What To Do When There is No Mass?

Years ago, I had a talk with a Benedictine nun. She told me about an issue in her monastery: For the first time in many decades, the nuns will not have a priest who can regularly celebrate Mass with them. The monasteries and dioceses cannot send priests anymore. Finding a priest for the Sunday Mass will not be an issue, but the times of daily Masses will be over.

I see a lot of theological reasons why a monastery does not need a daily Mass. The Rule of St. Benedict does not even know Sunday Mass. But this is not the point. Many of the nuns – as I was told – desire the daily Mass, and they desire to receive Communion daily. For some of them this is the main spiritual focus and taking it away would tear their hearts off.

Joining the nearest parish for Mass is no option, because this would be incompatible with the monastic schedule and the principle of enclosure.

So, what would I recommend?

I did not recommend anything because such a decision must take into account the specific community. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how many options there are to deal with this issue. Every one of these options has its pros and cons. Here is my provisional list with some provisional remarks:

  • The harsh option: There is no daily Mass and no daily Communion any longer. Get used to it. This might be a chance for deep discussions about the value of liturgy in general and the meaning of the Eucharist – but it might also be (unnecessarily?) painful to many. If it was not for others, I would clearly prefer this option.
  • The German option: Instead of Mass a Liturgy of the Word is celebrated and combined with the Communion. This is what many parishes in German-speaking regions do whenever they cannot celebrate Mass. Most bishops and liturgical scholars are against it, because they regard this practice as pejorative to the value of the Scripture (the Word alone is not enough) and at the same time pejorative to the Eucharist (the Communion is habitually separated from the Eucharistic Prayer). In an enclosed monastery it might work without any of those problematic tendencies, but I would still not appreciate it.
  • The pre-Conciliar option: Whenever there is no Mass, the community could hold Eucharistic adoration and combine it with the Communion. I could understand this as a temporary compromise, but it would hurt me as a post-Conciliar theologian. By any means this should not be compulsory for anybody – neither the adoration nor the Communion. For me this would be too much medieval one-sidedness and too little sense for the context of Offertory, Eucharistic Prayer, and Communion.
  • The monastic option: The community focuses on the daily Office. But the Scripture readings from the Mass could replace the reading in one of the Hours (e.g. Lauds, Sixth Hour, or Vespers) and the Communion could be administered for those who desire it every day or every few days at the end of that Hour. The Communion should clearly originate from recent Sunday’s Mass. In my eyes this would make more sense than the aforementioned “pre-Conciliar option”, but of course it is still a compromise.
  • The festival option: No daily Communion, but on every Solemnity or Feast day the Communion could be administered in any of the aforementioned ways. This would be a compromise with regard to the desire for frequent Communion, and it would respect the liturgical calendar. But somehow it feels random.

If I will ever be asked again, I might start with these five options, but I am happy that I do not have to make the decision myself.


  1. In related news, Abp Sample of Portland, Oregon, this week announced the end of what you term the “German option” on weekdays for parishes in his jurisdiction.

    PS: With regard to “festivals”: The First Saturday devotion only requires partaking of Holy Communion, not participation in Mass, but the First Friday devotion requires participation in Mass, not only partaking of Holy Communion.

    1. I am not sure how common the “German option” is outside the German-speaking countries, that is why I called it that. Liturgies of the Word with (seldomly without) Communion are very common in all rural areas here, and they replace the Mass whenever there is no priest. (“Replacement” not in the theological sense, but with regards to the parish schedule.) Several bishops have started to prohibit those liturgies on Sundays whenever there is a Mass on the same day in the same church. At least one bishops started to prohibit them when there is a Mass in a nearby parish. But all this only refers to Sundays, not to weekdays.
      I don’t know how this is handled in other regions of the world. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland it is an omnipresent issue with all pros and cons and a lot of highly emotional discussion.

      1. Personally, I would be inclined to the monastic option, as you term it, but another part of me realizes mine is not a majority taste and that, unless we were to develop a parochial office, most other people would likely strongly prefer something like Eucharistic Adoration with popular devotional prayers. At this point in my life, it’s a theoretical question; were I to be forced by unchosen circumstance, much would depend on particular facts. One thing I noticed last Thursday was that one of the two parishes in my town north of Boston apparently decided to not even bother helping its working faithful fulfill their obligation for Ascension Thursday (we still have it on Thursday in the US Northeast), and scheduled but a single Mass at 9AM, with none in the evening of either Wednesday or Thursday. While certainly faithful could go to the other parish in the town that offered a more pastoral schedule, I am sure some were caught off guard (but the parish that only offered one Mass is the one that has conceived of itself as the more pastorally receptive of the two parishes…).

      2. They happen in the UK on weekdays when thrre is no Mass …. but as a last resort. There is an approved order of service.

