During the Lent-Easter season this year, America published a series of articles under the heading Good Liturgy. The series focused on themes central to the current Catholic liturgy, including the role and place of the assembly, presiders, deacons, lectors, eucharistic ministers, music ministers, parish liturgical councils and ministers of hospitality. As informative as the series was, one could not help but notice the absence of an article on what is referred to officially as a Liturgy of the Word With Communion Service - what people in our parish have come to call the priestless liturgy, a liturgy led by a lay person, a nonordained religious or a deacon and that is conducted on certain days instead of Mass. Whatever the nature of the omission - and it is true that in many parishes across the United States, the Mass continues to be celebrated without any exceptions - the fact is that in many American dioceses today, such liturgies are commonplace, especially on weekdays. I speak from experience here. I am one of those lay persons who has had the privilege of leading this new liturgy.
Liturgical celebrations in the absence of a priest occur because there are not enough priests to preside at Masses at all active parishes. This is because of an aging presbyterate and fewer new vocations. In the Archdiocese of Boston, for example, 130 of the pastors of Boston’s 357 parishes are over 70 years of age - one of the reasons Archbishop Sean O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., gave for the recent announcement that 70 of Boston’s parishes will be closed within the next six months. The pressing reality is that in the United States there are presently, and will continue to be, fewer priests to serve the needs of active Catholics.
But the American Catholic Church has an unusual opportunity, which comes with the crisis of the shortage of priests and the emergence of the new Liturgy of the Word With Communion Service. This unusual opportunity has a number of elements.
Shared ownership and responsibility. In the first of the 10 America articles in the Good Liturgy series (3/1), the Rev. Robert Duggan writes of the challenge of helping his congregation overcome a legacy of passivity and the notion that it’s Father’s Mass, not ours.’ Now that Father is not here to celebrate and we are on our own, there comes an opportunity for a new sense of ownership and responsibility for the assembly. The opportunity here is to become full and more active members of the assembly at the same time that we accept more responsibility for it.
New liturgical forms. What is now apparent is that the daily service that was once daily Mass is becoming, with the presence of nonordained liturgical leaders/presiders, something quite different. This difference offers not only new ways to understand daily liturgy but also the opportunity to consider the daily liturgy itself as something new to be experienced, a liturgical form that is not a Mass but also not a Communion service. Whether we want it or not, the liturgy is becoming more ours and, thus, more ours to make new and more vital.
Developing the new forms and reimagining the role of the leader/presider. In the priestless liturgy, the role of the leader/presider, by necessity, takes a different form and content. First, there are no vestments, except that a deacon wears an alb and a stole. Second, the leader physically positions himself/herself very differently, oftentimes to the side of the altar instead of in the middle; the priest’s chair is not used (and should not be used)all this to suggest that the leader is different from the priest. Third, with respect to the Eucharist itself, the leader functions more as a eucharistic minister, since there is no Liturgy of the Eucharist, which is a part of the Mass. Fourth, the priestless liturgy offers much more flexibility with respect to optional prayers, a flexibility that brings wonderful new possible prayer texts for liturgical use. Finally, the priestless liturgy offers new paradigms for preaching, as daily liturgies invite brief homilies from the leaders.
Preaching. In the second of America’s articles on Good Liturgy, Presiding at the Liturgy of the Word, John Baldovin, S.J., writes about the need for preachers to be interesting person[s]. Preachers need to read (fiction, non-fiction and poetry); they need to go to movies and concerts and watch television; they need to listen to music of many sorts. In other words, they need to be thoroughly engaged both in reflection on Scripture and theology and in the culture in which they live. They should have something significant to say (Am., 03/8/04). The opportunity presented by the priestless liturgy is that those nonordained people who preside and preach (academics, teachers, writers, artists, parents, retirees, social service and mental health professionals, women religious) can embody the ideal described by Father Baldovin and offer new and different ways of thinking about and living everyday life in the light of God’s word and presence.
Discernment. As priestless liturgies become more common (in many American dioceses they are already a daily occurrence), there comes the opportunity to think differently about the present and the future of the American Catholic Church and its liturgy. Real discernment can lead us to see the extraordinary opportunity here. When I am directly responsible for a daily liturgy for the church and given the privilege and responsibility of leading it, my view of the church is very different. All of a sudden it seems the rules have changed radically. Now, in a real sense, it is truly my church, a church for whose liturgy I am directly responsible and for whose assembled members I have become a leader.
The American Catholic Church is in a critical period of transition, a period in which the question is not simply about what to do with our liturgies but, more important, a matter of what do we do and how do we live our churchly life? Any number of practices, observances, assumptions and organizational structures have already changed and will continue to change, because there are and will continue to be fewer priests and because the church has no choice but to find new ways of thinking and acting with respect to its place in the everyday lives of its people. A Liturgy of the Word With Communion Service is a prime example of such a change.
The lessons of the Second Vatican Council and of ecumenism have taught the American Catholic Church about the priesthood of all believers and the universal priesthood, but this does not mean that either the hierarchy or the laity have fully understood the implications of such a theology. Now a fuller expression of the universal priesthood is upon us, and we have the grace-filled opportunity to build new liturgical models and paradigms.