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LITURGY Q & A: Alternate Cantors During the Exsultet

March 26, 2019. An Option Not Foreseen in Rubrics


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Our parish has had a deacon chanting the Exsultet for the past decade or so, but it is time to come up with a different option. None of the other deacons are capable of such a chant, nor are the priests trained in voice enough to accomplish the entire work. We have a perfectly capable cantor, and I know that a cantor can chant the proclamation without the parts specific to a cleric. Is it acceptable to split the proclamation so that the cantor chants the bulk of the proclamation, and one of the priests chants the parts specific to the clergy? – G.K., Holmdel, New Jersey

A: I am presupposing that our reader desires to change the deacon proclaiming the Exsultet out of necessity and not from some desire for novelty.

Singing the Exsultet is a proper function of a deacon, and if there is a deacon available, the rubrics clearly indicate a preference for him over any other minister. A priest or lay cantor should only be called upon if no deacon is available or capable of singing the Easter Proclamation.

When a lay cantor is used, the rubrics only provide for the omission of texts reserved to the ordained minister. To wit:

“If, however, because of necessity, a lay cantor sings the Proclamation, the words ‘Therefore dearest friends’ up to the end of the invitation are omitted, along with the greeting ‘The Lord be with you.’

The full text to be omitted is:

“Therefore, dearest friends, standing in the awesome glory of this holy light, invoke with me, I ask you, the mercy of God almighty, that he, who has pleased to number me, though unworthy, among the Levites, may pour into me his light unshadowed, that I may sing this candle’s perfect praise.”

The above paragraph introduces and explains the liturgical greeting “The Lord be with you” which is reserved to the ordained minister. It would make little sense for the priest to sing just this part and not sing the rest of the Exsultet. After all, why ask the faithful to invoke God’s mercy to sing the praises of the candle if he does not do so?

Even if the shorter version of the Exsultet is used, thus omitting the above paragraph, It would also seem appropriate that the priest avoids making an interjection at this point just to sing, “The Lord be with you.”

Since the Exsultet is musically challenging and as far as possible is sung without the support of any musical instrument, such an interruption could lead an insecure cantor to lose the tone.

Therefore a lay cantor would omit the “Lord be with you” but would sing: “Lift up your hearts” with the people responding in “We lift them to the Lord” as with the preface at Mass, although with a slight variation as to the traditional Gregorian melody.

â–  It is true that there are many choral settings available, even some with instrumental accompaniment. However, while the rubrics do allow for the organ to support singing, from a liturgical standpoint, the best option during this part of the Easter Vigil remains the single unaccompanied deacon, priest or cantor. In this way, the organ is reserved to accompany the ringing of bells at the intonation of the Gloria.

As to the history of the Exsultet, there is clear evidence that this solemn rite began no later than the second half of the fourth century. For example, the use of singing a hymn in praise of the candle and the Easter mystery is mentioned as an established custom in a letter of St. Jerome, written in 384 to Presidio, a deacon from Piacenza, Italy.

Saints Ambrose and Augustine are also known to have composed such Easter proclamations. The poetic and solemn text of the Exsultet now in use originated in the fifth century, but its author is unknown.

* * *

Follow-up: Empty Chalice at Consecration Time

Pursuant to our discussion on celebrating with an empty chalice (see March 12), a South Carolina priest asked: “Reading further reminded and prompted me to ask a question I have had for a while. It said that the priest or deacon is not to say anything to concelebrating priests such as: ‘The Body/Blood of Christ.’ However, what about priests who sit among the assembly who are not vested as concelebrants? I would appreciate knowing as I hesitantly say, ‘The Body of Christ’ to those who come in the Communion line.”

The norm regarding concelebrants is not applied to priests who are not concelebrants. Such priests and even bishops always receive Communion as any other member of Christ’s faithful. If they attend in choir, they should have a separate place and receive Communion under both species. If they simply turn up and take their place in the pews, they receive in the same manner as everybody else.

I remember observing St. John Paul II in his final years receiving Communion from deacons at a Mass he attended but did not concelebrate. The deacons presented host and chalice to him saying, alternately, “The Body of Christ … the Blood of Christ.”

A Florida reader commented the following about the way a priest in his parish performs the consecration: “When he says the words of consecration of the host when he gets to the words ‘He took the bread and broke it,’ the priest actually breaks the host. Our church is dead quiet at that time, and there is a noticeable snapping of the host that can be heard at that time.”

This is not the first time we have faced this question. On October 26, 2004, we wrote:

“A: This theme is succinctly addressed in the instruction ‘Redemptionis Sacramentum,’ No. 55:

“‘In some places, there has existed an abuse by which the Priest breaks the host at the time of the consecration in the Holy Mass. This abuse is contrary to the tradition of the Church. It is reprobated and is to be corrected with haste.’

“It is hard to be much clearer than that.

“This abuse seems to have arisen from a literal and somewhat dramatic interpretation of the words of the institution narrative of the consecration ‘He took the bread, broke it …’

“This might be a symptom related to our televised society where the visual image predominates over the deeper meaning. And so, some priests, often in good faith, have been led to adopt in a more dramatic or even theatrical mode while celebrating the Mass.

“Thus, some see themselves almost as acting out the role of Christ by imitating his words and gestures.

“This phenomenon, however, may also be indicative of a lack of formation and of a defective understanding of the priest’s ministerial role as acting ‘in persona Christi’ and the theological content of the words of consecration as a form of the sacrament.

“Of course, if one were to be totally consistent with this view, then Communion would logically have to be distributed immediately after pronouncing the words ‘gave it to his disciples,’ etc.

“As far as I know, this has never been attempted.”

While this practice does not put the validity of the Mass in danger, it is formally reprobated by the Church. I suggest that our reader point this out to the priest and if he does not amend the practice inform the bishop.