Fr. Martin Trask’s Announcement of the Amalgamation of St. Thomas More’s and St. Patrick’s
and the change in Mass times. Saturday 3rd September/Sunday 4th September 2016 The diocese:
There are fewer priests, the majority of which are over sixty. Most parts of the diocese have experienced parishes sharing priests and have dealt with that in various ways.
The parishes of St. Patrick’s and St. Thomas More
In 1996 St. Patrick’s had two priests, one church, and four Sunday Masses including the Saturday night vigil Mass. St. Thomas More’s had one priest, two churches and two Sunday Masses including the Saturday night vigil Mass. Later St. Patrick’s had one priest with two Sunday Masses including the Saturday night vigil Mass. St. Thomas More’s had one priest, one church, not two, and two Masses including the Saturday night vigil Mass but with vastly different Mass times than before. At present both parishes share a priest, have a church each, and each has two Sunday Masses including the Saturday night vigil Mass meaning that I am currently celebrating two Masses on a Saturday night and two Masses on Sunday morning. On more general matters, St. Thomas More’s has benefited greatly from the income it receives from the lease arrangements with Dickory Dock Nursery and Parson Cross Forum without which the parish wouldn't be viable. St. Patrick’s has benefited from the income it receives from the house on Swanbourne Road and the income it will receive from Shalom Media, who will be renting the first floor of St. Patrick’s presbytery. It has also benefited greatly from the effect of immigration into the parish. Without these factors it could be argued that the parish wouldn’t be viable.
Fr. Martin’s experience since becoming parish priest of both St. Patrick’s and St. Thomas More’s
I have to say from the outset that I do not regret for one minute volunteering to take on the responsibility of serving the two parishes and, on the whole, I have enjoyed the experience as both parishes are different from each other despite their churches’ proximity. I would like to mention at this point how great it is to have Andrew, the deacon at St. Patrick’s. We have an excellent working relationship, in which we are able to share ideas and, to constructively criticise each other, well most of the time! However, being parish priest of the two parishes has meant that my workload has doubled. In the first nine months I started to get constant chest pains. When I eventually got round to seeing the doctor, thankfully my heart was OK but the doctor said that the chest pains could be caused by stress and I should look at my workload. Since then, although I have managed my time better and my chest pains have gone, I still work long hours on most days. What is draining is the effort in trying to be fair to both parishes, if one thing is done in one parish it should be done in the other etc. The temptation is not to try anything new as it will have to be done twice. There has also been the doubling of meetings such as the parish council meetings and the SVP. My commitment to both primary and secondary schools, which I love, means that each week I am in one primary school and one secondary school. I visit some of the sick and housebound each week so that, roughly speaking, I see each parish’s once every two months. There is also a lot of office work, an increase in pastoral appointments with parishioners, and deanery and diocesan meetings to attend.
What both parishes currently do together.
For quite a few years there has been a joint Confirmation preparation programme. Since my being parish priest of both parishes there has been a very successful joint Journey in Faith programme and joint social events. Also there have been more instances of parishioners from one parish worshipping at the other when the need arises. We celebrate Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil together.
What is all this leading up to and why now?
Recently I came across a series of articles based on a fellow priest’s experiences. They were entitled ‘Amalgamating Parishes’, which is self-explanatory, ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’, concerning the purpose of the Saturday night vigil Mass, the fall in Mass attendance, the reduction in the number of priests and the Church’s ideal of having one celebration per worshipping community, and ‘One Bread, One Body’, which goes into more detail of one celebration per worshipping community. To be honest, I haven’t stopped buzzing since I read the articles. It has given me a new perspective and a renewed vision of the way ahead. I have shared the articles with Andrew and we have had a number of meetings and a lot of email exchanges in which we have come to a common vision. I also sent the articles to Bishop Ralph. Andrew and I met with Bishop Ralph about a week and a half ago to talk about our vision. Bishop Ralph agreed that it would be the natural progression from the current situation.
What is going to happen and when?
