Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest
Faulty analysis produces misguided solutions, naturally
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


This article was written in response to a document issued last Easter by the Liturgy Commission of my own diocese, Wrexham, entitled "Policy and Principles for Sunday Celebrations of Word and Communion". Although addressing itself specifically to the situation in Wrexham, the document contains ideas and plans which appear to be prevalent among policy elites in other dioceses, giving the criticisms expressed here a wider validity. The original document has not (yet?) been posted on the Wrexham diocese website but copies might be obtainable from the Bishop's Secretary, Bishop's House, Sontley Road, Wrexham. LL13 7EW.
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My Copy of "Policy and Principles for Sunday Celebrations of Word and Communion" arrived through the post on the morning of Holy Saturday - aptly enough, I thought when I had read it: Holy Saturday is the one day in the year during which "God is Dead". In the following short essay I would like to offer my own personal response from my standpoint as a priest of the diocese, bearing in mind that my situation is shared to a greater or lesser extent with every other diocesan priest.
In my view, where the Policy and Principles document echoes the Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest by the Office for the Congregation for Divine Worship, 2nd June, 1988, it appears sound. Where it branches off into the authors' own thoughts and proposals the result is less happy. It is difficult to see what the document adds to the much earlier guidelines provided by the Holy See; indeed, in many places its suggestions appear unwiser. My dissatisfaction centres on two main areas: I. the Sunday Mass/Catholic Liturgy; and II. the pastoral, liturgical and leadership role of the priest.
I. The Sunday Mass/Catholic Liturgy
The Policy and Principles document fails to address adequately the danger that with declining numbers of priests, Catholic parishes may drift into a sort of lay-centred, D.I.Y. approach to liturgy, modelled, consciously or unconsciously, on the practices of congregational Protestant communities. The document does not acknowledge that there are many Catholic laypeople who subtly desire such a drift.
Already in many parishes we have encountered the problem posed by groups of laypeople, anxious to involve themselves in planning the liturgy of the Mass with the aim, it seems, of playing down the specifically Catholic elements - Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist, the priest's role of representing Christ, the fact that reception of Communion is conditional on certain criteria of Church membership, spiritual disposition, etc. - and transforming it into a sort of generic prayer service instead, emphasising a vague ideology of "community" and inclusiveness in which, as the hymn rather facilely proclaims, "all are welcome".
At present many parish activists -readers, eucharistic ministers, liturgy planners etc. - are drawn from the middle-class layer of society which is most liable to adopt sceptical or even dismissive attitudes towards orthodox Catholic doctrine, Church authority, traditional liturgical and devotional practices. Although confident and opinionated, they are often spiritually rather shallow, their sense of Catholic identity is weak, and they appear to believe that trimming their religious commitment to prevailing secular winds is a sign of spiritual progress.
They often indicate that they believe the main obstacle to greater evangelical effectiveness is the incompetence of the clergy, and that their own technocratic and managerial skills, once deployed, would radically transform the "productivity" of the Church's missionary endeavours. They appear to view the pursuit of holiness, and the Catholic devotions which serve as its channels, as quaint and irrelevant, beneath their dignity, a relic of the more working class folk-Catholicism of the past. They find the politics and the managerial ethos of church committee work more congenial.
Time and again this sceptical and liberalising attitude has manifested itself precisely in regard to the Church's eucharistic doctrines and regulations and the celebration of Mass. Parish priests encounter some very eccentric and ignorant opinions, as well as a lot of tiresome argument and conflict, precisely among the cadres of activists with whom they are supposed to be collaborating most closely in their parish work and their celebration of the liturgy. I may only be speaking for myself when I say that I find it depressing to see such groups of people - totally unrepresentative of the majority of even church-going Catholics - harnessed so closely now to the policy-forming machinery of the diocese.
Existing Guidelines
The 1988 Directory states plainly in article 18 that "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" (my italics).
The Policy and Principles document, however, does not mention this advice as the primary solution to the problem of a lack of Sunday mass in a particular parish. This seems to me to be a serious omission, and it provokes me to ask: does the Diocesan Liturgy Commission actually prefer the prospect of lay-led services on Sunday in the local parish rather than encouraging parishioners to travel to a neighbouring parish to attend Mass? If so, I hope that the Commission's preference will not be put before the diocesan clergy at a later date in the form of an iron policy demanding total compliance and conformity. Personally I would never prefer to attend such a Service if I was able to travel to Mass elsewhere, and I would find it painful to have to recommend such an option to my own parishioners.
Earlier, in its introduction, the Directory states that its intention is not to "encourage, much less facilitate, unnecessary or contrived Sunday assemblies without the celebration of the Eucharist". My fear is that the Policy and Principles document, in its present form, shows no sign of recognising such a danger, and may indeed, if implemented as it stands, render an already-bad situation worse. In communities where there may soon be a Celebration of the Word and Communion on Sundays, there is an obvious danger that the influence of the laicising, D.I.Y. enthusiasts will increase.
II. The Pastoral, Liturgical and Leadership Role of the Priest.
Official documents always speak of the present decline in the number of priests as highly regrettable, but the actual opinions of many of the faithful are rather different. I have certainly spoken with many lay activists who can only be described as impatient about the slowness of our decline and only too eager to step into the priests' shoes and leadership position. As a priest of (only!) forty years of age, with hopefully many years of pastoral service still left, I simply ask: would the new lay leaders be kind enough to wait until I'm dead before making my funeral arrangements, and with such unseemly glee?
