ROBERT MICKENS. A priest-centered Church, confused and unprepared.

In the past five or six decades, Catholic bishops in almost every part of the world have stood by, paralyzed, watching helplessly as the number and quality of priesthood candidates have continued to dwindle.

Not a single pope in this period – from Paul VI to Francis – has offered any real solution to the problem. Their only answer to the priest shortage has been to instruct people to pray to God and encourage more young men to consider a vocation.

(Actually, Francis explicitly told bishops of the Amazon to explore other possibilities, such as ordaining married men, only to ignore them when they finally asked permission to do so.)

Closing parishes

In any case, it is clear to all but the blind that the strategy employed up till now – that is, do nothing – is not working.

How many parishes have the bishops closed, and how many living faith communities – some spanning several generations – have they dissolved because of an unwillingness (of their own and of the various popes) to open their eyes to other alternatives?

One of the worst nightmares for many bishops is what to do with parishes when it’s not possible to provide them with a priest.

From no priests to no people

So isn’t it ironic how the coronavirus pandemic has turned that upside-down. Now the question is what to do with parishes, and the priests assigned to them, when there are no people!

Make no mistake. Donald Trump’s hope that churches will be packed on Easter Sunday is not unfounded. Unfortunately, it won’t be this Easter – perhaps in 2021.

The COVID-19 crisis is not going to be over in a matter of weeks. It is going to drag on for months. We don’t know when we’ll be able to start congregating again.

For now we cannot celebrate Mass. And this has caused perplexity and disorientation.

Catholic bishops and their collaborators, the priests, appear dumbstruck and lame before this quandary.

They cannot see many alternatives, except to continue confecting the Eucharistic all by themselves, or in the presence of a few people, while everyone else watches them via television or the internet.

When there is no Eucharist

French liturgist Gilles Drouin reminds us this week in an interview with La Croix that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) made it clear that Jesus Christ is present to us in more ways than the Eucharistic bread and wine alone.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, says: “Christ is always present in his Church, especially in liturgical celebrations” (SC 36).

During Mass he is present in the bread and wine, but also in the person of the priest and in the Word that is proclaimed. And, finally, he’s present in the prayers and songs of the assembly.

But that doesn’t solve the current problem of not being able to gather together for liturgy. And since the Church doesn’t permit anyone to preside at the Eucharist except a validly ordained priest, what can we do?

No liturgy?

Celebration of Mass is not the only liturgy

“People can read the Word of God with members of their family or those they live with. Or they can pray the Liturgy of the Hours, either alone or with others,” says Fr. Drouin.

“You don’t have to be a monk or nun to do that! The psalms that make up the Liturgy of the Hours provide an incredible relief these days,” he adds.

Unfortunately, most Catholics do believe that the Liturgy of the Hours (which is properly called the Divine Office and often referred to as the Breviary) is exclusively for the clergy and religious. That’s because monks and nuns are obliged by canon law to pray “the hours” each day.

But, in fact, this is the prayer of the entire Church. And it is properly liturgical prayer.

While praying in an assembly or community is the ideal way of celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours, diocesan priests (especially) have for centuries mostly prayed the Breviary alone.

And there is no reason why any Catholic can’t do so as well, as Fr. Drouin suggests.

The public prayer of the Church

Sacrosanctum concilium says that, outside of Mass, it is “especially (through) the celebration of the Divine Office” that the Church “is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the entire world” (SC 99).

Furthermore, it says that, “as the public prayer of the Church”, it is “a source of piety and nourishment for personal prayer” (SC 90).

“The laity, too, are encouraged to recite the Divine Office, either with priests, or among themselves, or even individually” (SC 100).

National episcopal conferences and individual bishops in many places have dispensed Catholics from their obligation to attend Mass on Sunday and other “days of obligation”, while offering prayer resources to help them keep holy these liturgical feasts.

Besides the legalistic nature of this approach, it is also lacking in imagination. How many bishops have encouraged their people to pray the Liturgy of Hours – now or ever?

How many priests have introduced the Liturgy of the Hours in their parishes?

An acquired taste that satisfies

In a Church where, for most people, liturgy is not really liturgy unless they receive the Eucharist, this would require patience, creativity and painstaking catechesis.

Praying and meditating on the Word of God in the Liturgy of the Hours is a great gift to the People of God, but most of them have never been introduced to it, let alone helped to savor it.

It is, indeed, an acquired taste. But one that begins to satisfy.

The beauty of it is that it can also be done without an ordained priest, though some priests and seminarians, at least in Rome, carry around the Breviary and act as if only they can validly pray it.

Even in its communal form a layperson can lead the Liturgy of the Hours.

And when people begin to find fulfillment in praying the Hours in a community, they begin to feel the desire to do so privately and individually when they are separated from the community.

Feasting liturgically on the Word

Just imagine how beneficial it would be right now during this forced Eucharistic fast if the Liturgy of the Hours were already a main staple of every Catholic’s liturgical life and a “nourishment for personal prayer”.

It is a shame that the coronavirus pandemic has caught our Church so unprepared.

