TCA Life for September/October

Bells at Mass?

Q: Why do some parishes use bells at the consecration of the Mass and others not?

Jackie, Seattle, Washington

A: Catholic worship excites the senses with movement and color, incense and music — the “smells and bells” of tradition. This is because we bring the entirety of ourselves to prayer: body and soul. Posture marks the solemnity and reverence of certain moments — for instance, standing at the proclamation of the Gospel and kneeling for the consecration. Music enhances our participation as well, bringing the assembly’s voices together in unity as the People of God come together in divine worship.

Three factors historically led to a certain distance or disconnect between the actions of the priest during parts of the Mass and the actions of the people: language, posture and acoustics. Over the centuries Latin became increasingly less understood by most people. The priest stood at the altar facing the same direction as the people and, in some churches, monasteries and cathedrals where the altar was a good distance from the pews, acoustics simply did not allow the congregation to hear the words spoken at the altar.

People were still active in prayer during the Mass, but very often, especially in more solemn celebrations, the choir sang extended settings of the acclamations — the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, for example — while the priest had already moved on to other texts. And sometimes the congregation was involved in private prayer (reciting the Rosary or prayers from the missal) even as the choir sang and the priest prayed the Mass parts.

Bells were rung to alert the people to what they could not easily see or hear, so that they could attend to the important and solemn action at the altar. Today, use of the bells is optional, since language, posture and acoustics generally permit the congregation to follow the action of the Mass. Still, many parishes continue ringing bells to underscore and draw attention to the solemnity of certain moments of this great prayer: the epiclesis (or calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine) and the consecration.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal has this to say about the practice: “A little before the Consecration, if appropriate, a minister rings a small bell as a signal to the faithful. The minister also rings the small bell at each elevation by the Priest, according to local custom” (No. 150).

Seeking Validity

Q: My Catholic husband and I were married in my own Methodist church. When I converted to Catholicism, many years later, the parish priest told me that we were not validly married. This was because we did not obtain approval from the Catholic Church. But my husband was not a practicing Catholic then; in fact, he didn’t go to church at all. Why were we not considered validly married since he was not a practicing Catholic anymore?

Anonymous, via email

A: The Sacrament of Baptism is often called the “gateway to the sacraments.” With baptism, in addition to being cleansed of sin, a person is configured to Christ and “incorporated into the Church” (Canon 849 of the Code of Canon Law). This means that a person enters into the communion of the Christian faithful, the People of God. That person is a member of the Church and remains so even if the person drifts away from regular attendance at Mass and other external marks of participation in the life of the Church.

Your husband may have been an inactive or non-practicing Catholic at the time of your wedding, but from the perspective of the Catholic Church he always remained a member of the “family” of the Church. As such, he was bound to observe certain requirements for entering into the Sacrament of Matrimony. These requirements were set by the Fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215, repeated by the Council of Trent in the 1560s, emphasized by Pope St. Pius X in 1910, and codified in Church law in both the 1917 and 1983 Codes of Canon Law (see Canons 1117 and 1127.2 of the 1983 code, and also the pertinent amendment to Canon 1117 made by Pope Benedict XVI in his October 2009 document Omnium in mentem).

This set of requirements, called the “canonical form of marriage,” includes the obligation that a Catholic enter marriage in the presence of a bishop or a properly delegated priest or deacon and two witnesses. Historically, these requirements were put in place to prevent the spread of clandestine or secret marriages, by which any person could claim to have been married (or deny having married) without proof, witnesses or documentation.

A Catholic is bound to observe the canonical form of marriage or to ask proper Church authority for a dispensation from those requirements. Otherwise, the Catholic Church does not recognize the legal validity of that marriage.

In other words, your husband may have considered himself to be away from the Church at the time of your courtship and wedding, but the Church always considered him part of the communion of the faithful because of his baptism as a Catholic. As such, he was required to observe the canonical form of marriage as defined by the Catholic Church (or to request to be dispensed from that). Since he did not, the Catholic Church does not recognize the marriage as valid. However, your pastor or another priest can lead you through the path of having the marriage validated within the Church so that it is a recognized sacrament in the Church.

