ROME, 2 MARCH 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: What responsibility do parishioners have to attend Mass on Sundays
instead of going to a lay presiders service when four Masses are available
on weekends within a 10-minute car drive?
Yarmouth, Nova Scotia
A: This theme is treated in Canons 1247 and 1248 in the Code of Canon Law.
Canon 1247 states the obligation to assist at Mass on Sundays while No.
1248 Subsection 2 says that if assistance at Mass is impossible due to the
lack of a minister, or for some other grave cause then it is recommended
that the faithful assist at the Liturgy of the Word if this is celebrated
in the parish church.
The sense of canon law is clear. Assistance at Mass is obligatory, except
for a "grave cause." The use of the expression "grave cause" indicates
that the obligation is a very serious one. For obligations that admit more
readily to exceptions, canon law usually uses expressions such as "a just
It is also important to point out that the Catholic's obligation is to
assist at Mass, not to "go to church." According to the canonical and
moral principle "ad impossibilia nemo tenetur" (nobody is obliged to do
the impossible), when an objective impossibility exists then the
consequent obligation disappears. However, the Church recommends, but does
not oblige, that Catholics sanctify Sunday in some other way, such as
assisting at a Communion service, following a televised Mass, or praying
Thus, when a parish offers a Communion service when Mass is impossible,
this is done in order to allow Catholics to follow the Church's
recommendation to sanctify Sunday in some other way. But it does not
substitute the Sunday obligation, which in fact no longer exists.
An objective impossibility need not always be a dramatic situation.
Examples of objective impossibility could be age, illness, the need to
care for a sick relation, or seasonal variations which make leaving home a
hazardous task. Catholics involved in necessary Sunday occupations such as
police, medical personnel and flight attendants are also exempt while on
It is not always easy to judge what is objective, as conditions vary from
person to person. However, Catholics should not be too light in assessing
their difficulties and should be willing to make reasonable sacrifices in
order to assist at Mass.
So, if a Catholic can easily assist at Mass in another parish without any
great inconvenience, then in conscience he or she is obliged to do so.
Bishops and pastors also have to consider these factors. When Mass is
easily available at nearby parishes, sometimes it might be best to have no
Communion service at all at the local parish rather than risk disorienting
the faithful as to the central importance of Sunday Mass.
A grave inconvenience of such a solution is that it could deprive those
least able to find alternative arrangements such as the poor, the sick and
the elderly of the comfort of at least receiving Communion.
This grave inconvenience could, however, become an opportunity to exercise
and develop charity on the parish level in inviting the faithful to
voluntarily share in transporting to Mass those in need.
Should this not be possible, and a significant number of people would be
deprived of Communion, then it is probably best to hold the Communion
service. But the faithful should be informed that this service is provided
for those who have no alternatives and that those who are able should
assist at the nearest Mass.
Of course, a Catholic who has even an inkling of the full meaning of the
Mass would never voluntarily settle for a Communion service.
The Church makes assistance at Mass a grave obligation in order to help us
overcome our weakness and tendency toward inertia through which we might
deprive ourselves of our necessary spiritual nourishment.
God has no need of our presence at Mass, and we are doing him no favors by
going. But we certainly have need of his presence and we are the
beneficiaries of his favors.
Thus, rather than framing the question in terms of obligation, it should
be seen as the loving acceptance of God's invitation to share in his Son's
sacrificial banquet. The pastor's task therefore, is to inflame his
faithful with a deep desire to participate fully in the greatest mystery
this side of heaven. ZE04030221
* * *
Communion Service in Lieu of Mass [from 03-16-04]
The column on Communion outside of Mass (March 2) drew some interesting
e-mails. When I said that the Sunday obligation no longer exists when Mass
is impossible, I did not affirm, as one correspondent inferred, that
Catholics are no longer obliged to go to Mass on Sundays.
The whole question hinges on the objective fact of Mass being impossible.
When, and only when, this fact subsists, the consequent obligation
disappears in accordance with classical principles of moral theology.
A reader from Arizona asked, "What is a lay presiders service?" I usually
try to respect the original form used by the questioner but perhaps I
should have changed the formulation in this case. The expression "lay
presider" is inexact from a theological perspective, since only a priest,
or in some cases a deacon, can properly speaking, "preside" over a
This theological difference is underlined in several ways in the rite of
administrating Communion by a non-ordained minister. For example, lay
ministers do not greet using the phrase "The Lord be with you," and they
may not use the priest's chair. Nor may they impart a blessing at the end
of the celebration.
A priest from Minnesota asked about the "scheduling of Communion services
every week on a weekday when the priest is unavailable for Mass."
If daily Mass is not feasible (for example, if the priest has already
celebrated the usual canonical limit of two daily Masses) there may be
good reasons for the priest to preside a weekday Communion service such as
fomenting a regular pastoral contact with the faithful.
In recent discussions, the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy
considered several principles regarding the issue of daily administration
of Communion. Among the recommendations made to bishops to guide them in
their development of their own diocesan norms were the following published
on their Web site:
possible Mass should be celebrated daily in every parish.
the Rite for Distributing Holy Communion Outside Mass with a Celebration
of the Word is scheduled on a weekday, every effort must be undertaken to
avoid any confusion between this celebration and the Mass. Indeed, such
celebrations should encourage the faithful to be present at and to
participate in the celebration of the Eucharist.
possible, the Mass schedule of nearby parishes should be available to
parishioners. If a nearby parish is celebrating Mass on a given weekday,
serious consideration should be given to encouraging people to participate
in that Mass rather than the parish scheduling a Liturgy of the Word with
Distribution of Holy Communion.
daily Mass is scheduled in a parish, it is usually not appropriate to
schedule a Liturgy of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion. This
rite is designed for "those who are prevented from being present at the
community's celebration." When necessary, the scheduling of these
celebrations should never detract from "the celebration of the Eucharist
[as] the center of the entire Christian life." Such celebrations should
never be seen as an equal choice with participation at Mass.
proper ritual for the Liturgy of the Word with Distribution of Holy
Communion is found in Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside
Mass. The specialized provisions of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of
a Priest are not appropriate to weekday celebrations.
Finally I would like to thank those readers who sent me additional
material on this subject. It is also important to recall that the
provisions for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest should
always be considered as exceptional and provide further motivation and
occasion to implore the Lord of the harvest to send new laborers.