Non solum: Priest Has to Leave Mass Early to Get to His Next Mass

Pray Tell is passionately interested in interested in questions of worship in increasingly secularized socities, and constructive responses to challenging issues around the decline of organized religion. A key aspect of that for Roman Catholics is the clergy shortage. This week’s question from a Pray Tell reader addresses is an example of the new questions now arising.

As the number of priests in our diocese continues to shrink, there are times when the priest leaves through the sacristy after the final blessing and dismissal but before the last song, in order to get to a neighboring parish to celebrate Sunday Mass there.

On such occasions, the acolytes usually do a procession by themselves – cross and candles.  What sort of instruction might be given concerning this practice?

What would you say about this situation? And what other issues are raised for you when priests race from one Sunday Mass to another?


  1. One could have a congregational postlude, as it were. Seems very odd to have acolytes doing a procession in a different direction from the priest (ideally, they would reverence the altar simultaneously, and leave with him to the sacristy). But if the idea is that procession is designed to keep people from leaving the pews until the song is done, it seems to be a tail-wagging-dog issue.

    If this is, as it seems, a chronic situation, it would seem a better approach for the long term would be to consider modifying the Mass times for all the parishes involved. Yes, the very hell of hells on earth, I know. Oh, the humanity! To change Mass times is to trigger the end of the world as we know it. The priest ought to have time to offer thanksgiving after Mass and to prepare for the next Mass properly, just as the congregations would have the time (if they knew it and used it), lest Mass simply be reduced to a task of doing.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Agreed – the ministers should simply process to the sacristy with the priest. Though not common in these USofA, I have encountered direct-from-and/or-to-the-sacristy processions as standard practice elsewhere, such as the Dom St. Jakob in Innsbruck (perhaps Liborius could verify whether this is still the norm).

    2. Aaron Sanders at #3:

      I see absolutely nothing wrong with a priest exiting through the sacristy doors immediately after Mass per Karl observation at #1. Even on Sundays, the priest has no obligation to shake hands or greet parishioners in the vestibule or on the church porch. His job is to offer the sacrament. Social courtesies are just that — courteous but not required. Personally, I offer the Sunday celebrant a stiff handshake and “Good Morning, Father”. If a person has a pastoral question, he or she should schedule an office hour and not attempt to engage the priest on this issue in the vestibule. The semiotics of the Mass itself should off enough intellectual satisfaction.

  2. Regardless of how you handle a priest-less closing procession, you will likely and soon face the problem of half the congregation receiving Communion and walking right out the door. If father can leave early, why not? They also have places to be.

    Is it really necessary to save five minutes? If he hits one additional red light on his way to the next church it could cost him that much time. And what will he do on Palm Sunday? Leave after the consecration and let a deacon handle the fraction rite?

    Perhaps you could take another look at the scheduling of Masses and move the next one 30 minutes or even 15 minutes later.

  3. I’m a bit confused by this post. I grew up in clustered parishes with only 1 priest and I’ve never seen this. The priest was certainly also able to greet parishioners after Mass. On occasion (aka Palm Sunday only) he *might* show up that the final Mass a few minutes later than he’d like, but they were understanding. In newly clustered parishes it may take a few months to figure out a newly-crafted Mass schedule, but it will happen, after 1-2 revisions.

    Two additional comments from the rural Pacific Northwest where I now am:
    * A friend of mine is the pastor of a 6-parish cluster. His final Mass, for a Hispanic community, is scheduled to begin at the same time the previous Mass is ending. Yet he always had time to socialize, drive 15 minutes, vest, and start Mass just when the Hispanic community was ready to begin Mass.
    * A local bishop may have to be accommodating with Mass schedule times. I know of 3 very different parish clusters where 4 archbishops in a row have allowed a regularly schedule (that is, weekly) Saturday morning Mass fulfill a Sunday obligation.

  4. Wait, wait, I’ve got the answer!

    He could livestream his homily to the next church, which they would then hear before the opening rite of their Mass.

    The time that would be saved could allow the priest to have a proper procession out when Mass is finished at church 1, then get to church 2. Entrance rites for Mass at church 2 would start 15 minutes later, but people don’t change their arrival time, which remains as usual so they can hear the homily. Father goes on to say Mass at church 2 without the homily (which they already saw earlier, so it’s out of the way). The sums come out perfectly at the end! No one spends an instant more in church, and no Mass times have to change!

    Sigh. In case you don’t know it, I am JOKING…

  5. Though the GIRM specifies nothing more than the kissing the altar by the priest and deacon and the profound bow by all ministers at the dismissal, the final procession is not about keeping the people in the pews after Communion. We lose something if the cross-bearer doesn’t go back down the aisle: the symbolism of the procession of the faithful following the Cross out into the world.

