The Least We Can Do

Working in the field of liturgy, whether in Christian initiation, or in parish liturgy, or in cathedral rites, or in diocesan leadership, usually means striving to maximize the things a community does to celebrate liturgy well.

Liturgists favor robust symbols, ones that engage our senses. They seek ways to involve more and more of the faith community in the liturgical action. They think about how we might increase spiritual participation as well as ministerial service and active engagement by the assembly.

Our rites offer guidance for how to celebrate in imperfect circumstances, when the ideal cannot be reached. Nevertheless, the guiding question for the liturgical renewal continues to be: What is the most we can do? The people of God deserve the full celebration of the rites, and rely upon pastoral leaders to foster this.

So it is quite strange — with the coronavirus health crisis raging and the necessity of social distancing leading to the suspension of most of our usual practices — to discover ourselves in a situation where everyone is now looking for the floor rather than the ceiling, asking not what is the most we can do, but what is the least we can do. It’s a challenge to try to celebrate in a way that is valid, licit, and safe during a public health crisis.

We will surely get to the bottom. Cut this, cut that, and eventually we will reach the floor. Having met the minimum, however, are we not merely unworthy servants (Luke 17:10)? Perhaps even in a time of great restriction we can imagine and act upon a generous vision.

The Vatican has revised and updated their guidelines for Holy Week. I would like to make a few observations about these changes, and then turn to the RCIA in particular, which faces so many challenges during this time when initiatory activities normally come to their high point in the cycle of the church year.

Vatican Guidelines

You’ve probably seen the Decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship that was issued on March 19. Now there is an update: “In Times of Covid 19 (II),” issued on March 25. It is important to read them both, because the update omits the context offered in the original. For example, the first guide explains why the Triduum cannot be moved. This explanation is helpful.

There is also, in the first iteration of the guidelines, an endorsement of the practice of live streaming, and the prohibition of taping the liturgies in advance. Note well, the fact that the update doesn’t mention this does not necessarily mean these sensible directions should now be forgotten or ignored.

There are some new prohibitions in the March 25 text.

  • For Palm Sunday, cathedrals are to use the second form of the entrance, in which the procession with palms takes place indoors. In parishes, the third form is to be used. This form has no blessing of palms at all. This will be a disappointment to parishes. In most instances, palm orders cannot now be cancelled, and obviously it will disappoint the faithful who might wish to have blessed palms available to take home, even if they don’t gather for the liturgy itself.
  • On Good Friday, the updated guidelines now limit the veneration of the cross. They specify that the celebrant alone may kiss the cross.

With reference to the Chrism Mass, the first guidelines said the ordinary could assign it to a new date. The second guidelines say the Episcopal Conference will decide on the new date.

Regarding the Easter Vigil, the original guidelines said the preparation and lighting of the new fire is to be omitted. But in the revised guidelines, there is no mention of this. I had assumed that the prohibition of lighting the new fire was put in place in order to keep people from gathering out of doors. As we all know, however, the new fire (obviously on a smaller scale) may be kindled indoors. So, it seems the new fire is now back on the list of things to do, and this is a good move.

The new guidelines do not specify that the Exsultet is sung, nor that the candle is lighted, as the first guidelines did. But if everything else in the service of light is back on the agenda, these elements most certainly would be included.

More strange is the situation regarding the Liturgy of Baptism. The new guidelines say that “For the baptismal liturgy, only the renewal of the baptismal promises will be maintained.” Although the obvious inference is that baptisms would not be celebrated, the guidelines leave some questions unanswered.

For instance, who answers the questions in the renewal of baptism, if a priest alone is celebrating the Vigil? The server? Does the celebrant answer his own questions?

More importantly, the guidelines are silent about the blessing of the font. Even when there are no baptisms at the Vigil, if you are in a parish where there are baptisms at other times the water is still blessed at the Vigil. In the case of oratories and religious houses that have no font, because they have no baptisms, it makes sense to omit the blessing. But in a parish or a cathedral, the norm is to bless the font.

