Stressed-Out Shepherds and Ungrateful Parishioners

Q1:  Our archbishop issued a decree that we parishioners can satisfy our Sunday Mass obligation on any other day of the week, as a way to lessen the number of people at Mass on Sundays, given that there is still a risk of the virus spreading in our locality.  I am just a layperson and, by my very limited knowledge of Canon Law, there seem to be nothing wrong about this.  But some of my friends are not sure about it.  Is this decree valid? –Jun

Q2:  Some relatives have reported that the priest allowed them to bring home a consecrated host….  They said their request was granted because they act as Eucharistic ministers in the parish.  It sounded even like they were given the privilege not as part of their role as Eucharistic ministers, but just as trusted lay faithful.
Even assuming that trust would be a valid criteria (sic) for the priest to allow something like that (which I find questionable), my questions are:
– Are Eucharistic ministers allowed to distribute communion where, when and to whom they please, following any ‘rite’ they please?
– Is there any situation in which lay Catholics are exceptionally allowed to administer themselves Holy Communion? –Chiara

Q3:  We utilized some of your research in our battle with our Bishop and Pastor about receiving Holy Communion on the tongue.  But, as you can see from the email exchange below, we aren’t having much success.
Both of them, pastor and Bishop, must obey the higher, universal law, but alas they are not.  So, how do we file a canonical suit against them? –Chris

Q4: My parish is planning on forcing us to register for Mass as a means of enforcing limits on attendance (due to the virus situation).  Can they do that?  Can you help me understand what is at play here? –Philip

A:  As regular readers know full well, quite a few articles on this site as of late (such as “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?”) have taken many of our bishops and other clergy to task for their outrageous abandonment of their responsibilities to minister to the faithful, “because of the virus.”  That said, however, it has also been noted in this space that there are other Catholic clerics who have been acting like true shepherds rather than hired hands (cf. John 10:11-15)—and in many cases have heroically made tremendous efforts and even exposed themselves to possible arrest in order to reach their parishioners, who thus were able to attend Mass and/or receive the sacraments which they so desperately need.

You would think that when a priest courageously accepts the risks involved in ministering to the faithful, particularly in places where a dictatorial civil government has run the nation’s constitution through the shredder, and declared arbitrarily that freedom of worship is now a nonexistent right … the faithful would be grateful.  There’s no doubt that much of the time, they are—but as far too many questions submitted recently to this site have shown, a shocking number of parishioners seem to offer only criticism in return.

Jun sent a letter from his archbishop, which, as he accurately notes, tells the faithful that in accord with canon 1245, the archbishop grants “a commutation of observing Sunday obligation to another day each week … for those who really desire to participate in the Holy Eucharist.  That means, the Dominical [Sunday] precept is already satisfied by attending any weekday Mass during this transition period.”  In other words, if you attend Mass on (let’s say) Tuesday, this fulfills your Sunday obligation.

It appears, although the situation is not totally clear, that the archbishop is concerned that too many people may wish to attend Sunday Mass all at once—and this may result in large crowds which, for all we know, may be illegal under current civil restrictions in that country.  So the point of this decree is evidently to spread parishioners’ Mass attendance out over seven days, rather than concentrate it on Sunday.

On the one hand, the archbishop’s citation of canon 1245 is a bit confusing, and might be what caused Jun’s friends to wonder.  This canon applies to parish priests in their individual parishes, not to bishops in entire dioceses; and it states that a parish priest can dispense his parishioners from observing a holyday, in individual cases and for a just reason.  The canon says nothing about the possible transfer of the Sunday obligation to another day of the week.

On the other hand, however, canon 1245 makes reference to canon 87, which tells us that a diocesan bishop can, when he judges that it contributes to the spiritual welfare of the faithful, dispense them from disciplinary laws.  And this canon has a direct bearing on the situation, because the wording of the the archbishop’s decree tells us that there is more going on here: it asserts that this is “in addition to the [previous] dispensation granted to the faithful from attending Sunday Mass.”  In other words, the archbishop had already dispensed everyone in the entire archdiocese from their Sunday Mass obligation altogether.

This only made sense, since the whole nation was put under lockdown very abruptly, by an unbalanced civil ruler with no sympathy for the Catholic Church—in fact, he once infamously declared that God is “stupid.”  As if this state of affairs wasn’t already bad enough, the nation was hit with a tremendous typhoon two weeks ago while it was under total lockdown, adding to the general chaos and to everyone’s misery.

Under such conditions, how could any reasonable person expect the 2.5 million Catholic faithful of that one archdiocese to make it to Sunday Mass every week?  As was discussed in a different context in “Tithing and Excommunication,” the Catholic Church long ago embraced the ancient Roman legal maxim that “nobody can be obliged to do the impossible.”  In this case, the archbishop’s previous dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation was simply a recognition of the undeniable fact that plenty of parishioners were finding it humanly impossible to get to their parishes.

