TCA Life for January/February 2010

No Nuptial Mass?

Q. My daughter is getting married in June to a wonderful man, who is a baptized Christian, but is not Catholic. They are getting married in a Catholic church and have gone through premarital counseling. He has agreed to raise the children Catholic.

The priest who is marrying them does not want to have a Mass as part of their wedding ceremony. My daughter found something on the Internet which said that priests are counseling couples, in which one of them is non-Catholic, to have the wedding ceremony without a Mass.

I don’t understand this. Is this something new, or is it reverting back to pre-Vatican II? What is the reasoning behind counseling couples not to have a Mass? That some of the guests won’t understand what is going on doesn’t seem to me to be a good reason. The blessings of a Nuptial Mass are as important in a mixed marriage as in one in which both partners are Catholic.

Nancy Cullin, via e-mail

A. For your daughter validly to marry a non-Catholic Christian, it is enough that she receive the proper permission from the local bishop through her pastor, that the husband be informed that she intends to raise the children Catholic, and that she follow the approved canonical form — that’s to say, that the vows be exchanged in the presence of three witnesses: the pastor of the parish or his delegate, plus the best man and the maid of honor.

While the Church heartily recommends that Catholics get married during Mass, it is not necessary. In the case of a mixed marriage between a Catholic and non-Catholic Christian, I suppose in some cases it might be better not to have a Mass if non-Catholic Christians would be offended at Communion time, when they are told that they cannot receive holy Communion. That is often an awkward moment, and yet the priest officiating at the wedding has a duty to explain clearly the Church’s protocol at Communion time: Holy Communion is ordinarily reserved to practicing Catholics.

Nevertheless, it’s very useful to celebrate at least a Liturgy of the Word surrounding the exchange of vows, since the wisdom contained in the Sacred Scriptures is edifying for all who attend the wedding.

The option of exchanging vows outside of Mass is not new and is not necessarily pre-Vatican II. Rather, it goes to the very nature of the Sacrament of Matrimony: The man and woman are the ministers of the sacrament, while the priest and best man and maid of honor fulfill the role of witnesses. Certainly, all the other sacraments lead us to the Eucharist, and the infinite grace available in the holy Eucharist is a great blessing upon the married couple, but it is not necessary to get married at Mass.

Here it will be useful to report what the Code of Canon Law states regarding mixed marriages:

“The local Ordinary can grant this permission if there is a just and reasonable cause. He is not to grant it unless the following conditions are fulfilled:

“1. the Catholic party is to declare that he or she is prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the faith, and is to make a sincere promise to do all in his or her power in order that all the children be baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church;

“2. the other party is to be informed in good time of these promises to be made by the Catholic party, so that it is certain that he or she is truly aware of the promise and of the obligation of the Catholic party;

“3. both parties are to be instructed about the purposes and essential properties of marriage, which are not to be excluded by either contractant” (Canon 1125).

Cancer and IVF

Q. My son-in-law had Hodgkins cancer. He wanted children in the future and donated sperm to be frozen. He married my daughter, and she knew he had done this. Now I read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that it was immoral (see No. 2377). What if the sperm was not collected through masturbation? Would it still be immoral? 

Name withheld

A. Yes, it would still be immoral, because in vitro fertilization (IVF) is immoral.

Your son-in-law’s desire to have children is understandable and praiseworthy. Oh, how couples suffer who long for children! Like Abraham and Sarah, it is always a test of faith and trust in God.

Whenever we discuss the ethics of human reproduction, the necessary starting point is the recognition that children — offspring — are a gift from God and not a human right. That premise may be difficult for some to accept, but it is based on the unique sacred dignity of each human person endowed with a unique spiritual and immortal soul.

With respect to IVF, the Catechism is quite clear in No. 2377, a teaching that repeats verbatim what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated in Donum Vitae in 1987. This same teaching is expressed in Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals Veritatis Splendor (1994) and Evangelium Vitae (1995). Most recently the Holy See has repeated this teaching with the instruction Dignitatis Personae (2008). All of those documents declare IVF to be immoral, and do so for a variety of reasons.

There are several moral problems with IVF. Besides the degrading act you mention in your question for collecting the semen, and the separation of the act of conception from the conjugal act, another serious problem is the disposition of “excess” embryos. Often they are left in a state of suspended animation, or even destroyed. We cannot treat human beings so callously.

Here it will be helpful to revisit what Pope John Paul taught on this subject in 1995:

“The various techniques of artificial reproduction, which would seem to be at the service of life and which are frequently used with this intention, actually open the door to new threats against life. Apart from the fact that they are morally unacceptable, since they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act, these techniques have a high rate of failure: not just failure in relation to fertilization but with regard to the subsequent development of the embryo, which is exposed to the risk of death, generally within a very short space of time.

