Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I am in the Philippines. We are in enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and after May 15 we will be in general community quarantine (GCQ). We hope and pray that under GCQ religious gatherings will be permitted. Of course, we will follow the rules about face masks, physical distancing, and no physical contact. We know that under these rules, we cannot let the church be filled with people without physical distancing. This means that for Sunday Mass we can allow only limited attendance in the church. For this reason and only under this circumstance, can the bishop decide that evening Masses on Thursday and Friday be accepted as fulfilling the Sunday obligation? – F.L., Philippines
A: The short answer is no. The bishop can dispense from Sunday obligation but cannot change the obligation to another day.
I dealt with a similar theme in an earlier column (January 6, 2009) regarding the possibility of anticipating the Sunday liturgy to Friday in countries where Sunday is a normal working day. In that column we wrote:
“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.’ …
“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.”
In the above case, we are dealing with a perduring situation, and I do not think it would be a wise choice for a relatively short-term situation such as the current pandemic.
What possible solutions exist in the present situation?
One element to consider is that, even though public Masses are now available, the bishop can continue to dispense Catholics from the obligation for as long as the emergency lasts.
On the one hand, this can allow people who might be more vulnerable to serious effects of the virus, such as the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, to continue protecting themselves. On the other hand, those Catholics who are prevented from entering the church for Mass due to number restrictions need not be troubled in their consciences by a situation beyond their control.
However, other possibilities may be attempted to allow as many people as possible to attend Mass in safety.
One possibility was suggested by the Polish bishops’ conference at the beginning of the pandemic: to increase the number of Sunday Masses. Thus, for example, the bishop could grant all priests permission to celebrate two Masses on Saturday evening and three (in some countries four) Masses on a Sunday. In this way the people desiring to attend Mass can come at different times.
Another possible solution, if the climate permits it, could be to celebrate one or two Masses outdoors in a public space that allows more people to attend Mass while maintaining a safe distance.
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Follow-up: ‘Go in Peace, Alleluia, Alleluia’
In the wake of our May 19 comments on the double Alleluia, a deacon from Germany wrote:
“In the German missal, there is an indication in the rubrics at the end of the Easter vigil Mass that states that the Alleluia added to the Ite missa can be used during the whole Easter time (as opposed to only the octave) albeit only if sung. Maybe it is a mistranslation or a venerable tradition?
“Another question I had concerning this is whether these regional norms can be applied to Masses said in other languages in this region. To give an example, in the German translation of the Roman Missal there is an indication that, if a deacon is present, he should proclaim the ‘Mysterium fidei.’ Could this be also done in Latin Masses since it is evidently a local custom? And when celebrating a Mass in German in a different country?”
As a general rule, any particular law published in the translation of the missal promulgated by the bishops’ conference and confirmed by the Holy See is particular law for that country. Therefore, a Mass celebrated using a missal in any other language may, and sometimes should, apply the particular law.
This would be the case of certain liturgical customs approved for Germany and other countries. For example, the particular law approved for the United States that the people kneel during the entire Eucharistic Prayer should be observed in the U.S. even when using missals in other languages that do not contain that rubric.
When celebrating outside the country, technically, the regional law does not apply. However, neither is it forbidden to follow it. For example, there is no reason to expect that a group of German pilgrims celebrate Mass in a manner that is different from how they celebrate at home.
In other cases, it might be necessary to follow local customs, for example, a Mass open to English or French speakers in Rome will draw worshippers from several countries with different local practices. In such situations, Italian liturgical law will prevail.
Another reader, from Nigeria, also followed up: “My question is like the question you answered on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. When I came to my new parish I noticed that the altar servers did not carry candles for the Gospel during Easter season. I tried to change it, but most of the older servers who have served many years with my predecessor resisted the changes. Their argument is that for the Easter Vigil the rubrics state that ‘At the Gospel, lights are not carried but only incense.’ My question is: Does this rule continue all through the Easter season? I told them that it was meant for that night only. But they insist that it is for the period of Easter. Who is more correct?”
In this case, the priest is correct. This rubric is specific to the Easter Vigil in which the only candle used in the entrance procession is the Easter candle (even though all are holding small candles); the Book of the Gospels is not carried in the procession.
There is nothing in the rubrics that indicates that this norm should be extended beyond the vigil. It is enough to watch any video of a papal Mass on Easter Sunday to show that candles are used as in any solemn Mass to accompany the proclamation of the Gospel.
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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.