In what must have been a first for the Catholic Church in Australia, a "Nomination Form" was circulated in the Rockhampton Diocese prior to the absence of parish priests for a 12-day "in-service" to begin on September 6.
The Nomination Form invited Catholics to elect their own "presiders" at prayer services: "I would like to nominate the following people to lead our community in parish prayer on the weekend of 11-12 September during the priests' in-service."
At a time when the Church is facing major problems with falling Sunday Mass attendances, especially among the young - with Melbourne's rate now down to barely 20 percent - it seemed curious timing for Bishop Brian Heenan of Rockhampton to absolve Catholics in his diocese from their Mass obligation, even for just one weekend.
The Bishop explained his move in a 1993 Easter Message: "Easter is a time of new life and an invitation to build new visions for the future. I think especially of our Diocese and I have asked our priests to come away together for an extended time of renewal this year. Their numbers are reducing, the Church is passing through unprecedented change and our expectation of priests is different ... I ask each of you to send them with a blessing and to accept a weekend without Masses. As a bishop I am able to dispense you from the Sunday obligation for a good reason and I do so for the benefit of our priests and our diocese ...".
What "unprecedented change" did the Bishop mean? What "different expectation of priests"?
Lest anyone question the "good reason" for the Mass-less weekend, Rockhampton's theological expert, Peter Young, writing in his regular column in the Rockhampton diocesan monthly, The Review (May 1993), declared: "If the bishop, after due deliberation, prayer and consultation, requires the withdrawal of the pastors from their parishes for a particular (in the bishop's estimation) serious reason, it ill-behoves us to challenge such a movement of the Holy Spirit."
Nevertheless, it did not "ill behove" Mr Young to use his column (August 1993) to challenge Bishop Pell over a leaflet he co-authored: Why Can't Catholic Women Be Priests? Mr Young, unlike this bishop and the present Pope, saw the future prospect of women priests as by no means closed. Meanwhile, Mr Young continues to offer his own curious versions of Catholicism to readers each month.
Preparations for the Rockhampton "in-service" continued week by week. Rockhampton Mass bulletins for July 25, 1993, advised parishioners that "Bishop Brian has dispensed us from our Sunday obligation, but we are not dispensed from our Sunday observance. Therefore, on this weekend we will gather for Parish Prayer in our Churches. Members of our parish community will preside at this prayer ...... Notice was given that over the following weekend, people would be given opportunity to nominate three people "as suitable presiders."
The following weekend Mass bulletins reported that "The Diocesan Liturgical Commission has commenced its program which prepares those who will be responsible for the Parish Prayer and other pastoral care in the regions of the diocese during the priests' absence in September. Please support the preparation programs and the priests' in service with your earnest prayer."
The Commission was to conduct a "workshop" at the Cathedral College Hall on August 14, titled "When There is No Priest", which it said would "help prepare lay people for leadership roles in liturgies and/or ministry to the sick."
At Masses prior to this "in service", parishioners were required to proclaim their loyal support for the priest-less and Mass-less weekend. The Mass bulletin provided words for recitation: "As members of this parish community, we fully support you, Father, as you join your fellow priests for a time of renewal, sharing of ideas, companionship and spiritual growth. We are happy to accept our lay presiders as they continue the work of sharing the gospel message."
In his printed homily for parish circulation on the weekend of 11/12 September, Bishop Heenan wrote: "Let's also clearly see that our aim is unity in the Church but not necessarily uniformity. The apostles were all different, and down through the ages, into our present time, there is plenty of room for new ideas, different ways of celebrating life, while holding dear to the sacred things of the past."
This unprecedented priestless weekend in Rockhampton raised more questions than it answered. For example, what kind of signal did such an episode convey to an already confused Catholic people: that priests and Masses are ultimately replaceable by lay people and Prayer Services?
How an outsider encountered the Rockhampton 'priestless' weekend
The grass roots impact of the priestless weekend in Rockhampton Diocese was graphically described by a Brisbane visitor in an extraordinary letter to 'The Daily Mercury' (Mackay).
"Recently, following a four-day business trip to Queensland's Central Highlands, I planned to attend the Saturday night vigil Mass to enable me to make an early start on Sunday for a 750 km drive across the Peak Downs Highway to Ayr in the North, ready to start work there early on Monday morning.
"On the Saturday night as I entered the Central Highlands' church, my feeling that something was wrong was confirmed, as a young female strutted out on centre stage to conduct a "service". I walked out and asked at the presbytery if they intended having a real Mass on Sunday? 'No Masses at all in the Rockhampton Diocese this weekend' said the priest sitting there as happy as you like, watching the TV news. 'All the priests are in Yeppoon for a conference. I'm here from Brisbane, in case I'm needed for requiem Masses which may crop up.'
"Knowing there was no civil war raging on the Central Highlands to necessitate an overabundance of Masses for the dead, I wondered why the priest, who was on the spot, was not permitted to walk 30 metres to say Mass at the advertised time? I'm sure the priests at Yeppoon (or to be more specific, the luxurious Iwasaki Resort) would have made the ultimate sacrifice and refrained from all alcohol during the 12 gruelling days, while the faithful were denied their basic right to attend Mass.
"Well they weren't going to deny me the privilege. I set out early and drove the eight hours, with no lunch and only one stop for petrol to Ayr, in another diocese, to arrive 15 minutes before the start of the last Mass for the Sunday.
"Is it any wonder that so many Catholics no longer take Mass seriously so that attendances have now dropped to an alarming 20%?"