(www.deaconden.org) In my humble opinion, one of the least understood parts of the Eucharistic Liturgy is the Offertory Procession. In some respects, I think this part of the Eucharistic Celebration, placed in the middle of the Mass, has been marginalized because the Deacon has not been visibly present in the Liturgy until recently.[i] Indeed, it is the Deacon who is a sacramental symbol of the contents that are given over by the faithful at the Offertory to become a sacrificial offering in the Mass.
In the early Church, it was almost exclusively the Deacon who received the gifts from the faithful and brought them to the altar.[ii] Many of the processional gifts varied depending on the abilities of the faithful. Along with bread and wine, these offerings included such things as food, animals, and clothing. The Deacon was charged with sorting out the gifts and apportioning them to the poor. Yet, even today, there are still parishes in poor countries that continue this early Church practice.[iii]
In the recent past, the preparation for the Offertory Procession had been quite simple. As financial systems became more customary, a “collection” would be taken up during the procession.[iv] For the Sacristan, their responsibility was to find a family before Mass willing to take and hand over the bread and wine to the Priest Celebrant who waited for them at the foot of the sanctuary. For the faithful in the pews, it was (and still is) the time when they reached for their wallets or purses to place money in a basket that passed by them while the choir sang a song usually unfamiliar to the congregation.
But the Deacon should have a radically different perspective on the Offertory Procession. It is a perspective that identifies the Offertory with his role at the altar. Indeed, if one were to categorize the priority of the Deacon’s role in the Holy Mass, this Procession might be the second most important action a Deacon performs during the Liturgy. Only the proclamation of the Gospel supersedes this responsibility of the Deacon at Mass.
History tells us that the Deacon’s right to the altar is because of his participation with the faithful. In other words, the Deacon’s right to the altar is closely associated with his ministry and the prayers for the needs of the poor in spirit, in grace, in material necessities and in charity. He is the clerical one that sits in the midst of the many who struggle with faith and life; yet, he is also the one called to fill the faithful with joy and unite them together as one in Christ[v]. So, the Deacon, as the minister of the Liturgy of Charity and the minister of the Chalice, is liturgically connected to the prayers and needs of the congregation.
So, while some may see the Offertory Procession as a lack luster part of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Deacon should see this part of the Mass as it really is; a time when the congregation gathers their worries, fears, weaknesses, joys and celebrations and presents them to the Deacon and/or to the Priest Celebrant.[vi] As those processing these gifts make their way through the midst of the faithful, they find their offerings placed at the foot of the Cross.[vii] This is where the faithful pass on their burdens and care to be prepared by the Deacon for the Eucharistic Celebration about to take place. For the entire community, this ordinary bread and wine is, in essence, the burdens and crosses the faithful have carried throughout the week and have now gifted them over as the best of what they have to offer. It is the sweat, the tears, and the feelings of joy and gladness that are immersed in the bread and wine as a sacrificial gift to God. Indeed, they are the work of human hands and the fruits of the earth![viii] When the faithful understand this, the Offering and the Offertory Procession becomes incredibly significant!
For the Deacon, this bread and wine ARE the treasures of the church. Not unlike the presentation of the ill, sick, homeless and suffering gathered at the gates of Rome by St. Lawrence and presented to the city’s invaders.[ix] Therefore, it is imperative the Deacon recognizes the significance of these gifts as he prepares the altar for the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
These events have very Jewish ties as well. The offerings in the Jewish Temple were sacrificial offerings to God and they were the best of what the Jewish people had in hopes their gifts would be pleasing to God. [x] The Levites, Deacons from the priestly tribe of Israel, would prepare the altar for sacrifice and present the people’s offerings to the Levitical Priest.[xi] Some Jewish sacrifices were called “sin offerings” to God for atonement of their indiscretions.
