Archbishop Little warns priests on flawed 'priestless liturgies' document

Archbishop Little warns priests on flawed 'priestless liturgies' document

Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest (Melbourne Office of Worship)


The problems associated with 'priestless liturgies' - now being pushed throughout Australia and obviously a part of a concerted design - have surfaced again in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

An Appendix to the Minutes for the Melbourne Senate of Priests meeting of 13 February 1996, titled Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, has caused concern in the Archdiocese. The Archbishop, Dr Frank Little, sent a circular letter to his priests on 21 March, along with a set of critical observations on the Appendix and some recommended reading material.

The document causing the Archbishop concern was produced by Fr Frank O'Loughlin, liturgy professor at the Catholic Theological College (incorporating the Corpus Christi Seminary), following a two-day meeting of the Office of Worship at the Seminary.

Dr Little himself stated that he had not had opportunity to review the document prior to its circulation among Melbourne's priests. In his letter, the Archbishop pointed out that he had received a copy of the Office of Worship document just prior to departure for an overseas meeting so that "It was impossible to discuss with the authors some aspects of which I was ill at ease."

Enclosed with the Archbishop's letter were critical observations on the Appendix and two reference documents: (1) "The fundamental document with which we should be familiar before discussing the issue: Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, published on 2nd June, 1988, by the Congregation for Divine Worship." (2) A "policy statement of the Bishops of Kansas, which while more restrictive than the document of the Office of Worship, demonstrates on solid grounds how a respected body of Bishops regard the matter."

The Archbishop offered a number of reasons for his disquiet.

The Office of Worship document, he said, stated (part 3) that "Christ is not only present in the Church by means of the Eucharist, but also in other ways. This is true. However, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a presence par excellence."

Also unsatisfactory was the document's treatment of the role of a parish within a diocese, and that of a bishop: "The fundamental flaw in the document is that the parish, rather than the diocese, is presented as the basic unit. Because of this there is no mention of the bishop."

The parish, and its parish priest, said Dr Little, are not essential for the attendance of people at weekly Mass. Other priests can assist or replace a parish priest on occasion; and while "parishioners are obliged to assist at Mass on Sundays ... they are not obliged to do so in their parish church or with the parish community. They have the freedom to fulfil their obligation wherever Mass is celebrated in any Catholic rite (i.e. even outside the Latin Rite), on Sunday or the previous evening (Canons 1247-1248)." In the absence of any priest or for any other "grave reason", the faithful are "recommended (but not obliged) to take part in a liturgy of the word or to pray privately with others (Canon 1248)."

The Office of Worship document also drew the Archbishop's criticism for saying that "the local community is basic and pivotal, more pivotal than the bishop, priests he may send, and Mass celebrated in other places" and for making "no mention of the bishop as chief pastor in authorising a priest to act in the person of Christ."

The document was further faulted for referring to "forms of worship alternative to Eucharist" since "there can be no alternative to the Eucharist."

The document's "reliance on the expression, 'local community'," needed to be "analysed critically as society today is highly mobile. People are away for the weekend. There exist many types of communities not bound by geography, such as ethnic, school and work communities which are shifting, coming to birth and dying."

Archbishop Little concluded by drawing his priests' attention to two accompanying documents: Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the absence of a priest (Congregation for Divine Worship) and the letter of the Kansas Bishops (Origins, 13.7.95).

The Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest includes the following directions:

(18) "Whenever and wherever Mass cannot be celebrated on Sunday, the first thing to be ascertained is whether the faithful can go to a church in a place nearby to participate there in the eucharistic mystery ...";

(21) "It is imperative that the faithful be taught to see the substitutional character of these celebrations [prayer services], which should not be regarded as the optimal solution to new difficulties nor as a surrender to mere convenience ... (22). Any confusion between this kind of assembly and a eucharistic celebration must be carefully avoided ... (23). The faithful are to understand that the eucharistic sacrifice cannot take place without a priest ... ";

(25) "... before the bishop decides on having Sunday assemblies without celebration of the eucharist the following ... should be considered: the possibility of recourse to priests, even religious priests, who are not directly assigned to the care of souls and the frequency of Masses in the various parishes and churches ...".

Kansas Bishops' Statement

The Kansas Bishops' statement (1995), also sent out by the Archbishop, pulls no punches:

"We, the bishops of Kansas, have come to judge that Holy Communion regularly received outside Mass is a short-term solution that has all the makings of becoming a long-term problem. It has implications that are disturbing:

  • A blurring of the difference between the celebration of the eucharist and the reception of communion.
  • A blurring of the distinction between a priest and a deacon or a non-ordained minister presiding over a communion service.
  • A blurring of the relationship between pastoral and sacramental ministry.
  • A blurring of the connection between the eucharist and the works of charity and justice.
  • A blurring of the need for priests and therefore a blurring of the continual need for vocations.
  • A blurring of the linkage between the local church and the diocesan and universal church that is embodied in the person of the parish priest.

"These implications give us pause in approving the distribution of Holy Communion outside Mass on Sundays. Such practice could well contribute to the erosion of our many-sided belief in the eucharist. It is for this reason that we restrict such services to emergencies only. And by that we mean unforeseen circumstances when a priest is not available."

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