ROME, JAN. 11, 2011 (Zenit.org).- 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.
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Follow-up: Singing at the Elevation
In the wake of our comments on a priest singing “Come Let Us Adore Him” during the consecration (see Dec. 14), a West Indies reader asked: “Our bishop has the habit of saying the phrase, ‘Holy food for a holy people,’ after the people respond, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you …,” and immediately before consuming the Body of Christ. According to your answer, that should not be done. I have the heard someone justify such a liturgical innovation by saying that the bishop is the lead liturgist in his diocese. Such a statement could open the door to just about anything. What are we to think?”
Yes, the bishop is the lead liturgist in his diocese, but he is not the owner of the liturgy: The instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum outlines the rights and duties of the bishop with respect to the liturgy. It says in part:
“1. The Diocesan Bishop, High Priest of his Flock
“[19.] The diocesan Bishop, the first steward of the mysteries of God in the particular Church entrusted to him, is the moderator, promoter and guardian of her whole liturgical life. For ‘the Bishop, endowed with the fullness of the Sacrament of Order, is “the steward of the grace of the high Priesthood,” especially in the Eucharist which he either himself offers or causes to be offered, by which the Church continually lives and grows.’
“[20.] … ‘every lawful celebration of the Eucharist is directed by the Bishop, to whom is entrusted the office of presenting the worship of the Christian religion to the Divine Majesty and ordering it according to the precepts of the Lord and the laws of the Church, further specified by his own particular judgment for the Diocese.’
“[21.] It pertains to the diocesan Bishop, then, ‘within the limits of his competence, to set forth liturgical norms in his Diocese, by which all are bound.’ Still, the Bishop must take care not to allow the removal of that liberty foreseen by the norms of the liturgical books so that the celebration may be adapted in an intelligent manner to the Church building, or to the group of the faithful who are present, or to particular pastoral circumstances in such a way that the universal sacred rite is truly accommodated to human understanding.
“[22.] The Bishop governs the particular Church entrusted to him, and it is his task to regulate, to direct, to encourage, and sometimes also to reprove; this is a sacred task that he has received through episcopal Ordination, which he fulfills in order to build up his flock in truth and holiness. …
“[23.] The faithful ‘should cling to the Bishop as the Church does to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ does to
the Father, so that all may be in harmonious unity, and that they may abound to the glory of God.’ All, including members of Institutes of consecrated life and Societies of apostolic life as well as those of all ecclesial associations and movements of any kind, are subject to the authority of the diocesan Bishop in all liturgical matters, apart from rights that have been legitimately conceded. To the diocesan Bishop therefore falls the right and duty of overseeing and attending to Churches and oratories in his territory in regard to liturgical matters, and this is true also of those which are founded by members of the above-mentioned institutes or under their direction, provided that the faithful are accustomed to frequent them.”
Therefore, the bishop does have great authority to order and institute liturgical norms which apply the general laws to particular circumstances in his dioceses. This authority, however, is “within the limits of his competence.” It is not within the competence of an individual bishop to introduce new liturgical texts, and thus the particular addition mentioned by our reader would not be justified by appealing to his episcopal office.
It might not actually be the bishop’s intention to introduce a novelty. This could be no more than an act of personal and private devotion on the bishop’s part that is picked up by the microphones. It is probably inspired by the Byzantine liturgy in which the priest sings, “Holy things for the Holy” before communion.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.