Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Recently, my parish priest announced he would be leaving for a two-week vacation. He announced that priests from neighboring parishes would be available for emergencies, funerals or other needs. However, we would not have a visiting priest for the two Sundays of his absence. Instead, our deacon would hold a service of the Word with Communion from hosts reserved in the tabernacle. There are other parishes in the area, only a 10- to 20-minute drive away. Does attending the deacon’s service at my parish satisfy my Sunday obligation? Or should I go to a neighboring parish since these are very close? — J.S., Nova Scotia, Canada
A: I believe there are two questions involved. One refers to the Sunday obligation to attend Mass for the individual faithful, while the other is the pastoral decision to organize a Communion service in the absence of a priest.
A: The first theme is treated in Canons 1247 and 1248 in the Code of Canon Law.
Canon 1247 states the obligation to assist at Mass on Sundays while No. 1248.2 says that if assistance at Mass is impossible due to the lack of a minister, or for some other grave cause, then it is recommended that the faithful assist at the Liturgy of the Word if this is celebrated in the parish church.
The sense of canon law is clear. Assistance at Mass is obligatory, except for a “grave cause.” The use of the expression “grave cause” indicates that the obligation is a very serious one. For obligations that admit more readily to exceptions, canon law usually uses expressions such as “a just cause.”
It is also important to point out that the Catholic’s obligation is to assist at Mass, not to “go to church.” According to the canonical and moral principle “ad impossibilia nemo tenetur” (nobody is obliged to do the impossible), when an objective impossibility exists, then the consequent obligation disappears. However, the Church recommends but does not oblige that Catholics sanctify Sunday in some other way, such as assisting at a Communion service, following a televised Mass, or praying at home.
However, a Communion service does not substitute the Sunday obligation, which in fact no longer exists if and when attendance at Mass is impossible. When, and only when, this impossibility subsists, the consequent obligation disappears in accordance with classical principles of moral theology.
An objective impossibility need not always be a dramatic situation. Examples of objective impossibility could be age, illness, the need to care for a sick relation, or seasonal variations which make leaving home a hazardous task. Catholics involved in necessary Sunday occupations such as police, medical personnel and flight attendants are also exempt while on duty.
It is not always easy to judge what is objective, as conditions vary from person to person. However, Catholics should not be too light in assessing their difficulties and should be willing to make reasonable sacrifices in order to assist at Mass.
So, if a Catholic can assist at Mass in another parish without any great inconvenience, then in conscience he or she is obliged to do so.
The second question regards the pastoral decision as to when a parish offers a Communion service instead of a Sunday Mass. This would be done in order to allow Catholics who are unable to attend Mass elsewhere to follow the Church’s recommendation to sanctify Sunday in some other way.
In 1988 the Holy See published a set of guidelines for bishops so that they could provide precise norms in their dioceses should such celebrations became necessary. Among the conditions for holding Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest are the following:
“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.
“19. The aim is that the riches of Sacred Scripture and of the Church’s prayer be amply provided to the faithful gathered on Sundays in various ways even apart from Mass. For the faithful should not be deprived of the readings that are read at Mass in the course of a year, nor of the prayers of the liturgical seasons.
“20. Among the forms of celebration found in liturgical tradition when Mass is not possible, a celebration of the word of God is particularly recommended, and also its completion, when possible, by eucharistic communion. In this way the faithful can be nourished by both the word of God and the body of Christ. ‘By hearing the word of God the faithful learn that the marvels it proclaims reach their climax in the paschal mystery, of which the Mass is a sacramental memorial and in which they share by communion.’ Further, in certain circumstances the Sunday celebration can be combined with the celebration of one or more of the sacraments and especially of the sacramentals and in ways that are suited to the needs of each community.
“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.</p>
“22. Any confusion between this kind of assembly and a eucharistic celebration must be carefully avoided. Assemblies of this kind should not take away but rather increase the desire of the faithful to take part in the celebration of the eucharist, and should make them more eager to be present at the celebration of the eucharist.
