28Oct Is Mass, like Confession, becoming ‘the vanishing sacrament’?

By now it is clear to anyone interested in the Catholic Church that there are no longer enough priests to celebrate Mass in many parishes. In rural areas and in the poorer neighborhoods of the great cities, parishes are being closed not only for economic reasons, but also because priests cannot be found to serve as pastors. The great religious orders, Franciscans, Jesuits, Redemptorists and Benedictines, are handing over to local bishops parishes they have staffed for decades. Some say that their “charism” no longer includes parish work. Others bluntly admit that they just do not have the men.

On both sides of the Atlantic, lay people, frequently women, now preside at prayer services on Sundays. In place of the Mass, which had been offered weekly and even daily for many years, there are now some Bible readings, a few hymns and possibly a homily and distribution of previously consecrated Communion hosts.

Many loyal Catholics are astonished that this has happened so quickly and that communion services would be considered an appropriate solution. After all, did not the teaching of centuries up to and including the Second Vatican Council insist that the celebration of the holy Eucharist was at the center of our religious life, defining us as Catholic Christians? Are we not a eucharistic people, for whom this sacrament is much more than a mere symbol or reminder of the Lord? It is his very presence given to us for our spiritual nourishment and refreshment. Are we not invited to a joyful banquet of sacred food and drink, a living memorial, the representation of the very death and resurrection of the Lord for our time and place?

If all this is more than pious fantasy and theological speculation, if it is indeed defined dogma, it is no wonder that so many find it strange and even scandalous that this sacrament should be allowed to disappear from the religious life of large numbers of Catholics. Numerous Catholics find it supremely difficult, even impossible, to receive sacramental absolution for sin, the anointing of the sick and, most importantly, the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Mass.

Certainly millions of Catholics in Latin America have long experienced this situation. Consider, for example, the little village of San Miguelito in Mexico, which is like many other places in Mexico, Central and South America. In the late 16th century two zealous friars somehow found their way to this remote spot in the mountains. They stayed to evangelize the people and give basic religious instruction. Before long San Miguelito had its own impressive baroque church and a lively devotional life. The friars baptized, offered daily Mass and celebrated the liturgies for marriages and burials.

When political changes took place, the friars were called back to the city. Yet each year on the feast of St. Michael, one of them would make the journey, baptize many babies, hear confessions, solemnize marriages, celebrate Mass and finally lead a procession with the statue of the patron of the town through the streets and plaza. Exhausted, he would then ride his horse back to the city. As the years went by, this holy day developed into a colorful and rowdy fiesta, the religious and social high point of the year. But it was, after all, only one day out of 365. And with fewer vocations to the Franciscans and even fewer to the diocesan priesthood, the possibility of a resident pastor became even more remote.

One day a Protestant missionary team from Texas arrived in the village. They rented a house and went from door to door making friends and handing out literature, especially nicely illustrated copies of the New Testament. Since most of the people had trouble reading, they also offered Christian songs, which they taught to the children and broadcast in the evening over their loudspeakers.

But these industrious and vigorous young Americans had no intention of remaining in the village forever. They quickly made the acquaintance of Pablo, a young married man, the father of two sons, who clearly was intelligent and personable. His neighbors recognized his obvious leadership qualities. Pablo, with his wife and children, became the first persons in town to accept the new religion, reading the Bible every day, giving up the potent local “firewater” and leading the prayers and hymns at the Sunday service and Wednesday night Bible study. The Americans then arranged for Pablo to attend an Assembly of God Bible college in the capital for some intensive courses in Scripture and in preaching. A simple but attractive little chapel was built at the edge of town. When Pablo returned with his certificate in Bible studies, he was named the pastor.

Thus a new Assembly of God congregation, one of hundreds, came to be established. With a resident pastor who was rooted in the community, educated (but not overeducated), zealous and involved in the life of the village, preaching sermons in the local dialect, it is not a surprise that this new Protestant congregation would quickly grow. When the Catholic priest next came to San Miguelito for his yearly visit, there was a clear lack of interest in what he had to say.

Even if a celibate priest could be found to go and live in a remote village like San Miguelito, he comes as an outsider, an “intellectual” with a university and seminary training. He has read Aquinas and Bonaventure, perhaps Rahner or Ratzinger. With whom can he talk? Where is the intellectual stimulus? With neither a wife nor children, how long before boredom and loneliness leads him to alcohol, eccentricities or sex? Pablo, on the other hand, “fits in.” His sermons may be rather thin theologically, fundamentalist and naïve, but he is accepted and content with his little flock.