The Eucharistic fast would not mean liturgical famine. Catholics would be confident in knowing that, even with their priests absent, they were still feasting liturgically on the Word of God.

And then the Catholic people would not be so bewildered and disoriented by the temporary suspension of public celebrations of the Mass.

As for the men who stand at the altar… that’s another question.

Robert Mickens’ article was published in La Croix International March 27, 2020.


Robert Mickens, LCI Editor in Chief, has lived, studied and worked in Rome for 30 years. Over that time he has studied at the Gregorian University, worked at Vatican Radio and been the Rome correspondent for the London Tablet. He regularly comments on CNN, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. His famous Letter From Rome, brings his unparalleled experience as senior Vatican correspondent for the London Tablet and founding editor of Global Pulse Magazine.

This entry was posted in Religion and Faith. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to ROBERT MICKENS. A priest-centered Church, confused and unprepared.

  1. Alex Nelson says:

    The need for Bishops to dispense people from being present at Mass and other Easter liturgies in the current situation of restrictions due to the corona virus is based on the regulation that attendance at Sunday Mass is obligatory under pain of serious sin.

    Why not educate the faithful to make a conscientious decision to attend or not, given the circumstances of the current times, and indeed on every Sunday? The truth is that many Catholics have made that decision in good faith for themselves already.

    A large number of Catholics have discovered that the practice of Christian Meditation, whether alone or in common with other Christians, provides a way to find communion with God each day. No priest nor church building is needed though neither is regarded as alien. This is a form of devotion and assembly that is growing.

  2. carey burke says:

    Robert Mickens is right when he notes that like his predecessors, Francis has called for prayers for priestly vocations, but, his assertions that Francis has done nothing else in the face of dwindling clergy numbers and, further, has ignored the requests of the Amazonian bishops are inexplicably rash and erroneous -as an abundance of evidence demonstrates. The Amazon Synod processes and documentation is one such source.

    Francis allowed the issue of a married clergy as a response to pastoral needs to be placed on the agenda; he allowed an open discussion of the issue in Synod sessions; he did not seek to censor recommendations emerging from the floor of the assembly, nor did he interfere with the wording of recommendations included in the final report.

    These permissions seem to be sensible procedures followed by any responsible organisation when convening a panel of experts to deal with problems with which they are intimately acquainted. But John Paul II and Benedict XVI thought otherwise – oaths of allegiance to adhere to prevailing papal policies choked off any free exchange before, during and after Synod sessions. Also, agendas, discussion and recommendations were all micro managed by Popes Woytila and Ratzinger, with assistance from the Curia, to achieve pre-set outcomes.

    In “Querida Amazonia”, Francis states

    “I would like to officially present the Final Document, which sets forth the conclusions of the Synod, which profited from the participation of many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia the problems and issues of the Amazon region, since they live there, they experience its suffering and they love it passionately. I have preferred not to cite the Final Document in this Exhortation, because I would encourage everyone to read it in full.” (Paragraph 3)

    Encouraging the entire church to read and consider the Synod’s recommendation hardly amounts to ignoring the Synod’s requests – as Mickens suggests. And in this vein, paragraph 86 deserves particular attention. Here, Francis observes

    “Efforts need to be made to configure ministry in such a way that it is at the service of a more frequent celebration of the Eucharist, even in the remotest and most isolated communities. At Aparecida, all were asked to heed the lament of the many Amazonian communities “deprived of the Sunday Eucharist for long periods of time”.

    In sotto voce, Francis is adding his endorsement to further discussion of changes to clergy discipline. Francis’ commitment to awakening the synodal dimensions of the Latin Church explains his patience in promoting ongoing reflection of controverted topics rather than solving issues by papal edicts. This may amount to a slow process, but it certainly amounts to doing a lot more than nothing.

  3. Ed Cory says:

    There is another dimension that doesn’t seem to receiving much attention. No services = no collections = no money. It’s not quite as simple as that, but cash/envelope collections still seem to be a majority of the income at the parish level. There is some scrambling going on, but it will be interesting to see whether people who can no longer attend church are prepared to adopt new giving practices, and how big the income hit is going to be.

    Almost as interesting as seeing, when this is all over, what impact it has on attendances.

  4. Richard Ure says:

    “One of the worst nightmares for many bishops is what to do with parishes…”

    If only that were the worst nightmare

  5. Jim KABLE says:

    I didn’t realise that being a practising Christian could be so complicated. Maybe that’s what made Bible-based protestantism so attractive on some levels: “Where two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am also.” And that prayer was a personal thing directly to the Lord/God – no intercession necessary – certainly no Confessional (and we all know well how that turned out in the 20th/21st century – just think “Revelation” – the Sarah Ferguson/ABC TV exposé – not the book of the New Testament with an ~s on the end). While clearly Robert Mickens is to the best of his understanding tackling complexities which seem almost insurmountable to believer Catholics – it reads to me like something out of a mediaeval labyrinthine nightmare – within that tale it builds a believable world – but back here in the real world – it simply reads as bizarre.

Comments are closed.