By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 10 February 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I am confused about an apparent conflict in the instructions for Communion Service Outside of Mass. In the rite provided by the U.S. bishops' conference in the publication "Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest" (2012), the penitential rite is completely omitted. However, in the older "Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside of Mass" (1976) and the rite for Communion of the Sick (1983) the penitential rite is present and these rites are adaptable for use by a non-ordained minister. With that in mind, is it proper for a lay minister to lead the penitential rite (with or without the final exhortation "May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life")? — K.W., Austin, Texas
A: The presence of the penitential act is most certainly a difference between the two rites, and indeed both are perfectly valid in their proper contexts. Another difference is that whereby the rites for Holy Communion Outside of Mass and Holy Communion for the Sick are rites promulgated by the Holy See, the specific rites for Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest are prepared and issued by the bishops' conference based on a directory received from the Holy See and issued in June 2, 1988.
Regarding the structure of the rite for Sunday celebrations the directory says:
"41. The following is an outline of the elements of the celebration.
" a. Introductory rites. The purpose of these is to form the gathered faithful into a community and for them to dispose themselves for the celebration.
"b. Liturgy of the word. Here God speaks to his people, to disclose to them the mystery of redemption and salvation; the people respond through the profession of faith and the general intercessions.
"c. Thanksgiving. Here God is blessed for his great glory (see no. 45).
"d. Communion rites. These are an expression and accomplishment of communion with Christ and with his members, especially with those who on this same day take part in the eucharistic sacrifice.
"e. Concluding rites. These point to the connection existing between the liturgy and the Christian life.
"The conference of bishops, or the individual bishop himself, may, in view of the conditions of the place and the people involved, determine more precisely the details of the celebration, using resources prepared by the national or diocesan liturgical committee, but the general structure of the celebration should not be changed unnecessarily.
"42. In the introduction at the beginning of the celebration, or at some other point, the leader should make mention of the community of the faithful with whom the pastor is celebrating the eucharist on that Sunday and urge the assembly to unite itself in spirit with that community."
The ritual published by the U.S. bishops' conference and the complementary norms issued by individual bishops clearly state that this ritual may only be used for Sunday celebrations. This denotes awareness that the purpose of this rite is different from that of the other two rituals for Holy Communion outside of Mass.
As seen above in No. 41a the purpose of the introductory rites for a Sunday celebration "is to form the gathered faithful into a community and for them to dispose themselves for the celebration."
I do not know why those who prepared the ritual decided that it was expedient to omit the penitential act for the Sunday celebration. Perhaps they thought that the special introductory formulas used at the beginning of the ritual were sufficient to form the gathered faithful into a community. Perhaps they considered that the penitential rite was too resonant of the Mass and the Holy See's directive is very explicit that the ritual should avoid all confusion with the Mass. In the end it is a matter of choice, and we presume that the decision was made in good faith and based on what were considered good liturgical principles and obviously met with the approval of the majority of the bishops.
It is not the only possibility, however. Other bishops' conferences, such as that of England and Wales, have opted to include the penitential rite in their 2013 update of the celebration of Holy Communion in the absence of a priest. In this case, however, they have provided a rite that can also be used on weekdays.
Finally, it is important to recall that one must follow whatever ritual is approved for the country where the celebration takes place and in accordance with the instructions of the diocesan bishop.