In Peru and Bolivia, in Guatemala, Brazil and Mexico, wherever there are few priests or where the priests are arrogant or indolent, the story of San Miguelito has been repeated. The bishops of Latin America meet and discuss this, but they seem powerless to halt the march of converts into evangelical Protestantism or Mormonism. One Mormon “elder” (all of 20 years old) told me that in the United States their most successful area for conversions is the Southwest. They are finding so many converts among Hispanics that they hardly have resources or time to process them all.

In Latin America even very small villages will have an Assembly of God or other evangelical church. A town of any size will also boast a large white Mormon “church” with a gleaming spire pointed like a needle into the sky, a religious education building and a tidy sports field for soccer and American basketball. For several decades now, it may well be that the most effective preachers in Spanish or Portuguese are not Catholic. In many places, the Catholic clergy are not only outnumbered, but they seem to lack the fervor and evangelical passion of the Protestants. All this has been the price, a very high price, for the Catholic unwillingness or inability to supply sufficient and effective pastors for the people.

The problem in Latin America, of course, goes back several centuries. Even in colonial times under the Catholic monarchs, with flourishing religious orders and governmental support, there were never enough clergy to preach and celebrate the sacraments.

In Europe and North America, the crisis is much more recent. The use of married priests and perhaps women priests has been offered as a solution and rejected. Rather, the challenge is met by downplaying, in practice, the necessity of Sunday Mass and the recruiting of nonordained men and women to conduct a prayer service in lieu of Mass.

Martin Luther and John Calvin dreamed of a church without holy orders, a sacrificial liturgy, confession and anointing of the sick. Now, in many places, regular access to the sacraments is not possible. Will the next generation continue to see them as important? Will even the Eucharist, like confession, become a “disappearing sacrament”?

13 Responses

  1. Darlene Starrs

    I would like to remind everyone of what Brendan Butler wrote on June 2nd.However, rather than seeing the future in these terms, maybe we should approach this seemingly intractable issue differently.

    I think we have approached the Eucharist with far too much emphasis on the miraculous power of the priest in transforming the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Mass thus revolves around the words of consecration spoken by the priest as immediately after these words of consecration the transubstantiated bread and wine immediately become objects of adoration and as the presence of Christ persists in the consecrated Bread after Mass an individualised adoration of the Blessed sacrament after Mass in the form of Holy Hours developed. This adoration of the consecrated bread and wine immediately after the consecrating words was introduced to counteract the protestant reformers’ alternative beliefs. Also too much emphasis on the mass as sacrifice further objectivises it and the congregation of lay people become both passive receivers of grace and adorers of the real presence in the consecrated Bread and wine.

    What is lost is the primary meaning of the Body of Christ as the presence of the risen Lord in his followers. As the primitive Church had no priests and thus no ‘consecrations’ as such the emphasis of these followers of Jesus was not on his sacramental presence in the transubstantiated bread and wine but on his presence through the Spirit in his followers as his real presence was revealed through the charisms of the Spirit. This community not only survived without priests but thrived without Mass as we know it.

    Maybe these dwindling vocations are a sign of the times to recall us to a re-emphasis on the Body of Christ as the mystical presence of the Risen Jesus in his followers and a call to by the Spirit to realise the implications of this presence among the people of God. We need a renewed theology of the ‘Body of Christ ‘ as present not only in his followers but also in our world of today. (End of Brendan’s words)

    On another thread there is much discussion about the ontological seal that says only the one receiving this seal, has been empowered by Christ and the Church to preside at Eucharist and saying the necessary prayers over the bread and wine. I know that seems to be an irrefutable claim by the Church. However, I believe we need to look at the process of election and anointing in a new way. I refer to ordination as an election and anointing. I know that Paddy Ferry also suggested that perhaps we need to rethink this…I hope I’m representing what you said correctly Paddy. For me, it is this process of ordination that is binding the Church, the people and its’ ministers from moving forward with the Eucharistic practise and theology in a way that is compatible with the trajectory of Vatican II….which was by and large meant to empower the laity…..so, they too, are central to the Church.