From 1st January next year there will still be two churches, St. Thomas More’s and St. Patrick’s, but there will only be one parish not two. The advantages of being one parish are that there will be one focus for me. There will also be one parish council, one finance and premises committee, one SVP, one meeting for Eucharist ministers and readers etc., all benefiting from the combined gifts, talents and experiences of the people who are now in the two parishes. There will also be one parish newsletter, one website and one email address, which will aid better communication, and one parish bank account, which will make administration so much easier. There will also be the greater possibility of having parish retreats, pilgrimages and even days out to the seaside, if that takes your fancy, or other social outings.
In St. Patrick’s, and to a lesser extent in St. Thomas More’s, we are blessed having congregations which reflect the diversity of the Church, in her culture, race and language. As we move towards becoming one parish, it is my own hope too that, while still recognising and rejoicing in that rich diversity, every one of us will also continue to work towards reflecting the unity of the Church in our parish.
With the change to being one parish there will also be a change in Mass times. As already mentioned, I am currently celebrating two Masses on a Saturday night and two on a Sunday morning. In other words, I am doing what two priests used to do and, to be honest, that is too much to expect. To use an example in one of the articles, it’s like having parish fish and chip supper and quiz night then when it’s finished telling the organisers to set up for another one as we are doing it all again in an hour! The Church states that the ideal is one Mass per community, all gathered around the one altar to celebrate the one sacrifice of Jesus. The only reason why there should be more than one Mass is if the church is too small to accommodate the whole of the parish assembled together. Taking into account the Mass attendance of the current four Masses and the capacity of both churches, there should only be three Masses not four. The two most popular ones are the 9am Mass at St. Thomas More’s and 11am Mass at St. Patrick’s, both of which have Children's Liturgy. These Masses will remain unchanged. Before going on to where the change in Mass times will happen I want to say a word about what was the original intention of the Saturday night vigil Mass and of Sunday being the Day of the Lord. The articles go into more detail. The Saturday night vigil Mass was only meant to enable shift workers, who couldn’t go to Mass on a Sunday, to fulfil their obligation. What has happened, through no fault of anyone’s, is that the specialness of Sunday being the Lord’s Day has been diluted. So taking all this into account, and having considered other alternatives, from the weekend of 7th/ 8th January there will no longer be a Saturday night vigil Mass in either church. Instead there will be a 6.30pm Sunday evening Mass at St. Thomas More’s. I know that this is a radical change but it also provides the opportunity for devotions before the Sunday evening Mass such as monthly Holy Hour or Stations of the Cross in Lent. It also makes Saturday night a better home for parish social events and Saturdays for parish pilgrimages or days outs. Confessions would be the same time at St. Patrick’s, 10.30am-11am on Saturdays but at St. Thomas More’s they would be 5.45pm-6.15pm on Sundays.
Why haven’t we been consulted on these changes?
In the past there has been a lot of hurt around the diocese and closer to home caused by parishes and deaneries being consulted, parishioners thinking their views were being taken into account and then realising that a decision had already been made so there hadn’t been any real consultation after all. No amount of consultation will change the situation we are in now. But what will make a tremendous difference is the process of how we, as two parishes, can work together towards being one parish by 1st January. There are still lots of things to sort out: What will the parish be called? How will the parish council and premises and finance committee be comprised? How can we best help those most affected by the changes? These are just a few things that spring to mind but there are many more. It is my and Andrew’s hope that the period between now and 1st January will be a time of constructive dialogue and real consultation and a time of prayerful reflection.
So what happens next?
After Mass, a booklet containing this announcement together with the three articles I’ve mentioned will be given out. The booklet will also be available on each parishes’ website. There is a lot to read but I urge you to read everything and, with an open heart and mind, reflect on it. There will be a parish meeting for St. Thomas More’s in the church at 7.30pm on Tuesday 20th September and a parish meeting for St. Patrick’s in the McAuley Centre at 7.30pm on Wednesday 21st September. This will give an opportunity for questions to be asked, views made know and concerns expressed. On Tuesday 27th September at 7.30pm in the McAuley Centre, at St. Patrick’s, there will be a joint parish meeting. It is hoped that at this meeting the process towards becoming one parish can begin with other joint parish meetings being scheduled as and when required.
