Who is allowed in the sanctuary?

(what I wouldn’t do for some altar rails…but I digress…:D)

Hi folks,

I’m hoping someone out there knows of some authoritative documents about who exactly has any business in the sanctuary area, specifically in the OF if that makes any difference.

I feel that at my parish, especially with the '80s architecture of the church building :blush:, the elevated area is so plain, it’s no wonder so many disregard its sacred nature.

I’ve done google searches, but can’t seem to find any specific instruction (other than common sense) on why it should be reserved for those who actually have a function at it. The Liturgy coordinator (no comments, please) seems to respond better whenever I have documentation.

Help please!

Peace, -Mike

I am just a layman Mike, but I honestly don’t know of any ‘official’ church documents that limit who is allowed in the Sanctuary. Curious now though, so hopefully others reply.


A lot of this comes down to just what are you asking? Are you referring to what happens during Mass, or outside of Mass? And just who are you asking about?

Liturgical laws of the Church do not say “who is not allowed” but rather say “who is allowed.” And only those who have some legitimate purpose for being there, are those who should (or may) be there. Every person at Mass has a proper location. The Church doesn’t say “the laity are forbiden to enter the Sanctuary” but instead says that there is a proper place for the laity and a proper place for the clergy (and those who have a reason to be in the Sanctuary).

GIRM 295 defines the legitimate purpose of the Sanctuary. It’s not a place for people to be seated simply for the sake of being there, or being seen to be there.

Here’s the relevant section from the GIRM

  1. The People of God, gathered for Mass, has a coherent and hierarchical structure, which finds its expression in the variety of ministries and the variety of actions according to the different parts of the celebration. The general ordering of the sacred building must be such that in some way it conveys the image of the gathered assembly and allows the appropriate ordering of all the participants, as well as facilitating each in the proper carrying out of his function.

The faithful and the choir should have a place that facilitates their active participation.

The priest celebrant, the deacon, and the other ministers have places in the sanctuary. Seats for concelebrants should also be prepared there. If, however, their number is great, seats should be arranged in another part of the church, but near the altar.

All these elements, even though they must express the hierarchical structure and the diversity of ministries, should nevertheless bring about a close and coherent unity that is clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people. Indeed, the character and beauty of the place and all its furnishings should foster devotion and show forth the holiness of the mysteries celebrated there.

  1. The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation. It should, however, be large enough to allow the Eucharist to be celebrated properly and easily seen.

The only people who should be in the sanctuary are people who have “business” in there. The priest and his ministers (deacons, altar servers) belong there most of the time. Lectors, cantors, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion only belong in the sanctuary when they’re performing their proper liturgical roles. Otherwise, they’re not supposed to be in there. (See this response.)

I fell silly even asking this question because, of course, it should only be “who is allowed.”

As far as what happens at our large parish, we have six locations where Holy Communion is distributed. The presider normally allocates the Blessed Sacrament into six ciboria from one large ciborium (normally brought up as the offering) for those who will distribute, both ordinary and extraordinary ministers alike, and hands the ciboria to the EMsHC – all within the norms.

Why I ask is sometimes the presider leaves some of the Blessed Sacrament in the large ciborium, sometimes underestimating the number of the faithful coming up to receive. Then one of the ushers takes it upon himself to go up the steps, into the sanctuary area, taking the large ciborium, and bringing it to the presider and the other ministers!!!

I and one of the other sacristans have tried to get him to cease and desist, but usually it takes a memorandum from the Liturgy office for anything to be taken authoritatively (the pastor is a little non-confrontational). In order for the Liturgy office to write up a memo for correcting abuses that they are not aware of (I’ve done this before), I will present authoritative documentation from CDWDS.

Again, kind of a no-brainer but was hoping for more back-up. Thanks for the GIRM reminder. I was so busy looking for the “who is not allowed”. :o

Now that got me thinking…what about outside of Mass? What about buildings unfortunately used with multiple purposes?

I think it is just common sense and sign of respect to keep out of the sanctuary except when necessary- even those who have reason to be there.

We have an older tradional church with the sanctuary at on end. there are doors on either side in the sanctuary. One can also enter the sacristy from side doors on either side not in the sanctuary. In regards to before and after Mass, for the most part, anyone who has need to be in the sacristy such as the sacristan, altar servers the EMHC, Lectures, the priest enters from the side doors not through the sanctuary. It takes a little more sacrifice to do this because one has to go down and up stairs but it keeps the traffic down in the sanctuary. Regardless of whether or not there is a rule prohibiting anyone from being in the sanctuary, respecting the space of the sanctuary is an indication of the devotion of the people towards the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Your priest should always empty all of the consecrated hosts into the 6 individual ciboria. Outside of very special and specific circumstances (hosts for the home bound, etc.) there should be none left in a vessel on the altar.

Not because there is a problem with leaving consecrated hosts in a vessel on the altar at this point in the Mass but because in the situation you describe it increases the risk of running out. If one of the 6 individuals distributing communion should still run out they can either step back (and have the ushers focus on re-directing the communion line) or take other counter-measures (transfer of hosts from one ciboria to another away from the altar, breaking of hosts, etc.) that might be approved by your pastor or diocese.

Simply take the possibility of the usher doing what he does away, once and for all.

I don’t quite understand what you’re trying to say here.