As a sign, the water is simply “there” it does not have to be used immediately in order to be important to the Vigil. Furthermore, the blessing of water is one of the three great prayers of the Vigil that stand like pillars in the structure of that liturgy: the Exsultet, the Blessing of Water, and the Eucharistic Prayer. Each is in the form of a preface; they are prayers overflowing with thanks and praise, for light, water, bread and wine. I cannot conceive of a good reason to omit the middle piece: the blessing of water.

Easter Vigil Readings

The Vatican guidelines do not mention the readings of the Easter Vigil. In the absence of any directives to the contrary, I should think that the usual guidance found in the Missal would be followed.

Much to my consternation, however, I’ve been hearing that some parishes intend to read only two Old Testament readings in the Vigil. This was the minimum stated in the first and second editions of the Roman Missal, and reference to it appears in the 1988 Circular Letter on the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts. Since the publication of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal in 2002, however, the minimum has been raised to three. They must include the Exodus reading.

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults

The Vatican guidelines clearly do not envision that baptisms will be celebrated at the Easter Vigil. This throws a wrench into the timeline of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. I’ve been hearing all sorts of ill-considered plans to take the place of the well-ordered ritual steps and stages of the process centered on the Easter Vigil, including celebrating “private” baptisms, using inappropriate rites, dispensing with all the rites of Lent, and so forth.

Some sorting out is necessary. Let’s start with the Scrutinies.

I have been puzzled to hear, from a variety of sources, that some local bishops have announced that they are dispensing from the obligation to celebrate all three Scrutinies, those rites of purification and enlightenment that, according to RCIA 141, “complete the conversion of the elect.” A priest or deacon is to celebrate these rites, and ordinarily they take place on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent in the context of Mass. They may take place at other times however in the case of necessity — even outside of Lent, and even on weekdays.

RCIA 34.3 states that the bishop may “dispense, on the basis of some serious obstacle, from one scrutiny or, in extraordinary circumstances, even from two.” That might have fit the present case, if Easter Baptism were possible. However, that is not the case anymore. We do not plan to gather for Easter. If we are going to celebrate Baptism at a later time, it follows that the Scrutinies would lead up to that event, even though they are “out of season,” so to speak.

Also, it’s important to note, the RCIA does not say that the bishop may dispense from all three Scrutinies. The reason is because the Scrutinies are important to the entire shape and purposes of the Christian Initiation of adults. The mystery of sin and grace is deep, and we can’t omit the Scrutinies without doing damage to the whole.

If, as is the case now, the faithful are not permitted to gather for Mass, obviously the Scrutinies cannot be celebrated at Sunday Mass as per usual. But they could be celebrated at some other time, perhaps outside of Lent altogether, as when — in an unusual circumstance — initiation is scheduled for another time. The bottom line for the rite is that at least one Scrutiny must be celebrated at some point.

One may ask, but can’t the bishop dispense from the whole process? What about using the abbreviated rite for exceptional circumstances? RCIA 34.3 refers us back to Part Two, Chapter 2, (RCIA 331 ff) “Christian Initiation of Adults in Exceptional Circumstances.” RCIA 331 states that “Exceptional circumstances may arise in which the local bishop, in individual cases, can allow the use of a form of Christian initiation that is simpler than the usual, complete rite (see no. 34.4).”

Right away it should be apparent that a bishop offering a blanket dispensation from all three Scrutinies for his diocese does not honor this provision, which — as the rite explicitly states — is to be used “in individual cases.” But let us set that aside for a moment and ask what happens when, in individual cases, permission is given to use the Expanded Abbreviated Form (RCIA 332-335) or the Abbreviated Form (336-339).

A little background is in order here. Fr. Balthasar Fischer of Trier was the chairman of the coetus that produced the reforms of Baptism following the Second Vatican Council. A formidable liturgical scholar, he was intimately involved with and well-informed about the reasoning that went into the shape of the ritual text we now have. In an interview with The Chicago Catechumenate, he explained that the reason the abbreviated form was included was because there were people already being prepared for baptism before the RCIA was promulgated, and this would give pastors a way to initiate them according to the new rite, without starting them all over again at the beginning. He expected this abbreviated form to fall into disuse once those people were put through. Mostly, it has.