Andrew and myself can also collect questions, views, comments, in person, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, in writing, or by using the suggestion box in church. All issues will be responded to either by using the parish newsletters or they may form discussion topics for the joint parish meetings. If anyone wants to help Andrew and myself in these early stages, it would be greatly appreciated.
I know that not many people like change and they would rather things stay as they are or, more accurately, as they were a number of years ago. I know there will be a sense of loss and hurt because of these changes. In all our lives there is a series of deaths and resurrections, for example, we experienced a death when we finished our time in primary school and we experienced a resurrection and new life when we started secondary school, we experienced a death when we ended our life as a single person and we experienced a resurrection and new life when we were married. This process of the two parishes becoming one and the change in Mass times can be seen in the same way. Yes, a death to what we are used to, but also a resurrection and new life of what can be. All this is done in our faith in the One who died and rose again for us, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
The following three articles are by Fr. Neil McNicholas
Amalgamating Parishes A good starting point is a dictionary definition of amalgamation: “to mix so as to make a unified whole”. The thoughts that follow are the fruits of having twice gone through the process of amalgamating parishes and, later, moving to a parish where an amalgamation had recently taken place.
There are usually three basic factors that influence consideration being given to amalgamation: falling numbers of priests to adequately staff the existing number of parishes; declining parish populations and therefore numbers at Mass; and, often as a consequence, insufficient financial support for the number of churches currently in use. And, of course, if the number of churches throughout a diocese is no longer sustainable, there may also be the need to consider closing a church as part of that process. Understandably this is the one thing in particular that doesn’t go down well, but an empty church before amalgamation is still an empty church afterwards.
It would be an extremely enlightened, perhaps extraordinary, parish community that would see and accept without question the need for their parish to lose its independent identity. For most, quite the opposite will be the case and even the prospect is likely to generate opposition and criticism, ill-feeling and division. Trying to be pastorally sensitive to such reactions doesn’t necessarily make them any easier to deal with and, if taken to the extreme, they may even be inexcusable. While the basic feelings of bereavement and loss are understandable, they should at least be expressed with charity.
In order to try to soften the blow of losing its independent status, sometimes a parish will be twinned (rather than amalgamated) with a neighbour, but this is often just the first stage in a process that will eventually lead to amalgamation anyway. My experience has been that doing one and then the other doesn’t make the process any easier for people; twinning causes just as much angst and upset as amalgamation because people experience the loss of their parish identity either way. I am personally convinced that it is better, more just, and certainly more honest, to get the whole process over with in one go. If we know that’s what’s going to happen eventually anyway, then let’s say so, explain why it’s happening and what will be involved, and so give people the opportunity to “own” the process. The alternative merely creates a situation of double loss and therefore double grief and it takes that much longer for real healing to begin and for the whole community to fully come together.
In a twinned situation, one parish will retain its priest as he serves both communities from that base. On the surface at least, twinning is often more acceptable to the people of both parishes because they haven’t actually “lost” anything other than, perhaps, in terms of a slight adjustment to their Mass schedule. Both still have a priest albeit that he is living in one parish and not the other. However this does create an inequality between the two communities and resentment can develop as people realise that it isn’t a situation of actual twinning because they are not identical twins. The perception will be that “they” have a priest and “we” don’t. And from the priest’s point of view it is also more difficult than an amalgamation because he is serving two canonically independent parishes and both communities have a right to equal provision of Masses, confessions, and so on. In the normal course of events the system may be difficult though workable, but at Christmas and Easter which community gets which celebrations given that one priest can’t possibly provide a full schedule in both churches? At least in the case of an amalgamated parish, such services can be legitimately divided if there is more than one church, though they are perhaps best celebrated in the central church of the parish.
For the priest, twinning is also an administrative nightmare because both sets of parish registers have to be maintained as well as two separate banking, accounting and filing systems. By contrast, amalgamation offers the opportunity for a more practical and hopefully more efficient system of administrative management, as well as - and more importantly of course – in the carrying out of his spiritual and pastoral ministry.