Conferring Confirmation

Q: I was told by my pastor that he was unable to confirm my siblings (baptized Catholics as babies and now in their 60s) at the Easter Vigil. Why couldn’t he have done so considering he was able to confirm so many others that night?

Mary, via email

A: The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy expressed the desire to demonstrate clearly the intimate connection of the Sacrament of Confirmation with the other sacraments of Christian initiation — baptism and Eucharist (see Sacrosanctam Concilium, No. 71).

Through centuries of usage, the original order of these three sacraments (baptism, confirmation, first Communion) was lost in ordinary practice, principally because the age of confirmation was raised in order to allow for an extended period of education or catechesis. That meant that reception of first Communion would come at a later age as well. Pope St. Pius X, however, called for the reception of first Communion at a young age so as not to withhold the graces of this sacrament from children. As a result, confirmation began to be received out of order.

Liturgical law since Vatican II has restored the original order of the sacraments of initiation, at least for adults. This was seen first in the re-established order of Christian Initiation of Adults, published in June 1974 (see No. 279). In that document, priests were granted the faculty to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation to adults whom they baptized or received into the full communion of the Catholic Church. For individuals who were already baptized in the Catholic Church, only a bishop could administer the Sacrament of Confirmation.

A bishop is the ordinary minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation, but in order to maintain the unity of the sacraments of initiation, the law itself gives a priest the faculty to confirm in the same ceremony when he baptizes someone “who is no longer an infant.” The same is true when a priest receives a baptized person into the full communion of the Catholic Church. This norm is expressed in Canon 883.2 of the Code of Canon Law.

During the Easter Vigil new “converts” typically are received into the Church. For those to be baptized, it is the completion of their catechumenal process. For those already baptized, it is the culmination of their Christian growth toward the Church.

As noted above, the priest is granted the faculty to administer confirmation to those persons he baptizes or receives into full communion. This includes those baptized or received during the Easter Vigil. However, a priest does not have the faculty to confirm persons who were already baptized Catholic but not yet confirmed; only a bishop may confirm them in ordinary circumstances. Nonetheless, some bishops will grant the faculty for a priest to confirm an adult Catholic if there are extraordinary circumstances — for example, if the unconfirmed Catholic’s spouse is being baptized or received during the Easter Vigil. In such a case, the priest needs to ask the bishop for the extraordinary faculty to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation upon an adult Catholic.


Funeral Rites

Q: Can my grandfather be buried with a Catholic funeral service? He is not Catholic, but has gone to Mass with us for years.

Rafael, Orlando, Florida

A: The answer depends on whether your grandfather has been baptized. The funeral rites of the Church are intended for those who have been baptized or who are catechumens (those who have publicly expressed their desire to be baptized). Children who died before baptism may also be buried with funeral rites.

Baptism incorporates a person into the communion of the Church. A person’s desire for baptism, whether through parents for an infant or through an adult’s stated intention as a catechumen, permits the Church to extend her embrace at the time of death, even for those who die before baptism.

The funeral rites of the Church honor and celebrate the Communion of Saints, which exists beyond the limits of our mortal life. “Though separated from the living, the dead are still at one with the community of believers on earth” (General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals, No. 6). Hence, the Church’s funeral rites are for her own members and those united with her through baptism. In this way, the communion of the Church on earth and in heaven is celebrated.

A baptized member of another Christian community or church may be buried with Catholic funeral rites, at the discretion of the local ordinary (see No. 18). Accordingly, if your grandfather is baptized, your pastor may request permission to celebrate Catholic funeral rites for him.

The Church has no provision for celebrating Catholic funeral rites for a person who had not been baptized or did not express a desire for baptism before death.

If your grandfather regularly attends Mass with you, perhaps a conversation is in order as to whether he feels a desire to enter full communion with the Catholic Church at this time.

The Color Green

Q: Why is the color green used for ordinary time?

