When we can’t have Mass

‘the Eucharist should only sparingly be separated from the celebration of the Mass’ writes Michael Kelly

Many parishes around Ireland are coming to terms with the reality that priests can no longer be present in the way they were in the past. Fewer ordinations and an aging clergy means that the Church cannot continue to provide the sacramental life that many parishioners would wish.

There are just over 2,000 active diocesan priests working in Ireland’s 1,359 parishes and 50% of them are over the age of 65.

Some parishes are looking at ways of keeping the liturgical life of the community alive while addressing the shortage of priests. The ordination of permanent deacons provides a respite in some places where deacons can administer the sacrament of baptism, witness weddings and preside at funerals.

However, there’s a worrying lack of knowledge among Catholics in Ireland about the role of permanent deacons. It’s not uncommon to hear them called ‘lay deacons’. In one parish with a permanent deacon, a parishioner recently told me “he can do everything except say Mass” giving the impression that the ancient role of the deacon is reduced to little more than an ‘almost-priest’.

Another feature of some parishes is communion services in the absence of a priest. Here, it’s important to make a distinction between Sunday and a weekday: weekday Mass is optional and devotional, whereas the celebration of Sunday Mass is vital and central to the life of faith in the parish.


The automatic tendency to opt for communion services where a priest is unavailable is not a solution that I find myself very comfortable with. At a practical level, most Irish parishes aren’t so far flung so as to make it impossible for people to travel to a neighbouring parish for Sunday Mass.

I also think the Eucharist should only sparingly be separated from the celebration of the Mass (Holy Communion for the sick, or Eucharistic adoration, for example). The separation of the distribution of Holy Communion from the Mass runs the risk of causing further confusion amongst parishioners around the theology of the Eucharist.

There’s also a danger that it can reduce the Sunday Mass in to a ceremony to consecrate lots of hosts to be used during the week while the priest is unavailable. This also runs the risk of seeing the priest as merely a dispenser of sacraments outside of the broader life of the parish.

I wonder, too, if the emergence of communion services shows an inability to draw on the Church’s rich spiritual tradition and variety of forms of prayer. It’s as if, in the absence of a Mass, the next best thing is for a Eucharistic minister to lead a communion service. Little or no thought is given, it seems to me, to the possibility of adapting morning and evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours (the Breviary) for use in parishes led and presided over by laypeople. Similarly, there is an opportunity to have a creative liturgy of the word.

Of course, these arrangements won’t please everyone: which is why the option of attending Mass in a neighbouring parish rather than attending such a liturgy will always be attractive to some.

There are now calls for guidelines in the area, which would be helpful. But this will have to be handled sensitively: the danger is that laypeople – particularly women – will see the guidelines as a restriction on their involvement in the parish rather than a result of theological, liturgical and pastoral reflection.