Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
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 minutes.
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
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Follow-up: Communion for Late Arrivals [11-18-03]
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 Communion.”
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 texts provided.
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 blessing.
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 the weak.
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.