There is a clever scene in the movie “A Few Good Men,” in which a naval attorney, played by Tom Cruise, has been trying to get a Marine on the witness stand to describe a Code Red—a situation in which a superior officer orders a Marine to rough up a fellow Marine who is failing to carry out his duties in a satisfactory manner.
The prosecutor in the court martial, played by Kevin Bacon, challenges the witness to point out where exactly in the Marine handbook there is a definition of a Code Red. He cannot—because it is not in there.
Cruise jumps up, grabs the handbook from Bacon and asks the Marine: “Can you point to the chapter where it describes the mess hall?”
The Marine cannot. Cruise asks, in mock horror: “You mean they don’t feed you?”
“No,” the Marine responds with a grin, “we get three square meals a day.”
“But how do you find the mess hall, if it is not described in the handbook?”
“Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.”
We all know a lot of things that are not in the book.
Letter of the Law
From time to time parishioners ask me, “How often does a priest have to say Mass?” They expect me to say “every day” or at least “several times a week.” Instead, I quote Canon 904 from the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which, to their surprise, states, “priests are to celebrate frequently.” (No doubt they would be shocked to learn the 1917 code directed priests only to celebrate the Eucharist several times a year.) I quickly add that priests, like all Catholics, are obliged to participate in Mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. But preside at the celebration? Only frequently.
In fairness to the code, it goes on to offer this exhortation to priests: “Indeed, daily celebration is recommended earnestly.” Several other documents on priestly life and ministry published since the Second Vatican Council encourage daily celebration of the Mass, as a foundation for engaged priestly spirituality.
But the very next canon (905, §1–2) places limits on how often a priest may celebrate the Eucharist:
A priest is not permitted to celebrate the Eucharist more than once a day except in cases where the law permits him to celebrate or concelebrate more than once on the same day.
If there is a shortage of priests, the local ordinary can allow priests to celebrate twice a day for a just cause, or if pastoral necessity requires it, even three times on Sundays and holy days of obligation.
In its commentary on the code, the Canon Law Society of America notes that since the 11th century, there have been limitations on how often priests can celebrate the Eucharist. One reason for the restrictions was to prevent priests from celebrating several Masses just so they could receive additional stipends (a ploy prohibited by Canon 951). Another is “to ensure that the manner of celebrating by a priest does not become too hurried or routine.” Further, the commentary (and common sense) suggests Mass schedules should be adjusted to prevent expanses of empty pews in large churches. Offering fewer, fuller Masses not only eases the burdens on fatigued priests, but contributes to more participative and enthusiastic eucharistic celebrations.
Canon 905 is regularly violated in my neck of the woods. I know of pastors who say six or seven Masses every weekend of the year. Our diocesan bishop has been known to do the same. One can think of other situations—a large prison, rural areas with far-flung churches, mega-parishes in the suburbs—in which priests might preside at more than three Masses on one day. Certainly “pastoral necessity” impels them to do so. But the distinction between churchgoer convenience and true pastoral need is often difficult to discern.
One weekend this past Lent I presided at the celebration of six Masses within 24 hours: on Saturday a funeral Mass at 12:30 p.m., then the two regularly scheduled Saturday evening Masses and three more on Sunday morning. These Masses were said in three different church buildings. I heard confessions, too, for an hour on Saturday.
My two associate pastors were equally busy. One did five Masses (a funeral in our town and a wedding in Pittsburgh on Saturday, as well as three Masses on Sunday) and the other did four Sunday Masses plus a funeral blessing service. Both heard confessions for over an hour at lunchtime on Saturday.
Together the three of us serve four parishes in one town. None of us is complaining about the workload. We are aware that in some dioceses only one priest is responsible for parishes of even greater size. Still, we have had discussions with the pastoral councils about whether we offer too many Sunday Masses. There are 12 services in all—four on Saturday evening and eight on Sunday morning—among the four church buildings, which are no more than two miles from each other. About 3,500 souls on average participate in these 12 Masses.
We have not yet decided whether to change our schedule. We priests are healthy and can manage our weekend obligations without much trouble and, I believe, with the joy and energy needed to lead an uplifting and holy celebration. And we are blessed with enough dedicated volunteers to supply the full complement of liturgical ministers at all Sunday Masses.
Cutting back on the number of Masses has its downsides.Parishioners get upset when “their” Mass time is taken away. Fewer may come to Sunday Mass regularly. Rumors fly that the parish might close. The upside to offering fewer Masses is the greater likelihood of getting a “packed house” and the feeling that each Sunday liturgy is special. The church is infused with new life: the singing is stronger, we avoid stretching the same volunteer ministers too thin each week, and packed pews inspire a sense of solidarity and hope.
People, Not Pews
Our diocese, like most in the eastern United States, is facing a shrinking supply of priests and is attracting fewer parishioners. It is projected that in six years we will have a third fewer active priests. Our bishop has set in motion a multi-year process of extensive grassroots consultation to discern how many parishes we will need to minister to our smaller Catholic population. This is not, however, simply a process of graceful decline. Yes, we will manage the reduction in numbers by maintaining fewer administrative units; but we can also take advantage of the period of transition to grow as a more enthusiastic, hospitable and evangelizing church community.
Many of these changes are still years away. In the meantime, what of saying six Masses in 24 hours? I suspect no canon lawyer would judge I broke the law. I did it for pastoral reasons, and will probably do it again soon, like many other priests all over this country and beyond. But is this a pastoral best practice or for the spiritual good of those sitting in increasingly underpopulated pews?
At the end of “A Few Good Men,” Colonel Jessup (memorably played by Jack Nicholson) confesses to ordering the Code Red, shouting to the courtroom those very famous lines of American cinema: “The truth? You can’t handle the truth.” The truth in my diocese and in parishes across the country is that the pastoral practices we have taken for granted need to be changed, maybe even thoroughly refocused and reformed. Pastors and staff have to consciously reject the “We’ve always done it this way” mantra; priests no longer can expect to minister principally from the rectory office or preach only from the pulpit.
Catholics everywhere are being called to take risks and build new pastoral structures of outreach. But this is a challenge the church has heard before. It is as old as the great commission of Matthew’s Gospel and as new as Pope Francis’ call for priests to go out to the streets and live “with the smell of the sheep.” And our local churches can handle it.