“23. The faithful are to understand that the eucharistic sacrifice cannot take place without a priest and that the eucharistic communion which they may receive in this kind of assembly is closely connected with the sacrifice of the Mass. On that basis the faithful can be shown how necessary it is to pray that God will ‘give the Church more priests and keep them faithful in their love and service.’
“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.
“26. Either personally or through his
representatives the bishop will, by an appropriate catechesis, instruct the diocesan community on the causes requiring provision of these celebrations, pointing out the seriousness of the issue and urging the community’s support and cooperation. The bishop is to appoint a delegate or a special committee to see to it that these people receive the necessary instruction. But the bishop’s concern is always to be that several times a year the faithful involved have the opportunity to participate in the celebration of the eucharist.
“27. It is the duty of the pastor to inform the bishop about the opportuneness of such celebrations in his territory, to prepare the faithful for them, to visit them during the week, and at a convenient time to celebrate the sacraments for them, particularly the sacrament of penance. In this way the communities involved will come to realize that their assembly on Sunday is not an assembly ‘without a priest,’ but an assembly ‘in the absence of a priest,’ or, better still, an assembly ‘in expectation of a priest.’
“28. When Mass cannot be celebrated, the pastor is to ensure that holy communion be given. He is also to see to it that there is a celebration of the eucharist in due time in each community. The consecrated hosts are to be renewed often and kept in a safe place.
“29. As the primary assistants of priests, deacons are called in a special way to lead these Sunday assemblies. Since the deacon has been ordained for the nurture and increase of the people of God, it belongs to him to lead the prayers, to proclaim the gospel, to preach the homily, and to give communion. …
“32. When on a Sunday a celebration of the word of God along with the giving of holy communion is not possible, the faithful are strongly urged to devote themselves to prayer ‘for a suitable time either individually or with the family or, if possible, with a group of families.’ In these circumstances the telecast of liturgical services can provide useful assistance.
“33. Particularly to be kept in mind is the possibility of celebrating some part of the liturgy of the hours, for example, morning prayer or evening prayer, during which the Sunday readings of the current year can be inserted. For ‘when the people are invited to the liturgy of the hours and come together in unity of heart and voice, they show forth the Church in its celebration of the mystery of Christ.’ At the end of such a celebration communion may be given (see no. 46).
“34. ‘The grace of the Redeemer is not lacking for individual members of the faithful or entire communities that, because of persecution or a lack of priests, are deprived of celebration of the eucharist for a short time or even for a long period. They can be moved by a deep desire for the sacrament and be united in prayer with the whole Church. Then when they call upon the Lord and raise their minds and hearts to him, through the power of the Holy Spirit they enter into communion with Christ and with the Church, his living body… and therefore they receive the fruits of the eucharist.’”
In the light of this document, bishops and pastors have to weigh these factors seriously.
It is important in making these considerations to examine the situation of those least able to find alternative arrangements such as the poor, the sick and the elderly so that they not be deprived of the comfort of at least receiving Communion. However, it could also provide an opportunity to exercise and develop charity on the parish level in inviting the faithful to voluntarily share in transporting to Mass at another parish those in need.
Should this not be possible, and a significant number of people would be deprived of Communion, then it is probably best to seek the necessary authorization from the bishop to hold the Sunday Communion service. But the faithful should be informed that this service is provided for those who have no alternatives and that those who are able should assist at the nearest Mass.
Of course, a Catholic who has even an inkling of the full meaning of the Mass would never voluntarily settle for a Communion service.
God has no need of our presence at Mass, and we are doing him no favors by going. But we certainly have need of his presence, and we are the beneficiaries of his favors.
Thus, rather than framing the question in terms of obligation, it should be seen as the loving acceptance of God’s invitation to share in his Son’s sacrificial banquet. The pastor’s task, therefore, is to inflame his faithful with a deep desire to participate fully in the greatest mystery this side of heaven.
Finally, as the above-mentioned directory reminds us, 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.
* * *
Readers may send questions to email@example.com. 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.