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  2. Anne

    Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. The lack of faith in His True Presence and the lack of prayer has sadly led to a decline in vocations. I don’t want to be empowered as a lay person, I want to love Jesus Christ who died for me and suffered so much for me and gave us the great gift of His True Presence in the Eucharist and all the Sacraments and who I want to serve. How sad it is to see so many who seek ’empowerment’only for themselves. We are here to serve the Church and to serve Our Lord with Love for Him and for our fellow man. It is very sad what has happened in our Church in Ireland when we think of all those who died for their faith in our country in times of persecution where the Mass meant so much that people would have risked their lives to attend. Do we ever read any of the Saints anymore, about the Martyrs of Ireland even. Do we organise Adoration in our Churches, do we organise Catechesis in our parishes, do we pray and go to Adoration ourselves ? Do we ask Jesus to help us to believe in His Presence in the Eucharist ? What are we doing in our Parishes to encourage vocations ? I don’t honestly see very much happening. It is really very sad and tragic to see all the Gifts Jesus gave to us being rejected. How can He bless the Church with vocations when we reject Him again and again.

  3. Teresa Mee

    ‘…parishes are being closed not only for economic reasons, but also because priests cannot be found to serve as pastors’.

    A third and possibly most cogent reason is that people have stopped going to Mass. Do we know why, in all cases, or in any? Even where priests are available the congregations are, with a few exceptions, generally very small – at least in Dublin, so shortage of priests is not the problem there.

    Maybe we need to probe a bit deeper.

  4. Con Devree

    Darleen Starrs (1)
    Firstly it is the Holy Spirit, not the miraculous power of the priest, who transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

    After the consecration there is no longer bread of any type. It is referred to as the Bread of Life but it is not white bread, stale bread, holy bread or transubstantiated bread. Only those who can proclaim the Mystery of Faith after the Consecration can realistically participate in the Mass. This proclamation is one of the may portrayals in the Mass of the wonder of the Eucharist.

    The Eucharist cannot be objectivised since in it the congregation is enabled by Christ to offer to the Father a gift (His Son’s life) which completely pleases the Father, the only gift that does so. It is a total personal/community act. The Sacrifice is absolutely central.

    It is a matter for each one in the congregation as to whether they become passive or not. The bulk of the prayers in the missal are to the Father and are characterised by the words “we”, “us” and “our.” Active attention to the prayers actively involves those in the congregation who wish to do so, in the creation of community since they are praying with and for each other all the time.

    The presence of God in His followers takes different forms but Vatican II described the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Church. The post communion prayers often remind us that in the Eucharist we are changed into Christ, into his mystical body. It is therefore a mistake to down play the sacramental presence. The Mass is not just about those physically present. All in Heaven attend each Mass. We are reminded of that in the Confiteor.

    There is no evidence that the “process of ordination … is binding the Church, the people and its’ ministers from moving forward.” Given the many significant incidences of renewal of Catholicism at play in the first world, in line with Church teaching, the claim cannot be substantiated.

  5. Peter Shore

    So let me understand this correctly: the way to stop the Protestants taking over is for us to turn Catholicism into Protestantism. Brilliant!

    How about we recruit some priests who actually believe in the sacrament of penance, instead of never mentioning it and rarely offering it? How about some preaching on the Eucharist so that the Mass is once more about worship and sacrifice, instead of the bored leading the apathetic?

  6. Mary O Vallely

    Anne @2, you state, “I don’t want to be empowered as a lay person”… I have to disagree with you on this point because I do want to be empowered. I want/need the courage and grace to go out and do what the Lord expects of me, to be a disciple. That’s why we go to mass and, being human, we keep failing to deliver on that promise to be a follower of Christ.
    I also agree with Teresa @ 3 that we do need to probe deeper to find out why so many have stopped going to mass. We can waste so much time and energy on discussing words used, liturgical garb etc; but if we are not transformed by the Eucharist, we are merely going through the motions. There are many here who could tell of wonderful Eucharistic celebrations in various parts of the world about which we would love to hear, real community, life enhancing, Spirit filled moments of both celebrant and people uniting in prayer. We can all learn from each other. This debate isn’t just about a shortage of priests. It is deeper than that. How does the mass transform us and make us better disciples?? How can we share that with others?

  7. ts

    The article didn’t make any mention of deacons

  8. ts

    I thought the ACP would have been promoting greater lay involvement, shouldn’t the reduction in priests then be seen as a positive development?