      3. They happen very frequently on weekdays, but there has been a decline since bishops started to (re)read or had their attention drawn to para 166 of Redemptionis Sacramentum, which says:

        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.

        The clear implication is that “getting Communion” on weekdays is not recommended any more than it is on Sundays (see para 165). It is the celebration of Sunday Eucharist which is primary.

  2. I admittedly have mixed thoughts about these services. When reading Church instructions, I get the impression communion services outside mass were intended more as a irregular substitute for a mass that for some reason cannot be cannot be said (ie priest has a heart attack on his way to mass), rather than regularly (ie habitually) replacing a mass where one would otherwise be appropriate. This seems to be the reasoning behind Abp. Sample’s instructions for his Archdiocese of Portland.

    This may sound harsh (to channel the article’s first option), but at some point we need to realize that the present situation is a consequence of our individual and collective failure to invest in the life of our Church: churches close, priests dwindle, mass times get cut. I hesitate to support proposals to normalize these services because aren’t intended to be normal, nor should they be. Hopefully this present situation will draw people into a deeper appreciation of the Mass and that it is never a given (as my former pastor says, pray every mass like it’s your first mass, last mass, and only mass), and maybe this will inspire more young men to take up a calling to the priesthood. Maybe.

  3. I prefer the Monastic Option. I have been very influenced by an Antiochian Orthodox priest, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, in terms of his conception of sacrifice. To poorly summarize his thought, all sacrifice involve an offering of an “earthly” good such as animals in the temple, our human nature offered by Christ on the cross, bread and wine at the Eucharist, or psalms of praise. God transforms the offering and returns the gift as a means of sharing in the divine life of those who partake of it.

    IMHO, in absence of the Mass, Eucharist adoration and services of the word are less desirable than the Liturgy of the Hours because with the LOTH (assuming appropriate instruction), it may be more discernible to see an offering of the psalms and canticles.

    Also the GILH sees the celebration of the Hours as an extension of the Eucharistic sacrifice of praise, so it would be more appropriate to connect communion with this celebration. And this is already traditional in the Eastern Churches with the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified.

    At least in the U.S., the Sunday Celebrations in Absence of a Priest allows for the entire lectionary of the Mass (OT reading, responsorial psalm, Epistle, Gospel) to be included along with a communion rite at the end. So this would be inclusive of the “German option”. And it is not inconceivable to celebrate Lauds and Vespers with Eucharistic Exposition.

    Widening the topic a bit, with the priest shortage, besides the option of ordaining married men under qualified conditions, I hope the monastic option would gain wider traction.

  4. It is interesting that the rubrics for Holy Communion Outside of Mass (as distinct from Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest) seem to envision the possibility of a priest giving communion outside of Mass. I suspect this reflects the pre-conciliar practice whereby lay communion and Mass were not integrated, and a priest might give someone communion whenever. What the post-conciliar rite of Holy Communion Outside of Mass changed was to demand at least a rudimentary liturgy of the word.

    1. I once sought a priest for confession outside of normal hours many years ago in high school ir college. Afterwards he suggested holy communion and I agreed. It was my first experience of receiving the Eucharist outside of mass.

      As I recall there was no liturgy of the word, only the invitation “This is the Lamb of God…” and my response.

      In hindsight it may not have been kosher since the canon states it is the laity’s initiative to request communion when it is outside of mass.

    2. I thought the circumstance most likely to involve a priest in giving communion outside of Mass was sick calls. Isn’t that your experience, Fritz? I don’t mean viaticum, just bringing communion to the sick.

      1. Well, before Pius X started his sacramental revolution, people were more likely to receive Holy Communion directly after confession, rather than at Mass. And even after Pius X, the practice of receiving outside Mass was not extinguished.

      2. When I was growing up, it was fairly common for priests to distribute Communon before Mass, or after Mass. This was to cater for people who, for reasons of work, could not stay for the entire celebration.

      3. When I were a lad the choiri n my patish used to communicate after Mass as they spent communion time berating the congregation with rendings of popular religious items.

      4. “berating the congregation with rendings of popular religious items”

        I do love the image of that typo. (I hesitate to ID typos – as I commit my share – but if I feel the typist might enjoy the humor, when a typo is a felix culpa, I sometimes indulge the impulse).