Yet even here, you’ll notice, the basic form of the Scrutiny is included in the abbreviated rite. Penitential intercessions occur in the litany at 349; there is an optional penitential rite during which the candidate kneels or bows (as in the Scrutiny) and a General Confession is spoken, at 350; there’s a Prayer of Exorcism at 351; and finally we have an Anointing and Laying on of Hands at 352 (352B, the laying on of hands, is preferred for the Dioceses of the United States).

The praenotanda for an Expanded Abbreviated Rite, which is recommended in the ritual text first (RCIA 332-335), responds to a variety of circumstances that may prevent an individual from following the full program of Part I. It, too, explicitly urges the inclusion of elements of the Scrutinies (see RCIA 334.2) when celebrating the abbreviated rite.

What about the rite “Christian Initiation of a Person in Danger of Death”? It is important to note that this is the only place where we do not see a Scrutiny form. Why is this the case? RCIA 372 gives us a clue: “This shorter rite is designed particularly for use by catechists and laypersons [emphasis added]; a priest or deacon may use it in a case of emergency. But normally a priest or deacon is to use the abbreviated form of Christian initiation given in nos. 340-369, making any changes required by circumstances of place and time.” As we saw earlier, a Scrutiny is presided over by a priest or deacon, not a catechist or lay person.

Parenthetically, let’s remember that a lockdown or even a quarantine is not the same thing as sickness unto death. The first is a public health precaution, the second is a physical condition. “Oh, but we’re all in danger of death!” some may object. If that’s the case, then everybody would be a candidate for this rite, because we all are going to die someday. No, the use for this is specific, and its role should be honored. There will be some who are in danger of death from the coronavirus, but we are unlikely to be able to celebrate rites with them at all, as they will be medically sequestered from everyone except their care givers.

So, to return to our first question: how important are the Scrutinies to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults? Very important indeed. We cannot jettison them entirely. I do not see how anyone could read the rite and conclude otherwise. Even if bishops were to give permission to use the abbreviated form, it would include the Scrutiny elements that are so important to the process.

This is not to say that bishops ought to be giving out blanket permissions to celebrate the abbreviated form!

My view is that the situation now cries out for the option that the rite offers for celebrating the whole of initiation at another time — Scrutinies, Presentations, Preparation Rites, Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist — in their proper sequence. This makes sense on many levels: the important presence of the faith community at the rites, the necessity of following the process that liturgically works to prepare us all for new life, and especially to prepare the elect for a fruitful reception of the sacraments. Yes, we will miss the richness of the Vigil setting. This is a loss. But it is already out of our hands, as we won’t be celebrating the Vigil together. Yes, it clashes with other seasons of the liturgical year to celebrate Lenten rites out of season, but we can manage. The mystery of sin and grace is what is at the heart of these rites. Though not ideal to do so, they can be celebrated at other times.





  1. I think the guidelines are exactly that: guidelines (or as the document puts it, “indications and suggestions”) that are meant to be interpreted according to the local situation by the diocesan Bishop. In my opinion, even though the phrasing of the exact directives can lead people to conclude they are mandatory, I believe that they offer expanded permissions and specify certain boundaries. I would not be surprised if the Italian/Spanish/French situation is uppermost in the minds of the drafters – and that is a different situation from other places. What you can do with 2 people is different from what you can do with 10 or 25 or 50…..

    Thus, I do not see it as that parishes *cannot* have the Second Form, or bless palms – but rather that in extreme situations, where gathering is not possible, rather than a priest simply marching down the aisle by himself, he should properly use the Third Form. The cathedral should preserve some solemnity and so the Second Form makes sense.

