Apparently, next Sunday parishioners of St Michael and John's Parish, Horsham, are being urged to abandon their Sunday morning Mass (with a priest) in favour of attending what seems to be a communion service (without a priest) at a Church in Dimboola as an 'Outreach Celebration' organised by a (lay-led) 'Pastoral Care Group'.
Shouldn't it be the reverse, with a special effort being made by Dimboola parishioners to get to somewhere there actually is a real Mass on?!
Sacrifice vs sacrament: why communion services are no substitute for the Mass
Communion services have been permitted, even encouraged across Australia for communities unable to have a regular Mass. But they are always, it seems to me, very problematic.
Communion services serve to undermine the importance of the sacrifice of the Mass, as the Ballarat case exactly illustrates.
We are not required to receive communion each week.
But we are required to attend Mass if at all possible.
Why is that?
It is because at the Mass, the priest draws together all of our own sacrifices and prayers, and together with his own, offers them up through and with Christ's sacrifice, for the good of those present, any particular purposes of the mass, for our priests and bishops, the dead and for the whole world.
By participating in the Mass we are doing something immediately, not just for ourselves, but for others.
And that is why it can never be acceptable to decide not to go to Mass but to go to a communion service instead.
So let's just hope that all those Horsham parishioners are going to go to the Vigil Mass on Saturday night before heading off on Sunday to Dimboola (yeah right!).
A source of grace or damnation?
But there are other reasons to worry about lay-led communion services.
First, they put an excessive emphasis on the reception of the sacrament.
Reception of holy communion can of course be a source of union with Christ, grace, and forgiveness of venial sins for the individual, and more. Eventually that will help others around us as well.
But only if we are in a state of grace, and if we have the proper dispositions.
In the absence of a priest available for confession, the neglect of this sacrament by most Catholics today, and widespread lack of belief in the Real Presence, just how likely is this to be occurring?
I suspect it is far more likely that most participants in such services are in fact bringing judgment on themselves (1 Cor 11) rather than grace to themselves and others.
A celebration of self and congregationalism: the Canberra-Goulburn Diocesan Assembly as a case in point
The biggest problem with these services though, is that in my observation, they tend to become narcissistic celebrations of self run by a clericalized liberal clique pushing the congregationalist (protestant view that priests are unnecessary) heresy.
At the recent Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese Assembly for example, the issue of communion services in the absence of a priest came up in the small group I participated in, raised by an older lady from the country.
Her concern was that when they had been introduced in her area, a number of families had ended up dropping out from the Church.
At first, she said, those who didn't like the idea of communion services had taken to driving long distances to whichever town in the area had a scheduled Mass.
Eventually though, the effort involved had proved too much, and they had just dropped out of the Church altogether.
Accordingly, she was worried about proposals to extend the use of such services.
But the reaction in the discussion group to her concerns was sad. One person (an older male from the city) fairly aggressively attempted to squash any discussion of the downside of such services, and instead wanted to talk about how we didn't need priests at all anyway, and argued that communion services were clearly a step in the right direction.
Another man tried to badger the woman into saying that the numbers involved were small (but can we afford to lose any souls?!).
And when I suggested that the Archbishop's proposals to rationalise the number of Masses in Canberra could allow some priests to be freed up to be based in the country and reduce the need for such services, I was greeted with bemusement. Nor did my suggestion that communities celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours instead gain any traction (not surprising really - even if any of them knew what it was, I doubt they had ever actually had a chance to actually attend Vespers or any other of the hours)!
In the end, the person writing down the record of our discussion and reporting back to the wider group, as far as I could tell (hard to read upside down), simply omitted to mention the issue in his notes or summary of the discussion at all.
Unsurprisingly, in the wider group report backs, another person lauded the value of such services in forming "community" . Well maybe. But the community being formed, in my view, is not a catholic one.
Are there alternatives?
So what should be done in the absence of a priest?
The first point is clearly that if such services are in place (and a rethink really is needed on this) such services should never be used without good, ongoing catechesis of all involved.
They also need to be supervised so far as possible by (orthodox) priests, as well as their bishops. How could the parish priest concerned by allowing the Dimboola event to be promoted in the parish bulletin for example?
One creative suggestion from the Canberra-Goulburn Assembly was to have livestreaming of the Mass in Churches without a priest from the regional centre that had one each week instead.
It doesn't completely solve the problem of course, since people still aren't actually participating in the Mass. But it does mean that the community can have a 'missa sicca' (dry mass), a very traditional devotion, rather than an entirely fabricated liturgy, actually said by a priest instead of promoting lay-led alternatives.
Another alternative though, would surely be to encourage local communities to say some of the Liturgy of the Hours (perhaps the Office of Readings) on Sundays when no priest was available. That way they would be participating in genuine liturgy that is closely linked to the Mass, and that really involves all of those present.
It would require training and catechesis of course. But so too, clearly, do the alternatives.
And if people found themselves missing the Mass and reception of the Eucharist that might not be an altogether bad thing.
Perhaps they could be encouraged to channel this longing into holding Adoration in their otherwise empty Churches, making them genuine centres of prayer to attract new parishioners rather than empty palaces.
Perhaps they could pray for vocations, and encourage young men in their communities to consider priestly vocations - instead of trying to become pseudo-priests themselves.
Perhaps they could be encouraged to carpool or hire a bus and head together for some place there is a Mass on a regular basis.
Perhaps they could encourage special events to be held in their church - in consultation with the nominal parish priest, invite priests from a religious order or secular institute to run a mission for them, or organise pilgrimages that come with their own priests to visit their often very attractive churches to see what real church architecture should look like?
There are better alternatives....