    1. @Joyce Donahue:
      Well, the liturgy doesn’t have such a conception for a final procession as such (it certainly doesn’t forbid the short route from sanctuary to sacristy – I have to say that was much more common in my younger decades (post-Vatican II) than in more recent ones). The concept reminds me of the many post-hoc symbolic interpretations given to moments in the preconciliar liturgy – nature abhors a vacuum in that regard, regardless of context. Anyway, I suspect it’s because the dismissal is the actual ritual moment, though we treat it as an afterthought. So, perhaps it’s time to recover the actual ritual moment.

  6. Yes– The GIRM specifies nothing more than the kissing the altar by the priest and deacon and the profound bow by all ministers at the dismissal — so why do we Americans insist on yet another song? If it’s not real, don’t do it!

  7. Clock-watching doesn’t make for good liturgy. In some parts of the world, Mass doesn’t start ‘on time’. It starts when the priest has arrived and the people have gathered (cf. GIRM, 47).

    As for a priestless recessional, I find this quite bizarre.

  8. I’ve done many baptism liturgies and don’t think I’ve ever had a procession nor music at the end. We just say, “Go in peace” or some such, and people sort of relax and start talking and taking pictures. It doesn’t really feel awkward. People get it.

    Regarding the priest in question: 95% of the time, the length of the mass is determined by the length of the homily. Could he preach a few minutes less and then leave by the customary way? If that’s not a possibility, then I agree that the servers and other ministers in the procession should just leave with the priest. Everyone else can sing as before.

  9. Yes have the servers leave to the sacristy with him.

    Take a look at the Mass times and maybe push one 30 minutes in another direction so Father can greet people as they leave Mass for at least a few minutes.

  10. This shouldn’t be a problem.
    Change the mass times. Some people may complain at first but most will adjust. I am a member of a two parish collaborative. I served on a committee to review the times of both parishes and decisions were made for the good of both the priests and assemblies. After a few months of getting adjusted to the changes it has worked out fine. People understand.

  11. Regarding: Circuit priests.
    – If the temporal or spacial concerns create problematic issues, or if the presbyter becomes exhausted, then a parish or another would have a Liturgy of the Word and Communion Service lead by a lay minister or deacon on a rotating schedule shared by the other parish(es).
    – That way neither the liturgies presided over by the presbyter, or by a lay minister, or deacon, need not be rushed and every community shares equally in a limited resource such as time, or clergy availability.
    – In this way, traditional liturgy schedules need not be changed.

  12. The situation at least moves priests to be tolerant of congregants who (have to) leave early.

  13. All of these permutations because those who have the authority to ordain sufficient presbyters to pastor communities and lead them in worship fail to do so. I’m wondering what will have to happen before God sends prophets to shake things up? Until then we can continue our conversations about the demands of clusters and collaboratives.

  14. Ordain more priests. That’s the solution.

    A pastor of a 6 parish cluster? WOW…and all the parishes are happy? WOW…

    …what about the parish that had to move it’s Sunday morning Mass to Saturday evening because of the priest’s schedule and the collections and pew numbers are off by half and the parish 11 freeway miles down the road noticed a jump in collections and participants in its Sunday morning Mass. Not hypothetical in the Pacific Northwest.

    Not enough priests, then find a new population of people to ordain. That’s the solution. I’ve seen 2 priests head out the sacristy door and their car is running before the last chorus of the closing song.

    1. @Ed Nash:
      I sometimes go to Mass in rural Wales at a parish where the priest has to travel to us from an earlier Mass. Often late because of Sunday day-trippers out to enjoy the mountains. The solution has been to stop our Sunday Mass altogether in favour of a Vigil Mass. Fine, if you like that sort of thing. But the parish will wither.
      I am with those who think the church needs to re-think its ordination choices. I cannot be right to value celibacy more than the Eucharist.

    2. @Ed Nash:
      Since I think you addressed to me:
      Pastor of 6 parishes–might or might not include a parochial vicar to assist the pastor.
      Are parishes happy? Depends on the priest they’re assigned as their pastor at any given point. You’ll need to ask them.

      Yes, some parts of the Pacific Northwest have freeways and a parish 11 miles down the road. Other parts are connected only by a ferry system, and the ability of the priest is limited by the schedule of boats. Other parts are cut off by mountains or forests or desert. And the parishes with Sunday Masses on Saturday mornings usually have the next parish either 50 miles away, or 1-hour boat right away.

      But yes, wouldn’t it be nice if we ordained more priests! I agree with you there. Wouldn’t that be the obviously solution! Until then….

  15. In a clustered parish I was assigned to we inherited the timelines of the previous pastor which included a 9:00 AM Mass in one community and a 10:30 in the next with a nearly 30 minute drive in between, longer in the winter.

    At the first Mass it was “get-it-done-fast” and the second always started in a state of confusion and scrambling. We recessed (to the back), all the way back up the side aisle, changed and out the side door, leaving before most of the parishioners got to their cars. The car was literally parked in the reserved spot at the door.

