Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest

SCAPServing in the Diocese of Salt Lake City has opened my eyes to many challenges, especially the celebration of Sunday in the absence of a priest. Our mission diocese of 300,000 Catholics covers 84,889 square miles, has fewer than 50 priests, and is around 80% Hispanic. We have 48 parishes and 19 missions spread across the state. Of course, we also minister in a predominately Latter-Day Saint culture. These are interesting challenges for anyone in ministry, but especially for me just coming out of graduate school and diving into a whole new cultural experience. My previous experiences of teaching and campus ministry didn’t fully prepare me for this type of mission, but I continue to find strength in the Holy Spirit each day.

Coming from the Midwest, I had heard stories of clergy shortages and a service called “Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest,” but I did not know much about either subject. The most I ever heard about this ritual was that we “shouldn’t do it” and well, I am not sure having over 400 priests in my home diocese can be considered a shortage in light of my current experience.

Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest (SCAP) is a reality for our diocese whether I like or not. I certainly have been told I shouldn’t like it. I was not prepared to understand the complexity of the situation or even the structure of the ritual text in graduate school or in my previous ministerial experiences.

When I started this position, the diocese was preparing to implement the 2007 text. As our liturgical commission discussed the issues and the pedagogy for training leaders, I sat in awe at the various issues I had never even considered.  These issues ranged from poor catechesis (or the lack of catechesis) to fear that people would leave for the LDS Church, to fears of young people losing the faith and tradition of the community. Many argued, “We can’t get rid of the entrance procession because our young people won’t know how to serve when Father comes” or “if it doesn’t look like Mass our kids will be confused with the responses when Father comes.” These are simple, but real concerns for our missions which have few resources and little expertise.

I quickly had to learn more about this service in order to help prepare over 50 lay leaders. I soon realized what a daunting task this was going to be and naïvely moved forward. Then, in the summer of 2009, before we implemented the 2007 text, I had the opportunity to lead four SCAP services in four of our missions. Each place I traveled had between 30 and 50 people who faithfully attended. As I led these assemblies in Sunday Prayer, I became aware that they didn’t even know the ritual. They were unfamiliar with the responses, the Act of Thanksgiving, and most importantly that this wasn’t Eucharist. They also didn’t realize there were options in the ritual for the celebration of Morning or Evening Prayer. I was stunned! How can these places who primarily celebrate SCAP not know the ritual? It seemed they were only concerned about receiving Holy Communion and that the younger generations knew the responses to Mass. Certainly these are good thoughts and I’d bet there’s something deeper happening there that they may not even be able to name. What I did learn from these communities is that they are faith-filled people who long for a deep communion with Christ. I learned that in these times of hardship they longed to gather, whether out of duty or love, to keep the “family” together. I learned that even though they didn’t have resources, like musicians, they still attempted to sing and sang with confidence.

I left these services disliking them even more, but realizing their importance to nurture the faith in these small and humble communities. As the liturgical commission finalized some plans for the training, we decided to focus on Morning/Evening Prayer as the primary liturgy for SCAP services in our diocese. This was a shock to many of the people and our deacons. Nothing has been forced on these communities, but all our training is helping prepare our lay leaders to go back to the missions and teach the community about the Liturgy of the Hours, Psalmody, the importance of the Word proclaimed, and singing. It’s not a well-tuned instrument yet, but we continue to learn on the job the best way to serve those who lead SCAP, and especially our communities who celebrate SCAP. We continue to catechize on the Eucharistic Liturgy and the Liturgy of the Hours so people understand their roles in the liturgical life of the Church. I continue to ponder how I can best serve these communities with the resources I have available. I also wonder how willing some of these communities are to participate in ongoing formation. I guess we will discover that as we continue the struggle of implementation.

One of my fears, which I haven’t thought through too much, is that SCAP services with distribution of Holy Communion can lead to the reification and privatization of Communion. There is a sense that one must “get” communion at these services and if they don’t, somehow their gathering was in vain. A goal we have as a commission is to help people reclaim the Church’s rich Eucharistic teaching. We need to help people understand that what happens at SCAP isn’t Eucharist and that Eucharist invites and challenges us to action.

Obviously, these few comments are just a terse look at a real pastoral dilemma. There are no easy solutions, but I do think teaching these communities to gather for the Liturgy of the Hours is a start to helping them understand liturgical prayer. I also think our beginning efforts to recatechize about the Eucharistic liturgy are crucial so that Holy Communion doesn’t become merely an object to be obtained, but an encounter with the Risen Christ who nourishes us and invites us to deep communion, and challenges us to proclaim the Good News of Salvation.

Two final thoughts:

  1. How will the new Missal be received in parishes that rarely celebrate Eucharist?
  2. Will there need to be a third edition of the SCAP ritual since the current Prayers for the Day come from the current Sacramentary?

I am convinced we need to help people learn the liturgy of the hours and pray them well.

I’d be curious to hear about some of your pastoral situations, methods of catechizing, fears, successes, questions, etc.