This is not to suggest necessarily that every decision this particular archbishop might have made, regarding the ministry of his parish priests to their parishioners during the virus pandemic, was theologically and canonically sound; but at least in this case, it’s hard to argue with his reasoning, even if his citation of canon law gives the reader pause.  If the faithful of this archdiocese genuinely cannot get to their parish for Mass on Sunday—perhaps because the police will arrest them en route, or maybe because hostile government officials will declare the parish churches “too crowded” and order everyone to leave—they are dispensed from their Sunday obligation.  And if (to quote the archbishop’s decree) the faithful nevertheless “really desire to participate in the Holy Eucharist,” they can attend Mass on any day of the week in lieu of Sunday, without scruple.  The statement seems in great part to be intended to soothe the qualms of those faithful who might wrongly think “it’s a sin to miss Sunday Mass,” even in these mind-bending circumstances.

It’s hard to understand why Jun’s friends question the “validity” of the archbishop’s decree.  Can they come up with an alternative, which is humanly possible and will satisfy anti-Catholic state officials?   What do they want the archbishop to do or say instead?  Jun doesn’t indicate that his friends had suggested any kind of Plan B.  One would have thought they would be grateful that the archbishop hadn’t simply taken the easy way out, locked up all the churches indefinitely, and told the faithful to forget it—as some bishops inexplicably continue to do right here in Italy!

In many cases Catholic parish priests are trying to minister to as many of their parishioners as best they humanly can, and those parishioners fail to appreciate that sometimes the priest’s genuine “best efforts” are necessarily less than ideal.  Such would seem to be the case at Chiara’s parish.  It’s hard to be sure what exactly happened there, because at the very start Chiara says that “some relatives have reported” what she tells us, indicating that at a bare minimum, what we’re reading is a second-hand account.

It’s a little risky, but we can attempt to reconstruct what likely happened.  The parish priest discovered that the state (and/or the diocesan bishop) had suddenly and illegally declared that all parish churches were to be closed, and/or the parishioners were henceforth not allowed to attend Mass/receive the sacraments indefinitely … and while still in a state of shock over this abrupt turn of events, the priest had to think fast.  Knowing that he himself wouldn’t be able to give Holy Communion to all his parishioners on a regular basis, the priest decided to give a pyx Eucharist Holy Communion parishioners pyx containing the Eucharist (like the one in the photo here) to a couple of Eucharistic ministers from the parish. This would enable more of his parishioners to receive Holy Communion than he could otherwise reach himself.  They evidently used these Hosts to communicate themselves, and probably other parishioners as well—but not Chiara, whose resentment is presumably what prompted the question.

As we saw in “Questions About Eucharistic Ministers,” the correct term for people who assist in distributing Holy Communion in out-of-the-ordinary situations is extraordinary ministers, and their role is discussed in canons 910.2 and 911.2.  Before they undertook this role in Chiara’s parish, they no doubt received some instruction on how correctly to handle the Eucharist, and what to do and not to do in various situations that may arise.  If, in truly extraordinary circumstances like the ones that most of us have been living through in recent weeks, a pastor decides to entrust the Blessed Sacrament to certain members of the laity, so that they may in turn distribute it to other parishioners, it only makes sense that he would give It to those who had received appropriate training.  You have to wonder what led Chiara to declare, “It sounded even like they were given the privilege not as part of their role as Eucharistic ministers, but just as trusted lay faithful.”  Think about it: if the parish priest has given certain parishioners the role of extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, that certainly means that he considers them “trusted lay faithful,” doesn’t it?

What the priest did in this case was a highly irregular response to a highly irregular situation that he couldn’t possibly have foreseen—and who knows, it may or may not have been the best one.  Regardless, it is pretty hard to fault the priest’s intention, as he plainly wanted as many of his parishioners to be able to receive the Eucharist as possible.  He had to make a judgment call here—and with the spiritual wellbeing of his parishioners in mind, he made it.

Chiara angrily wants to know whether the law allows extraordinary ministers “to distribute communion where, when and to whom they please, following any ‘rite’ they please,” and her loaded question, needless to say, makes a lot of presumptions which don’t look like they’re based on any hard evidence.  It’s a safe bet that the priest gave the extraordinary ministers instructions (which would most likely have included permission to communicate themselves), and there’s no indication that his directives were violated.  Did these extraordinary ministers refuse to give the Eucharist to parishioners who weren’t their personal friends?  Did they wrongly give It to non-Catholics?  Or what?  Chiara’s umbrage presumably derives from the fact that some parishioners were able to receive the Eucharist while others weren’t—an undeniable reality that was caused by circumstances totally out of the priest’s control.  A responsible pastor should want to get the Eucharist to as many of his parishioners as possible, as often as possible.  But it sounds like Chiara would have preferred that nobody in the parish could receive Holy Communion at all, because that would have been more “fair.”

