When Mass isn’t the Mass … or is it?

The problem lies not so much in a Sunday service without the priest but in basic catechises of what the Mass really is about.

by Fr Peter Dresser

The declining number of priests available to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist in many areas of Australia has inevitably given rise to some kind of Sunday Celebration of the Word with Communion.

Parish priests for whatever reason may have to be absent on some Sundays and the days of supply priests have virtually disappeared.  Parishioners gather at the usual Sunday Mass time and the Communion Service conducted by a lay person is then celebrated.

Some liturgists prefer the naming of such occasions as Sunday celebrations in anticipation of a priest, but the reality is the same – a Communion Service accompanied with the Prayers and Readings of the Sunday Mass for that day. There is no homily and obviously no Eucharistic Prayer. 

The interesting and very positive point is that parishioners who normally attend the Sunday Mass still come to these Communion Services.  The parish gathers even though the priest is absent. The people assemble as a community, are edified by the Word and enriched with the reception of Holy Communion. The people will stay for the usual morning tea and interact as a community as they would normally do following a Sunday Mass.

Arriving back to my parish after an absence of two Sundays I was proudly informed that the attendance at the Communion Services attracted a similar number of parishioners who would normally attend the Sunday Mass.  So I was delighted that the local church had successfully taken aboard the notion of collaborative ministry, a ministry empowered them by Baptism and a ministry clearly enunciated by Vatican II.

The people felt comfortable assembling at the beginning of the week to be enriched by Word and Sacrament in the absence of the priest. My conversation with some of the parishioners, however, gave rise to a concern that I have harboured for some time.

I was informed that for all intents it was just like an ordinary Sunday Mass except there was no homily and no Consecration but the essential and important fact was that Holy Communion was available. Moreover, I was told by a couple of parishioners that they actually preferred the informal and more relaxed nature of the Communion Service rather than the formality of the Mass.

I found this admission disturbing. Can I suggest that Catholics, in general, do not appreciate the essence of the Eucharistic celebration and fail to imbibe the richness of the Eucharistic Prayer? 

Some 12 years ago, I was involved with planning for the future staffing of parishes and the ramifications involved with parishes without a full time priest. Disturbingly I discovered that many people preferred Sister’s ‘Masses’ to Father’s Masses.  They did not have to endure that boring prayer that the priest says before Holy Communion nor, I suspect, an equally boring homily!

Among Catholics it was always “the Mass that matters”. It now seems that it is “Holy Communion that matters”. I now wonder whether this was not always the case!

Certainly when the Mass was in Latin, the only real tangible contact between priest and people was the reception of Holy Communion. The Canon of the Mass was said secretly and the priest made occasional verbal contact with the people – in Latin – and very occasionally! There was admittedly an aura of mystery and the sacred surrounding what was happening in the sanctuary and the ringing of the sanctuary bell (13 times all up!) indicated to the assembly where the priest was at and momentarily roused people from their rosaries or prayer books. 

More than 40 years after the Eucharistic Prayer began to be prayed aloud, and in English, it still remains the priest’s prayer for many Catholics.

The essence of the Eucharistic celebration is still not understood nor appreciated by perhaps the majority of Catholics. If the Mass has become meaningless, it is little wonder that people would prefer the simpler Communion Service. It may well be a reason for at least some Catholics no longer attending Mass because they do not appreciate fully what they are missing. A meaningful understanding of the centrality of the Mass was never a part of their Sunday worship.

There are a number of Eucharistic Prayers that can be used at Mass. In addition to the principal four Eucharistic Prayers, there are Prayers for Masses of Reconciliation and Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children whose language and interaction between priest and people make them eminently suitable for the occasional parish Mass.

There are other unauthorised prayers which allow for meaningful interaction between priest and people. The Aboriginal Eucharistic Prayer immediately comes to mind.

Putting aside any unauthorised prayers, how many Catholics are familiar with the authorised Eucharistic Prayers?  Very few I suspect. How many find them meaningful? Very few I suspect. So even if the presider announces the prayer to be used, it will have little impact on the assembled faithful. Unfortunately, it will still be that boring part of the Mass until Holy Communion time.

For the kneeling People of God it continues to be a time to switch off. Many priests choose to use the second Eucharistic Prayer because of its brevity! The richness and meaning of the Eucharistic Prayers – and thus the Mass – is being lost.

Instruction and education in this regard has been sadly neglected.  This should be a concern for all Catholics and for our Church in Australia. It needs to be rectified.

Fr Peter Dresser is currently Parish Priest of Coonamble in western NSW. Peter holds degrees in Theology and Arts and a Diploma in Education.  For many years he has been involved with ministry to young people.

 


 
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