When There's a Medical Emergency

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When There's a Medical Emergency

ROME, 15 JAN. 2008 (ZENIT)

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

Q: During a weekday Mass a parishioner collapsed during the Prayers of the Faithful. Someone with a cell phone called for assistance from a local hospital. The emergency team arrived, brought in a gurney, questioned the stricken man, took his blood pressure, managed to get him onto the gurney, and wheeled him out to the waiting ambulance. Meanwhile, the presider kept on with the Mass, right through the consecration and Communion, while all of this was going on just a few feet away from the altar. While visiting another church some years ago, I witnessed a different reaction to an apparent medical emergency. During Sunday Mass the presider noticed that a woman was visibly becoming faint; he left the altar and caught her before she fell, then took her to the back of the church and left her in the hands of the ushers, who presumably hadn't been in a position to notice the emergency as it was developing. Then he resumed the Mass. This seemed a lot more caring and communal than simply ignoring an obvious medical emergency. Is there some statement somewhere to the effect that nothing but nothing should interrupt the Mass? — C.A., Urbana, Illinois

A: There is no overall rule, other than common sense and pastoral tact, to respond to such emergencies.

While the Mass should not generally be interrupted, circumstances such as those described could lead to a temporary interruption with no disrespect shown.

It would also depend on the particular moment during which the medical emergency occurred. For example, it is easier for a priest to notice a fainting parishioner during the readings then during the Eucharistic Prayer when many priests avoid looking toward the assembly.

My own reaction in this case would probably have been to interrupt the Mass at least while the emergency team was doing its work. This is, in part, because such situations polarize everybody's attention and nobody would follow the Mass anyway. Also, if the parishioner was in danger of death and no other priest was available, then it would be necessary to leave the altar and administer the sacraments.

That said, I do not wish to censure the priest in the first case as I am unaware of all the circumstances that led him to decide that the most appropriate course was to continue the Mass. The priest in the second example reacted with commendable attentiveness and sensitivity to a particular situation, but different circumstances might lead to different reactions.

A particular case is when the subject of the medical emergency is the priest himself. If a priest is unable to continue celebrating a Mass due to a sudden illness, then another priest may continue the Mass from the interruption point. This includes the case in which a priest only managed to consecrate the species of bread; the replacement priest continues the Mass from the consecration of the chalice.

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Follow-up: When There’s a Medical Emergency [1-29-2008]

Pursuant to our reference to the case of a priest falling ill during Mass (Jan. 15), several readers asked what should be done if there is no priest available to continue celebrating the Mass.

While there is little to be found on such issues in modern books, older manuals of moral theology often deal with such issues and in many cases the underlying criteria involved remain valid today.

Thus my present reply will be partly based on the eighth edition of a treatise of moral and pastoral theology first published by Father Henry Davis, SJ, in 1935.

The reasons behind the practical conclusions offered is that the Church has never reduced the sacrificial character of the Mass just to the consecration and has always required that once the consecration of either species has taken place, the sacrifice of the Mass must be completed by the priest reciting the Eucharistic Prayer and making his communion.

Thus the priest’s communion, while not essential to the real presence of Christ in the sacred species, is integral to the nature of the Mass as a sacrificial banquet.

Even though it is possible for the faithful to receive Communion outside of Mass, the hosts thus consumed must be the fruit of a complete Mass.

For this reason canon law (No. 927), in the strongest terms, forbids the consecration of both species outside of Mass or the consecration of one without the other even within Mass. This prohibition uses the Latin term “nefas,” a word used only four times in the code. The result is that there are practically no exceptions to this rule, not even in order to give Communion to someone in danger of death.

With this in mind, we can say that should a priest have to interrupt the Mass due to illness or another grave reason after he has consecrated either or both species — and is unlikely to be able to recover sufficiently within an hour — there is a grave obligation to have the celebration continued by another priest.

In grave emergencies even a priest who has been excommunicated, suspended or otherwise irregular may finish the Mass.

If the first priest is able to communicate he should be given communion from the species consecrated during the Mass.

If no priest is immediately available, the hosts and the chalice (even if not yet consecrated) should be placed in the tabernacle until a priest can come to finish the Mass.

The interval elapsing between the two parts may be of any duration but should be as soon as possible.

If not-yet-consecrated wine were to spoil, or be certain to spoil, before a priest can come to consecrate it, then it may be poured down the sacrarium and replaced with new matter (wine and water) when the priest arrives.

Only in very rare and extreme situations may the consecrated species of an interrupted Mass be consumed. Such occasions would be, for example, an imminent danger of profanation of the sacred species or the objective impossibility of safely keeping them, such as during wartime conditions or a climate where the species of wine would certainly become corrupt before a priest can come to complete the Mass.

If the interruption were to occur before the consecration, with no priest to continue the celebration and no other Masses reasonably available, then a deacon, instituted acolyte or authorized extraordinary minister could distribute Communion from the tabernacle using the rite for Communion outside of Mass.

If the interruption occurs after the priest’s communion, then the same ministers can administer the consecrated species to the faithful using the same rite.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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