The National Catholic Review

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 Servicewhat 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 omissionand it is true that in many parishes across the United States, the Mass continues to be celebrated without any exceptionsthe 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 ageone 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.

Peter Kountz is on an academic sabbatical for the 2004-5 school year from the Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Comments

Rev. Leonard F Villa | 10/7/2004 - 9:24pm
I would like to make two points about Peter Kountz's article on Priestless Liturgies. The first is that the term "eucharistic minister" is reserved to bishops and priests. This is taught and insisted on by the recent teaching from the Holy See in Redemptionis Sacramentum.

Second as a priest and pastor, the use of presider as a synonym for priest doesn't take in the entire reality of the priesthood. It's a less inclusive term. The title of the article was about priestless liturgies which is a crisis deeper than having a shortage of presiders: Christ's sacrifice of the cross is becoming more and more unavailable to the faithful.

Paul Lakeland | 10/5/2004 - 1:59pm
I agree with Peter Kountz (Priestless Liturgies) that the shortage of priests in the U.S. is a moment of opportunity for examining the roles of laypeople in the church. On the whole, however, I think it is the wrong approach to invest any creativity whatsoever in developing paraliturgies that suggest that something other than the Eucharist suffices. While it would be hard at the present time to get laypeople just to step up to the altar when a priest is unavailable (though not theologically unacceptable, given the reality of the baptism priesthood), the fundamental question to ask is: what course of action will more quickly lead the institutional church to address the central problem, how to re-think ministry so that "a shortage of priests" is never again going to be possible?
Terry J Bolduc | 11/1/2004 - 2:59pm
THE YEAR OF THE EUCHARIST – Accept no substitutes “Ask who the Eucharist is, not what the Eucharist is.” Auxiliary Bishop Patrick J. Zurek of San Antonio, TX is quoted in The Catholic Sun, Oct 21, that Pope John Paul II’s envoy, Cardinal Jozef Tomko’s focus for the Oct 10th opening Mass of the 48th International Eucharistic Congress is an ‘amazing phrase!’ I truly am amazed! And suspicious! Are we being encouraged to greater devotion to Eucharistic adoration because of the increasing shortage of priests to preside at the Eucharistic Liturgy?

I was also amazed and dismayed by the recent article by Peter Kountz: PRIESTLESS LITURGIES (America magazine, 10/11/04). He tells us that we have the “opportunity to think differently about the present and the future of the American Catholic Church and its liturgy”. I don’t want any part of what I see as these two ‘bait and switch’ opportunities! The Sunday Eucharistic liturgy most amazingly does not become more ours and thus more new and vital! The community is deprived of its very LIFE, -of the vitality of the Eucharistic Prayers, -of our right to give God thanks and praise, -of the Mass. If I ever were to preside at a Liturgical celebration in the absence of a priest, I would voice our profound lament that we are in the absence of what is central to the Catholic life, of Doing Eucharist.

When the bishops convene their 2005 Synod on Eucharist I pray that they will confront this implication of who/what Eucharist is. Will they hear the voices of the People of God urgently, faithfully, expectantly reminding them that The Eucharist is the action of the assembly of the faithful, with their priest, gathered together with Christ, to offer praise and thanksgiving to God? Accept no substitutes.

(Deacon) Donald G. Crawford | 10/7/2004 - 8:41pm
It is interesting that this subject was also addressed in the September 2004 issue of Ministry and Liturgy by (Rev.) William C. Graham in his article "Sunday Celebrations in the PRESENCE of a Priest." He suggested that Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest is even more radical than what Martin Luther had in mind as he presented his 95 theses. He also suggested that the bishops who implement this procedure are "a more liberal and dangerous group...than any on the horizon, seemingly ready to sacrifice the sacramental life of the assembly as they prepare to protestant-ize the church in a way that did not occur to Luther."

I think this is precisely the problem with SCAP; by implementing this form of worship, we risk destroying the sacramental character of the Catholic Church. (See "The Dilemma of Priestless Sundays" by (Rev.) James Dallen.) (Rev.) J-Glenn Murray, S.J., points out in his video on the Mass that we should LAMENT the absence of the great Eucharistic Prayer in our Sunday worship. Catholics do Eucharist on Sunday!

We need to find ways to deal with the decreasing number of available priests and to use other forms of worship (like the Liturgy of the Hours) on a daily basis, where necessary.

