By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In what shaped up as the liveliest discussion of the morning, a proposed new rite for weekday celebration of the Eucharist in the absence of a priest brought the bishops face-to-face with the difficult choices created by a spreading priest shortage.
The draft rite was presented as a simple response to pastoral reality, but some bishops wondered aloud if it might amount to institutionalizing what should be seen as an exceptional and temporary situation.
“The number of priests available to celebrate daily Mass has been greatly reduced,” said Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Penn., chair of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, in presenting the draft to the conference. “One priest may be the pastor of several parishes, and in some cases may be barely able to provide Sunday services to these faith communities.”
In those situations, Trautman said – especially in rural and mission dioceses – a rite for celebrating a Liturgy of the Word, which includes the distribution of communion hosts previously consecrated by a priest, is a simple pastoral necessity.
Trautman argued that such sites are already being celebrated in many places, and the new text, which would require Vatican approval, would “bring order” to the practice.
Grounded in concerns about Catholic identity, some have criticized the trend towards priestless liturgies of the Word for blurring the boundaries between the Mass and other rituals which lay people may lead. Trautman, however, argued that the approval of a standard rite is important for precisely this reason.
“A main goal is to differentiate this rite from the celebration of the Eucharist,” Trautman said. “We are responding to the unfortunate labeling of some of these rites as ‘the deacon’s Mass,’ or ‘sister’s Mass,’ or the ‘lay Mass,’” Trautman said. “This must not be confused with the Eucharist.”
Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, however, asked whether the publication of such a rite might amount to “institutionalizing, encouraging, and even promoting communion services as viable alternatives to celebration with priests.”
Blair proposed that instead of publishing the text as a formal rite and seeking Vatican approval, the document simply be issued as a set of “guidelines” that bishop could adapt to their local situations as they see fit.
Blair compared the situation to the publication of the so-called “third rite” of penance, involving group absolution, which was published as an exceptional rite but which in some parts of the Catholic world has become widely practiced.
tBishop William Weigand of Sacramento echoed the concern, asking if it might be preferable to promote other forms of community prayer in the absence of a priest, such as the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy will meet this evening, and could consider the possibility of issuing the new rite as a recommendation to bishops rather than as a formal liturgy to be submitted to Rome.