ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
27. It is to be stressed that whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.
This applies with especial force to the celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments, even though every Mass has of itself a public and social nature.
Paragraph 27 addresses a basic principle—the public nature of sacraments and full participation of the baptized—at a time when the concept of actual lay participation was not generally appreciated. In 1963 the faithful “attended” Mass, and on occasion the Mass was offered without the faithful, the “private Mass” I discussed earlier in this thread. In my opinion, a precise catechesis of how Catholics participate at Mass in 2017 is still waiting to be written. In A Church with Open Doors (2015) Edward P. Hahnenberg (159ff) provides an interesting analysis of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Mass, observing that they are written in the first-person plural, “We,” an inclusion of the entire gathered assembly. But posture (kneeling), architecture (distance), and virtuoso choirs (performance) among other things tend to signal a generally passive role for non-clerics.
Hahnenberg, continuing the thought, makes an intriguing argument that the Church does not employ social sciences to explore what actually happens in parochial life. His point of study is lay ministry, noting that none of the roles we see in parishes, such as DRE’s, ministers of music, parish administrators, etc., were prescribed by Vatican II and developed spontaneously, under the very general rubric of the importance of the laity. This presents a rather serious ecclesiological dilemma as we progress into this century. American bishops have approved (by necessity, mostly) the appointment of lay or religious leaders to canonical leadership of parishes. I believe there are approximately 4000 such parishes in the U.S. if my memory of CARA data is correct.
The difficulty is that for many centuries—and even today—a parish is, and should, be identified as an assembly around the Eucharistic table. While the bishops have issued a rite for the observance of Sunday without an ordained priest, A priest-less parish, one without the celebration of Eucharist, flies in the face of theological and pastoral tradition of long-standing. This set of circumstances has led to a new line of thinking from the grassroots of the Church—why not ordain these appointed parochial leaders? It may be surprising that there is some precedent for this. Monasteries are brotherhoods; not every monk is a priest. Rather, some monks are ordained to the priesthood precisely to lead the community in Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick. In addition, as many monasteries serve as retreat houses, priests are needed for confessions, spiritual guidance, conferences, etc.
[I need to interject here that some of the newer parochial arrangements have not exactly percolated everyone’s ecclesiological consciousness. A few years ago, Margaret and I vacationed in Glacier National Park, and the closest church was St. Mary’s, on U.S. 89 near the East Gate. This church was one of six networked in rural Montana, and as it happened, there was no Mass, but a Sunday Word service with distribution of communion. Our leader was a deacon, a Native American ordained deacon with a pony tail and an earring. He arrived by car with the Eucharist and his guitar, with which he led us in some worship ditties. He read the Sunday readings and then distributed communion.
As it happened, Margaret and I decided to hike through the remaining snow (July!) to visit an obscure glacier. As we waited for a shuttle boat to transport us back to our cars, we met a couple who had been with us in church that morning. The wife said to Margaret, “That was the first time I ever went to Mass where the priest wore an earring.”]
The needs of small churches, and the ways they are addressing their leadership sustenance, have led bishops in turn to a variety of sacramental strategies. The most common is the “consolidation” of parishes; I have been following this trend for about 25 years and its only real advantages are postponing the day when priests are truly rare, and saving a region’s Catholic school. Another strategy has been the outright closing of parishes, where the number of worshippers simply does not justify the expense of the operation. Church closings are the cause of much weeping and gnashing of teeth, usually with more than a touch of nostalgic grief, and a chronic indifference of the membership to five and ten-year financial projections.
The one solution no bishop has ever put forward is the idea of ordaining the de facto leaders of a priest-less community. Wait, I stand corrected. Pope Francis has initiated a study of the possibility of ordaining women deacons, but in practice it would not change the central question of a local church’s identity around the Sunday Eucharist and its celebrant.
The Council’s emphasis upon the centrality of the Mass and the importance of full participation—however this is achieved in the next century or two-is treated differently today than it was at the time of its promulgation in 1963. Para. 27 states “this way of celebrating them [sacraments] is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.” The reference here is most pointedly directed at the practice of private Mass or a Mass celebrated for a “special group.” [True story: I received a call late on a Sunday afternoon from several out-of-town golfers who offered to pay me handsomely--$100 or more, in the early 1980’s--if I would offer a quick Mass in one of their hotel rooms.]
However, in the documentation that followed Vatican II, provision was made for the celebration of almost all the sacraments to take place in conjunction with the Eucharist. Baptisms and Confirmations, for example, occur routinely within a full gathering of the parish assembly. The one exception is the Sacrament of Penance, which we think of as the most private of sacraments. Even here the Church has made provision for public forgiveness of private sin. The Penitential Rite of the Mass, for example, is an actual rite of forgiveness of venial sins. The ritual of the Rite of Penance makes provision for three formats of forgiveness. The first is a reformed version of the confessional format. The second is a “Penance Service,” where all the parts of the Sacrament of Penance are done in common except the act of confessing personal sins to one of the priest confessors present. Parishes commonly hold such services during Advent and Lent.
The third format follows the second, except that there is no private confession of sin due to large numbers in attendance, and the celebrant extends “general absolution” of moral and venial sin to those properly disposed. There has been a lot of confusion about the General Absolution format; Pope John Paul II clearly opposed it when used in non-emergency situations; today I am not aware of parishes who offer this third option, the general wisdom being that personal confession to a priest better effects the sacramental intention of guilt and forgiveness. My contemporaries and I used the “formula three” format in the 1970’s and 1980’s; the rite was immensely popular at the time but perhaps it was light on the experiential side of the sacrament. Its advocates countered that the sign of an entire parish receiving forgiveness together was a profound outward sign of the sacrament. But this argument has not carried weight with Rome.