Another potential problem area can be the choice of the name for the new parish. During the one-year twinning of two of my parishes, St Andrew’s and St Peter’s, the combined name of Ss Andrew and Peter was used in an effort to console those who were upset at the loss of St Peter’s as an independent parish – particularly as it had been the original parish from which St Andrew’s had developed. However, when neighbouring St Anne’s parish was also amalgamated we reverted to the single name of St Andrew rather than trying to work out a possible combination of all the names. In any case, in terms of logistics and geography, St Andrew’s was the central church of the amalgamated parish and therefore the most appropriate choice of patronage. Going for a completely new name wouldn’t have been the answer because it wouldn’t have changed anything in the minds of those who may have been unhappy with the amalgamation.
There is also the question of terminology and the need to reinforce the “corporate identity” of the new single parish. This effort is essential in helping people to understand and accept that they are now members of a new faith community rather than continuing to identify with the previously separate parishes. It seems to me that full amalgamation right from the start, rather than twinning, is the only way to achieve a single faith community, again returning to the dictionary definition that I started with: “to mix so as to make a unified whole”. Anything that detracts from that, even the inadvertent use of previous parish names in referring to those areas of the new parish, has to be very deliberately avoided.
It is often proposed that a process of consultation should precede any move to twin or amalgamate parishes, but there can be considerable confusion over exactly what this means. People generally understand the word “consultation” to mean that a proposal, still in its initial stages, is going to be presented and that their views and comments and criticisms will not only be invited, but will also be listened to and incorporated into the decision-making process. What they may not understand is that because of the pastoral circumstances driving the process - fewer priests, falling numbers at Mass and so on (circumstances beyond anyone’s control) - there really isn’t any alternative. I think people need to know that this is the case and that however disappointed they may feel, this is how things have to be in order to provide the best possible spiritual and pastoral care for the majority, given the constraints of the situation. Of necessity the process isn’t one of consultation so much as information and therefore perhaps a better word than consultation should be used in the first place so as to avoid any misunderstanding.
When it was proposed to fully amalgamate my initially twinned parishes, the “consultation” process involved a number of options being presented at a parish meeting. People could see that one of these was clearly preferred by the diocese and felt that, in reality, the decision had already been taken. It would have been far better to have explained the situation and the reasons behind the preferred option and to have hopefully persuaded people to recognise and accept the circumstances that made that the only practical alternative. Instead, because they felt they hadn’t actually been “consulted”, as they saw and understood the word, many left the meeting feeling they had wasted their time and were antagonistic towards a decision they felt had been imposed on them from above. We lost many hearts and minds that day and some we never regained because the experience served only to confirm their unfortunate cynicism toward diocesan policy and procedure. I’m convinced that a lot of this could have been avoided, and the path ahead of us made that bit smoother, if the people had understood the situation properly from the outset.
The Church is not a democracy and I think people should be clear on that. Such far-reaching pastoral decisions are not ones in which entire parish communities can be involved, but are necessarily delegated to specific diocesan bodies whose judgment and integrity have to be trusted, something which cannot therefore be jeopardised by any perceived lack of openness. But people will have a negative perception if they are invited to be part of a process of consultation (as they understand it) when that’s really not what it is. Whilst a decision to amalgamate may have, in fact, already been made, there still needs to be a forum within which the diocese can explain the factors involved, why the decision had to be taken, explain the way forward, answer people’s questions, and hopefully also allay any fears they may have.
