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Deacons and Baptisms at Mass
January 28, 2020. Change of Presider Is Not Admissible

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum University.

Q: I would appreciate some clarification in a matter concerning baptism during Mass. I am a deacon in a small parish. I don’t get many baptisms — usually my grandchildren or if someone requests that I baptize their child. I have always believed that baptism during Mass is most appropriate. My current pastor believes that a deacon baptizing during Mass would constitute a change of presiders. I can find nothing to support this view. Can you enlighten me? — R.D., Grand Rapids, Michigan

A: While I am unaware of an official reply on the question of baptisms, there is a private response from the Holy See related to the question of deacons presiding at wedding Masses that can throw light on this theme. This 2007 letter, issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, addresses the question from canonical and liturgical grounds, and these are the ones that concern us now.

The Vatican congregation states that a change of presider in the course of the same celebration is not admissible. Hence, neither a deacon (whether permanent or transitional) nor a priest other than the principal celebrant can preside over the celebration of a sacrament during Mass.

The document also explains why apparent exceptions do not detract from the rule of no change in presiding celebrant. These apparent exceptions — such as a non-concelebrating bishop who presides over some moments of the Mass, or the newly ordained bishop who becomes the principal celebrant — arise from the nature of the bishop’s ministry.

The letter thus concludes that, in the case of marriage, the priest who celebrates the Mass must be the one to preach, receive the vows and impart the nuptial blessing. At the discretion of the pastor, the deacon may preach the homily.

Admittedly, this letter is official but, as a private missive, has no force of law. It does, however, reflect the congregation’s thinking and is based on sound liturgical reasoning.

The same principle of no change in the presiding celebrant would also apply to other liturgical celebrations unless the rubrics specifically allow for the direct participation of other priests or deacons without, strictly speaking, implying a change in the presiding celebrant.

This is foreseen, for example, in a concelebration in which other priests may recite alone a part of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is also possible to divide some parts of the rite of the anointing of the sick.

Also, the rites of baptism foresee the possibility, when the number of children to be baptized is very large, that the priest celebrant may be assisted by other priests and deacons in some of the rites such as the anointings and the baptism itself. Analogously, the bishop may delegate priests to assist him in confirming large numbers of candidates. None of these practices constitute a change of presider.

Finally, with respect to celebrating baptism during Sunday Mass, the Rite of Baptism of Children does not advocate it as a regular or habitual practice, to wit:

“9. To bring out the paschal character of baptism, it is recommended that the sacrament be celebrated during the Easter Vigil or on Sunday when the Church commemorates the Lord’s resurrection. On Sunday, baptism may be celebrated even during Mass, so that the entire community may be present and the relationship between baptism and eucharist may be clearly seen, but this should not be done too often. Regulations for the celebration of baptism during the Easter Vigil or at Mass on Sunday will be set out later.”

However, the rite does suggest a clear preference for a communal celebration on a Sunday:

“32. If possible, baptism should take place on Sunday, the day on which the Church celebrates the paschal mystery. It should be conferred in a communal celebration for all the recently born children and in the presence of the faithful, or at least of relatives, friends, and neighbors, who are all to take an active part in the rite.”

Unlike baptism within Mass, a communal celebration such as the above can be presided over by a deacon as ordinary minister.