If you’re shaking your head at this point, bear in mind that Chiara is not unique.  Many priests who during this debacle have bravely risked arrest and imprisonment, or (potentially even worse!) raising the ire of their bishops, have also been dealing with more than their share of Chiaras, who reward their courage and consideration with criticism.  This brings us directly to the next question.

Chris says that he has been fighting a “battle with our Bishop and Pastor about receiving Holy Communion on the tongue.”  This wording would logically imply that the diocesan bishop and the parish priest are refusing to give Holy Communion on the tongue to Chris, as is his right under universal law (discussed at length in “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” and “Episcopal Conferences and Communion on the Tongue”).  But together with his question, Chris included an email from his parish priest, which clearly indicates that Communion on the tongue is not being denied to Chris (or any other parishioners) at all.

The priest’s email says unequivocally that “at [this parish] — if someone insists on receiving Holy Communion on the tongue … after Mass, one of the priests will give Holy Communion — having had time to sanitize his own hands before giving the person Holy Communion. I hope that folks will respect this…. There is a way to receive to communion on the tongue privately.”

The tone of the remainder of the email shows beyond any doubt that the priest is strained to the breaking point, but is nevertheless making a heroic effort to maintain charity with Chris, whom the priest begs not to create strife in the parish.  For reasons which are anybody’s guess, Chris is dissatisfied with this reply, and declares that “both of them, pastor and Bishop, must obey the higher, universal law, but alas they are not,” so he wants to “file a canonical suit against them.”

We don’t know what state directives the parish priest might be dealing with here; and likewise, we have no idea what exactly his bishop has said with regard to Communion on the tongue.  It’s not hard to imagine, though, that the priest may find himself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with secular authorities demanding (in an almost certain violation of the constitution) that he distribute Holy Communion this way, and/or a diocesan bishop who is flouting universal law and insisting that all diocesan priests give Holy Communion only in the hand.  On the opposite side stands Chris, demanding that he be allowed to receive the Eucharist on the tongue … and the parish priest is trying his best somehow to satisfy everybody at once.

That might be part of the reason why the priest has told Chris and like-minded parishioners that if they want to receive Communion on the tongue, they can do so—after Mass.  As the priest notes, this will give the celebrating priest the chance to purify his hands again; but at the same time, it could be that the priest is trying to respect Chris’s right to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, without simultaneously having to brave the wrath of a bishop who is disregarding the law on the subject and mandating the contrary.  Perhaps the priest is also concerned that some critical parishioner (like our abovementioned Chiara) might report him to the bishop—and so by arranging to distribute Holy Communion on the tongue after Mass, he will avoid attracting negative attention.  This would mean, in turn, that the practice can continue in the future.

Again, one would expect Chris to appreciate the complex difficulties inherent in such a situation, and be grateful that the parish priest is agreeing to do what universal law requires!  Therefore it’s not at all clear why Chris claims that his pastor is not following universal law, and wants to “sue” him (see “How Do I File a Canon Lawsuit?” for an in-depth discussion of this non-existent procedure).  Chris indicates that he has used articles from this website in support of his position; and while this certainly isn’t the first time that these writings have been twisted or otherwise misused to support a baseless argument, it would be wonderful if it were the last.

Last but not least, Philip describes what seems to be a fairly common scenario in many parts of the world at the moment: parishes in regions where crowd-sizes are being severely limited by civil authorities are asking parishioners to sign up for attendance at a specific Mass time.  Once the legal maximum has been reached, parishioners naturally will be unable to book a seat at a particular Mass.  In this way, obviously, parish priests are trying to ensure that everyone in the parish—or as many as possible, at least—can attend Sunday Mass, without running afoul of the state’s regulations.

Philip wants a canonist to explain “what is in play here,” but one rather suspects that Philip’s parish priest has already done so.  It’s hard to understand why Philip questions what his parish is doing.  Would he prefer to show up unannounced at (let’s say) the 10:30 am Mass on Sunday, and be turned away because the church is already filled to the legal max?  It is evident that in order to avoid this very scenario, Philip’s parish priest is taking the additional—and no doubt time-consuming—step of arranging in advance that no parishioner arrives at Sunday Mass without knowing that there is a seat available for him.  Kudos to parish priests who are doing this because they want to make sure that their parishioners are indeed able to attend Mass.  On what grounds could anybody object?

The sad irony is, there are without doubt many thousands (perhaps millions!) of Catholics all around the world right now who would gladly trade places with any and all of our questioners—because in their own dioceses and parishes, the churches are still locked and their irresponsible bishops and priests continue to refuse to make the slightest effort to assist them in their dire spiritual need.  In every one of the above scenarios, we see Catholic clergy who are trying to ensure that their parishioners are able to attend Mass and/or receive the sacraments as much as humanly possible, in accord with the Church’s laws.  Bishops and priests who are bravely stepping up to the plate, and are being attacked for it as a result, should know that even if some of the faithful of their own dioceses and parishes don’t appreciate what they’re doing … the rest of us do.

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