QUAERITUR: When there is no Mass for Sunday

From a reader:

I was just reading my parish’s bulletin and noticed that next week
there is no Mass on Saturday or Sunday because the priest is away.
Instead the deacon is leading a Liturgy of the Word with a Communion Service in place of the Masses.

I live in a city that’s sufficiently large enough (around 20 Latin
Rite parishes, and a number of Eastern Rite Churches) that the vast
majority of parishoners could attend an actual Mass or Divine Liturgy on either day without any trouble.

This made me wonder if attending a Liturgy of the Word with a
Communion Service when one can easily attend a Mass at another parish a few kilometers away would count as fulfilling one’s Sunday
Obligation? Does it have to be an actual Mass?

People are not bound to something that they cannot fulfill. If there is no Mass within a reasonable distance, then you cannot fulfill your obligation and therefore, you are not at fault.

That said, should a person chose to make a bit of a sacrifice, it would be commendable to drive somewhere more distant.  Perhaps such a person could from goodness take someone with you.

In any event, Sunday remains the Lord’s Day, and divine positive law holds us always.

In your case, it is not hard to get to another Church for Mass.  I would go to Mass elsewhere on Sunday rather than go to some liturgy of the word and Communion service.  How dreadful.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, 1983 CIC can. 915 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Stephen says:

    Church law is a fun thing. I don’t think that Canon Law truly excuses the obligation to hear Mass from anyone but those who haven’t sufficient transportation to get to a neighboring parish, perhaps the elderly who do drive. I live in a similar area in terms of parishes and such. It’s clear that even though the current Code was written in the, so called, modern era, it was not really thinking of the kind of distances Americans consider reasonable by auto. I know few people, frankly, who belong to their geographical parish in this area. So for those, I’m sure the Canons on this would not excuse them from hearing Mass rather than the rite for Sundays in the absence of a priest. Oh well… I also don’t think that those who don’t understand Canon Law can be culpable if they attend the communion service described, though priests owe their parishioners proper catechesis on this.

  2. Seems like if this is taking place in a city with reasonable access to other Masses, people ought to be told that the Communion service will not fulfill their Sunday obligation.

    I think Communion services breed confusion and heterodoxy. People seem to think of them as priestless “Masses,” a contradiction in terms. Others seem to think that they are an opportunity for women to play priest. I have been told that when the redoubtable Bishop Vasa was bishop of Baker, he forbade Communion services within his diocese. Good for him.

  3. APX says:

    IMHO, i’d have just cancelled Mass and told people to go to a different parish, especially if there’s one within a few kilometers.

  4. Sandra_in_Severn says:

    We can complain about the lack of priests in our parishes, but it is more than critical, it is a crisis, to those in the military services. In the States, it is NOT a hardship to leave the base/post, and go to Mass in the local community. However, for many places overseas, (including ships and in hostile fire (combat) areas), there are no alternate means to attend Mass on Sunday, or any other day; nor to receive the sacraments (Reconciliation and Anointing/Last Rites).

  5. Dr. K says:

    “18. Whenever and wherever Mass cannot be celebrated on Sunday, the first thing to be ascertained is whether the faithful can go to a church in a place nearby to participate there in the eucharistic mystery. At the present time this solution is to be recommended and to be retained where it is in effect; but it demands that the faithful, rightly imbued with a fuller understanding of the Sunday assembly, respond with good will to a new situation.” (source)

  6. Although the OP referred to the case where an ordained deacon leads these sorts of services, it might be worth recalling that the Instruction “On Certain Questions Regarding
    the Collaboration of the non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest” restricts such services led by the laity to very unusual circumstances.

    In some places in the UK, lay led services of the Word and Communion have become common norm for services during the week!

  7. Joan A. says:

    But are you obligated to go to the Liturgy/Word/Communion Service?

