Q. I read every issue of The Wanderer, including the reports on the lives of the saints by Carole Breslin, which I find to be most interesting. Do you know if the Catholic heroes of which she writes are published in a book? If so, I would like to have two copies. — R.D., Pennsylvania.
A. Carole Breslin’s biographical sketches of the saints are indeed most interesting, but they have not yet been collected in book form. We are sure that she will inform Wanderer readers of such a book if one is published in the future.
Q. I have a question about the appropriateness of a layperson reading the Gospel at Mass. At the parish I attend here in Houston, for the past few Sundays (all during Lent but before Palm Sunday) the Liturgy of the Word has included a deacon, a layperson, and the pastor each reading parts of the Gospel. In the cases I witnessed, the layperson was a woman, and she read parts of the Gospel which included the words spoken by Christ. I know that laypeople participate in the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday, but is it appropriate for them to read the Gospel at other Masses? And is it ever appropriate for a layperson to read the Gospel words spoken by Christ? I asked one of the deacons as I was leaving Mass a couple of weeks ago, and he said yes, that during Lent it is acceptable, as long as the deacon “opens the book” (starts the reading) and the pastor closes it (reads the last words of the reading). I didn’t want to be argumentative, so I declined to ask him, “Since when?” What is the truth? And if this is appropriate, when and who decreed it so? — P.G., Texas.
A. As we have noted in the past, canon law (c. 767.1) restricts the proclaiming of the Gospel to members of the clergy, except for Palm Sunday and Good Friday, when the laity may assist in the reading of the Passion of the Lord (Paschales Solemnitatis, nn. 33 and 66). But even on those days, the priest should take the part of Christ since he is standing at the altar in the person of Christ. The restriction of the Gospel proclamation to an ordained person was reaffirmed in the 2004 Vatican instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, which said:
“Within the celebration of the sacred liturgy, the reading of the Gospel, which is ‘the high point of the Liturgy of the Word,’ is reserved by the Church’s tradition to an ordained minister. Thus, it is not permitted for a layperson, even a religious, to proclaim the Gospel reading in the celebration of Holy Mass nor in other cases in which the norms do not explicitly permit it” (n. 62).
We have never heard of shared reading of the Gospel apart from Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Ask your deacon to show you where in the Church’s official liturgical documents it says that it is permitted for the deacon to open the reading, a layperson to chime in, and the pastor to close the reading.
Q. How can Pope Francis say that “if atheists do good works, they surely can get into Heaven”? What about John 14:6, in which Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”? I have doubts about Pope Francis. — D.M.D., Massachusetts.
A. Jesus is unquestionably the only way to Heaven, not only for Christians but for every person who ever lived, even those who profess to be atheists. As St. Peter told the Sanhedrin in reference to Jesus: “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). So what about those who deny the existence of God?
Calling atheism “a sin against the virtue of religion” (n. 2126) and “a sin against the first commandment” (n. 2140), the Catechism of the Catholic Church also says that the guilt of an atheist can be “significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances.” It quotes from n. 19 of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which says it is undeniable that “those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences. Hence they are not free of blame.”
However, the Vatican II document also says that some atheists are not as culpable because they are rejecting “a fallacious idea of God,” or because they have never experienced any “religious stirrings,” or because they have witnessed the bad example of believers who “neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral, or social life,” thus concealing rather than revealing “the authentic face of God and religion.”
The Catechism clearly states that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” and that one could not be saved “who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it” (n. 846). But this does not mean that only Catholics can be saved, as the Catechism makes plain in these words:
“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (n. 847).
This is not to say that all those who are sincerely ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and His Church are automatically saved. They still must seek the truth and do the will of God as they understand it, and God does put in each person’s heart a natural law that calls him to do good and avoid evil. Such persons might not be culpable for sins against faith (their ignorance of the Gospel), but they might very well be culpable for other sins (abortion, adultery, theft, hatred, racism, etc.) that would keep them out of Heaven.
In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope St. John Paul II explained how atheists of goodwill can be saved when he said that God’s plan of salvation “applies not only to Christians but to all people of goodwill in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for everyone, and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in this paschal mystery in a manner known to God” (n. 10).
We concede that the statement by Pope Francis, standing alone, can sound off the wall, but it is very much in the context of the Church’s long tradition about salvation.
Q. It has become a common practice in the Catholic Church when reenacting the washing of the feet of the twelve Apostles (all men) on Holy Thursday to include women. Isn’t this practice contrary to Scripture and history? — C.G.D., Maryland.
A. As we have noted in the past, the Roman Missal used at Mass contains the following rubrics for the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday:
“Depending on pastoral circumstances, the washing of the feet follows the homily. The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest (removing the chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers, he pours water over each one’s feet and dries them.”
This practice was reaffirmed in 1988 by the Congregation for Divine Worship, which said that “this tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained” (Paschales Solemnitatis, n. 51). However, the U.S. bishops in June 1996 approved a document, entitled Pastoral Introduction to the Order of Mass, which said that “those whose feet are washed should be chosen to represent various people who constitute the parish or community: the young and old, men and women.”