The changing circumstances in which the Church in this country finds itself are becoming increasingly evident. If we choose to bury our heads in the sand, we only have ourselves to blame if reality catches us unawares and unprepared. Parish priests should not shy away from making the people aware of pastoral trends within their diocese and how these might impact on parishes in terms of future pastoral provision. But this should not be done in a “forewarned is forearmed” way, but rather in a way which makes it possible for people to prepare realistically for changes that will have to be made for sound pastoral reasons. There is still the danger that, while people may accept the inevitability of change, the “not in my backyard” syndrome will make its presence felt, but fighting such decisions, writing letters, signing petitions, going to the media, even demonstrating against them, is pointless in that people’s objections won’t change the contributing factors that made the decision necessary. People being more aware, or better informed, in the first place might help to make the changes that have to be made a less bitter pill to swallow. Meeting the spiritual and pastoral needs of the people of our dioceses cannot be about “me, myself and I”, but “we and us”, having an eye and a concern for the bigger picture, and a corporate concern for all the members of the body of Christ.
“The Times They Are A-Changing” In the parish where I am as I write this article we have two churches, one in the centre of this busy seaside town, and the other some four miles away serving a once independent rural community which is now part of the amalgamated parish. On a weekend we have three Masses, a Saturday evening Vigil Mass in town and two Sunday morning Masses one in each church. Being a seaside town, the attendance at “Sunday” Mass (which includes the Saturday Vigil of course) increases considerably in the summer months with all of the visitors who join us, but even then the church in town (which can seat about 300)(the other church can seat about 90) is never anywhere near full. Out of season, attendance at the three Masses averages around 50, 200 and 40+ respectively.
Faced with a gradual decline in the number of people attending our Saturday Vigil, the future of that Mass was discussed at a recent deanery meeting. My proposal was that it be discontinued during the winter months when numbers attending Sunday Mass could easily be accommodated at the two Sunday morning celebrations and a time of year when the elderly in particular tend to express concern about venturing out on dark nights. However, the general feeling was that it should continue if only because there is no other Vigil Mass in the area, and also because some may stop coming to Mass altogether if “their” Mass were to be discontinued (even just for the winter months).
I didn’t quite understand the logic of that argument to be honest. Vigil Masses in neighbouring parishes were stopped because, presumably, circumstances changed and they were no longer justified or supported, but ours has to continue (even though in the winter months the same would be true) simply because no other local parish has one! And if the Eucharist is as important to someone as it should be, it seems unlikely they would stop going to Mass just because of a change in schedule - but if they do then that is a decision between themselves and God that they would have to make, and be responsible for, in conscience.
I can remember when Vigil Masses were first introduced and the reason was to do with shift patterns and people not being able to get to Sunday morning Mass - and yet they had always managed before there were Vigil Masses, mainly because many parishes had a Sunday evening Mass. All it seemed to do was confuse even further the concept of the Sabbath at a time when Sundays were beginning to lose their special character anyway. If people went to the Saturday Vigil, did they still remember to keep the Sabbath (a period of 24hrs which, strictly speaking, began with their celebration of Mass)? Or, with their so-called “Mass obligation” taken care of on Saturday evening, was there a danger that Sunday simply became a day off and the other requirements of the Sabbath (as established by God’s commandment and the precepts of the Church) were forgotten?
Many of us can remember a time when there were several Sunday Masses in most parishes and, as a result, we came to consider that as the norm – which, in purely practical terms, it probably was. There were a lot more people going to Mass and filling our churches back then and a lot more priests available to celebrate all those Masses. In recent years, however, there has been a noticeable decline in Mass attendance and in the number of priests and of vocations. Those two facts make some degree of change inevitable in terms of how many Sunday Masses can be celebrated. At the same time the Church has raised the question of how many Masses should be celebrated.
Given that the question was first raised by the Vatican Council nearly fifty years ago, why does it still come as such a shock to people? The Council very clearly stated (in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, para 106) that: “On the Lord’s day…Christ’s faithful should come together into one place” and this is echoed in the document Celebrating the Mass, published by the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales, which states that the Mass “should be in every sense inclusive and not be needlessly multiplied” – the emphasis being on the word “needlessly”. “Although more than one Mass will often be celebrated in a parish on a Sunday” the Bishops said, “a balance needs to be kept between what is convenient, and what helps the Church to become an authentic community of faith.” In other words, the Mass is meant to be a communal celebration of the whole parish family together and the only justification for there being more than one Sunday Mass in a parish would be the fact that the church is too small to accommodate everyone at a single celebration, or, perhaps, that there is more than one church in the parish.