  9. Brian Eyre

    I am a catholic married priest living in Brazil. I see all around me small evangelical churches springing up especially on the periphery of towns and cities where the poor live.These churches are being served by pastors who are married men, who as well as having a secular job find time to do pastoral work.
    My priestly training in Ireland took 8 years in a seminary. Looking back on those years I cannot and will not complain but today I can see that things can and should de done different if we want to have enough priests to serve people and celebrate the Eucharist.
    At the beginning of Christianity the church was closely bound to the family. The Ministry of the Word ,the celebration of the Eucharist was carried out in the homes of the christians. The bond between family life and church was so close that the qualities looked for in a bishop, priest, deacon were the same as those of a good father of a family (1st Letter of Timothy 3, 1 – 7, 12). These were mature men who as parents were models in their own families and because of thse good qualities were chosen as deacons, priests and bishops.
    The bishops of Latin America are aware of the increase of these small evangelical churches. The theologian Bernard Haring has written: “The people of God have a god-given right to the Eucharist.On the bases of human law, to deprive them of the Eucharist, is objectively, gravely sinful”.
    Here in Brazil in our communities there are mature married men who could be given a two to three year theological, biblical, pastoral and liturgical preparation and then ordained priests. These married men would have their secular job, be rooted in their community, be involved in the life of the community and speaking the language of the people and not as “an intellectual with a university and seminary training”.
    To lament and despair and say that there are no longer enough priests today is wrong when another model of priesthood can be put forward . The local bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their people and should take a pastoral decision about this problem and not be waiting for a solution to come from abroad.
    Today I am doing pastoral work in two parishes, I work in close union with the two parish priests. The people know who my wife is so there is nothing hidden or secretive, they accept me as a married priest.

    Brian Eyre (Recife, Brazil)

  10. Linda, Derry

    Brian, with respect, Jesus Christ has ALREADY provided a ‘model’ for priesthood… HIMSELF… Holy, Celibate and totally Self-sacrificing. No harm, but I wouldn’t attend one of your ‘masses’ …. God Bless:-)

  11. Mary O Vallely

    Thank you, Brian,@9, for giving us a little insight into your community in Brazil. I would love to attend one of your masses and wish you, your family and the community well. I think that Christ himself would be glad and rejoice at the community spirit that comes across in your words. Yours is a different model of priesthood, but no less a good model of priesthood, in my humble opinion. Loving God and loving our neighbour. And who is our neighbour? Every person. Isn’t that the model Christ showed us?

  12. Marlene

    If the Mass were attended properly you’d not have come out with such a mouthful. It is deeply disrespectful to this good man and his wife.

    By their fruits you shall know them. Poor harvesting from that particular tree.

    Brian is correct. The recommendations for priesthood are not that they are ‘holy’, ‘celibate’ or ‘totally self sacrificing’.

    At mass, it might be profitable to read and listen to what the Scriptures themselves do actually say.

    I am not meaning that an ordained priest should not be ‘holy’, ‘celibate’ or ‘totally self sacrificing’.

    Just to remind that marriage is not less holy or less self sacrificing. Or should not be so considered. If it is, there is a need to go back to those Scriptures and read some more.

    If I went at all I would be more than happy to attend one of your Masses, Brian.

    It’s because of the ‘holier-than-thou’s I am left wholly reluctant.

  13. Nuala O'Driscoll

    In an article written in ‘The Crisis of Authority in catholic Modernity’ Leslie Woodcock Tentler links the collapse of the sacrament of penance to the issuing of Humanae Vitae. She said that in the early 1960’s eighty per cent of Catholics in America, went to confession regularly. At the end of the decade, after Humanae Vitae was published, there was a sudden decline in the number of people going to confession. She says this was not due to anger or resentment but because, ‘Catholic adults came to a new understanding of sin and the nature of church authority’. Today confession is in a state of total collapse. Why does the hierarchy not accept that without authentic leadership the Church is and has lost credibility with its members. People are thinking for themselves. If the Church got it wrong about something as intrinsic to married life as contraception, then it can be wrong in other matters. People are looking elsewhere for religion and spirituality hence the diminishing numbers attending Mass. By refusing to engage with the laity and especially women, the Church is fast becoming irrelevant. There is no bigger sin in the Catholic Church than its exclusion and utter neglect of women.