ROME, 4 NOV.
by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: At what point in time during Mass it is considered too late for anyone
coming into the Mass to receive Communion? These days I see a lot of
people who enter the Mass even as Communion is being given and they head
straight to receive. Is this right? — E.M., Port Harcourt, Nigeria
A: Like most priests, I am loath to give a straight answer to this
question because, in a way, it is a catch-22 question for which there is
no right answer.
It is true that before the Second Vatican Council some moral theology
manuals placed arrival before the offertory as the dividing line in
deciding whether one fulfilled the Sunday obligation of assistance at
Mass. But after the liturgical reform, with its emphasis on the overall
unity of the Mass, modern theologians shy away from such exactitude.
Mass begins with the entrance procession and ends after the final
dismissal and we should be there from beginning to end. Each part of the
Mass relates and complements the others in a single act of worship even
though some parts, such as the consecration, are essential while others
are merely important.
To say that there is a particular moment before or after which we are
either "out" or "safe," so to speak, is to give the wrong message and hint
that, in the long run, some parts of the Mass are really not all that
important. It may also give some less fervent souls a yardstick for
arriving in a tardy manner.
Although I prefer not to hazard giving a precise cutoff moment, certainly
someone who arrives after the consecration has not attended Mass, should
not receive Communion, and if it is a Sunday, go to another Mass.
Arriving on time is not just a question of obligation but of love and
respect for Our Lord who has gathered us together to share his gifts, and
who has some grace to communicate to us in each part of the Mass.
It is also a sign of respect for the community with whom we worship and
who deserves our presence and the contribution of our prayers in each
moment. The liturgy is essentially the worship of Christ's body, the
Church. Each assembly is called upon to represent and manifest the whole
body but this can hardly happen if it forms itself in drips and drabs
after the celebration has begun.
Thus people who arrive late to Mass have to honestly ask themselves, Why?
If they arrive late because of some justified reason or unforeseen event,
such as blocked traffic due to an accident, they have acted in good
conscience and are not strictly obliged to assist at a later Mass
(although they would do well to do so if they arrive very late and it is
possible for them).
Likewise for many elderly people, even getting to the church is an
odyssey, and one must not burden their consciences by counting the
If people arrive late due to culpable negligence, and especially if they
do so habitually, then they need to seriously reflect on their attitudes,
amend their ways, and if necessary seek the sacrament of reconciliation.
Depending on how late they arrive they should prefer to honor the Lord's
day by attending some other Mass, or, if this is not possible, at least
remain in the Church after Mass is over and dedicate some time to prayer
and reflection on the readings of the day. ZE03110420
Communion for Late Arrivals
An attentive reader suggested that my reply to a Nigerian correspondent as
to "what point in time during Mass it is considered too late for anyone
coming into the Mass to receive Communion" (see Nov. 4) did not quite
address the question at hand. The core query appeared to be "asking a more
direct question, about how much Mass is required before receiving
This could have serious consequences, the follow-up questioner noted, as
"Mass is not a prerequisite for receiving Communion. If it were, I and
other extraordinary eucharistic ministers could not bring Communion to the
shut-ins, the sick, the elderly, or the imprisoned."
I believe I did address the question at hand in the previous column,
although it entailed explaining why I eschewed suggesting a clear minimum
Mass requirement in order to receive Communion and also to fulfill Sunday
obligation. Yet, our correspondent raises a valid point.
In preparing my original reply I had thought of mentioning Communion
outside of Mass, but as the question was tailored to late arrival at Mass
I considered it might confuse the issue and left it out. It appears that
my hesitation has returned to haunt me.
It is necessary to distinguish Mass from other moments in which Communion
is received. The Church provides two basic rites for receiving Communion
outside of Mass. One is for those occasions when for some good reason Mass
in unavailable but Communion is possible. The other is for bringing
Communion to those who are unable to attend Mass due to age or infirmity.
Both rites have the same basic structure but differ in the prayers and
This structure is: greeting; penitential rite; Liturgy of the Word; on
some occasions homily and prayers of the faithful; Communion rite with the
Our Father; sign of peace; "This is the Lamb of God ..." and its response
"Lord, I am not worthy ..."; Communion; concluding prayer; and final
There are slight variations in the rite when presided by a priest, deacon
or by an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. The Liturgy of the Word
may be extended or abbreviated according to pastoral needs with the
possibility of using the same readings as at Mass or just reciting a brief
verse from Scripture.
The question as to how much of this is required in order to receive
Communion varies according to concrete situations. But when Communion is
distributed because Mass is unavailable, then, in principle, those who
wish to partake should attend the entire rite.
This would be the situation, for example, in parishes with no resident
pastor and, usually, in prisons whenever it is possible to gather the
inmates so as to form an assembly. Otherwise the rite may be carried out
at each cell with a brief Liturgy of the Word, although the local ordinary
may approve particular adaptations to special circumstances unforeseen in
the liturgical books.
Communion to the sick, elderly or shut-ins presents a different pastoral
situation, and the special circumstances allow for particular solutions.
If possible the entire rite should be carried out each time, although the
Liturgy of the Word may be abbreviated so as not to sap the strength of
When Communion is distributed to large numbers of infirm people living
separately in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, etc., the liturgy allows
the minister to carry out an abbreviated rite reciting the antiphon "Oh
Sacred Banquet" in the chapel or in the first room and distributing
Communion in each room using just the formula "This is the Lamb of God..."
and "Lord, I am not worthy." He recites the closing prayer in the last
room or the chapel but omits the final blessing.
I consciously omit here any reference to bringing viaticum to the dying as
this rite is usually united to the anointing of the sick and is the
exclusive province of the priest.
The structure of Communion outside of Mass could also provide a guideline
for those who strive to attend daily Mass (apart from Sunday Mass). While
the principle of attending the entire Mass remains firm, one may be a
little bit more flexible regarding reception of Communion on weekdays if
it is impossible to arrive at the very beginning.
In these cases it is best to consult directly with the pastor as to the
best means of proceeding in order to fulfill one's desire for Communion
while respecting the dignity and sanctity of the sacrament.
Another interlocutor asked about the opposite end of Mass and if people
may leave after receiving Communion.
The Mass ends with the dismissal, but as a mark of respect the faithful
should wait until the priest has entered the sacristy and any final song
has ended. Leaving after Communion does not allow us to thank God properly
for the gift of his Son and also deprives us of the added grace of the
concluding prayer and final blessing.
At times the members of the congregation resemble marathon hopefuls as
they stampede toward the exit after Mass. In other circumstances, one
wishes they would only get out sooner and not hang around chatting in the
aisles. But that is a theme for another occasion.