In regard to older priests - those whom the Liturgy Commission refer to insouciantly as enjoying the "golden years" - many ordinary parishioners may be grateful that these men remain at their parish posts long after normal retirement age, and even after the age at which most clergy desire to leave active parish work. But the policy elites, by contrast, can hardly restrain their eagerness to bundle their elderly parish priest onto the back of the cart, careful to snatch the presbytery and tabernacle keys as he trundles off into the sunset.
The 1988 Directory assiduously safeguards the pastoral authority of the priest concerning those communities which may have to do without Mass on Sundays. This dimension is completely missing, however, from the Policy and Principles document.
What matters above all, says the Introduction to the Directory, is that communities without Sunday Mass gather together in a way that "unites such communities with a community that is celebrating the eucharist with their own pastor". Celebrations which act as substitutes for Sunday Mass are to be conducted "only under the pastoral ministry of the pastor" (article 24). It is the individual pastor who is to inform the bishop of the "opportuneness" of such celebrations in his territory, and it is he who should prepare his own parishioners for the eventuality (article 27).
The parish priest is to appoint the individuals entrusted with the care of the substitutional Services (article 30), he is to instruct them (article 31) and he is to guide the preparation of the Services (article 37). When such Services must take place it is desirable, states the Directory, "that the pastor prepare a homily and give it to the leader of the assembly to read".
The lay leaders in turn should recognise that they function only under the authority of the pastor (article 31) and during the services which they conduct they should "make mention of the community of the faithful with whom the pastor is celebrating the Eucharist on that Sunday and urge the assembly to unite itself in spirit with that community" (article 42).
The Directory in other words is careful to warn against any tendency towards congregationalism or any spirit of independence from the parish priest or the whole Church. On all these counts the Policy and Principles document is either weaker or more complacent, or encourages moves in the opposite direction. Far from safeguarding the guiding function of the parish priest, pastorally and liturgically, Section G of the Policy and Principles document - "Calling People to Leadership" - ironically finds no leadership role in any of these areas for the individual pastor himself - but plenty of scope for "the diocese" (i.e., the Commission itself, no doubt) and for those perennial models of deep Christian maturity and fraternal love, Parish Councils.
Expanding bureaucracy
The methods and arrangements suggested by the Liturgy Commission may satisfy the bureaucratic mentality, which always takes pleasure in centralised schemes of control, committee meetings and pragmatic solutions which look tidy on paper. Pastorally, however, it may prove to be a recipe for conflict, confusion and further dissolution of the faith.
Consistent with the spirit of the 1988 Directory, it is the pastoral wisdom of each individual priest, familiar with the specific character of his own parish and its difficulties, which I believe should play the most significant role in deciding the steps to be taken in providing new Sunday services as a substitute for the Mass, if and when they become necessary. Otherwise many of us may feel inclined to embrace the more relaxed ministry of the supply priest, leaving the everyday pastoral and administrative worries and spiritual burdens connected with parish ministry, to the new omni-competent pastoral "teams".
The real problems facing Catholic parishes
I would like to finish by contrasting the pastoral wisdom available to active parish clergy with the often unreal and misleading picture conjured up by lay policy-makers, by commenting on one of the descriptions offered by the Liturgy Commission authors as an argument in favour of their suggested solutions. In Section D of the document we read that "people want Holy Communion!" and "People need Communion; it's bad enough not to have Mass".
Most parish priests know very well from their weekly celebration of the Sunday liturgy, and from their general pastoral involvement with people, that the real level of faith in our communities is far lower than these slogans seek to imply.
For more than a generation now the Catholic community has been subject to the disorientating forces of secularism. The consequences include a profound ignorance of even basic doctrine, and a lax and individualistic approach to religious faith which often substitutes personal aesthetic tastes or therapeutic motives for the coherence and discipline of the Tradition. (This is rejected on principle as "authoritarian" in any case). There is a reluctance to take seriously the Church's rules for admittance to the Eucharist and increasing pressure to allow intercommunion regularly with members of Protestant churches. Some already ignore the rules, proudly announcing their disagreement with Church teaching.
Many Catholics are irregular in their attendance at Mass, often preferring other leisure pursuits on a Sunday. Catholic habits of genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, fasting before Communion, behaving in a quiet and reverent way, or praying rather than socialising in Church, have been largely lost. Indeed, in these areas the worst offenders are frequently the new lay collaborators, for whom de-sacralising ("modernising") the liturgy is a positive agenda, and who manage to obtrude as much of their own bustle and flap and chatter upon the Mass as possible - before, during and after.
Conclusion
In his foreword to the Liturgy Commission's document Bishop Regan writes that we are entering a new and bewildering situation. My own view is that our present predicament is continuous with trends in the Church and society over the last forty or fifty years, and that the causes of our difficulties are easy to discern, analyse and correct.
As far as our priestly parochial ministry is concerned, The Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest provides just such discernment, analysis and correction. So does Pope John Paul's latest encyclical on the Eucharist and the Church, released only last Thursday (Holy Thursday), along with the 1994 Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests; the 1999 document from the Congregation for Clergy, The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium, Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and Leader of the Christian Community; and the Congregation's more recent document, The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community.
In all these official documents the unique role of priests is valued and appreciated, and the Catholic character of parish life upheld, in a way which I personally feel is absent from the Commission's report, or which is at any rate defended only half-heartedly. The promotion of lay leadership circles on the other hand, with little acknowledgement of existing and potential problems, earns the enthusiastic blessing of the Commission.
If what we really want is to keep alive an authentically Catholic spirit in our parishes, and avoid turning into a cosy, liberal, middle-class house-church, I believe that these Magisterial teachings will enable us to do so, as they trace a clear, firm, wise and inspiring path.