Deacons and Summorum Pontificum

As ordination season is just around the corner, I was asked by a soon-to-be deacon to what extent can a deacon use the 1952 Roman Ritual, which was the ritual in force in 1962, in light of Summorum Pontificum? The short answer is not much. It goes almost without saying that the role of the deacon envision by the 1917 CIC (and mirrored by the pre-Conciliar liturgical laws) is fairly minimal and the 1983 CIC marks a sizable increase in the role of the deacon in the sacramental life of the Church. It’s these differing visions of the diaconate in the Church that is at the root of the above question.

Prior to the instruction Universae Ecclesiae it was uncertain whether post-1962 changes in the law had effect on pre-1962 liturgies performed after the Conciliar revisions of the liturgy. The instruction has clarified that the motu proprio derogates from liturgical laws promulgated after 1962 and which are incompatible with the rubrics of the pre-1962 liturgical books (cf. UE n. 28). In other words, these books stand on their own and should not be revamped to match post-Conciliar practice. The pre-Conciliar ritual books mention deacons in three areas: baptism, distribution of Holy Communion, and blessings.

We’ll begin with blessings because the change—actually, the lack of change in the law between the 1983 and 1917 codes in this area—impacts the deacon’s ability to function in the other three rites. The current law, 1983 CIC can. 1169, §3 reads almost exactly like the prior law, 1917 CIC c. 1147, §4. Compare 1983 CIC 1169, §3 “A deacon can impart only those blessings expressly permitted by law” with 1917 CIC 1147, §4 “Deacons and lectors can validly and licitly impart only those blessings that are expressly permitted to them in the law.” Both codes leave it up to the individual liturgical books to dictate what blessings a deacon could give and which he could not.

With respect to baptism, 1983 CIC 861, §1 states that the deacon is an ordinary minister of baptism. This is a change from 1917 CIC 741, which designated a deacon as an extraordinary minister of baptism. This change, in practice, has little effect on the ceremonial role of the deacon. Even in the 1952 Roman Ritual, the deacon is instructed to follow the ritual exactly as if he were a priest with the exception that the deacon cannot bless the salt and water required for the rite, and so is dependent on a priest having done this beforehand (cf. 1952 RR, Order of Bapt. of Children, n. 27; Order of Bapt. of Adults, n. 51; Supplying Cerem. for a Bapt. Child, n. 25; Supplying Cerem. for a Bapt. Adult, n. 44) Because the current law on diaconal blessings is the same as the prior law, this exception has the same force today as it had prior to the 1983 code, even though the deacon is now an ordinary minister of baptism.

With respect to Holy Communion, 1983 CIC 910, §1 establishes that the deacon is an ordinary minister of Holy Communion. This is a change from 1917 CIC 845, §2, which stated that the deacon was an extraordinary minister of communion, who needed the permission of the pastor or local ordinary and a legitimate reason in order to distribute communion. With the change from extraordinary to ordinary minister, the deacon now would no longer need permission and a legitimate reason in order to distribute communion. Ceremonially there is no change. The 1952 Roman Ritual allowed the deacon to distribute communion using the same ritual as a priest (cf. 1952 RR, Order of Administering Holy Comm. outside Mass, n. 10) and could also give the blessing found at the end of the rite (see Cod. Comm., Resp. 13 July 1930). Similarly, the ritual allowed the deacon to administer Viaticum (cf. 1952 RR, Order of Communion to the Sick, n. 29). That this included the blessing within the rite was made clear, first, by an 1858 response by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (see S.R.C. 5270, Tonkini Occidentalis [14 Aug 1858]), and then, by 1917 CIC 1274, §2.

In summary, the deacon can baptize (using previously blessed salt and water), administer Holy Communion and Viaticum, and impart only those blessings expressly allowed to him. The fullest listing I have been able to find of what blessings are expressly given to a deacon in the pre-Conciliar discipline is in Werz-Vidal’s commentary (see Ius Canonicum, vol. IV, p. 396-397). It states that a deacon can bless the Easter Candle (which was understood to be blessed by the incensing and singing of the Exsultet). He can likewise impart the blessings found in the rite of baptism and the supplying ceremonies (as discussed above) and bless a sick person in the context of administering Viaticum (as mentioned above). To this we would have to add the blessing in the context of communion outside mass (see Code Comm., resp. 13 July 1930). He specifically cannot give Benediction (see S.R.C. 5402, Angelopolitana [11 Sept 1847]).

One interesting question remains. Do today’s deacons have the power to bless bread and fruit? Wernz-Vidal suggested in a footnote that pre-Conciliar deacons also had been given the power to bless bread and fruits, the blessing of which was expressly given to lectors in the pre-Conciliar ordination liturgy of lectors, under the principle that the higher order possessed the lower orders. The question boiled down to whether the bishop’s words at the ordination expressly gave them the power per 1917 CIC 1147, §4. Today, of course, there is not order of lectors. And while one might say today’s deacons possess the post-Conciliar ministry of lector, they certainly do not possess the pre-Conciliar order of lector which was abolished over thirty years ago. Thus, any privileges which were accorded to pre-Conciliar lectors must, I think, be said to have expired, meaning deacons ordained today do not have the power to bless bread and fruit even if it might have been possible in the pre-Conciliar era. This, I think, might an example of the 1983 CIC trumping those pre-Conciliar provisions incompatible with the present law (cf. Universae Ecclesiae, n. 27).


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