A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Communion Service Instead of Mass?


ROME, 2 MARCH 2004 (ZENIT).

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: What responsibility do parishioners have to attend Mass on Sundays instead of going to a lay presiders service when four Masses are available on weekends within a 10-minute car drive? D.L., Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

A: This 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 Subsection 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.

Thus, when a parish offers a Communion service when Mass is impossible, this is done in order to allow Catholics to follow the Church's recommendation to sanctify Sunday in some other way. But it does not substitute the Sunday obligation, which in fact no longer exists.

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 easily assist at Mass in another parish without any great inconvenience, then in conscience he or she is obliged to do so.

Bishops and pastors also have to consider these factors. When Mass is easily available at nearby parishes, sometimes it might be best to have no Communion service at all at the local parish rather than risk disorienting the faithful as to the central importance of Sunday Mass.

A grave inconvenience of such a solution is that it could deprive those least able to find alternative arrangements such as the poor, the sick and the elderly of the comfort of at least receiving Communion.

This grave inconvenience could, however, become an opportunity to exercise and develop charity on the parish level in inviting the faithful to voluntarily share in transporting to Mass 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 hold the 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.

The Church makes assistance at Mass a grave obligation in order to help us overcome our weakness and tendency toward inertia through which we might deprive ourselves of our necessary spiritual nourishment.

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. ZE04030221

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Follow-up: Communion Service in Lieu of Mass [from 03-16-04]

The column on Communion outside of Mass (March 2) drew some interesting e-mails. When I said that the Sunday obligation no longer exists when Mass is impossible, I did not affirm, as one correspondent inferred, that Catholics are no longer obliged to go to Mass on Sundays.

The whole question hinges on the objective fact of Mass being impossible. When, and only when, this fact subsists, the consequent obligation disappears in accordance with classical principles of moral theology.

A reader from Arizona asked, "What is a lay presiders service?" I usually try to respect the original form used by the questioner but perhaps I should have changed the formulation in this case. The expression "lay presider" is inexact from a theological perspective, since only a priest, or in some cases a deacon, can properly speaking, "preside" over a liturgical act.

This theological difference is underlined in several ways in the rite of administrating Communion by a non-ordained minister. For example, lay ministers do not greet using the phrase "The Lord be with you," and they may not use the priest's chair. Nor may they impart a blessing at the end of the celebration.

A priest from Minnesota asked about the "scheduling of Communion services every week on a weekday when the priest is unavailable for Mass."

If daily Mass is not feasible (for example, if the priest has already celebrated the usual canonical limit of two daily Masses) there may be good reasons for the priest to preside a weekday Communion service such as fomenting a regular pastoral contact with the faithful.

In recent discussions, the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy considered several principles regarding the issue of daily administration of Communion. Among the recommendations made to bishops to guide them in their development of their own diocesan norms were the following published on their Web site:

Whenever possible Mass should be celebrated daily in every parish.

Whenever the Rite for Distributing Holy Communion Outside Mass with a Celebration of the Word is scheduled on a weekday, every effort must be undertaken to avoid any confusion between this celebration and the Mass. Indeed, such celebrations should encourage the faithful to be present at and to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Whenever possible, the Mass schedule of nearby parishes should be available to parishioners. If a nearby parish is celebrating Mass on a given weekday, serious consideration should be given to encouraging people to participate in that Mass rather than the parish scheduling a Liturgy of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion.

When daily Mass is scheduled in a parish, it is usually not appropriate to schedule a Liturgy of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion. This rite is designed for "those who are prevented from being present at the community's celebration." When necessary, the scheduling of these celebrations should never detract from "the celebration of the Eucharist [as] the center of the entire Christian life." Such celebrations should never be seen as an equal choice with participation at Mass.

The proper ritual for the Liturgy of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion is found in Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass. The specialized provisions of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest are not appropriate to weekday celebrations.

Finally I would like to thank those readers who sent me additional material on this subject. 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. ZE04031622
 

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