    In other words, Mass is cancelled at my parish due to priest’s absence. If I CANNOT (say I’m disabled, elderly and don’t have a car) go to one of these “little bit farther away” masses, am I obligated to walk to my own parish as usual on Sunday to attend the service? OR, am I released from my Sunday obligation to go to church because there is no Mass?

    See, it’s very confusing and we have been having a raging debate about this in my parish for some months because we are in a similar situation, what a person’s real obligation is when it comes to these “services”? I feel if my parish cannot offer Mass, and I cannot get to a Mass, I am not obligated to go to anything if I so choose on that Sunday. IS that right?

  8. It’s also a shame that, apparently, there are no priests within driving distance to whom the parish priest can turn to say Mass, either from within his diocese or outside it. You would think that the local archbishop would strive to give parish priests lists of all possible nearby priests, including retired ones and members of religious orders, so that they could call them at need. Surely it would be a lot less annoying to pay a stipend, or even to help with a short bit of travel, rather than to make the deacon hold a prayer service. I mean, some places may be that short on priests; but often there’s somebody to go to.

  9. Glen M says:

    I have no doubt the Liturgy of the Word/Communion Service is the goal of many Liturgy Committees. In a metropolitan centre with public transit, there is no excuse for missing Mass when one is available somewhere else. The pastor should ask his parishioners to remember their envelopes are still required for their church, not the one they attend in his absence.

  10. RichardT says:

    The question asked was whether “attending a Liturgy of the Word … when one can easily attend a Mass at another parish … would count as fulfilling one’s Sunday Obligation?”

    If I’ve understood the Sunday Obligation properly, that’s the wrong question.

    As I understand it, attending a Liturgy of the Word / Communion service will NEVER fulfil your Sunday Obligation – whether the nearest Mass is next door or a thousand miles away. If you can get to Mass, you are obliged to go to Mass. If you can’t, you aren’t.

    Therefore going to a Liturgy of the Word service no more fulfils your Sunday Obligation than going to the pub does.

    Having said that, there may be good reasons for going to a Liturgy of the Word service; it is good to hear the Word of God, and to pray, and it is good to do so with others. But I don’t think it can ever be part of fulfilling our Sunday obligation.

  11. Fleeb says:

    In the Blue Ridge foothills, where Catholics make up 3% of the population, we travel outside of our geographical parish every Sunday to attend Mass–30 miles away–to be “fed” by a pastor who truly celebrates the Mass reverently, with humility, and without the “I’m here to entertain you” approach that drove us (and other families) away from the local parish.
    When our pastor must be away, he ALWAYS has a replacement to celebrate Mass…no exceptions. I believe the diocese of Arlington has “standby” priests for such occasions. My son is in also in Boy Scouts (an Episcopalian troop) and we always ensure that the scoutmaster has him back by4 so we can get to 5:30 Mass, so finding a Mass on Sunday ANYWHERE (unless you’re in the arctic) should not be a problem nowadays.
    I never understood the Communion Service…if Catholics should not receive Holy Communion if they are in a state of mortal sin, and if the Church requires only reception once a year (at a minimum), why does the Church deem it necessary to continue with this? Mass is obligatory, not Communion. If we truly believe in the Presence, then why can any “Joe/Josephine” hand out Our Lord in the absense of a Priest? Does a Communion Service wipe away venial sins prior to reception (this is rhetorical)? Does the old guy/gal from the 60’s (who also holds hands during the Our Father or utilizes the “oremus” posture…blech) think they are playing priest or quasi-deacon/deaconess?
    If the Church wants to get rid of abuse, start with this practice…it makes little sense to me.

  12. James Joseph says:

    With modern transportation…. there is basically no excuse anymore.

  13. Joan M says:

    During 2005 I spent many weekends in Tobago. I worked there about 7 times during that year, 2 or 3 weeks at a time. The hotel where I worked was about 20 minutes drive from the church in Delaford. However, for quite some time there has not been a priest assigned there (there still isn’t). Sometimes a priest from the Cathedral in Port of Spain, Trinidad would come across to Tobago to celebrate Mass in Delaford. Other weekends they had a Liturgy of the Word / Communion service held by a woman. I was given to understand that the parishioners from Delaford were urged to attend the lay services instead of going to the only other Mass available on the island, in Scarborough – why? To ensure the community continued to worship together.