    [Side note: I have mixed feelings about distributing palm branches to the faithful who aren’t present. On one side, it is a popular and tangible devotional symbol. On the other, I feel people in worse affected areas should really be encouraged to stay at home rather than hop over to church for a sacramental]

    Similarly, with respect to aspects like no Holy Thursday procession, no blessing of water, no fire or procession with the candle – I see those as pragmatic gestures because of the possible restriction on ministers. There may have been some concerns about the sanitary aspect for the water, or concerns about people trying to take blessed water home as is custom in some regions. In addition, as you noted, a likely scenario in many of these places is that there is only a single priest and MAYBE lector and other minister – in such a case, it may have been difficult to process to the baptistery or other place, carrying a heavy Paschal candle. If there is no one to really sprinkle water on, they may have just elected to keep the renewal for those watching. (There are other solutions to simply omitting these rites, but I’m just guessing at what might have prompted these particular omissions)

    Finally some of the things mentioned in the two documents seem to be a matter of a little common sense, and not really requiring any intervention by Rome. For example, the document specifies that only the main celebrant reverences the cross by *kissing* it. But the Missal does not require a kiss anyway, and probably many places would have prudently discontinued it and suggested a bow/genuflection/other sign.

  2. Many things I’m in agreement with here. A few thoughts: palms can be blessed outside of the liturgy. I’d rather hold the scrutinies for a period prior to the return to worship with the entire assembly, or at least one “penitential” midweek liturgy with the community invited. I don’t see the need for a complete jettison of the Vigil. The paschal candle would have to be blessed in parishes that didn’t celebrate an Easter Vigil (and didn’t bless it yet, presumably). A community could choose to celebrate a votive Mass for baptism with as many readings and psalms as they wanted. To my thinking, the Exsultet is the only piece out of place. Or am I missing something obvious?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Todd. I am not sure if I follow your suggestion about incorporating elements of the Vigil into a baptismal liturgy at another time. The ritual Mass for Christian initiation would guide those selections so it seems that we are not free to do whatever we might like (in terms of choice of readings, ritual actions, or texts) to recreate the feast we’ve missed. You are right that the Exsultet is particular to the Vigil and doesn’t take place at other times. But I like your idea of a midweek penitential liturgy with the whole community invited, that could serve as the setting for a Scrutiny in preparation for Baptism..

  3. The language used in some communities, even in normal, non-pandemic times, seems to conceive of the scrutinies as a burden to be endured rather than rites to be celebrated. I imagine more than a few parishes are relieved to have received their bishop’s dispensation from celebrating two or even three of them.

    But a dispensation is not the same as a prohibition. Because a bishop has dispensed from the obligation does not mean a parish must forgo the celebration of the scrutinies. To Rita’s point, this can be a teaching moment for parish leaders to reach for the ceiling instead of falling to the floor as they guide their elect and their parishioners to a full, conscious, and active celebration of the whole of the initiation journey.

    1. Thank you, Nick. I am so glad you raised this point, in contrasting the attitude that initiation rites are “burdens” from which we seek relief, rather than viewing them as gifts — transformative experiences we would gladly seek out and would be truly reluctant to give up. We can’t expect the elect to know how fine the Scrutinies are, or why they shouldn’t want to miss out on them. But we can expect our pastoral leaders to know this, and our faithful to have caught the spirit of them as they celebrate these rites year to year.

      I have been surprised by how “out of sight out of mind” Christian Initiation has been in the preaching I have heard this Lent. The three great Scrutiny gospels cry out for attention to revisiting the wonder of that fundamental conversion to Christ that Lent is all about. But all the preaching I have heard has ignored this initiatory axis completely. We still have much work to do as a church to grasp a vision of Lent — which is so rich and beautiful — centered on Baptism and the renewal of Baptism.

  4. Rita, It’s interesting to see the priorities of, or what is important here (PTB) at this unique circumstance in time. Perhaps some other important questions and issues which I haven’t seen raised or discussed could be:
    -What is being done to hold the parish together now? To promote normalcy in the face of abnormality, to ensure that people feel needed and cared for.
    -Does the parish have the comfort of Mass by video or audio, even if they can’t be in the church?
    -Are parishioners made to feel like they matter to their parish more now than ever, and aren’t just an envelope number?
    -Is the parish putting its resources into reaching out to its members beyond a weekly email?
    -After this is over there are going to be a percentage who may find that they’re not missing anything by not having been to Mass for all this time and just don’t come back. What then?
    -How are the sick and suffering being remembered and cared for when there cannot be visitations?
    -What about the regular parish programs helping the needy, and what are new needs brought on by this crisis?