Timothy Johnston


  1. Timothy
    To answer your question 1, if Mass is that seldom, I think it will be welcomed regardless and people may not even notice as much as those used to enjoying the benefit of weekly Sunday Mass.
    I fully agree that one can worship without receiving Holy Communion each time. If I have not fasted before going to Mass for any reason, I will make a spiritual Communion instead.
    We have a church here in LA that has a weekly lay led Communion Service each Saturday even though they have priests to say Mass every other day of the week. Now there’s an abuse for you.

  2. I have to admit I have never encountered this service, nor do I personally know of congregations that use it, and thus count myself and them blessed.

    The questions you raise by way of illustration are indeed serious and worth engaging, but my lack of experience on this point make me prone to listen first.

  3. Timothy,

    Interesting and thought-provoking reflection. I have not had experience with this liturgy either. At my parish in Kansas City, they had a communion service on Thursdays. I don’t know what they used as the framework for it, but I do know that it was an enriching experience for those who participated.

    Catechesis is, as you know, essential. If people don’t know why they’re using SCAP or understand how it’s different from the Mass, that’s problematic. It sounds like you’ve had good response from people who want to lead the service. By teaching them well, other people will “get it.” Do the leaders serve as catechetical leaders? Do they explain the ritual? Are people interested in that?

    I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts on the new missal and how you see it impacting your diocese. What challenges do you foresee? What opportunities for growth and development?

    Thanks for sharing your words and experiences.

  4. Timothy, is this ritual similar to the Ritual for Lay Presiders used in Western Canada in the 1980s? I found that one tried a little too hard to do and be everything BUT the consecration. I haven’t had to use SCAP, but I’m a little pensive about throwing the baby out with the bath water. If the ritual is cumbersome, and people don’t know the acclamations, is it really better not to receive communion at all? Must SCAP be used in preference to Holy Communion Outside of Mass, for example, which is a slender ordo but perfectly servicable?

    1. Rita,
      I am not familiar with the Canadian book, but this revised text was trying to get away from the service looking and acting like Mass. Oddly enough, it changed many acclamations so it wouldn’t sound like Mass. For example no more “The Lord be with you and Also with you.” This is why many have troubles. No catechesis had been done.

      SCAP is to be used on Sunday’s if the bishop allows it. There are some diocese, I’ve heard, where the Bishop has moved to Lit of Hours. The SCAP book provides 3 services, which can include distribution of Holy Communion. Of the three options two are Morning and Evening Prayer. It also allows for the full Liturgy of the Word from Sunday to be celebrated. The ritual, I think, tries too hard to combine too many elements.

      The ritual for Holy Communion Outside Mass, is used for daily communion services, but this too is being revised. With its revisions it will be in line with the language and format of a SCAP. At least that’s what I’ve been…

  5. Just to clarify, I think there is good reason for bringing communion to people outside of Mass (as it says in Eurcharistic Worship Outside Mass, 14-15), and it is especially valuable to keep the connection between Eucharist and Sunday in the rhythm of the week. I have absolutely nothing against Morning Prayer or the Hours, but (A) you cannot have the same riches of the lectionary, and (B) communion is a sharing in the banquet, and it is the Lord in a unique way. The reactions I have heard against communion services have seemed to me to be proxy fights over ordination; I wonder if the sacrament isn’t held as secondary to Holy Orders if you withhold it. I’m sure a lot of thought and good discussion went into this, but these are my questions.

    1. These are good reflections. I will clarify and say that even though we are encouraging the Liturgy of the Hours we haven’t said the distribution of communion must be stopped. There may be some scenarios where communion wouldn’t be able to be shared. In one of our larger parishes in the city we have a pastor who is quite ill and often doesn’t show up for Sunday Eucharist. In these cases, there aren’t enough host reserved for everyone to receive. We do encourage in these situations to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word (3rd option).

      A good thing for us is that many of our lay people are taking interest in preparing themselves for this type of ministry because they are aware of our priest-shortage. We do have several deacons who travel and celebrate SCAP, but that can be very demanding so we certainly need to train the loca people to be ready for any scenario.

  6. Here’s Redemptionis Sacramentum 165 (a document I don’t normally quote):

    “It is necessary to avoid any sort of confusion between this type of gathering and the celebration of the Eucharist.[271] The diocesan Bishops, therefore, should prudently discern whether Holy Communion ought to be distributed in these gatherings. The matter would appropriately be determined in view of a more ample co-ordination in the Bishops’ Conference, to be put into effect after the recognitio of the acts by the Apostolic See through the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. It will be preferable, moreover, when both a Priest and a Deacon are absent, that the various parts be distributed among several faithful rather than having a single lay member of the faithful direct the whole celebration alone. Nor is it ever appropriate to refer to any member of the lay faithful as “presiding” over the celebration.”

