With the shortage of priests, not having a priest for a Sunday Mass is becoming more and more common.
I naively thought that I would never see such a situation, having graduated from a Catholic grammar school and high school, but my own parish in the western suburbs of Chicagoland experienced the lack of a priest on this last Sunday to celebrate Mass. This brought “home” to me and the other almost 400 attendees that the Chicago Archdiocese has to complete their restructuring as painful as it may be to all of us to continue to fulfill their religious mission. The priest shortage is real and is becoming more critical each and every day.
Even with the best of planning and communication, schedules get confused or electronic calendars get deleted. A priest who has to travel in may have car trouble or get stuck in ice or snow. A priest may be too ill to get out of bed. As one of cleric who is my friend once put it—what will they do if I “wake up dead?” Clearly, despite our best efforts, emergencies do happen.
There is a shortage of priests everywhere, certainly all over the United States. In some countries the priest is peripatetic. He moves from parish to parish, stopping for a day to consecrate enough wafers of the Eucharist bread to supply the masses for weeks ahead. He then leaves it to the lay servers or Eucharistic ministers to distribute them.
The tradition of there always being a priest available to say Mass in any church has already died out. This is not like the America I knew as a child where, on a Saturday morning, four priests might be hearing confessions and four rows of pews at each confession box would be filled with penitents waiting their turn.
The bottom has fallen out of the market.
Which would not be a problem if the staffing of the Church declined at the same rate as the demand for the sacraments, but it hasn’t. It has proceeded at a faster rate.
Certainly, fewer Catholics go to Mass every week than did 20 years ago. Indeed, fewer still go to confession. Almost none want to be priests, but about half of them still want to go to Mass about once a month.
That means that the ratio of priests to members of a congregation has fallen.
Even in a rapidly secularising in the US there is demand for more Masses than there are priests to celebrate them.
In our unfortunate event, a trained lay person stepped up and lead a Liturgy of the Word service; this resembles the Mass with the exception of a priest to preside. Of course, other ministers assisted as lectors and musicians. There was a distribution of Holy Communion, remember Mass is more than receiving Communion—it is the prayer of the Church and the Eucharistic sacrifice that makes the Lord Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist which is later received in Communion. Anything less than a Mass is not a Mass.
In any event, an announcement was made: “I am sorry to inform you that due to circumstances beyond our control, there is no priest to celebrate Mass today. In this emergency situation, we were invited to stay and pray together with our Sunday community as we celebrated the Liturgy of the Word, remembering that Christ is present when the Church prays and sings and when Christ’s Holy Word is proclaimed.
While a Liturgy of the Word can never replace Sunday Mass, in an emergency situation such as this, it will fulfill your obligation. Saint John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Dies Domini (Day of the Lord) calls for Sunday to be “protected” and states, “In situations where the Eucharist cannot be celebrated, the Church recommends that the Sunday assembly come together even without a priest.”
Although the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days still stands, the unexpected absence of a priest is not a reason to think that you have not met the obligation. After all, the congregation made the effort to be there and can be in good conscience.
Fortunately, our senior parish leaders stepped up to the occasion . They demonstrated an adept and unique ability to lead the congregation in a meaningful celebration.
We must continue to pray for vocations as a Church, so that such a “priestless Sunday situation” is rare.