Robert P. Burke | 10/6/2004 - 11:03am
What continues to puzzle me is the desire to have a thrown-together service with a layperson as leader to substitute when there is no priest available.

The church has long had part of its official daily worship that does not require an ordained person. The Liturgy of the Hours -- or, for a parish facing the lack of a priest, Morning or Evening Prayer -- is not a concocted substitute for Mass. Laypeople have led this worship for centuries, such as in convents. It is very much part of our tradition, even though few of our grandparents ever saw it handed down to them.

Yes, it hurts when Mass isn't available, especially on a Sunday. But papering it over with an un-Mass, when we can use a deeply spiritual liturgy that is part of our very tradition, is no solution.

We won't see an end to the systemic causes of the shortage of clergy -- like mandatory celibacy for cradle Catholics while at the same time permitting ordination of married Protestant converts -- without a real crisis. When a wealthy parish has but one or two Masses on a weekend because it has to share its priest, maybe we'll see action.

Rebecca Shaeffer | 2/19/2007 - 6:08pm
I felt a strange excitement upon reading “Priestless Liturgies,” by Peter Kountz, (10/11)—a confusing reaction to have about the crisis in vocations in the American Catholic Church. The dropoff in vocations is evidence of the church’s failure to communicate itself in a contemporary American community. Lack of dialogue and misunderstanding between church hierarchy and laypeople (particularly regarding sexual abuse, sexual life in general and the role of women) has left many American Catholics feeling alienated from their church, leading, I believe, directly to the shortage of priests we currently experience. But miraculously, the disease contains the seeds of its own healing. The resulting shortage, as Mr. Kountz so faithfully explains, offers room at last for the laity to claim their rightful place as stewards of their church. I would like to see further articles exploring the possibilities for women to offer their unique gifts in the new space opened by this crisis. It strengthens my faith to see God’s healing grace move through the church even in the midst what looks like crisis. I am grateful to America for its prophetic voice in recognizing the new life and grace of the church that is even now growing through the cracks of the trauma, fear and woundedness of our past.

Thomas E. Clarke, S.J. | 2/19/2007 - 5:48pm
Thanks to Peter Kountz for “Priestless Liturgies” (10/11). He has demonstrated that there is an alternative to sterile lament over “priestless parishes.” His article lists several opportunities opened up by the new Liturgy of the Word With Communion Service. I would add a few more possibilities.

One is the reform and integration of formation for all liturgical and pastoral ministries. The isolated Tridentine seminary has had its day. Where lay ministers for the new rite and future ones (not only leaders/presiders but lectors, homilists, Eucharistic ministers and others) as well as for pastoral and evangelizing roles are formed side by side with candidates for diaconal and priestly offices, the lay/clerical gap will be narrowed.

Another is a theological and pastoral rethinking of what distinguishes the Mass from this new liturgical form as it develops. How important is it that the hosts received in the new rite have been consecrated elsewhere in the diocese? Is the new rite not truly eucharistic through the real presence, as this has been redefined by the Second Vatican Council?

Also needed is a creative and effective address of the “priest shortage.” With the decline of the traditional, devout Catholic family and of parochial school systems as two basic seedbeds of priestly vocations, could it not be that the vibrant local communities envisaged by Peter Kountz might step into the breech? Priests emerging from such faith communities would in a fuller sense be “our priests.”

Finally, as things develop, two minor hopes: that we no longer speak of “the priest’s chair” but of the presider’s chair; and that appropriate liturgical garb be found for all the ministers of the rite. After all, they have all been anointed with sacred chrism in baptism and again in confirmation.

Rev. Leonard F Villa | 10/7/2004 - 9:24pm
I would like to make two points about Peter Kountz's article on Priestless Liturgies. The first is that the term "eucharistic minister" is reserved to bishops and priests. This is taught and insisted on by the recent teaching from the Holy See in Redemptionis Sacramentum.

Second as a priest and pastor, the use of presider as a synonym for priest doesn't take in the entire reality of the priesthood. It's a less inclusive term. The title of the article was about priestless liturgies which is a crisis deeper than having a shortage of presiders: Christ's sacrifice of the cross is becoming more and more unavailable to the faithful.