This reminder from the Church that the ideal is for the parish to gather for a single celebration, a celebration of unity and community, also reminds us that the Mass is never “mine”. We may use that word, perhaps without really thinking about it, to refer to the particular Mass time we have become used to attending, but it isn’t the best choice of words because of the aspect of personal possession that it suggests. The Mass is “ours”, not mine. Our Lord invites us to come together, to meet together around the altar, as members of his family. It is a communal celebration, a family gathering, a family meal. It’s all about “us”, not me; what’s best for the community, not what my personal preference might be.
There is also the fact that, by Canon Law, a priest is only supposed to celebrate one Mass a day (CC. 905). “If there is a scarcity of priests, (the Bishop) may for a good reason allow priests to celebrate twice in one day or even, if pastoral need requires it, three times on Sundays or holydays of obligation.” The fact that people are reluctant to gather together for one large communal celebration doesn’t constitute “pastoral need” and especially when, as a result, the church is perhaps only half-full for two or three Masses on Sundays when it could and should be comfortably full for one. But also how many people have considered the situation from the priest’s point of view rather than just their own? Let me explain…
It goes without saying that all Masses are special, but Mass on Sundays and holydays (being “solemnities”, days of particular spiritual significance and observance) should be celebrated accordingly. The Eucharist is, as the catechism reminds us, “the heart and summit of the Church’s life” (para 1407) “the sum and summary of our faith” (para 1327). For many Catholics, unable to get to church during the week, Sunday Mass is understandably - and rightly - the spiritual highpoint of their week. And because we no longer have “low” and “high” Masses as we once did, each Sunday celebration is of equal importance and therefore, whichever Mass a person chooses to attend, their experience should be, as far as possible, the same. Consequently the priest has to invest himself in that celebration accordingly – physically, emotionally and spiritually – something that is not made any easier when there is more than one Mass and also when one celebration follows soon after another. The comparison isn’t the best, but in some respects it’s a little like the cast of a play or musical who have to give of their best at a matinée performance and then their best once again at an evening performance soon after. The audience deserves at least that much from them. I wonder if people ever think about that in connection with the Mass? Do they appreciate the demands that multiple celebrations place on the priest as he tries to make each Sunday Mass at which he presides as similar and (for all the right reasons) as memorable an experience and celebration as possible for each congregation?
The “cold light of day” reality that many dioceses are increasingly having to consider is how many parishes they have, how many priests there are to serve them, and just how many people are going to Mass in all the various churches (with the inevitable implications this that has for income, ministry and support). In some cases the unavoidable writing on the wall may be that some churches will have to close and parishes be amalgamated. A slightly less radical solution may be the possibility of reducing the number of Masses being celebrated in order to enhance, if that’s the right word, the effectiveness of the service and ministry that priests are trying to provide.
We can’t continue to provide Masses in the numbers we have been – priests are fewer and ageing and trying to do so is literally killing them. In my previous parish there were two of us, but we had four churches to cover and five weekend Masses. I thought I was managing, but (though I wasn’t aware of it) my body was beginning to react badly to the stress and pressures of trying to cope with a Sunday Mass schedule of convenience (for the people, not the priests) and administering an amalgamation of what had once been four independent parishes served by six or seven priests. We were just two. You do the maths – it just doesn’t work. I’m not exactly a spring chicken, but there are many priests older than me who continue trying to cope with Mass provision situations that really need to be addressed and resolved before they drive themselves into an early grave. A dead priest is no use to anyone.
It really isn’t realistic to continue thinking in terms of Mass being when we are used to it being, or of having the same number of Masses that we may have been used to, and it would surely be better to start getting used to future possibilities and preparing for them in our minds at least, than pretending it’s never going to happen and then reacting badly when it has to. Reacting negatively when such decisions have to be made and writing letters to the bishop and the Pope (as some will) doesn’t change the reality that made those decisions necessary. Surely it would be better to be aware of the reality of the situation and to at least start thinking about the changes that might have to be made so that we can accommodate ourselves to them as peacefully as possible – less a case of forewarned is forearmed, as forewarned is far better.