    The solution was to change the Mass times … which almost caused a rebellion … consideration for pastor and deacon was non-existent. Years later, the solution to the problem is still a sore point with both congregations.

    The simple answer, “more priests” neglects the fact that many parishes struggle to pay their current bills even though they only pay a fraction of the shared priest’s meagre salary.

    The sad answer, “the Mors Mass” …. (“Mass On Roller Skates”) … makes some happy but has, IMHO, led to the problem in the previous paragraph. The much desired one-point-one-minute homily just does not cut it. The numbers attended dwindle with each year.

    So we need to ask the question, “How can we make this parish relevant in the community it serves?” and through answering that question make the parish financially vibrant, and attended again.

    Until then, we need to come up with real, practical solutions to the situation we face: ones which respect the needs of the parish at each end of the road, one that respects the clergy who are on that road.

    Opting for the thirty minute Sunday liturgy is the slipperiest of slopes.

  16. To #19. It was addressed more to the situation. If the parishes were 6 close together in a metropolis, it would still present a frustration to a number of those parishes. A solution may be the shuttering of some of these geographically close institutions but a pastor to 6 separate communities is, to me, a huge excercise in frustration.

    Your example of the ferries, or boat taxi gives me the night mare of arriving at the ferry stop 5 seconds after the boat pulls away. And that in some chancery up on the hill, they had a discussion where the director of priest personnel said to the bishop, “I think it’s doable if he hurries.”

  17. Pope Francis himself offers a creative solution which is mentioned in the ever delightful blog, The Roman Anglican, concerning the recent papal visit to the elegant All Saints Anglican Church on the Via Babuino.

    “In the Northern part of Argentina, there are Anglican missions with the indigenous peoples and Catholic missions with the indigenous people, and the Anglican bishop and the Catholic Bishop from there work and teach together. And when people are not able to go to catholic celebrations on Sunday, they go to the anglican one, and the Anglicans go to the catholic ones, because they don’t want to spend Sunday without a celebration; and they work together. And here the congregation for the doctrine of the faith knows this. And they do charity together. And the two bishops are friends and the two communities are friends.

    Read the rest at the blog in the comments’ section!

    1. @Lee Bacchi:

      True enough, but as another contributor points out (#6 above), the symbolism of the processional cross leading the faithful from the eucharistic assembly to the world outside is powerful. Of course, instrumental music can serve this purpose just as well as a hymn.

      1. @Robert ADDINGTON:
        Question: how many congregants are likely to grasp the power of that symbolism? How do we know? Again, I realize liturgy-minded folks are more likely, but given that congregants can in many churches exit by more than one exit, and the procession often doesn’t exit with them, I am not so sure that symbolism “reads” as readily as the procession to the altar at the opening of the liturgy.

      2. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Actually, when I think of “Top 10” (ala David Letterman) questions that the assembly routinely asks me, probably in the #6-#10 category is something like “why do we process in with the cross and the Book of the Gospels, but process out only with the cross? Is it because…”

        People notice it and think about it. Even if they leave via other exits.

  18. I used to be in this situation with a Sunday 0900h Mass in one place and a 1030h five miles down the road. Neither congregation would budge on changing times, so I just said to the 1030h people ‘Mass starts when I get there.’ We never started before 1040h and no one ever complained.

    Actually, whatever IGMR says, I like final hymns because they give me an opportunity to take off sacred vestments before the dread gladhanding of ‘the people’ takes place.


  19. Karl Liam Saur : If this is, as it seems, a chronic situation, it would seem a better approach for the long term would be to consider modifying the Mass times for all the parishes involved.

    This is, by far, the better solution.

    People will simply have to accept that priests cannot bilocate. If parishes are clustered, there is going to have to be a reduction in the schedule of sacraments in any given parish. A price has to be paid. Some people might even be forced to drive a greater distance to get to a Mass at the time they desire/need.

  20. Ed Nash : Not enough priests, then find a new population of people to ordain. That’s the solution.

    That might fix the problem of the priest shortage.

    But it won’t fix the problem of the laity shortage. And in my part of the country, that’s just about as serious a problem in most places as the priest shortage.

    1. @Richard Malcolm:
      Indeed, a laity shortage is an issue. Consolidating Mass schedules to account for that is another room in the very hell of hell on earth I mentioned above.

  21. Those of us who travel have encountered a situation where the flight is delayed until the pilot shows up. No pilot….no flight.
    no priest…no Mass.
    No, the celebrant should not exit thru “the side door” ever. Like everyone else, he is here to worship God in public worship. If he needs to leave due to another location, then he simply processes out as usual, goes to the sacristy, removes his vestments and heads to his car.
    I would also think it would be a good idea to announce to the congregation that due to his schedule, he can not greet everyone after Mass.

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