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Omitting the Washing of the Hands

And More on "Through Him, With Him ..."
by Father Edward McNamara | Source:
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.

* * *

Follow-up: "Through Him, With Him ..."

In response to our reply on the people joining in the "Through him, with him, in him" (see Feb. 10), one priest wrote describing how he politely persuaded his flock to stop joining in the doxology: "by pointing out [to the faithful] that the 'Amen' is their part."

"While the 'Mysterium Fidei' proclamation is to be said or sung by priest and people," he wrote, "the 'Amen' is only said by the people. So I tell them, 'I won't say (sing) your part, if you don't sing my part.'"

The priest is correct regarding the celebrant's not joining in the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer and I think his pastoral suggestion is a very valid one.

I would point out however, that the rubric which states that the people together with celebrant and concelebrants sing the acclamation after the priest sings the 'Mysterium Fidei' is found only in the present English Missal and does not correspond to the Latin.

The new General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 151, also makes no mention of the priest's joining in when it says: "After the consecration when the priest has said, 'Mysterium fidei' (Let us proclaim the mystery of faith), the people sing or say an acclamation using one of the prescribed formulas."

However, I would not labor this aspect too much for, unlike the final Amen, it is more practical than theological. In some cases, pastoral necessity requires the priest to intone and join in this acclamation in order to assure that it is sung.

A correspondent from Australia asked if the Sanctus were not an example of priest and people joining in the Eucharistic Prayer?

While the Sanctus (Holy Holy Holy) did not form part of the earliest known Eucharistic prayers, it entered very quickly, first in the East and later into the Roman Rite, perhaps introduced by Pope Sixtus III (died 440). Although it is, in a way, a part of the Eucharistic Prayer, it is so in the manner of an acclamation, proclaimed by all, which expresses very well both the universality of the Sacrifice and that the Eucharist is, above all, a sacrifice of praise.

In principle it should be sung by priest and people, although during several centuries the people were habitually substituted by the choir which sang an elaborate version during which the priest recited the Sanctus silently and began the recitation of the rest of the canon.

The very fact that the community aspect of the Sanctus has always existed, and has been constantly confirmed in Church documents, shows that the Church has never considered it either an exception nor in contradiction to the principle that only the priest alone should recite the Eucharistic Prayer.

Writing from the Philippines, an Irish priest who often ministers to the deaf suggested that there is, perhaps, one official precedent for the congregation praying the doxology with the priest. This would be the Eucharistic Prayer for the Deaf approved by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Protocol No. 1621/85 for the bishops of England and Wales.

"The text, with the official introduction," he writes, "is in Liturgy, Volume 16, No. 6, August-September 1992, pp 39-48, published by the Liturgy Office of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales."

The text for the last part of the Eucharistic Prayer with the rubric is:

we praise you for ever
with Jesus, your Son,
in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

He takes the chalice and the paten with the host and lifts them up while the people respond:

we praise you,
we thank you,
we adore you
for ever and ever.

Our correspondent comments: "It would be impossible for the priest to sign while holding up the paten and chalice!"

This might indeed constitute an exception, although considering the extraordinary circumstances involved and the necessary demands of sign language, I do not think we can draw any general theological conclusions from this fact.

Finally, another Irish correspondent, a woman from County Mayo, asks if the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles: I leave you peace, my peace I give you" should also be said or sung alone.

According to the rubrics, this prayer should be said by the priest alone; the people answer with Amen. The only place where I have found this prayer said by all is in Ireland. When I enquired during a recent visit, a priest told me that the common recital had been recently introduced as a special means of asking for peace in the country.

This may have been the reason (I have no other source of information on this topic). From a theological and pastoral prospective such a motivation would appear to greatly limit the scope and depth of Christ's peace no matter how desirable the cause.

I did notice that the common recital was very unevenly practiced, largely depending on who celebrated Mass.

I was also unable to ascertain by whose authority it was introduced. Such a change would normally require the approval of a two-thirds majority of the bishops and the Holy See.


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