One Bread, One Body One bread, one body, one Lord of all,
one cup of blessing which we bless.
and we, though many, throughout the earth,
we are one body in this one Lord.
Those lyrics remind us of the unifying purpose and effect of the Eucharist, the sacrament that Our Lord instituted to unite and nourish those who would follow him. Communion isn’t just the name of the sacrament, but describes what it brings about, what its purpose is; we can’t be in communion by ourselves, we can only be in communion with one another as members of Christ’s body, coming together – ideally around the one altar - to do what he commanded us to do in memory of him as he gathered his disciples around the one table at the Last Supper.
Historically the eucharist was a communal celebration. In Acts (2 v 1; 2 v 46; 4 v 32) we read how the early Christian community met together, went as a body to the Temple, and were “united, heart and soul”. Even by the second century (around 155AD) St Justin Martyr records that “On Sundays all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place” (to celebrate the eucharist). But very soon the growth of the Christian community would no longer make it possible for everyone to gather together as had been the traditional practice. What we are now used to – several Sunday Masses being celebrated in numerous and diverse parishes - is, in many ways, a contradiction of what the eucharist – both the sacrament and the communal celebration - is all about.
A quick trip through the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the Eucharist is “a sign of unity” (para 1323), “that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being”; which “is celebrated amid the assembly of the faithful” (para 1329); and that “all who eat the one broken bread, Christ, enter into communion with him and form one body in him” (para 1329). Again, the eucharistic celebration involves assembling together, coming together, as members of the one body of Christ.
The Bishops’ Conference document, Celebrating the Mass, reinforces the same point and introduces some further considerations:
As we gather around the table of the Lord the reality of our common life is recognised and demonstrated. (para 8) The idea of strangers gathering for Eucharist, and remaining strangers thereafter, does not sit easily with the Gospel message. (para 14)
Most people in a typical parish probably don’t even know the majority of their fellow parishioners by sight let alone by name, and that’s because they tend to go to the same Mass every Sunday and therefore don’t ever meet those who go to their own favoured Mass at a different time or even a different day in the case of the Saturday Vigil. We can talk all we like about “Christian unity”, but we are not even united within our own church community in the sense that we really don’t know who other members are. How many could we pick out of an identity parade? – and these are fellow members of our parish family!
The document makes a further and very important point (para 21):
The Eucharist should be in every sense inclusive and not be needlessly multiplied… A balance needs to be kept between what is convenient, and what helps the Church to become an authentic community of faith.
As we’ve said, people typically get used to going to Mass at a particular time and even though they may intellectually accept that there may be an unnecessary number of Sunday or holyday Masses being celebrated relative to the numbers attending those celebrations, they will fight tooth and nail to retain “their” Mass – though it isn’t actually their Mass – and yet the bigger question, the bigger picture, is just how communal is it? Exactly how justified are any of the Masses over and above what should ideally be one single gathering of the faith community?
It would be an exceptional parish church – or a very small one – that would be full on Sundays. Typically there will be a Vigil Mass on Saturday and at least one Sunday morning Mass, possibly two, but just how many empty seats will there be at these celebrations? And in an amalgamated parish, there could well be at least two churches thus dividing the faith community even further as each section of the supposedly united faith community continues to worship in what has traditionally been “its” church and at any one of how many Sunday Masses are scheduled in those churches.
Why are we so accepting of our faith family dividing itself between so many eucharistic celebrations, separately celebrating the sacramental meal that should unite us socially as well as spiritually? If you went to a restaurant for a family meal you would expect to be seated together at one table and not spread around in twos and threes – indeed you would have specifically booked one table for the family. A meal is a communal activity, a communal experience – and all the more so the eucharistic meal we share at Mass. And yet in parishes everywhere we are typically meeting in separate, often quite small, groups to do our own thing at “our” preferred Mass time. Might we be more encouraged in giving united witness to our faith – or even feel more united in our faith – if we were nourished in word and sacrament, gathered around the one altar, at a single celebration of Mass, together?