        I see choristers tearing scapulars in two and flogging the faithful with them. Rosaries to follow. Then vestments for Infant Jesus of Prague…. Those were the days, my friends…

  5. So there are circumstances in which people who would otherwise be participating in Mass in order to receive HC are unable to do so, including nuns in convents. Unless the bishops want to risk communicating that the Eucharist is not, in fact, the source and summit of Christian life, you would think they would regard the lack of priests for both Sunday and weekday Masses as a serious crisis requiring assigning a high priority to find a solution. Outside present canonical regulations can someone tell me why leading the faithful in worship would require 4+ years of philosophical and theological training? Is there not a supply of spiritually mature and faithful men who could be provided adequate training to be celebrants of the Mass, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick. Don’t we have thousands of mature, married deacons among whom might be found qualified and called candidates for a re-conceived priestly ministry? If my memory of history serves me well, there was a long period of time when men were ordained priests without a long seminary training. While that may have been less than ideal, it seems to have sufficed during a critical period.
    Could there not be at least a conversation with the 99% of the church who are not ordained to see what rank and file Catholics might discern?

    1. John O’Malleu’s book on trent attributes a lot of the reformation woes to under educated clergy and that council attempted to rectify the situation.

      On another note, a local Orthodox deacon was asked by his bishop to be ordained a priest and so he was. He did do some significant cousework, but it would have been much less than what his then 30 something years old pastor had received prior to Ordination.

  6. Maybe it would help if we unpicked the many roles parish clergy currently fill and commissioned/ordained people to carry out the one or two where they show a particular gift … be it preaching, celebrating Mass, baptising, marrying, visiting, admin the bereaved or whatever. We might end up with more ministers, a more collegial parish structure and a better gender balance. Our present system of putting all the eggs into one sacerdotal basket can put unrealistic demands on one man.

    1. The Church already did that in pre-VII times with “Simplex priests, where some or most of a priest’s faculties were temporary or indefinitely withheld, usually for priests who received unsatisfactory marks in seminary (notable examples include Bl Solanus Casey and possibly St Jean Vianney). Many priests and bishops complained this created a caste system in the priesthood and the canonical loophole that allowed the practice was closed around VII. Nothing can be done about the gender balance issue, since all recent popes (including Francis) have upheld the traditional teaching that ordaining women to sacramental ministry is doctrinally and canonically impossible (Diaconate being a different matter).

      1. Uh, not quite. There is a commission examining the possibility of sacramental ordination of women to the diaconate. I make no prediction where that will go. But the people probably would not have appointed the commission if he took it as dogma that it’s impossible.

      2. Fr. Ruff, I must’ve updated my comment with the footnote on the Diaconate after you wrote yours. So yes, ordaining women to the Diaconate is a definite, but not foregone possibility.

      3. …… but that predicates the “one man does it all” situation that I am in favour of moving away from. Why not commission women as preachers for example? Or ministers of baptism or matrimony if their gifts lie in those areas. You could still have a man for the eucharist/penance, but there would be a better balance in the total ministry of a parish.

      4. Alan, your proposal seems to fall within the parameters of the Diaconate, who already do all those things. It would probably be easier to just extend that to women, as the Holy Father and his special commission are supposedly considering (extending the priesthood to women is a different theological matter). Plus the Church seems pretty closed off to the idea of splitting up sacramental faculties like was done with Bl Solanus. The theology behind allowing a priest to say mass but not Anoint never made sense to me (nor to the Council fathers apparently), and I think VII rightly got rid of the practice.

  7. View from the pew
    Regarding: “The monasteries and dioceses cannot send priests anymore.”
    – Meanwhile down in the cloister: one can hope that the various federations of nuns are steadily drum beating petitions to the Holy See that requests permission which allows each monastery to call a nun from each house to ordination to the presbyterate. No doubt all the details of additional or specialized education and training will work out fairly easily once the decision to allow this is made. Perhaps, the ordained nun would have to yield her active voice in chapter so that clericalism, or the appearance of clericalism is not allowed to take hold.
    – On the other hand the same nuns could insist that the local ordinary, who has some responsibility for monastery(ies) in his diocese, call from a nearby parish a married man who is willing to be educated for ordination so that he can serve the nuns as a presbyter.

    1. If those paths are not taken, another path could include modification of preceptual obligation to attend Mass to include public morning or evening prayer according to the Liturgy of Hours when a priest is unavailable to offer Sunday/holyday Mass.

      This would be taking a concept from the Eastern Catholic churches and applying it to the Latin church, but for different reasons. It would not be a Easternization because, in classical Eastern practice, the faithful are at least notionally (and actually, if a pastor insists, as I understand is more typical with convert-dominated parishes) supposed to attend Saturday Great Vespers (which is not a short service….) and Sunday morning Orthos in addition to Divine Liturgy and confess and communicate regularly (and communion is not necessarily given if the priest doesn’t know you’ve confessed recently, as Eastern confession is not anonymous, as it were).

      Technically, it would not be a trend towards canonical laxity because, as things currently stand, if attendance at Mass becomes impossible because of unavailability, the obligation is effectively dispensed because the Church doesn’t command the impossible. So, expanding the liturgies under which the obligation could be fulfilled reduces the potential scope of that effective dispensation, and thus might be said to be a trend away from laxity strictly speaking.

