Can a Pastor Ban a Parishioner from Coming to Mass?

Q:  I witnessed a parish priest telling a parishioner not to attend prayer or assist at Mass at our parish, because he was “a distraction” to other parishioners, having what appear to be neurological seizures.  Is a parish priest allowed to disown members of his flock for such reasoning? –Lorraine

A:  At first glance, there would seem to be a pretty obvious answer to this question, at least as Lorraine as phrased it.  Of course a priest can’t tell someone not to attend Mass, simply because he has a non-contagious health problem which is beyond his control, right?

In actual practice, the question is not a simple one—and without knowing the full story behind it, it’s risky to try to answer it in a generic, one-size-fits-all sort of way.  A major issue here is the balance that has to be struck between rights and responsibilities, because the two go hand in hand.  Let’s first look at the basic laws pertaining to various aspects of Lorraine’s question, and then see how they would apply in some more specific situations.  It should become clear that this type of problem has the potential to get very complicated.

To begin with, as we have seen before in “Can You Be Refused Holy Communion if You Kneel?” and “Can a Priest Refuse to Hear My Confession?” (among others), the basic canonical rule-of-thumb is that Catholics have the right to receive the sacraments when they (a) opportunely ask for them, (b) are properly disposed, and (c) are not prohibited by law from receiving them (c. 843.1).  Let’s apply this basic rule to an ordinary parishioner who attends Mass at his parish at the regularly scheduled time, and wants to receive Holy Communion at the appropriate point during the Mass: if he is behaving with the sort of respect and devotion which is considered proper, and is not currently under excommunication or some other sort of sanction which would prevent him from receiving Communion… as a general rule it is hard to imagine a legitimate reason why the priest would object.  True, if the parishioner is living some sort of publicly scandalous lifestyle, altogether inconsistent with that of someone practicing the Catholic faith—what canon 915 calls “persistence in manifest grave sin”—this would constitute solid grounds for the priest to refuse him the Eucharist (see “Can Pro-Abortion Politicians Receive Holy Communion?” for more on this).  But this is, fortunately, a fairly rare exception which only proves the rule.

Now let’s try to see how this rule might pertain to the parishioner at Lorraine’s parish, who has had “what  appear to be neurological seizures” during Mass.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of critical information missing here.  For example, why is this even happening?  Does this person have seizures repeatedly, every time he comes to Mass?  Is the parishioner choosing to sit in the front row, where the rest of the congregation can’t help noticing?  If the person really is significantly distracting the congregation during the Mass, is it possible for him to sit in a more discrete place in the church, to minimize the disturbance as much as is humanly possible?

Maybe Lorraine doesn’t know—and maybe the parish priest does.  Instead of speaking in hypotheticals, let’s look at a couple of real-life cases where a parish priest told a parishioner not to come to Mass.  It’ll be easy to see that not all “don’t come to church” scenarios are created equal.

1.) A young mother regularly came to the early daily Mass at her parish, with her two toddlers in tow.  They stood in the very back of the huge, cavernous church near the door, and the mother prayed quietly while the youngsters either sat on the floor or puttered around.  Mom never allowed them to make any significant noise, or to wander more than a few feet away from her; and the children in turn were surprisingly well behaved, probably in great part because they had become accustomed to this element of their morning routine.  Many of the daily Mass “regulars” who sat up front didn’t even notice that they were there.

One day the elderly pastor happened to be standing near the front door before Mass when the three of them arrived.  He instantly launched into a tirade, declaring that the children were a distraction and telling her, quote, “You’re not really praying.”  The mother stood there silently, in tears, while he railed on for several minutes.  She then took the children and left, and was never seen at the parish again.

No deep knowledge of canon law is needed to reach a sound conclusion about this situation, because common sense is quite sufficient.  This was a blatant violation of this parishioner’s right to come to Mass and receive the Eucharist.  The mere fact that she had young children hardly constituted a fault; and in any case she kept them quiet and under control (would that all parents who bring children to Mass would do the same!).  Nobody had complained that their presence was distracting to others.  It could be that from his vantage-point in the sanctuary, the priest could see them standing in the back and found it annoying.  But finding people “annoying” simply for what they are—i.e., a family with small children, who by definition are unable to sit perfectly still for long periods of time—does not give a priest justification to forbid them to come to Mass and pray.

