Liturgies in absence of a priest
Fr. John Columba McCann O.S.B. suggests some possibilities for those who must organise weekday liturgies in the absence of a priest, and recommends other options besides Communion Services
While daily Mass is a feature of parish life everywhere in Ireland, it is becoming increasingly common to find that the celebration of Mass on every weekday is not always possible. By and large such situations are by way of exception, but they are likely to occur more frequently in the future. The need for a daily liturgy remains, whether it be Mass or not.
The question arises as to what kind of liturgy might be best planned for such occasions. Should it be a communion service, or something else? The answer is not at all obvious. I believe it is important for those engaged in pastoral planning to reflect carefully on a number of pastoral issues, before presuming that the Communion Service is the obvious answer.
Liturgy of the Hours?
Although it has taken a variety of forms over the centuries, the Liturgy of the Hours has, from the earliest times, been considered the daily liturgy for Christian people. It pre-dates the Mass as a daily liturgy.
Although various trends in the Middle Ages tended to confine its usage to the ordained and those in religious life, the reform begun by Vatican II has encourages its adoption once again as a liturgy for the whole people of God. Through this liturgy all the baptised exercise their priesthood on a way that has an impact on all people and contributes to the salvation of the whole world. A growing number of parishes have already begun celebrating Morning Prayer before morning Mass.
Perhaps the occasional day without Mass presents an opportunity for this practise to grow, and for a fuller celebration of this liturgy. A Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer (published by Collins) is a modest volume which could be bought in sufficient quantities for use as a weekday liturgy. Perhaps a simple adaption of Morning Prayer would be a good start.
Simply a liturgy of the word?
In many parts of the world a liturgy of the word is the celebration chosen where Mass is not possible, even on a Sunday. Recent Church documents underline the importance of appreciating the real presence of Christ in the proclamation of the Scriptures. Vatican II stated it eloquently: ‘The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord, in so far as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ.’
In our own country we have a long way to go when it comes to a deep appreciation of scripture as ‘the bread of life’. Perhaps the occasional absence of a priest presents a pastoral opportunity to help people take more time with the scriptures and begin to appreciate the nourishment that they provide. There is a ‘real presence’ here to be discerned and ‘tasted’ in our parishes. A liturgy of this form will also heighten people’s appreciation of the Liturgy of the Word as an important part of the Mass itself, and will thus enhance their Eucharistic participation as well.
A communion service?
Another option which is proposed in some places is a communion service. This is a service in which people receive Eucharist that has been consecrated on a previous occasion and reserved in the tabernacle. It usually includes a Liturgy of the Word, often drawn from the weekday lectionary.
There is without doubt some precedent for a communion service outside Mass. In the early Church, especially in times of persecution, lay people regularly took the consecrated elements home to consume them on days when Eucharist was not celebrated. The eastern liturgy has the communion service of the ‘presanctified’ on days when the Eucharist is not traditionally celebrated.
The Roman Rite on the other hand has always been more cautious about such a rite, a communion service for the sick was developed in the Middle Ages, and in 1600 priests were also permitted to hold communion services outside Mass for those who were not sick, although many local diocesan rituals discouraged this practice.
There are, however, problems with this kind of service, particularly around its relationship with the Mass. Pastoral experience has shown that, in practice, many people who attend these services find it hard to distinguish them from the Mass. And yet such a service is very much a derivative celebration, which is incomplete when compared with the Mass itself.
The Eucharistic sharing which takes place in such a service has been detached from the organic whole to which it belongs: taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the elements in memory of Jesus. The fact that many people don’t even notice the absence of the taking, blessing and breaking shows how little they have been helped to really participate in these essential elements of the Mass. To do without these aspects completely on a regular basis only compounds the difficulty.
The difficulty here is that in the Mass our people still need to be educated into a sense of ownership of the Eucharistic prayer. The elements are taken and blessed by the presider in the name of all the community. The Eucharistic prayer, though proclaimed for the greater part by the priest, is a prayer that belongs to all.
Further, the content of the blessing-thanksgiving prayer brings to the fore the sacrificial meaning of the sacred meal. Receiving Communion in a rite that is detached from this aspect will tend to empty it of much of its meaning.
Similarly, the sign of the breaking of the bread continues to be performed in such a minimal way in our celebration of Mass that the symbolism of unity in the breaking and sharing of one loaf is largely overlooked by participants. If they find in a communion service that the sign is entirely absent, their Eucharistic sharing is more likely to be individualistic.
An occasional communion service is perhaps a good case of sensitivity to the devotional desires of parishioners, but if this becomes the normal experience (and there is every likelihood that in a few years time this could happen, as it has everywhere) our lived theology of Eucharist will become skewed
Because people have for so often received pre-consecrated hosts from the tabernacle at Mass, it is harder for them to perceive that their sharing in this food is a real participation in the sacrifice of Christ, made present at the altar. When this Communion is completely detached from the Mass, the relationship between communion and sacrifice becomes still harder to perceive.
 An adaptation of Morning Prayer
Perhaps an adapted version of Morning Prayer could be used initially, for example:
·        Opening Verse: ‘O God, come to our aid…’
·        A well known hymn
·        A carefully chosen psalm, which could vary according to the seasons.                 e.g. Pss 62 (63), 56 (57), 91 (92), 148, 149, 150.
·        The Benedictus canticle, recited or sung by all. Perhaps a metrical version, set to a well known tune would be best here
·        A short litany of intercession, perhaps like those in the back of the breviary.
·        The Lord’s Prayer, sung or recited.
·        A concluding prayer, which might vary according to the season.
A Liturgy of the Word
·        Opening Hymn, during which the Lectionary is carried in procession to the ambo.
·        Opening Prayer.
·        First Reading, followed by a short silence.
·        Responsorial Psalm, with a simple sung response.
·        Gospel Acclamation sung by all.
·        Gospel, followed by a short silence.
·        As appropriate, a short reflection might be read from one of the many commentaries on the daily readings which are now available
·        Prayer of the Faithful.
·        Our Father.
·        One might conclude with a simple gesture of reverence towards the scriptures. All present could, for example, kiss the book or make some other sign of reverence.
A Communion Service
1.      Such a celebration ideally involves a number of ministers: a leader, a reader, a minister of communion, and a music minister.
2.      In order to lessen any confusion between this service and the Mass, ministers should avoid any distinctive vesture, they should avoid using the presidential chair and they should only stand at the altar when the Blessed Sacrament is brought to it. Any prayer texts that are taken from the missal should be carefully checked to ensure they do not make any direct reference to a full Eucharistic celebration.
A possible outline
·        Opening Song.
·        Sign of the Cross.
·        Penitential Rite, using one of the forms given in the Missal.
·        Liturgy of the Word, as outlined above (Reading, Psalm, Gospel Acclamation, Gospel, Reflection, Intercessions).
·        A minister of communion brings the Sacrament to the altar from the place where it is reserved. The leader goes to the altar and genuflects.
·        The Lord’s Prayer, with its embolism ‘Deliver us, Lord…’
·        The leader invites all present to exchange a sign of peace.
·        The leader takes some of the consecrated bread and shows it to the people with the usual invitation. ‘This is the Lamb of God…’
·        Communion takes place in the usual way, and may be accompanied by a suitable song.
·        Silence, Psalm or Song of Praise.
·        Concluding Prayer (e.g. Missal p.349).
·        Blessing: The leader signs himself/herself with the cross, saying, ‘May almighty God bless us, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.’
·        Dismissal: ‘Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God.’