“Furthermore, the number of embryos produced is often greater than that needed for implantation in the woman’s womb, and these so-called spare embryos are then destroyed or used for research which, under the pretext of scientific or medical progress, in fact reduces human life to the level of simple ‘biological material’ to be freely disposed of” ( Evangelium Vitae , No. 14). 

Interfaith Services?

Q. I have a strange question, I believe. Our new parish priest has arranged during Lent to “share services,” as he calls it, with Protestant congregations. Every other week we will have the Stations of the Cross with an Episcopal congregation, and on Good Friday we will have a community prayer service at a Methodist church.

Is this OK? I never before heard of doing this.

Patricia Y. Smith, via e-mail

A. There is no such thing as a “strange” question for TCA! All questions are welcome. Rather, the practice you describe might seem strange to good and pious souls who hunger for the richness and depth of the Catholic liturgical and devotional life.

I understand why some good priests reach out to our separated brethren such as Episcopalians and Methodists. Personally, I think it is praiseworthy to invite non-Catholic Christians to our events, especially Stations of the Cross, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Chaplet of Divine Mercy, or the Rosary and such. We should even invite them to attend Mass, taking care to instruct them, however, that they can receive holy Communion only when they become Catholics.

I suppose I might feel uncomfortable attending a community prayer service at a Methodist church, unless the hymns, readings and prayers were truly traditional and acknowledge God as our Father, Jesus as our Savior, the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier, and the Blessed Mother as our trusty advocate.

The danger in uncritical association with some non-Catholic Christian communities is this: Separated from Peter ( ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia [“where Peter is, there is the Church”]), they tend to wander quite far from the teachings of Christ and wind up espousing and sanctioning all sorts of erroneous teachings. 

Who Goes First?

Q. You spoke at St. Mary’s in Huntley awhile back, and I’m the pastor here. I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to pick your brain on a liturgical question. I have a subscription to TCA, so I hope it’s OK if I take a shortcut in asking this question!

When it’s time for Communion, who receives first, the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion or the altar servers? I can’t find anything on this, so I’m wondering whether you could give me some direction.

Father Steve Knox, via e-mail

A. Father Steve, what great timing! I am under a deadline for the next column, and your question is very interesting.

The answer, in short: I dunno, and certainly there is nothing written about it that I am immediately familiar with.

If we proceed from the sense of hierarchy, however, I suppose you could make the case for the altar servers receiving holy Communion first since they are in vesture and serving ordinarily in that role all during Mass. Of course, if they have been duly conferred the stable ministry of acolyte, I think they would take precedence over the extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

Canon 910 of the Code of Canon Law states: “1. The ordinary minister of holy Communion is a Bishop, a priest or a deacon. 2. The extraordinary minister of holy Communion is an acolyte, or another of Christ’s faithful deputed in accordance with canon 230.3.”

So you could make the case that there’s a sense of hierarchy here: bishop, priest, deacon, acolyte, extraordinary minister, laity, Cubs fan, Sox fan.

Then there’s the real question of what actually works at the moment and in the place: space requirements in the sanctuary and such.

Now if you want to win brownie points with the servers, and reinforce the very important service they render in the liturgy, just tell them that they come first. Your jubilarians serving as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion will be delighted with your attention to the youngsters!

I don’t know whether that’s helpful, but it’s my two cents worth. 


Q. I have two teenage daughters who attend church sporadically at my urging. My question is this: Knowing that both girls are sexually active outside of marriage, should I encourage them to attend Mass when I know that their reception of the Eucharist constitutes another serious sin?

It’s kind of a catch-22, isn’t it? If they go to Mass, then they have the occasion to multiply their sin. If they stay away, they distance themselves from the grace they need to rejoin the fold. I thought of telling them that they should sit the Eucharist out, but I know they’d choose to stay home rather than do that. What’s a mother to do?

Name withheld

A. Your real question here is, “What’s a mother to do?” The answer: pray. Pray, pray, pray, just like St. Monica prayed for her wonderful but wayward son St. Augustine.

At the same time, you should encourage your daughters to attend Mass every Sunday, and also, at the same time, you should invite them to take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Work on deepening your friendship and confidence with your daughters, so that you can speak heart-to-heart. Perhaps they find themselves trapped and hopeless, and think that they can not change their behavior.

You need to witness to them about the power of God’s grace and the depth of His mercy. You might also want to share with them the compelling beauty of Pope John Paul II’s teachings on the theology of the body.

Finally, it would not be inappropriate for you to tell them rather energetically to just “knock it off.” Maybe you will get their attention if you speak with conviction. 

Two Questions about the Marriage Act

Q. My husband has a problem with keeping an erection. So that leaves me out or without. Is it OK to use a vibrator in the act of intercourse? My husband is 71 and I am 67. He won’t go to a doctor.