If the mother had wanted to fight this, she could have sent a thorough written account of what happened to the diocesan bishop, and pointed out that she was being unjustly banned from participating in the Mass, and receiving the Eucharist, for the non-crime of bringing her well disciplined children with her.  She evidently did not do this, but it should be noted that the pastor was soon removed from the parish by the bishop for health reasons (he apparently was in the early stages of dementia).  One hopes that the mother heard about it later; but who knows, it’s entirely possible that this caused her family to leave the Catholic Church altogether.  We can only entrust the whole sad situation to God.

In contrast, let’s now look at another true story about a parishioner told not to come to Mass because of “distracting” behavior, but which involves a very different set of circumstances.

2.)  A lonely older lady craved attention.  She also took medication regularly for some chronic illness.  At some point she figured out that if she deliberately failed to take her medicine before Mass, she would end up fainting, or having convulsions, or otherwise collapsing in church; and would attract a lot of attention from people who otherwise might not have even noticed her.

The parish priest became aware of what she was doing, and privately met with her and urged her to take her medicine, not only because she was repeatedly disrupting the Mass, but also for the sake of her own health.  He even encouraged the other ladies of the parish to spend more time with this lady, so as to obviate her sad, desperate desire to attract notice in this way.

But she ignored him, and continued to do this anyway.  The priest was thus caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  If he permitted her to continue, the damage she was doing to her health could have become very serious.  At the same time, the 10:30 AM Sunday Mass was becoming a circus, because everyone who attended was certain that this lady would always be there, and was invariably going to collapse before it was over.  Parishioners trying vainly to pray were either grumbling, or half-jokingly making bets on how long it would take her to keel over this week.  What could the pastor do to resolve this?

It should be clear that this lady couldn’t merely claim in self-defense that as a parishioner, she had a right to attend the 10:30 AM Sunday Mass if she wanted to, and nobody could forbid her to come.  You don’t have to be a lawyer to appreciate that her right wasn’t absolute—because she also had the responsibility to do what she could to avoid distracting the whole congregation.  In this case, the pastor told her, “Of course you can come to Mass, but not if you’re knowingly going to disrupt it by making a spectacle of yourself, and disobeying your doctor in the process.  If you don’t want to take your medicine like you’re supposed to, we all know by now what will happen when you come to church—so don’t come.”

Of course this is exactly what the priest in the previous scenario did—he told a parishioner not to come to Mass.  But is it the same?  In this second case, the priest’s command constituted a sort of reverse-psychology, intended both to oblige the lady to take her needed medication for her own good, and to eliminate the chaos at Sunday Mass.  Remember that he had already shown pastoral sensitivity to her loneliness, by asking other parishioners to spend time with her.  If anything, the priest should be commended for the care and concern that he demonstrated to this difficult parishioner of his!

Nobody challenged this priest on legal grounds, but if they had, he could have argued that as per canon 843.1, the lady wasn’t “properly disposed” to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, since she was more intent on obliging everyone to focus on her, than on the Mass itself.  And don’t forget that the pastor had an obligation to his other parishioners too, and they were likely anxious for him to do something about this so that they could pray the Mass in peace!

Now let’s imagine that some parishioner who usually didn’t attend the 10:30 Mass had seen this happen for the first time, and overheard the priest telling the lady not to come to church because she was “a distraction.”  The priest knew the full story; the parishioner had seen only one part of it.  It can be easy for a misunderstanding to quickly arise in such a situation—and that’s why it’s important to ascertain all the facts before drawing any conclusions.

Readers from the United States might remember the horrendous incident in New York City back in 1989, when a group of homosexual activists attended the Mass of Cardinal O’Connor in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  After the Mass had begun they began to shout and chant slogans attacking both the Cardinal and the Catholic Church, chained themselves to the pews, and even desecrated the Eucharist which they had received when Holy Communion was being distributed.  Over a hundred people were arrested; the police were obliged to drag many of them out of the cathedral by force.  Cardinal O’Connor subsequent decided to reconsecrate the cathedral entirely, since it had been so horribly desecrated.

Some of these protestors had been raised Catholic.  Would anyone seriously argue that their rights were violated when they were ejected from the Mass?

In short, it’s impossible to point accusing fingers in the case that Lorraine describes, because we don’t know the full story.  It’s unfair to leap to the conclusion that the priest wants to “disown members of his own flock,” because the exact opposite may be the case, as in the second scenario described above.  We Catholics have the right to attend Mass and receive the sacraments, but rights come with some inherent responsibilities—and if we fail in our responsibilities, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find that those rights can be curtailed.

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