Vatican II the possibility of realizing a liturgical
act depended on having a canonical delegation. For this reason a
layperson who prayed the Divine Office technically performed a pious act
but not a liturgical one. A nun, who prayed the same text in virtue of a
canonical deputation, was deemed as participating in the liturgy.
After Vatican II the capacity to act liturgically was no longer grounded
canonically but rather on the basis of having received the sacraments of
baptism and confirmation. Thus, any Catholic who prays the Liturgy of
the Hours as the prayer of the Church acts liturgically.
In the context of the present liturgy, a community celebration of the
Word, with or without the distribution of Holy Communion, should not be
called a paraliturgy, because it is in fact a liturgical act ordered and
determined by Church authority.
Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may lead these celebrations
when no ordained minister can be present. In such cases the liturgical
norms recommend that the extraordinary ministers avoid the impression
that they substitute the presiding role of the priest. They should not,
for example, use the presidential chair. And tasks such as reading the
Gospel and distributing Communion should be divided among various
Some bishops' conferences have developed special books for these
celebrations, especially when carried out on a Sunday, so as to clearly
distinguish them from the celebration of Mass.
Although the term paraliturgy should not be used for the above
celebrations, the term may still be applied to a host of other rites and
celebrations that use a quasi-liturgical format. Among these could be
numbered the rites used by some religious communities and ecclesial
movements to induct new members. The elements of these ceremonies are
often inspired by the rituals of the sacraments, blessings and religious
profession, without corresponding to any officially approved text.
Other possible applications of this term could describe penitential and
other services during retreats, parish missions and the like that rely
heavily on liturgical models but which also include other elements such
as readings and prayers from other spiritual writers.
Some authors class as paraliturgies the texts of litanies, novenas and
pious exercises that might have received episcopal approval for private
devotion but which are frequently recited publicly in churches without
ever being considered as the Church's official prayer. This is a
possible use of the term, although it makes it difficult to distinguish
between paraliturgies and what official documents refer to as community
* * *
Follow-up: On Paraliturgies
In our column on the theology and status of paraliturgies (Dec. 2), we
mentioned that we did not know of their figuring in any official
An attentive reader has managed to find four mentions of paraliturgy in
official documents published since 1975. The word was found in two papal
documents: Paul VI's exhortation on the missions "Evangelii Nuntiandi,"
and John Paul II's exhortation on penance "Reconciliatio et Paenitentia."
It also appeared in a document on migration from the Pontifical Council
for Migrants and Travelers and in the 1994 "Instrumentum laboris" of the
special synod of bishops for Africa.
None of these documents can be classified as liturgical legislation, and
the mention of paraliturgy merely acknowledged the existence of
this category of celebration without attempting any definition.
From the response of some readers, it appears that there is widespread
confusion between the two categories of liturgy and paraliturgy. It
appears that for many, the concept of liturgy is reduced to the
celebration of Mass, the other sacraments, and, for some, the Liturgy of
the Hours, while all other rites are classed as paraliturgies.
This is not correct. In short, practically every celebration for which
the Church has provided, or even outlined, an official rite can and
should be legitimately classified as liturgical. This includes solemn
ceremonies such as the Good Friday celebration of the Passion,
practically all the blessings contained in the Book of Blessings, and
most instances of community celebration of the Word.
It would also include all forms of official rites for the distribution
of Communion outside of Mass, though the distribution of Communion in
this manner to a parish community must be duly authorized by the local
bishop (see instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," Nos. 165-166).
The denomination of a celebration as liturgy does not always require the
physical presence of an ordained minister
but, yes, it does require his virtual presence
as an assembly can act in a truly liturgical manner only if in
Thus a Sacramento, California, reader asked: "In the Rite of Christian
Initiation of Adults, Nos. 85-89 gives a 'Model for a Celebration of the
Word of God.' If an RCIA team composed entirely of laity perform one of
these celebrations, choosing the readings 'for their relevance to the
formation of the catechumens' (RCIA, No. 87), does this constitute a
liturgy or a paraliturgy?"
Here a distinction must be observed due to the special condition of the
Christian Initiation process.
From what we have said above, this rite would be objectively a
liturgical act insofar as it is based on a model proposed by the Church.
From the subjective point of view, it would be liturgical only for those
already baptized as only the baptized may act liturgically as members of
Christ's Mystical Body participating in his priesthood.
Although the candidates for baptism participating in this celebration
cannot act liturgically, and consequently they do not receive a
bolstering of sanctifying grace (one of baptism's effects), it is an
occasion of increase in actual graces that solidifies and deepens their
intention of receiving the sacrament.
The celebration would not be paraliturgical because the fruitful
celebration of a paraliturgy also requires the gift of baptism.