Shifting or Substituting the Sunday Liturgy

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Shifting or Substituting the Sunday Liturgy

ROME, 6 JAN. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q1: We here in Nepal have a very peculiar situation. Sunday is a normal working day in this country (I believe also in many Arabian countries). Therefore, over many years (30-plus), we have been having our entire Sunday celebration shifted to Saturday, the only day on which people could participate fully. However, this has led to some confusion: For some people it is hard to feel that the Sunday obligation is fulfilled by attending Mass on Saturday. Another problem is the question over what Mass to celebrate on Sunday. Some of us just repeat the same Mass; some others instead celebrate the Saturday Mass on Sunday. At times, some of the feasts on Saturdays are lost because of our particular situation. I personally miss the Saturday Mass, because I am used to celebrating on both days. And to add to all this, is our national calendar, which is different from the Gregorian calendar; the month begins somewhere in the middle of the Gregorian calendar. For all official purposes we have to use that national calendar, and most of our people too use that calendar. For example, we had debates on several occasions: When is the first Friday of the month? As per the Nepali calendar or the Christian calendar? — P.P., Katmandu, Nepal

Q2: Here in our country, very often parishes celebrate the parish feast on Sundays, e.g. the feast of St Jude's Church, etc. Is this correct? If the Sunday Readings are not proclaimed but some other readings pertaining to the feast day are read, I thought that it is not right to do so. — M.J., Colombo, Sri Lanka

A: As both questions are related to the Sunday liturgy, I will attempt to answer them together.

In the first case, it is important to remember that for Christians Sunday as such is not a transferable feast. During the first three centuries Christians met on Sunday even though it was a normal working day, and many of them were slaves taking a great risk. This often meant getting up very early or perhaps sneaking out in the evening. (Of course, we are also in an epoch when the mere fact of being a Christian could lead to a painful death.) As one group of ancient martyrs famously related to the magistrate who sentenced them, "We cannot live without Sunday."

Sunday Mass has not lost any of its value or importance to the lives of Catholics, nor have they become less heroic in defending their faith as recent events have shown. At the same time, the present circumstances of Christian living and the Church's desire to care for the spiritual needs of as many of the flock as possible can lead to some innovations.

Therefore what is the situation of Sunday in Nepal, Arabia and some similar situations?

First of all, Sunday always remains Sunday, and the proper liturgy of the day should always be celebrated. Likewise as far as possible the faithful should attend Mass on Sunday or on Saturday evening. If it is necessary and useful, then priests should be willing to celebrate Mass at unusual times.

In those cases where permission has been granted for Sunday liturgy to be celebrated on a Friday or Saturday morning because Sunday is a normal workday, it is important to note that it is not a case of transferring Sunday to another day. Rather, it is a pastoral response so that those Catholics who find it impossible to attend Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday might not be deprived of the riches offered by the three-year cycle of biblical readings and prayers.

Canonically speaking, those who are objectively unable to attend Sunday Mass are dispensed from the precept and in fact have no obligation to attend Mass on Friday or Saturday Morning. If they do attend, then they do something that is very good. And when this is a common situation pastors act well in addressing their spiritual needs by providing the best liturgical fare while being careful to avoid the impression that they are moving Sunday to another day.

As our correspondent points out, this can sometimes lead to losing some celebrations that fall on a Saturday. In some cases it might be enough to mention the feast in the prayers of the faithful and the homily; on others it might be pastorally more useful to actually celebrate the feast on Saturday morning instead of using the Sunday texts.

The other question, regarding the proper calendar to follow when the local one is different, is something of a conundrum. In such cases the local bishops would be the ones to decide. If need be, the bishop would ask the Holy See for permission to change the dates of certain liturgical feasts that are tied to the Gregorian calendar, such as the solemnity of the Sacred Heart.

Since practices such as the first Friday or first Saturdays are devotional and not official liturgical practices, I see no difficulty in adjusting the practice to local needs.

Finally, a reply to our reader from Sri Lanka: Since the patron saint of a parish is usually ranked as a solemnity within the parish church itself, it is permitted to transfer the celebration to the nearest Sunday so as to allow as many parishioners as possible to attend.

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Follow-up: Shifting or Substituting the Sunday Liturgy [1-20-1009]

Related to our column on shifting the Sunday liturgy (see Jan. 6), a priest residing in the United States asked the following:

"I searched the GIRM [General Instruction of the Roman Missal] for some light on the patronal celebration of the feast on a Sunday. In Mumbai, India, we observe the solemnity of the feast of the patron saint on the following Sunday so that the entire parish can take part in the celebration.

"I am at a parish dedicated to St. George, and we are celebrating the diamond jubilee of the parish. I suggested to the pastor to have the celebration of the feast, which falls on April 23, on the following Sunday, April 26. He wants to know how it can be done. Could you throw some light on this?"

Actually, this question is not addressed in the GIRM but in No. 58 of the introduction to the Roman calendar published in 1969.

This document states: "For the pastoral advantage of the people, it is permissible to observe on the Sundays in Ordinary Time those celebrations that fall during the week and have special appeal to the devotion of the faithful, provided the celebrations take precedence over these Sundays in the Table of Liturgical Days. The Mass for such celebrations may be used at all the Masses at which a congregation is present."

Therefore, it is legitimate to transfer the celebration of a parish's patron saint (which has the rank of solemnity in the parish itself) to the following Sunday if this is a Sunday of ordinary time.

In the concrete case mentioned by our reader, however, the Sunday following April 23 always falls in Eastertide or, as will occur in 2011, 2038 and 2095, is Easter Sunday itself. This Sunday, therefore, always has a higher rank in the table of liturgical days than the feast of the patron saint. Thus, in this case it is not possible to transfer the feast to the following Sunday.

It is still possible to organize other activities of popular devotion on this Sunday if this is the only day that people can gather, but the Mass must be that of the corresponding Sunday of Easter.

Another priest raised an intriguing question to the follow-up article on Communion under both species: "Further to the question/answer of Jan. 6, as 'the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ are present in both the consecrated bread and wine,' is there anything — apart from the fact that 'it isn't done' — against administering only the Blood of Christ, and not the Body of Christ? I never see the question raised this way round."

I would say that, strictly speaking, this could be done. It is quite regularly done in case of those who are intolerant to wheat and to those incapable of receiving solid food. I would also suppose that it could be done if, in admittedly highly unusual circumstances, a group of isolated Christians found themselves with little bread and a lot of altar wine.

As far as I know, there is no explicit prohibition against this, probably because nobody ever thought of doing it before. But the law presumes that it is not done and that if Communion is given under one species, this species is ordinarily the species of bread.

There are myriad practical reasons that justify the Church's present custom of not distributing only the species of wine, but I think that the reasons go beyond the practical and the budgetary.

Many Old Testament types of the Eucharist, such as the manna in the desert to which Our Lord himself refers to in Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John, plus the reference to the Eucharist as the "breaking of the bread" found in the Acts of the Apostles, indicate that there is a clear preference toward the species of bread from the very beginning.

Likewise, the species of wine is not easily conserved, and distributing only the species of wine would have made the development of Eucharistic devotion and adoration almost impossible.

I think we can therefore conclude that the prevalence of distributing the consecrated bread rather than just the consecrated wine is a practice guided by the Holy Spirit for the greater good of the Church.

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