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A Commentator's Role

Inappropriate tasks Commentators must avoid.
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source:

Question: Can you provide any insight into the role of the commentator? The commentator is quite common here in the United States, and every church seems to have a different job description for this person. For example, in our parish before the start of Mass the commentator greets the people, asks if anyone is celebrating a birthday or anniversary or is visiting. Then there is the usual happy birthday or anniversary song. Then the commentator gives a 5- to 6-minute reflection and words of advice for the coming week. During the Mass the commentator sits in the sanctuary; directs the people via hand signals whether to sit, kneel, rise; calls out the music/song that we will be singing, etc. At the end of Mass, before the final benediction he/she reads the announcements; gives comments and their take on the homily; and thanks the people, etc. I have suggested this is taking the role of "commentator" a bit too far, but cannot find anything in the GIRM to help back up my claim. Can you help? -- M.P., Keaau, Hawaii

Answer: I think you are correct that this is taking the role of commentator a bit too far.

The liturgical function of the commentator is described, along with that of sacristans, ushers, and those who take up the collection, in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 105:

“The commentator […] provides the faithful, when appropriate, with brief explanations and commentaries with the purpose of introducing them to the celebration and preparing them to understand it better. The commentator's remarks must be meticulously prepared and clear though brief. In performing this function the commentator stands in an appropriate place facing the faithful, but not at the ambo.”

No. 352 of the GIRM later insists on the need for preparation: “Since, indeed, a variety of options is provided for the different parts of the Mass, it is necessary for the deacon, the lectors, the psalmist, the cantor, the commentator, and the choir to be completely sure before the celebration which text for which each is responsible is to be used and that nothing be improvised. Harmonious planning and carrying out of the rites will great assistance in disposing the faithful to participate in the Eucharist.”

This is all that is said about the commentator. By saying that the commentator intervenes “when appropriate” could be interpreted that this function is best used whenever there is something special, such as a confirmation or ordination that requires some explanation.

The insistence that this office’s functions must be meticulously prepared and are specifically orientated toward helping the people live the celebration would seem to exclude spontaneous interventions and unprepared remarks based on the homily.

Likewise it is highly debatable that the assembly’s singing "Happy Birthday" is the most appropriate spiritual preparation for Mass.

It must also be remembered that GIRM, No. 31, specifically assigns the presentation of the rite and any concluding summaries to the presiding priest and not to the commentator: “It is also up to the priest, in the exercise of his office of presiding over the gathered assembly, to offer certain explanations that are foreseen in the rite itself…. In addition, he may give the faithful a very brief introduction to the Mass of the day (after the initial Greeting and before the Act of Penitence), to the Liturgy of the Word (before the readings), and to the Eucharistic Prayer (before the Preface), though never during the Eucharistic Prayer itself; he may also make concluding comments to the entire sacred action before the dismissal.”

GIRM, No. 50, however, foresees the possibility that the brief introduction to the Mass of the day may also be assigned to a lay minister.

Although it is not a specific function of the commentator to call out the songs or make the usual announcements at the end of Mass, it is practical so as not to multiply the number of people in the sanctuary. All the same, it would be better to find another means to designate the songs so as to limit interruptions to the prescribed rite.

The duty of indicating, whenever necessary, the posture to be adopted by the people has traditionally fallen on the deacon, or on the cantor. It is usually only necessary when some special rite is celebrated, such as the Litany of Saints during ordinations.

The duty of indicating, whenever necessary, the posture to be adopted by the people has traditionally fallen on the deacon or the cantor. But No. 43 of the GIRM also allows this task to be assigned to another lay minister if necessary: “With a view to a uniformity in gestures and postures during one and the same celebration, the faithful should follow the directions which the deacon, lay minister, or priest gives according to whatever is indicated in the Missal.”

I believe that such indications are usually only necessary when some special rite is celebrated, such as the Litany of Saints during ordinations or in places where there are frequent visitors from different parts of the world who might be used to other practices.

Otherwise I believe that it is better to leave aside choreographic gestures and indications for regular Sunday Masses. Some of these might have been necessary at the beginning of the reform until people got used to the new rite. But after nearly 40 years of practice I think most Catholics now know when to kneel, sit and stand.

Something similar can be said about the persistent habit of cantors raising their hands, or saying “Response” after each psalm verse or invocation of the prayer of the faithful. It was all very well when the responsorial psalm and the intercessions were liturgical novelties, but by now it is sometimes a bit theatrical and distracting.

It is worth noting that such gestures are studiously avoided in papal Masses celebrated in Rome. The faithful easily interpret the appropriate moment to intervene as indicated by a pause, the cadence of the melody, or the intervention of the organ.

* * *

Follow-up: Kissing the Hands of a New Priest

The theme of kissing of hands of a new priest (see
June 10) brought to the fore another question regarding the use of hands.

A New Orleans reader asked: “Should there be silence (i.e., no music) during the imposition of hands at an ordination? I believe that the Pontifical says something like, 'Saying nothing' the bishop and then the other priests present impose hands. The force of the Latin, if I recall it correctly, seems to be simply that the priests say nothing (no prayer, no "God bless," no "You made it, Bill") while imposing hands. My question is this: Which is more fitting during this liturgical action, sacred silence similar to the elevation of the sacred species after the words of institution, or some fitting piece of music like, say, 'Veni, Sancte Spiritus'?”

The Pontifical, which our reader remembers well, says: “One by one, the candidates go to the bishop and kneel before him. The bishop wearing the miter lays his hands on the head of each, in silence.

“Next all the concelebrating presbyters and all other presbyters present, provided they are vested with a stole worn over an alb or over a cassock and surplice, lay their hands on each of the candidates, in silence. After the laying on of hands, the presbyters remain on either side of the bishop until the prayer of consecration is completed.”

From this we adduce that the priests imposing hands should say nothing and that any prayer for the ordinand should be purely mental.

The silence of this moment of the rite of ordination is of great importance and in a way it is a rite in itself. Thus during the rite of imposition of hands there should be no music or singing whatsoever.

However, even though there is nothing in the rubrics to support it, when the imposition of hands is likely to be protracted due to the number of priests or due to the number of candidates, liturgical practice seems to tolerate singing some invocation to the Holy Spirit. If and when this is done, the bishop usually imposes hands in silence and the hymn is intoned shortly after the priests have begun to impose hands.

In order to maintain the climate of silence the rubrics foresee the possibility of a smaller number of the priests present imposing hands. This is sometimes done, and is to be preferred to interrupting the silence, but it is not always easy to carry out without someone feeling excluded.

The second, much rarer, situation of prolonged silence is when the number of candidates is very numerous. After 10 minutes of absolute silence during a rite, even fervent people can get nervous and lose concentration on the mystery that is being celebrated. Thus the silence itself can become an obstacle to the concentration it seeks to promote.

In such cases some invocations such as the Veni Creator Spiritus can be tolerated.

This was the case in my own ordination in which I was blessed to form part of a group of 60 priests ordained by Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica. The rite of imposition of hands alone lasted about half an hour and thus several hymns invoking the Holy Spirit were sung during its course.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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