Liturgy on the Hours: So many Masses, so little time

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.

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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.

Code-Breaking

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Evans
3 years 8 months ago
It is easy to conclude that celebrating the Masses four, five or even six times in a weekend, in several parish communities, and possibly in other languages, too is a difficult and trying burden on our priests. But rather than continue the closing and consolidation of parishes, missions and stations, why don't we consider greatly expanding the number of priests? Creating smaller dioceses with many more bishops, closer to their clergy and people? The cathedral model of church is simply not working. Anyone who has gone to Mass in a small rural chapel with only 100 to 150 people present has experienced the joy of a tight-knit worshiping community. Instead of the multiplication of a multitude of masses at every convenient hour, the smaller parishes are able to be much more intimate, much more involved in each other's lives, much more committed to a continuity of ministry and practice than one finds in the huge mega church downtown. We need cathedrals for major diocesan celebrations but not for the ordinary celebration of Sunday mass. Maybe celibacy is a barrier to achieving the goal of many more priests? We have a young seminarian in our parish this year for his year in training. In three or four years, this man will be a pastor, in charge of people he hasn't met, with skills barely learned, and responsible for the faith life of maybe a thousand Catholics. Perhaps when he is 45 years old, he will have learned his trade...
Bruce Snowden
3 years 8 months ago
I once read of a Pope, today he'd probably be called senile, who spent the day saying Mass over and over again every day! Seems unbelievable, but can't verify it as I don't recall the source of that memory or the Pope's name. I remember also, before Vat.II on All Souls Day and Christmas Day, priests said three Masses each. I served Mass for one priest with a reputation for rapid Masses and somehow he managed to say three requiem Masses on All Souls Day in thirty minutes, maybe thirtyfive minutes. It was a dizzying experience for the server and I guess for the priest too, but that's what it had to be and that's how he did it! For a priest to celebrate six Masses on a Sunday as the above article mentions is just too much! I don't know a good answer to the problem.
Andrew Varga
3 years 8 months ago
If the Eucharist is truly the center of our lives as Catholics, the "source and summit" of our life of faith, and... If we are a community of reconciliation seeking to make things right for the good of all... why can the Church not make an administrative accommodation for those priests who were trained and ordained yet subsequently left active ministry to get married without being laicized (and even then to make appropriate decisions about reinstatement)? I hate to use the word "simplex," but it seems we could more easily than not have a status of priestly ministry in which a "former" priest could lead a community in the Eucharist on the Lord's Day and have, like other parishioners, work to provide for his family during the rest of the week.
Bernardo Survil
3 years 7 months ago
Regarding Fr. Frank Almade’s 29 September, 2014 America article about the burden suffered by the average U.S. priest to provide the Eucharist. We spoke about it before the annual Labor Day Mass in Pittsburgh at which he was the homilist. I asked him: “What do you propose, Fr. Almade, as a solution?” He said he had none to offer although he doesn’t favor importing extern priests which is the case of my small Diocese of Greensburg where over 8% of active priests are externs from The Philippines with more to come. When I reminded him that the Association of US Catholic Priests, at its June, 2014 Assembly, resolved to push the USCCB to petition Rome to allow for married priests, Fr. Almade countered: The experience of other Faith groups demonstrates that having a married clergy doesn’t increase supply. To which I would respond with my own experience in rural Guatemala. I was the sole priest for a parish with 75 rural chapels spread over 30 miles of mountainous, non-road accessible territory. At best each chapel saw me twice a year. Then the bishop sent me Fr. Anibal whom the bishop had to remove from his former parish because he fathered a child there. Because the Lord had blessed him with many positive pastoral attributes, Fr. Anibal -- a native Ladino Guatemalan who understood the local Mayan language -- brought the parish to life. And because he had to support his child and the child’s mother, he worked day and night visiting the villages, allowing me to function at a more reasonable pace. Having married priest in the USA may not increase the supply to any degree, but it would surely provide more depth in the ranks of those called to be priests. Also, our people deserve to have Eucharistic presiders who aren’t working themselves to a frazzle. We members of the AUSCP (www.uscatholicpriests.org) would be happy to have more “Father Anibals” with whom we could work on the canonical up-and-up, relieved to have another celebrator of the Sacraments at our side. Although many of my fellow AUSCP members would broaden even further the identity of those apt to be called to the Priest-hood, we are aware that Pope Francis is just waiting for bishop conferences to petition The Vatican for permission to ordain married men. A partial solution is better than a misguided one or none at all.

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