Name withheld

Q. I can no longer perform my wifely duties in the marital bed due to illness. Is it a sin for me to perform sex manually instead? What denotes a sin in the marital bed? Should there be no sexual involvement between us if it is not for procreating? Any help would be greatly appreciated toward helping us on our road to holiness.

Name withheld

A. It would certainly be easier and more tasteful for me to skip these questions, but since your concerns are real, and this type of question is frequently an issue for those who are less young than they used to be, I will be so bold as to ask my publisher to publish these questions and my remarks.

In a situation such as this one, I think it is most helpful for the priest/confessor to answer in a clinical fashion, stating the general principles, and then allow each member of the faithful to follow his or her conscience. Here are the principles.

The marital act is only licit between a man and a woman who are married to each other. All acts of marital intimacy are to remain open to life; therefore, direct interruption of the act or artificial barriers to the act are illicit and degrade the person.

Finally, the goal of marital intimacy is to show love for the spouse, and not primarily to seek pleasure for oneself. I hope this is helpful. 

Mass for a Muslim?

Q. Can I have a Mass said for our beautiful Muslim friend, who died and had surrounded himself with Christians? 

N.N., via e-mail

A. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ( Lumen Gentium ) offers us hope that God’s “plan of salvation” could include Muslims (see No. 16). In light of that hope, I don’t see why you couldn’t have a Mass said for your friend. 

Priest’s Duty in Last Rites?

Q. My father-in-law was dying in the hospital. He was in and out of coherency. We went to the church to ask for a priest to come give him the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. He had been away from the Church, but his wife attended this parish.

The secretary refused to send a priest unless my father-in-law specifically requested it, which he wasn’t in any shape to do. I thought that a priest would come if a family member asked, but the secretary said she wasn’t going to have the priest wasting his time going to the hospital if he didn’t want a blessing.

I thought a priest’s duty would require him to come if the family wished it. Everyone deserves a last chance. My father-in-law died that same night without receiving any last rites. Am I mistaken in my understanding of a priest’s duties? What would have been the right thing in this case?

Name withheld by request

A. This is such a sad story, that your father-in-law died “that same night without receiving the last rites.” Obviously, the right thing to do in that case is for the priest to drop whatever he is doing and rush to the hospital to administer the anointing of the sick.

If a family member requests the anointing of the sick in a reasonable way, the parish priest should make that a priority. It’s too late to anoint the person once he or she has died. Fortunately, most parishes have a hot line so that a priest is available 24/7 for just such emergencies.

At the same time that priests generally make themselves available, even in a heroic way, all priests have experienced the sting of being unwelcomed by a sick person who really does not want the sacramental overtures of a priest. The fictional case of Lord Marchmain in “Brideshead Revisited” is legendary.

In those cases, the priest will pray and fast the more, to assure that soul does not slip unrepentant into hell. I don’t think there could be anything more dramatic, do you?

For the record, the Church stipulates under the universal declaration of the rights and duties of the faithful: “Christ’s faithful have the right to be assisted by their Pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments” (Canon 213). TCA

Lay Minister Training?

Q. What is the appropriate training and work for a lay minister?

Julie Landis, via e-mail

A. Indeed, what is a lay minister? You ask a very important question that is loaded with consequence and goes to the heart of what many consider the essence of the Second Vatican Council — namely, the universal call to holiness.

Are laypeople called to work full time for the Church, in a parish, in a rectory, at the chancery? I suppose some are called to do that. But the vast majority of the non-ordained faithful are called to seek and find and imitate Christ in the midst of their daily duties and occupations. Rather than bringing the laity into the sanctuary and the chancery, the laity need to bring Christ into the midst of the world: into Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the university, and the mass media — that is, all the modern areopagi that Pope John Paul II recognized as the locus points for the new evangelization.

Even so, the lay faithful will not change the world if they are not first changed by Christ, unless they spend time on their knees before Our Lord in the holy Eucharist, unless they frequently renew their souls in the Sacrament of Penance, and unless they humbly attempt to live by faith in accordance with the teachings of Christ passed on by the Church. Either the Catholic and Christian laity will change the world, or the world will change them.

So, simply put, the appropriate training for a “lay minister” will be found in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I believe that any formal program for the training of lay ministers must be based on these pillars.

For those who wish to assist ordained ministers in their work, it will be helpful to read and study the instruction “On certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of the priest,” an important document from the Holy See (1997) co-signed by the heads of eight departments (dicasteries) in the Vatican.

As for the proper tasks of duly trained lay ministers, I think it’s helpful to think in the categories of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit those in prison, house the homeless, bury the dead, instruct the ignorant, admonish the sinner, comfort the afflicted, counsel the doubtful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses, pray for the living and the dead.

The best part about practicing the works of mercy is that it fills our hearts with joy and peace and makes us much more human.

Still, for anyone drawn to serving the Church as a lay minister, it will be helpful to review Canons 228-231 of the Code of Canon Law.