Cruise Line Rent-a-Priest

And More on Communion Services

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ROME, MARCH 16, 2004 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Our last cruise vacation left Florida on Saturday afternoon the day before Easter. When we got on board we were told that there was a priest on board and there would indeed be an Easter Mass and daily Masses. Being a good Catholic and Knight of Columbus, I even offered to assist the «priest.» It wasn’t until the Monday daily Mass that I learned that he was married and had left his clerical role and recently became a «rent-a-priest.» My wife and I were appalled that the cruise line and he would do this to unwary Catholics. Is the Church doing anything to discourage cruise lines from using them and purporting that they are priests? — J.T., Ypsilanti, Michigan

A: I do not know of any specific action on the part of the Church to prevent such unfortunate incidences, and while little can be done in the face of a determined act of disobedience to the Church’s norms, certain action can be taken.

From a personal standpoint you should write a letter of complaint to the cruise company explaining your position and also inform whichever bishop might have jurisdiction in the matter. This could be the bishop of the ship’s home port or, probably better, that of the cruise line’s head office.

It is unlikely that a commercial company would willfully go out of its way to affront the religious sensibilities of its customers. It probably acted in ignorance of the Church’s norms and Catholic sensibilities on this issue. Thus the authoritative voice of the bishop would be best able to clarify the situation and halt the practice.

If you are aware of the priest’s diocese of residence you should also inform his own bishop of his actions.

There have been unfortunately several similar cases over the last few years of priests who, having received a dispensation, or who simply abandoned their ministry without seeking a dispensation, later offer themselves for several purposes such as Masses for particular groups and weddings for those who would not be allowed to marry in Church.

While respecting whatever reasons of conscience may have moved a priest to request a dispensation from the clerical state, he knows that, although he remains a priest forever, once the petition is granted he loses both the obligations and the rights pertaining to his ordination. He may no longer exercise any function reserved to the ordained and he is forbidden to present himself as a priest (see Canon 292).

An exception to this is the case of a person in imminent danger of death who may be absolved by any priest whatsoever, no matter what his canonical status (Canon 976).

Thus a Mass celebrated by a priest in this situation would be a valid but illicit act insofar as it is contrary to the will of the Church.

A wedding performed by a priest in this situation would be invalid in the eyes of the Church, and likewise most confessions would be invalid although a penitent who is unaware of the priest’s status would obtain forgiveness.

Because of the grave spiritual danger that could be caused to the faithful, any simulation of a sacrament implies the imposition of a canonical penalty, and a person guilty of simulating the sacrament of reconciliation automatically falls into the canonical state of interdict and may no longer receive Communion or the other sacraments (see Canons 1331, 1332, 1378, 1379 and 1384).

Any Catholic who is aware of a celebration to be carried out in these or similar circumstances should not assist.

While only God can judge the human heart it is certainly a tragedy that someone who was probably instrumental in bringing others closer to God during his ministry and is in no way impeded in reaching sanctity as a well-formed lay Catholic should act in such a way as to cause great distress to the faithful and expose his own soul to grave danger.

Cases such as these show once more the importance of prayer for all priests.

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Follow-up: Communion Service in Lieu of Mass

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 liturgical act.

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:

— Whenever possible Mass should be celebrated daily in every parish.

— Whenever 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.

— Whenever 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.

— When 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.

— The 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.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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