    I know what my parish is doing. What are others doing? (Sorry if I changed the trajectory of this thread and maybe starting a new one could better facilitate a discussion.)

    1. Thank you, John. I believe you raise a number of very important pastoral concerns in this comment. It seems to me that your comments are pointing to the fabric of connection within a community that serves as the subtext to communal worship in every season, but is especially relevant when people are feeling displaced and anxious. Thank you for raising these questions.

  5. Thank you, Joshua. You raise a good point. Yes, these are guidelines. They will have to be interpreted at the local level. But I think they carry weight as a decree of the congregation and bishops will want to follow them. You are right that they are phrased as commands, yet the text speaks of “suggestions,” so there is an ambiguity. The curia under Pope Francis is moving to more of a diaconal role, but this transition is incomplete. In a crisis some clear guidance is helpful, however. What form the entrance at Palm Sunday will actually take in the parish is anybody’s guess. But it can hardly be merely a suggestion as to who makes the decision concerning the date of the Chrism Mass, can it?

    1. it can hardly be merely a suggestion as to who makes the decision concerning the date of the Chrism Mass, can it?

      Well, what happens if the Bishops’ Conference elects not to make a decision on the date of the Chrism Mass, as has happened in England and Wales? In these dioceses, there are a variety of reasons why these celebrations are normally held on different days in Holy Week. In some US dioceses a number of Chrism Masses are celebrated on an area basis, some even in the week preceding Holy Week.

      It therefore seems to be eminently sensible to leave the decision on the date up to the local ordinary, as per the March 19 instructions.

      1. We’ve seen the US bishops punt on the age of Confirmation, and what you suggest will happen could certainly happen in the US, England and Wales. But why do you think the updated version of these guidelines changed it, if it was irrelevant? Obviously *somebody* thinks the conference ought to be making this decision or the CDW would have left it as it was. Any ideas, Paul? Is this an Italian issue?

  6. I think it may not be correct to view the March 25 instructions as superseding the March 19 instructions, but rather as supplementing or clarifying them in the light of rapid developments in the situation.

    Therefore, I think the instruction that the blessing of the fire and procession be omitted, or that only the renewal of baptismal promises is retained, could be interpreted as a demonstration of pragmatism. It seems to me that on March 19 the Sacred Congregation was saying that there are number of symbolic rituals that do not really make sense in the absence of a celebrating community, and that it would there make more sense to leave them out. That perception has not changed in the few days between the two sets of instructions.

    While I take your point about the Preface-like nature of the Blessing of Water, the Congregation could be simply saying that all the ancillary rites connected with baptism should be omitted if there will in fact be no baptism. In the preconciliar era there was always a renewal of baptismal promises (in Latin) at the Vigil, even though there was never any baptism, so the connection between the two was not evident. And it also seems clear that the Vigil as presented in the 1969 Missal did not really envision what would later happen when RCIA was promulgated — i.e. the reintroduction of actual baptisms (!) into the Baptismal Liturgy — which is why it is often so darn complicated to organize this part of the rite now!

    1. Thank you, Paul. Sometimes, when talking about omissions, I wish they would use that salutary expression “may be omitted” thus leaving the pragmatic specifics to the individual case in given circumstances!

      In most cases, the second document supplements. No disagreement there.

      BTW, the renewal of baptismal promises entered the liturgy in 1951 with the reform of Pius XII. If you’d read my book, you would have known that, Paul. 😉 The 1951-55 text of Holy Week says in small print that if any baptisms are celebrated they would occur here, but we did not see initiation prominently celebrated at the Vigil until the RCIA appeared in 1972.

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