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.)
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?
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.