      It would, however, of course, effectively undercut culturally the principle that the Eucharistic Liturgy is “source and summit”…..

      1. I do advocate Liam’s suggestion of permitting the fulfillment of the Sunday precept with the LOTH.

        That said another solution is one which the author of this post dismissed.
        “Joining the nearest parish for Mass is no option, because this would be incompatible with the monastic schedule and the principle of enclosure.”

        I guess I am doubtful that this is a case. I don’t think daily mass at a nearby parish would cause any significant harm. And I suppose it would not have to be everyday.

        Also if ordination of married men is permitted, that is no guarantee that they would be able to celebrate mass everyday. As central as the Eucharist is to the Church, perhaps we need to move away from the daily Eucharist.

  8. In this case of an enclosed Benedictine community, what they have at the moment is LOTH with its cycle of readings and daily Mass with its cycle of readings. The rite of communion with full readings (at least in England&Wales) follows Mass until the completion of the Prayer of the Faithfull and then proceeds to the placing of the ciboriuim on the altar and continues with the Lord’s Prayer. If the placing of the ciborium on the altar were followed by 10 minutes of silent adoration and then continue with the communion rite, this would mean that the major difference between days would be that if a priest were present the nuns would hear the Eucharistic Prayer and some other prayers, without a priest there would be silence. In that context it seems to me an acceptable option, though with regret.
    I am not so sure that it is the best option for a parish. On the other hand it served us well (on weekdays and without that period of adoration) when our solo priest collapsed and spent days in a coma in intensive care.

  9. I found this comment most interesting:

    “The pre-Conciliar option: Whenever there is no Mass, the community could hold Eucharistic adoration and combine it with the Communion. I could understand this as a temporary compromise, but it would hurt me as a post-Conciliar theologian.”

    How can something be considered “pre-Conciliar” when the very liturgical books of the post-conciliar period make provision for it?

    How can “post-Conciliar theologians be hurt” by rites to be found in the post-conciliar liturgical books?

    I realize that Eucharistic adoration, benediction, etc., etc., are considered hopelessly passé in some liturgical quarters…but they are rites of the post-conciliar liturgy.

    I think we see here exactly the mentality that has caused what Benedict referred to as a discontinuous hermeneutic. Apparently, even the post-conciliar liturgy isn’t sufficiently “conciliar.”

    1. Lee, I think you’re over-shooting here. There is a rite of exposition and adoration, but it is not foreseen as the ordinary manner of preparation for the distribution of Holy Communion outside Mass. So a theologian is on solid footing saying that this is an option, if you were to combine various rites in the post-conciliar books, but it is not the most desirable option. And while one must of course acknowledge the existence of the rite of exposition and adoration in the reformed books (I don’t see anyone denying this), one is certainly not required to do this rite or advocate for it.

      As for the discontinuity hermeneutic: nope, not gonna go there.


  10. The way I see it is that if the Church places frequent reception of Communion as a positive and then removes the possibility of receiving Communion in a Church because there are no priests for daily reception of Communion then either:
    1) stop encouraging frequent reception of Communion
    2) get more priests or
    3) get someone else to distribute Communion.

    But if the Archbishop Sample plan is carried through, then obviously (to me) this has nothing to do with Communion but with the importance of the priest…but not to worry because the lay people will never catch on.

    Like my mother who attends a Communion service on Saturday in her care facility because the three priests in her parish are too busy to get there.

  11. When there are parishioners who desire to receive Holy Communion on a weekday within or outside Holy Mass it should be provided. Follow the lead of the Holy Spirit in choosing laity, men and women, of holy character and sufficient Biblical and liturgical knowledge to officiate. Train the special ministers in the proper liturgical format and procedures. Explain the theological pros and cons so that the people don’t conflate this kind of service with Holy Mass. And then trust the Holy Spirit to care for the parish. This is what our pastor has done and it has worked well in the years since he became the only resident priest on a daily basis. In the daily list for Mass intentions the “Communion Service” is noted. The personal mass intention is prayed for that day in the service but also later that week in a celebration of the Mass. In every Communion Service a petition for increased vocations to the priesthood is included. A final note from my experience in serving as a extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and conducting these services: some daily communicants will not attend a Communion Service preferring to sit it out and pray at home or visiting a nearby parish, others attend and participate fully. Our parish experience has been of the 20 average Mass attendees on a normal week day only 3 or 4 don’t attend when a Communion Service is held. I firmly believe that affording the daily reception of Holy Communion to parishioners is a value to be maintained even in the situation of the absence of a priest to celebrate Mass.

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