By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 19 November 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: What is the most opportune place to receive the bread and wine at the offertory procession: in front of the altar, at the altar rail or in some other place? — A.F., Novara, Italy
A: The offertory procession is described in several documents. The Ceremonial of Bishops describes the rite thus in No. 145:
"At the end of the general intercessions, the bishop sits and puts on the miter … the deacons and acolytes arrange the corporal, purificator … on the altar.
"The gifts are then brought forward. As a sign of their participation, the faithful should present the bread and wine for the celebration of the eucharist, and even other gifts to meet the needs of the Church and of the poor. The deacons or the bishop receives the gifts of the faithful at a convenient place. The bread and wine are brought by the deacons to the altar; the other gifts are taken to a suitable place prepared beforehand."
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states:
"139. When the Prayer of the Faithful is completed, all sit, and the Offertory chant begins (cf. no. 74). An acolyte or other lay minister arranges the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the Missal upon the altar.
"140. It is appropriate for the faithful's participation to be expressed by an offering, whether of the bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist or of other gifts for the relief of the needs of the Church and of the poor. The offerings of the faithful are received by the priest, assisted by the acolyte or other minister. The bread and wine for the Eucharist are carried to the celebrant, who places them upon the altar, while other gifts are put in another appropriate place (cf. no. 73)."
However, if there is a deacon, he carries out the tasks referred to in No. 139. Thus, he "prepares the altar, assisted by the acolyte, but it is the deacon's place to take care of the sacred vessels himself" (see GIRM, Nos. 178 and 190). He also receives the gifts alongside the priest.
In 2004 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments published the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum." This document gives precise indications regarding the presentation of the gifts:
"[70.] The offerings that Christ's faithful are accustomed to present for the Liturgy of the Eucharist in Holy Mass are not necessarily limited to bread and wine for the eucharistic celebration, but may also include gifts given by the faithful in the form of money or other things for the sake of charity toward the poor. Moreover, external gifts must always be a visible expression of that true gift that God expects from us: a contrite heart, the love of God and neighbor by which we are conformed to the sacrifice of Christ, who offered himself for us. For in the Eucharist, there shines forth most brilliantly that mystery of charity that Jesus brought forth at the Last Supper by washing the feet of the disciples. In order to preserve the dignity of the Sacred Liturgy, in any event, the external offerings should be brought forward in an appropriate manner.
Money, therefore, just as other contributions for the poor, should be placed in an appropriate place which should be away from the eucharistic table. Except for money and occasionally a minimal symbolic portion of other gifts, it is preferable that such offerings be made outside the celebration of Mass."
After the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, Pope Benedict XVI continued this reflection in his apostolic exhortation "Sacramentum Caritatis":
"47. The Synod Fathers also drew attention to the presentation of the gifts. This is not to be viewed simply as a kind of 'interval' between the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. To do so would tend to weaken, at the least, the sense of a single rite made up of two interrelated parts. This humble and simple gesture is actually very significant: in the bread and wine that we bring to the altar, all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father. In this way we also bring to the altar all the pain and suffering of the world, in the certainty that everything has value in God's eyes. The authentic meaning of this gesture can be clearly expressed without the need for undue emphasis or complexity. It enables us to appreciate how God invites man to participate in bringing to fulfillment his handiwork, and in so doing, gives human labor its authentic meaning, since, through the celebration of the Eucharist, it is united to the redemptive sacrifice of Christ."
In spite of this wealth of documents, none of them gives any precise indications regarding the place where the gifts are to be received. At most they say a "suitable place."
This absence of precise norms is probably the best choice, as it would be almost impossible to foresee the logistics of each and every parish.
A suitable place means a place where the gifts can be handed to the priest, passed to the deacon or other ministers, and brought to the altar in as simple and unobtrusive way as possible for all concerned. Thus the suitable place is determined by liturgical common sense, taking into account such things as the number of steps in the sanctuary, the space available for the ministers and the trajectory to the altar.
In most cases this would mean that the priest and ministers, once the altar is prepared, approach the center of the sanctuary and receive the gifts at the first steps. This has the advantage that the faithful carrying the gifts need not be perturbed by obstacles such as awkward steps, and it permits members of the assembly of different ages and states of health, including those using wheelchairs, to participate in this service.
In other cases it might be necessary to adapt to the situation of the priest, especially if he is elderly or has difficulties moving.
When a bishop celebrates, or it is a solemn celebration, the gifts may also be brought to the celebrant seated at the chair; he receives them and then passes them to the deacons or other ministers.
If this is done, it is prudent to select carefully those who will bring up the gifts and even to practice the rite beforehand.
In all cases it is preferable that the priest himself should not have to carry anything to the altar.