What does having the Eucharist reserved for the homebound have to do with whether or not there are consecrated Hosts on the altar during the distribution of Holy Communion? I don’t get it because I don’t see the difference between having them on the altar and having them in a particular ciborium in someone’s hand. Is there some other way you could phrase that please, because I’m at a loss for what you’re trying to say here.

It’s not a matter of how I phrased it. It’s a matter of you (and I) not knowing all that could possibly be going on at all parishes.

At my parish (for instance) smaller/lighter (and perfectly valid) hosts are consecrated (along with “regular-sized” hosts of course) for the ill because they are easier for people who are too sick to attend Mass to consume.

(Yes, people need only consume a fragment, etc. That’s all well known by all. This consideration for the ill goes back 20 years and I think it’s wonderful.)

In this case we would not co-mingle the different sized/weight hosts. The separate ciborium would remain on the altar until it was reposed in the tabernacle.

I can think of at least one other reason. I’ll leave you to discover that on your own.

Yes…that’s precisely how we’ve gotten around it. All I was looking for was something (authoritative documentation) to keep him from even thinking about it.

As far as hosts for the sick and homebound, we usually have a few left in the Tabernacle for such purpose. The Tabernacle is (see my '80s architecture lament) in a separate place elsewhere in the church building, IMO not easily seen when entering through the vestibule as it should be.

OK. Now I understand the situation. No one, other than the priest (assisted by the deacon if necessary) is permitted to take the Eucharist (either species) from the altar. In fact, I believe that the spirit of the law is that only the priest removes the vessels from the altar, handing them to the deacon who then assists him in distributing them–but that’s not actually in the law, it’s just my way of reading the intent here. In any case, it’s quite clear that extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are not permitted to actually take the vessels from the altar–they must receive the vessels from the priest/deacon.

This is found in the Norms for Communion #40
40. After all eucharistic ministers [sic.] have received Communion, the bishop or priest celebrant reverently hands vessels containing the Body or the Blood of the Lord to the deacons or extraordinary ministers who will assist with the distribution of Holy Communion. The deacon may assist the priest in handing the vessels containing the Body and Blood of the Lord to the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

#44 addresses your issue but not directly

  1. The chalice may never be left on the altar or another place to be picked up by the communicant for self-communication (except in the case of concelebrating bishops or priests), nor may the chalice be passed from one communicant to another. There shall always be a minister of the chalice.

The principle applies here that no one may go into the sanctuary and remove the Eucharist from the altar (none but the priest or deacon of course). Although the norm itself only speaks of the chalice, common sense tells us that the same principle applies to the Body as to the Blood.

Hmm, didn’t think of it from this perspective. I think this might work from the documentation standpoint. Thanks!

Yes, in the situation you describe, the usher is not permitted to do what he has been doing.

In general though, outside of Mass, almost anyone might have business on the altar/santuary–even when their were altar rails. The folks who clean, the folks who arrange the flowers, change the linens, the folks who set up the lectionary, etc. Of course no one should go up there just for a sight-seeing trip!

We have several parishioners who come into the sanctuary to touch or hug the tabernacle. I don’t know if there is a prohibition against it but it just seems odd to me to have people walking around the sanctuary and going to the tabernacle at all hours of the day.

Regarding the lector I think this is clearly wrong.

From the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) approved for the USA, which can be accessed from romanrite.com/girm.html :
*Introductory Rites *
194. …
195. Upon reaching the altar, the lector makes a profound bow with the others. If he is
carrying the Book of the Gospels, he approaches the altar and places the Book of the Gospels
upon it. Then the lector takes his own place in the sanctuary with the other ministers.”

So clearly the lector is expected to be in the sanctuary from the beginning of Mass. By saying “with the other ministers” it implies that the same applies to anyone else who is a “minister”. So it is difficult to see why this would not apply to cantor, commentator or Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.

I concede my error about the lector – although I’m curious if the reader (non-instituted substitute for the lector) should do the same. I’m not a fan of EMHCs occupying the sanctuary for the whole Mass.

No, it’s not actually the case that “clearly the lector is expected to be in the sanctuary” because what is not so clear is that the words itself “lector” refers to an Instituted Lector, not an extraordinary one. GIRM 101 allows for a layperson to fulfill the function of a Lector in the absence of a Lector, but that doesn’t necessarily mean being present in the sanctuary, since “being present in the sanctuary” is not a “function” of the extraordinary lector who is appointed only to “proclaim the readings” and nothing more. I’m not saying it’s wrong for the extraordinary lector to be present in the sanctuary, only that we can’t say that it is clear that they should be there for the entire Mass.

As for cantor (GIRM 104) and commentator (GIRM 105), these are both functions exercised outside of the sanctuary, so there is quite a difference here.

Since there is no such thing as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion during the Liturgy of the Word, your instincts are spot-on here. Remember that no one actually is an EMHC until after the priest receives Communion and makes the temporary deputation to assist him in distributing Communion (an essential point which Catholics unfortunately forget since this extraordinary function is so widely abused), so until that moment arrives, there are no EMHCs, only potential ones. It makes perfect sense to say that they shouldn’t actually be in the sanctuary throughout the entire Mass.

and the documentation is in the Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America, #38

This is good explanation. Since our pastor does not have any lay people (other than the altar boys) process in or sit in the sanctuary, I don’t have perspective on this. Our lectors (readers), cantors, potential EMHCs, etc all sit in the pews until time for their assigned duties. I don’t know why anyone would want to sit in the sanctuary on a backless bench in full view during the entire Mass anyway! :shrug: (The altar boys at least have small chairs near the presider’s chair.)

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