A Service as a Substitute for Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


A Service as a Substitute for Mass

ROME, 11 JAN. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Earlier this year, our pastor was away for a while. Before leaving, he looked for priests to cover the Sunday Masses. He was unable, he said, to find one for the vigil Mass. So, instead of informing us of this, he had the deacon celebrate a Word service, with homily, music, etc., and distribute Communion. The deacon said that this was valid. We normally attend a Sunday morning Mass, but because of a family commitment, we attended the vigil Mass. We live in a large archdiocese without a shortage of priests, and there are many Catholic churches in the area where we could easily get to Mass. I would have liked to have been informed about this prior to attending this service, since it was known by our pastor. Instead, when the pastor returned, he said this happens in other parts of the country and is valid. I believe that since we have ample opportunity to attend a Mass, not a service, that it is not valid in this case. Is this correct? — J.P., Newark, New Jersey

A: The principles involved in this matter are articulated in the Directory of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, issued by the Holy See in 1988. These principles are usually taken up by the bishops' conference which may also issue more-specific guidelines. In the case of the United States the latest version of the directory was issued in 2007.

Each bishop can then decide on the applicability or not of these guidelines in his diocese and may issue norms determining if and when such a Sunday celebration is allowed.

Regarding the general conditions permitting this form of celebration, the 1988 directory is clear:

"18. Whenever and wherever Mass cannot be celebrated on Sunday, the first thing to be ascertained is whether the faithful can go to a church in a place nearby to participate there in the eucharistic mystery. At the present time this solution is to be recommended and to be retained where it is in effect; but it demands that the faithful, rightly imbued with a fuller understanding of the Sunday assembly, respond with good will to a new situation.

"21. It is imperative that the faithful be taught to see the substitutional character of these celebrations, which should not be regarded as the optimal solution to new difficulties nor as a surrender to mere convenience. Therefore a gathering or assembly of this kind can never be held on a Sunday in places where Mass has already been celebrated or is to be celebrated or was celebrated on the preceding Saturday evening, even if the Mass is celebrated in a different language. Nor is it right to have more than one assembly of this kind on any given Sunday.

"24. It belongs to the diocesan bishop, after hearing the council of presbyters, to decide whether Sunday assemblies without the celebration of the eucharist should be held on a regular basis in his diocese. It belongs also to the bishop, after considering the place and persons involved, to set out both general and particular norms for such celebrations. These assemblies are therefore to be conducted only in virtue of their convocation by the bishop and only under the pastoral ministry of the pastor.

"25. 'No Christian community is ever built up unless it has its roots and center in the eucharistic liturgy.' Therefore before the bishop decides on having Sunday assemblies without celebration of the eucharist, the following in addition to the status of parishes (see no. 5) should be considered: the possibility of recourse to priests, even religious priests, who are not directly assigned to the care of souls and the frequency of Masses in the various parishes and churches. The preeminence of the celebration of the eucharist, particularly on Sunday, over other pastoral activities is to be respected."

No. 21 above is quite clear that the use of a celebration without a priest is viewed as an exception when Mass cannot be celebrated on a given weekend. It is not designed to substitute particular Masses and in normal circumstances would not be a valid substitution for attending Mass.

However, since circumstances can vary widely, No. 24 grants wide leeway to the bishop to make concrete options in line with the general principles. One diocese, for example, while respecting the norms that there should be no more than one assembly of this kind on any given Sunday, recognizes that there might be exceptions in very large parishes.

Another diocese specifies the difference between an emergency and convenience. An emergency would be an unforeseen absence of the priest due to illness or other circumstances, along with the impossibility of finding a substitute and of advising the faithful in time to arrange alternative plans. In such circumstances recourse to using the Sunday service could be justified.

Convenience, such as the priest being unavailable at a specific time but able to celebrate at another moment, does not justify holding this service.

For these reasons, and given the circumstances of the case, I would say that the choice of substituting Mass with the Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest was incorrect.

* * *

Follow-up: A Service as a Substitute for Mass [ 1-25-2011]

A reader from Grand Rapids, Michigan, sought some clarifications in pursuance to our reply regarding the legitimacy of organizing a Communion service as a substitute for the Saturday vigil Mass (see Jan. 11). In the case at hand, the pastor was apparently unable to find a priest to celebrate this Mass although the other Masses on Sunday were held. He did not inform ahead of time that there would only be a Communion service.

Our reader made the following comments:

"I believe the correspondent is questioning if: 1) Since there are ample opportunities in their area to attend a Vigil Mass, shouldn't their parish priest have canceled the liturgy that day rather than have a deacon celebrate a Communion service? 2) In any case, shouldn't the parishioners have had advance warning that the vigil Mass was not going to be a Mass but instead a Communion service (because the priest knew ahead of time that he did not have another priest available, and could have informed the parish), thus allowing them to attend an actual Vigil Mass at a neighboring parish, if they so chose.

"My question is: 1) Did they in fact fulfill their Sunday obligation by attending the Communion service, since they did not have advance warning? 2) Or should they have attempted to attend a Mass on Sunday, since they knew on Sunday that they had only attended a Communion service the afternoon/night before?

"My opinion is that to prevent just this sort of confusion, the pastor and/or bishop should cancel Mass at a particular parish and ask that parishioners attend Mass at another parish if [such Masses] are easily accessible. The faithful should not have to wonder if they have fulfilled their Sunday obligation."

In our original reply we clearly stated that organizing the Communion service was incorrect. Although this implies that the Mass should have been canceled and the people informed ahead of time, our reader is correct in pointing out that the point could have been brought out better in the original article.

With respect to his questions, I would say the following:

— The Sunday obligation is to assist at Mass. A Communion service can never fulfill that obligation. In other words, if Mass is possible at another time, one is obliged to go to Mass. If Mass is unavailable, one does well to assist at a Communion service but has no obligation to do so.

— In the concrete case of our original questioner: In good faith he attended what he believed would be a Mass with the intention of fulfilling his obligation, only to find that there was no Mass but a Communion service. If the reason for going to church on Saturday evening was due to some great difficulty in attending Mass on Sunday, then he could consider in good conscience that he had done all that was reasonably possible to fulfill the obligation. If, on the other hand, there was no great inconvenience in attending Mass on Sunday, he would be obliged to do so.

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