So it is that the Deacon, like the Levites, receives these gifts and takes them to the altar. As the Deacon prepares the offering in the Chalice, he places a small amount of water into the wine and prays that the divinity of Christ might mingle with Our Lord’s Shared Humanity.[xii] In other words, the Deacon prays that the offerings, as miniscule as it might be, from the faithful might be suitable for transubstantiation into the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ!
It is also not by accident, the Deacon routinely should present the paten containing the bread offering, as well as the wine in the chalice, to the Priest Celebrant. He carefully places them in the hands of the Sacrificial Minister who is In Persona Cristi.[xiii] Thereby, the Deacon is handing over the burdens of the people to Jesus so that the Priest can invoke the Holy Spirit and transubstantiate these gifts into the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Thus, we can hear the words of Our Savior when he says, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest…for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”[xiv]
As with the adage, there can be no Mass without a Priest, there can also be no Body and Blood of Christ without an offering of bread and wine. For Jesus was sacrificed and died because of our sins. If we had not sinned, there would be no need for redemption. It is the sins and joys of our lives that are handed over to Our Redeemer who takes on our burdens with great love. Indeed, He not only takes them from us, He miraculously turns them into His Body and Blood that we might have life in Him. He does this so that we, as those who yearn for His Presence, might receive Him in another Sacred Procession—the Eucharistic Procession.
Once Our Lord has physically entered into the bodies of the faithful, a collective prayer of thanksgiving is said by all. What was once ordinary substance has become Sacred. For what has been received by the participants is much greater than what had been given over to God. Finally, the Celebrant provides his blessing to those in attendance. At this point, it is the Deacon who sends those present into the world to proclaim the Good News and to act with charity. [xv]
[i] The reinstitution of a permanent Diaconal presence was documented in “Lumen Gentium” and further affirmed in the document “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem”
[ii] The Liturgy of the Apost. Const. VIII: see http://www.traditionalcatholic.net/Tradition/Mass/Liturgy_Section-III.html. It can also be found in the Apostolic Tradition, para. 23 and the Didascalia Apostolorum para. 9. St. Ambrose also stated that the “Deacons brought oblations to the altar” in De Jactantia Romanarum Levitarum, PL, 3, 2302. Also, see GIRM 73 noting that the faithful would historically brought “their own possessions”.
[iii] Our African Missionary Deacon, Deacon Hugh Downey tells stories of animals being presented in the Offertory Procession in many African parishes. Some US parishes presently have children bring up canned goods to be placed to the side in a container.
[iv] Mass in Slow Motion by Msgr Charles Pope; http://blog.adw.org/2009/07/the-mass-in-slow-motion-the-offertory/
[v] Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6:1-6 & 8:8. “Unity” comes from the ordination of the 7 worthy men in an effort to unify the Hebrews and Hellenists. “Joy” comes from St. Deacon Phillip’s journey to Samaria where , “there was great joy in that city” from St. Phillip’s visit
[vi] General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM) Para. 73, The Preparation of the Gifts, states in part, “It is a praiseworthy practice for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted at an appropriate place by the Priest or the Deacon to be carried to the altar.” Again, para 178, states in part, “He (Deacon) also assists the Priest in receiving the people’s gift.” Of course, the Priest is also a Permanent Deacon and while his primary role is Sacrificial, he also has a role of Service.
[vii] Roman Missal, page 382: Pray brethren that my sacrifice and your may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father. This indicates that these gifts are the sacrifice of the human family present in the assembly.
[viii] Roman Missal, page 381, para. 23 and 25
[x] Deuteronomy 15:19-23: “You shall consecrate to the Lord, your God, all the male firstlings of your herd and of your flock.” Other references are abundant
[xi] Note that even in Jewish tradition, there were Levites that were not priest. Today’s comparison is in line with this tradition where we have Clerics that are ordained but not Priest.
[xii] Roman Missal page 381, para. 24
[xiii] Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), para. 875
[xiv] Matthew 11: 28 & 30
[xv] Roman Missal, page 525