Tommy, via social media


A: Prayer involves all of our senses. It involves being alive to touches of God’s grace everywhere around and within us. Color in a church is more than decoration. In public worship, it has a role similar to music, art and architecture of a church — to teach, to inspire, to help gather our thoughts.

Green is used as a liturgical color during the weeks known as Ordinary Time. Generally, this period of time occurs from the end of the Christmas season until the beginning of Lent, and from the end of the Easter season until the beginning of Advent. Far from being a filler between other liturgical seasons, Ordinary Time has its own meaning, signified by its own color.

At its etymological root, the word “ordinary” has a rich meaning, far beyond the usual understanding of humdrum, commonplace or everyday. The word has its source in a Sanskrit, or Indo-European, word, which entered into Latin as the verb orior, meaning to rise up, to be stirred up and to grow. The word for “east” in Latin, oriens, conveys the same rich meaning: It indicates the rising of the sun. Hence, Ordinary Time is, for Catholics, the opportunity to allow the Lord to stir up our faith, to allow our spirits to rise and to grow in our spiritual life.

The color green brings this meaning to the fore, since it is a color that evokes life and growth.

Angelo Giampiccolo /

Godparent Qualifications?

Q: What kind of qualities should I be looking for when choosing my child’s godparents? Do they need to be very active in their faith? What minimum requirements does the Church look for?

Cassie, Boise, Idaho

A: The word “sponsor” has multiple meanings, whether a sponsor who supports the membership application of another in an organization or club, or a sponsor in a 12-step program whose patient encouragement and explanations of the steps and traditions help a person maintain sobriety.

When the Church uses the term sponsor, or “godparent,” it is with multiple meanings as well. A sponsor is above all a person who will provide an example of Catholic living, striving for holiness and virtue amid the challenges of daily life. It is a person who will walk alongside the baptized person, helping the growing and maturing child to understand the ways of God and the workings of the Holy Spirit. It is a person who will support the efforts of the parents of the newly baptized to lead their child into a living and vital relationship with Jesus, and show the fruits of such a relationship in one’s own life.

Consider the challenges given to a sponsor in the ritual of baptism itself. At the beginning of the Rite of Baptism, the sponsors are asked, “Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?” From the outset, then, the rite makes it clear that godparents are not merely symbolic — they are to have an active role in the life of the child being baptized.

In the intercessions, or prayer of the faithful, provided for baptism, those present pray that God will “make the lives of (the) parents and godparents examples of faith to inspire this child.” Just before the baptism itself, the godparents join the parents in renouncing Satan and professing their faith in the Triune God. Immediately following the baptism, among the elements used to symbolize the sacramental action of God that just occurred is the lighting of a candle. At that time, the priest or deacon says, “Parents and godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly.” Godparents join the parents in the duty of instructing and enlightening the newly baptized child.

With all of this as a background, what are the minimal requirements for a sponsor or godparent? Canon 874.1 provides the qualifications for a sponsor:

“1. to have the aptitude and intention of being a sponsor;

“2. to be at least sixteen years old (unless the bishop or pastor permits otherwise);

“3. to be a fully initiated Catholic (having received the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist) who leads a life of faith in keeping with the role of a sponsor;

“4. to be free of any penalty under canon law;

“5. not to be the father or mother of the child to be baptized” (since the role is distinct from parenting).

Does a godparent need to be very active in their faith? It is required that he or she lead a life of faith in keeping with the function of a sponsor. Understanding what that means, it seems that the answer is a definite yes.

The role is more than symbolic and perfunctory; it is an active role in the spiritual and religious development of the child. Someone who is not a shining example of what it means to be an active and faith-filled Catholic could not be expected to fill the role of a sponsor or godparent. The child should be able, as he or she grows in understanding, to find in a godparent an example of what it means to live the Catholic faith every day.

Rev. Msgr. William J. King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, where after many years in diocesan administration he happily serves as a pastor. He is also an adjunct lecturer in Canon Law at The Catholic University of America. He holds graduate degrees from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, The Catholic University of America and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.