In answering such questions, there is usually very little sympathy for the situation of the priest. While his central role within the parish is to celebrate the Eucharist, he should not be multiplying Masses simply on demand. Indeed, in Canon Law it says (CC.905):
Apart from those cases in which the law allows him to celebrate the Eucharist a number of times on the same day, a priest may not celebrate more than once a day. If there is a scarcity of priests (the bishop) may for good reason allow priests to celebrate twice in one day or even, if pastoral need requires it, three times on Sundays or holydays of obligation.
Note the use of the phrases “for good reason” and “if pastoral need requires it”, neither one of which covers the situation in a parish where, historically, there may have always been several Sunday Masses and people have got used to going to “their” Mass at a time that is convenient for them.
Consideration also needs to be given to the fact that there may now be just one priest in a parish where formerly the Mass schedule was being covered by two or three. And in an amalgamated parish he may be serving a geographical area and a faith community formerly served, again, by at least two priests if not more. In recent years the number of priests has declined considerably and yet the number of churches being served, and the number of Masses being celebrated, has often remained exactly the same.
That other phrase from Canon 905 - “those cases in which the law allows him” - reminds us of a time not too many years ago when priests were permitted to celebrate three Masses on Holy Souls Day. It was almost as if the Church was saying that if one Mass was good, then three Masses were even better - but, then, why stop at three? It’s perhaps with hindsight, and a somewhat different approach to liturgy post-Vatican II, that such a practice now seems somewhat bizarre. Priests would say their three Masses one straight after the other, and, indeed, if you came into church half way through one Mass and stayed through to that same point in the next Mass (like people used to with films at the cinema) you could consider you had “heard” a full Mass. Sadly it reflected a very impoverished approach to what the Mass is all about.
If we appreciate that each celebration of the Eucharist is unique, why do people expect a priest to facilitate the unique more than once in a day? To give a rather mundane example, it’s like the people watching Leonardo da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa, or Michelangelo sculpt the Pieta, and then saying “It’s very nice, but can you do another one please?”! Have you ever stopped to think how hard it might be for a priest given that he owes it to each congregation to celebrate each Mass on a given Sunday with the same level of energy and liturgical input so that the people’s spiritual experience is (potentially at least) the same?
This would be true of any celebration of Mass but, from my point of view as a priest, it is particularly the case on a feast such as today’s (as I write): Palm Sunday. There is the whole liturgy of the blessing of palms at the beginning of Mass, but then there is also the long and involved account of the Passion. We did all of that at the Saturday Vigil Mass, and then we did it all again at the first morning Mass at the first my churches, and then we did it all again at the second Mass at the second of my Churches – and all because people insist on attending “their” Sunday Mass of choice in “their” church when, in point of fact, everyone could have fitted comfortably into one church for one Mass and experienced the richness of a united communal celebration – which is what the Mass is meant to be.
The only justification for scheduling more than one Sunday Mass should be that not everyone can fit into church for one celebration – and that is hardly the case in most of our parishes. Mass attendance in this country has been on the decline for some time and, as a result, we now have too many Masses still scheduled and more churches than we need or that we can realistically afford to maintain. What we need is consolidation within parishes and, where necessary, amalgamation of parishes. We will then hopefully find ourselves in a much healthier situation spiritually and liturgically, gathering for our eucharistic celebrations in much greater numbers and experiencing the unity of purpose and practice to which Christ calls us as we come together around his (one) altar to be nourished in word and in sacrament.
Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa quotes St Augustine as saying:
Think, brethren, of what happens when a gathering place is fixed to celebrate the feast day; how excited the people become and they encourage one another to go! If asked where they are going, they will reply: There, to that place, that sanctuary! They, as it were, inflame one another, and so they form one flame, each communicating to the other the flame that is burning in themselves and making them all come together in that holy place. If then pure love can transport the faithful to a simple sanctuary, how much more sublime should the love of those be, who, living in concord, can say to each other: ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’