    1. Paul, thanks for the last line. We had long discussions about the word “presider.” I catch myself all the time refering to anyone who leads prayer a presider. It’s sort of become a joke at workshops. I found in the office an old video from Liturgical Press with Sr. Kathleen Hughes and it was all about “presiding.” It was a good video for some basic theology about leading prayer. I have mixed feelings about the word. I am not sure I am convinced we shouldn’t use it for lay leaders.

      1. Tim, in my diocese we refer to them as “leaders” rather than presiders. I can’t remember if US SCAP does this, but our guidelines also say that the presider’s chair is not used, but another chair instead, and the altar is not used but another table covered with a white cloth. All this to avoid confusion with Eucharist. (“I much prefer Sister’s Mass to Father’s Mass”, etc.)

        We had also, several years before RS, been promoting team leadership for these celebrations: a leader, a reader, and a minister of Communion as a minimum (ideally a musician as well). The choreography of several people working as a team has certainly made an impression on the people.

      2. Paul, we are trying to use lay leaders of prayer because it’s consistent with our catechetical office. The US SCAP book does make this distinction. The US SCAP encourages both deacon and lay person to sit in the front pew or some other chair outside the sanctuary (if I am remembering correctly). I’ve not heard of using a different table.

  7. And now para 166 of the same document:

    “Likewise, especially if Holy Communion is distributed during such celebrations, the diocesan Bishop, to whose exclusive competence this matter pertains, must not easily grant permission for such celebrations to be held on weekdays, especially in places where it was possible or would be possible to have the celebration of Mass on the preceding or the following Sunday. Priests are therefore earnestly requested to celebrate Mass daily for the people in one of the churches entrusted to their care.”

    Both of these seem to me to be pointing towards the centrality of Sunday Eucharist, rather than to the “getting Communion” mentality which Ed Foley spoke so eloquently about at FDLC several years ago. I’m paraphrasing, but one of his premises was that we have become a Communion-fixated instead of a Eucharist-centered people.

    His main premise was that the fruits of Communion received outside Mass are not the same as those from Communion received during Mass.

  8. Paul, do you quote approvingly here? RS seems to me to be particularly neuralgic over Holy Orders, and would sooner nobody received communion at all, ever, than have a lay person–God forbid, a woman!–leading prayer. I question the wisdom of it. I think it’s short-sighted, paranoid, sad.

    1. I think these paragraphs are meant to avoid confusion over the ministerial priesthood. There is no substitute for a priest, the way there is for a Lector or an Acolyte, for example. A layperson at the altar cannot “do Eucharist”, or however you would say it.

      As for “Communion-fixated”, I think that speaks to a mentality that you go to Mass to eat Communion. Some people have no interest in going to church if it’s for something other than eating Communion. They won’t go to the Liturgy of the Hours celebrated in common, they won’t go to a Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration (who worships bread?!), etc. They just want to go to eat Communion. It doesn’t matter if it’s Mass or not – if there’s Communion to be eaten, that’s what matters.

      Some people don’t know what the difference between Mass (i.e. the Eucharistic Sacrifice) and Holy Communion is.

  9. Well, “communion fixated” sounds like name-calling to me. I dont’ know if it’s a fixation to desire Communion if you desire Eucharist as well, but can’t get to one!

  10. Rita: as I said, I don’t normally quote this document with approval at all, but just here it seems to me to be espousing some values which are fully in line with Foley’s theology three years before.

    I agree with you about the Holy Orders neuralgia.

    What is really interesting is the way in which (unusually) this document was sent out for consultation to the world’s bishops. (Remember the rumor mill? This document was going to ban liturgical dance. In the end, there was no mention of it in it.) The world’s bishops came back saying “You simply can’t do this. Write this instead.”

    What then happened was typically Roman: rather than admit that they were wrong, the drafters of the document left it more or less exactly as it was, but added many of the points that the bishops had made alongside the ones that the bishops had wanted deleted! That is why RS is an intriguing mixture of good and bad, full of internal contradictions….

  11. The great abuse about many of these services is not the services themselves but how and when they are used. There is absolutely no reason for SCAP to be used in a diocese where there is Sunday Mass being celebrated in many locations that people could get to. There is no reason for this to be used on a weekday in a parish that has regular Sunday Mass (say for a priest’s day off) and even less reason to use it the same day as a celebrated Mass (as in we are keeping the 9am Mass but turning the 7am into the “deacon’s communion service”)! The name of the ritual says it all: SUNDAY (as in not weekdays) celebration in ABSENCE (as in the real absence of a priest, in a situation like that described by the author, not a priest’s day off).

  12. In my diocese, Sunday celebrations have been banned for several years now, except in cases of emergency (e.g. when a congregation has assembled and the priest is taken ill or has an accident at the last minute). This change, which is part of the diocesan pastoral plan, was to prevent situations such as one parish where the priest would celebrate one Mass and then go off and cover for a priest in another parish, leaving the second Mass in his own parish to become a SCAP service.

    In line with RS 166, we are gently trying to discourage these services on weekdays too, and promote celebrations of the Divine Office without the reception of Communion, incorporating the scriptures from the Lectionary of the day, thus ensuring communion with the wider Church.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *