Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Recently I started celebrating a Mass twice a month in a senior citizens residence. The Mass takes place on a Friday. Many frail seniors attend, as well as some healthy “outsiders.” Following the precedent set by a priest many years ago, the organizers want the texts of the following Sunday Mass to be said, complete with Gloria (when appropriate) and creed. I am told, “For the residents, this is their Sunday Mass!” Is it licit to celebrate the Sunday Mass on a Friday? It has been suggested that GIRM 358 allows this. Does this fulfill the Sunday obligation? On a feast or solemnity, can the Sunday texts be used? — T.P., Quebec province
A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says:
“358. In the Lectionary for weekdays, readings are provided for each day of every week throughout the entire course of the year; hence, these readings will, in general, be used on the days to which they are assigned, unless there occurs a Solemnity, a Feast, or Memorial that has its own New Testament readings, that is to say, readings in which mention is made of the Saint being celebrated.
“Should, however, the continuous reading during the week from time to time be interrupted, on account of some Solemnity or Feast, or some particular celebration, then the Priest shall be permitted, bearing in mind the scheme of readings for the entire week, either to combine parts omitted with other readings or to decide which readings are to be given preference over others.
“In Masses for special groups, the Priest shall be allowed to choose texts more particularly suited to the particular celebration, provided they are taken from the texts of an approved Lectionary.”
I do not think this rule refers to the explicit case at hand, as it refers to the readings at daily celebrations and not occasional Masses.
Also, the generous leeway granted to “special groups” appears to be tied to a “particular celebration” and thus seems to refer primarily to a group that gathers on a particular occasion such as an anniversary or jubilee. Given the insistence in the other two paragraphs on respecting the daily sequence of readings, I do not believe it could be applied to regular situations.
With respect to Sunday it is important to remember that for Christians, Sunday 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, they were also in an epoch when the mere fact of being a Christian could lead to a painful death.)
As the famous 49 martyrs of Abitinae (A.D. 304) famously related to the magistrate who sentenced them, “We cannot live without Sunday.”
Sunday Mass has not lost any of its value or importance in the lives of Catholics. Nor have they become less heroic in defending their faith, as many recent events have shown.
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.
At the same time, the present circumstances of Christian living and the Church’s desire to care for the spiritual needs of as many of the flock as possible can lead to some innovations.
For example, we have the situation of Sunday in places such as the Arabian peninsula, where Sunday is a regular working day, and many Christian immigrants find it impossible to attend Mass.
In this case, permission has been granted to anticipate the Sunday liturgy, not the Sunday obligation, to a Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. Any Christian in these countries who can attend Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday retains the obligation of doing so.
Celebrating an additional Sunday liturgy on a weekday holiday 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.
There is no obligation to attend Mass on such a Friday celebration.
This is because canonically speaking, those who are objectively unable to attend Sunday Mass, such as elderly shut-ins or those obliged to work, are dispensed from the precept and the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. This is in obedience to the traditional moral axiom that nobody is obliged to impossible (or severely difficult) things. If they voluntarily attend Mass on another day, or if they follow a televised Mass, then they do something that is very good from a spiritual point of view.
When this is a common situation, pastors act well in addressing the spiritual needs of the faithful by seeking to provide the best liturgical fare while being careful to avoid the impression that they are moving Sunday to another day. However, they would not normally have the authority to initiate such adaptations to the liturgical calendar.
Therefore, in conclusion, while I believe that it would be pastorally possible to make this adaptation to benefit the residence’s frail elders, I suggest the following steps:
— Request explicit permission from the diocesan bishop to make these adaptations so as to remove any doubt as to their legitimacy.
— Make clear to all, especially those who are fit and able, that participating in this Mass does not fulfill their Sunday obligation.
— If the Friday coincides with a solemnity, or even with a feast, then the liturgy of the day should be celebrated.
It might be possible on Sundays at the residence for a celebration in the absence of the priest. The bishops of Canada have developed a ritual for such situations due to the lack of clergy. In this way, there would be no interruption in the Sunday Readings from week to week.
The Canadian ritual has the following to say about Sunday celebrations of the Word:
“A true celebration of the Word
“The Canadian ritual for Sunday celebrations which has developed in these circumstances is not an adapted form of Mass, but an authentic celebration of the Word of God, with its own proper features. It is characterized by an enthronement of God’s Word, the full use of the Sunday readings and psalm, a homily that reflects upon the Word, intercessions that arise from having heard it, and a great prayer of praise to God in thanksgiving that comes normally from the Scriptures. This Sunday celebration of the Word is truly liturgy. It celebrates and makes present the saving action of Christ the Head among his people, and gives strength to the work of his Body, the Church. Gathered on that day when the Church throughout the world keeps the memory of the Risen Lord, the faithful of a particular community proclaim the Father’s glory, through the Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, a particular assembly that gathers to celebrate God’s Word always celebrates this liturgy in union with the Church universal. The assembly shows its veneration for the Word of God, the same kind of veneration, the Church teaches, that is due to the Body of the Lord, for in both cases it is Christ himself who is venerated. In the proclamation and hearing of the Word of God Christ becomes truly present to his people, for the Church teaches clearly that Christ is present in his Word since it is always He himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church. Thus, even without communion, the presence of Christ is realized in both the assembly that celebrates and the Word that is proclaimed.”
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Follow-up: Flowers on the Altar
Concerning flowers on the mensa of the altar (see follow-up, May 15), a reader from Lansing, Michigan, wrote: “It seems, from my travels around some parts of Italy, to be a universal practice. Thus, approved? Or possessing standing as a custom? Or the practice should be corrected? The Pope doing it might seem to preserve the practice, which doesn’t seem to harmonize with the altar symbolizing the Christ.”
I do not believe that this practice has yet the possibility of gaining force of custom.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Nos. 305-306, referring to the decoration of the altar, are additions to the document between what corresponded to Nos. 268-269 of the previous edition of the GIRM. These numbers correspond to GIRM 304 (on altar cloths) and GIRM 307 (altar candles) in the current edition.
Since the Italian translation of the new GIRM is from 2004, and a new translation of the Italian Missal has yet to be promulgated, the task of bringing Italian parishes into conformity with the norms is still a work in progress.
It would take about another 20 years or so of contrary use to establish a legitimate custom if indeed this is a practice subject to becoming one in canonical terms.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. 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.