Pope Francis elevates the Eucharist as he celebrates the Mass at the Vatican. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Francis Campbell: Sunday without a priest isn’t quite the same

By 
  • July 24, 2019

Sleeping late on a Sunday morning a few weeks back, I decided to substitute the 9 a.m. Mass at the church just down the road in our home parish for an 11:30 Mass in a nearby parish.

When the Mass was about to start, a deacon who had been working in the parish for many years took his place on the altar to preside over the service. Instead of Mass, there was a Mass-like service with the exception of the absence of the consecration of the bread and wine.

Many Catholics by now have experienced a service led by a deacon or lay person that replaces Mass when a priest is unavailable. It consists of the opening prayers, the readings, the Gospel and the homily, in this case delivered by the deacon. Then there’s the distribution of the Eucharist, previously consecrated by a priest.

At the sign of peace, we extended a welcoming hand to our pew mates. When it was time to join the choir, parishioners sang. When it was time to reflect on our sins and ask for mercy, we did.

And when it was time for dismissal and the closing hymn, we dispersed, greeting the deacon before going our separate ways.

I can’t guess what the rest of the congregation was thinking as they walked away, hopped in their vehicles and headed for home in the early afternoon sun.

But I do know what I was reminded of. As a teenager and into my early 20s, I attended university in a small town about a two-hour drive from our provincial capital of Halifax. My freshmen university year coincided with the opening of the nearly 10,000-seat Halifax arena, a veritable Taj Mahal for young and old Nova Scotians who had grown up in rural areas of the province where a local arena might seat 500 to 1,500 spectators. That’s if the small community was lucky enough or industrious and ambitious enough to have an arena.

With the new Halifax arena, then called the Metro Centre, came pre-season National Hockey League games. The first one I attended was an exhibition duel between my longtime favourite team, the Boston Bruins, and their heated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. A few friends from the tiny fishing and farming community in which I had grown up collected me from my dormitory room and we made the two-hour trek to Halifax for a taste of live NHL action.

After what seemed an excruciatingly long wait, the players finally took the ice. They wore the Bruins’ spoked-B jerseys and the Canadiens’ CH sweaters. There they were, the names only seen before on television or immortalized on radio. But a careful perusal of the ice revealed that a good number of the best players from each team were missing.

Of course, that is a common at exhibition games. Teams have a lot of players in camp, a good number of rookies and young players displaying their skills in the hope of making the big team. Team coaches and general managers sit out many of their best players, skaters whose skills are already well known within the organization.

The game was satisfactory with several up-and-coming players excelling, some convincing the sellout crowd that they would be wearing the big teams’ jerseys when the regular season rolled around. Still, the absence of star power left fans wanting more. 

I shared that feeling while exiting the arena with my buddies and thousands of others. Although it might seem an incongruous parallel, that same sort of feeling overtook me as I left the neighbouring parish church.

I knew who the deacon was and all about his long career as an educator in a school in our district. I knew him to be a fine and respected community person who took his deacon duties very seriously.

I do not mean to convey an ounce of disrespect upon the deacon, who endeavoured to make the service as holy and meaningful as possible. Still, I left feeling that something was missing. A sort of empty, no-Mass disquiet followed me from the church.

A diocesan reorganization here will transition by year’s end 90 church buildings supporting 65 parishes into 20 mega-parishes to be served by 43 active priests. That reorganization will leave some churches empty or decommissioned but it ought to minimize the likelihood of scheduled Masses being replaced by services without priests.

Moreover, Pope Francis could be pushed by bishops before the end of the year to consider the ordination of married men to serve in some remote areas of the world. The Church, however, is not prepared to sanction for ordination the more than 50 per cent of the Catholic population who remain ineligible for the priesthood — women.

Still, it’s difficult to divine who might play a starring role in the Church’s future.

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)

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