Paul Lakeland | 10/5/2004 - 1:59pm
I agree with Peter Kountz (Priestless Liturgies) that the shortage of priests in the U.S. is a moment of opportunity for examining the roles of laypeople in the church. On the whole, however, I think it is the wrong approach to invest any creativity whatsoever in developing paraliturgies that suggest that something other than the Eucharist suffices. While it would be hard at the present time to get laypeople just to step up to the altar when a priest is unavailable (though not theologically unacceptable, given the reality of the baptism priesthood), the fundamental question to ask is: what course of action will more quickly lead the institutional church to address the central problem, how to re-think ministry so that "a shortage of priests" is never again going to be possible?
Terry J Bolduc | 11/1/2004 - 2:59pm
THE YEAR OF THE EUCHARIST – Accept no substitutes “Ask who the Eucharist is, not what the Eucharist is.” Auxiliary Bishop Patrick J. Zurek of San Antonio, TX is quoted in The Catholic Sun, Oct 21, that Pope John Paul II’s envoy, Cardinal Jozef Tomko’s focus for the Oct 10th opening Mass of the 48th International Eucharistic Congress is an ‘amazing phrase!’ I truly am amazed! And suspicious! Are we being encouraged to greater devotion to Eucharistic adoration because of the increasing shortage of priests to preside at the Eucharistic Liturgy?

I was also amazed and dismayed by the recent article by Peter Kountz: PRIESTLESS LITURGIES (America magazine, 10/11/04). He tells us that we have the “opportunity to think differently about the present and the future of the American Catholic Church and its liturgy”. I don’t want any part of what I see as these two ‘bait and switch’ opportunities! The Sunday Eucharistic liturgy most amazingly does not become more ours and thus more new and vital! The community is deprived of its very LIFE, -of the vitality of the Eucharistic Prayers, -of our right to give God thanks and praise, -of the Mass. If I ever were to preside at a Liturgical celebration in the absence of a priest, I would voice our profound lament that we are in the absence of what is central to the Catholic life, of Doing Eucharist.

When the bishops convene their 2005 Synod on Eucharist I pray that they will confront this implication of who/what Eucharist is. Will they hear the voices of the People of God urgently, faithfully, expectantly reminding them that The Eucharist is the action of the assembly of the faithful, with their priest, gathered together with Christ, to offer praise and thanksgiving to God? Accept no substitutes.

(Deacon) Donald G. Crawford | 10/7/2004 - 8:41pm
It is interesting that this subject was also addressed in the September 2004 issue of Ministry and Liturgy by (Rev.) William C. Graham in his article "Sunday Celebrations in the PRESENCE of a Priest." He suggested that Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest is even more radical than what Martin Luther had in mind as he presented his 95 theses. He also suggested that the bishops who implement this procedure are "a more liberal and dangerous group...than any on the horizon, seemingly ready to sacrifice the sacramental life of the assembly as they prepare to protestant-ize the church in a way that did not occur to Luther."

I think this is precisely the problem with SCAP; by implementing this form of worship, we risk destroying the sacramental character of the Catholic Church. (See "The Dilemma of Priestless Sundays" by (Rev.) James Dallen.) (Rev.) J-Glenn Murray, S.J., points out in his video on the Mass that we should LAMENT the absence of the great Eucharistic Prayer in our Sunday worship. Catholics do Eucharist on Sunday!

We need to find ways to deal with the decreasing number of available priests and to use other forms of worship (like the Liturgy of the Hours) on a daily basis, where necessary.

Robert P. Burke | 10/6/2004 - 11:03am
What continues to puzzle me is the desire to have a thrown-together service with a layperson as leader to substitute when there is no priest available.

The church has long had part of its official daily worship that does not require an ordained person. The Liturgy of the Hours -- or, for a parish facing the lack of a priest, Morning or Evening Prayer -- is not a concocted substitute for Mass. Laypeople have led this worship for centuries, such as in convents. It is very much part of our tradition, even though few of our grandparents ever saw it handed down to them.

Yes, it hurts when Mass isn't available, especially on a Sunday. But papering it over with an un-Mass, when we can use a deeply spiritual liturgy that is part of our very tradition, is no solution.

We won't see an end to the systemic causes of the shortage of clergy -- like mandatory celibacy for cradle Catholics while at the same time permitting ordination of married Protestant converts -- without a real crisis. When a wealthy parish has but one or two Masses on a weekend because it has to share its priest, maybe we'll see action.