Serving 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:
- How will the new Missal be received in parishes that rarely celebrate Eucharist?
- 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.