    I made sure I found out if there would be Mass in Delaford – if there was, I went to Mass there. At all other times (most of the time) I borrowed the hotel car and drove the comparatively short distance over a hilly and windy road for an hour and a quarter to get to Mass in Scarborough.

    People without access to a car would probably have been able to travel via route taxi, if they were determined to get to Mass, but it seems that many did not.

  14. Bosco says:

    We here in Ireland have Mass live-streamed from various Catholic parishes throughout the entire week. When I am unable to attend Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation (my wife and I are in our 60’s, live in a very rural area, and I do not drive owing to poor eyesight complicated by diabetes) I often watch Mass on the internet. It’s not technically ‘attending’ Mass but it’s the best I can do often as not. If anyone is interested, the web address for the Irish Masses is http://www.churchservices.tv/
    God Bless

  15. APX says:

    I just noticed that my parish’s elementary school, which is half a block from the church, has the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral literally across the street, so I can’t see any need to have these other services. It’s no wonder why so few people don’t know why we go to church on Sundays anymore. Some priests completely gloss over it with these “Liturgy of the Word with a Communion Service.”

  16. catholicmidwest says:

    There you go! Now you have an alternative every Sunday, APX.

  17. Luvadoxi says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but *does* a Communion service, or receiving Communion outside of Mass, remit venial sins?

  18. I have no doubt the Liturgy of the Word/Communion Service is the goal of many Liturgy Committees.

    Yep. Liberals like priest shortages. They think a shortage of priests will eventually compel the Church to change her mind about ordaining women.

  19. Mundabor says:

    Not clear to me why the priests thinks that the liturgy of the word can be “in place of” the Mass if this clearly can’t be the case.

    If mass can be reasonably attended, there’s an obligation to go to mass. If mass can’t be reasonably attended, there isn’t. Whatever else is organised can in my eyes never be “in place of” the mass; no more than a Vesper or Station of the Cross ever would.

    I have the unpleasant feeling that the unwritten message sent to the parishioners is: “next sunday you have fulfiled your mass obligation if you just come to the service, *whether you can attend elsewhere or not*”.

    It would have been good if the priest would have left two lines as to the sunday mass obligations, making clear that the deacon’s exercise cannot be a substitute for the mass obligation.

    I am also left with the unpleasant feeling that for many of the priest’s parishioners, receiving communion may be considered more important than Mass attendance, or something like a valid surrogate.


  20. Joan A. says:

    This is a great post, it is clarifying some things for me. Thank you.

    As problematic as these services are, it does seem there’s been improvement in making sure they are actual “Liturgy of the Word” and “Eucharist” services, not any old weird thing some layperson throws together. The first time I went to a “Communion Service” was about 7 years ago and I had never heard of such a thing. The priest had decided to allow these in place of weekday Mass. I was startled when instead of the priest a woman entered carrying a ciborium, followed by her husband, who had on some sort of stole. (He was not a Deacon.)

    She set the ciborium on the altar. Never once did either of them genuflect or even bow. So now I was really confused: what was in there? Unconsecrated hosts? If so, who was going to consecrate them? If consecrated, why the casual treatment?

    The readings for the day were ignored. Instead we got 2″spiritual” readings, a Hopi Indian prayer to the Sun and something from St. Francis.

    Then to my astonishment, the woman gave us a “homily”. I guess if it’s not a Mass, it can’t be a homily, so I’ll call it a lecture. Just the usual about helping the poor and all that. Her husband pretty much just hovered around all the time.

    By now I was wondering if this was some protestant or new age visitor the priest has allowed to use our chapel (he was that sort of priest). I really did not understand if I was participating in a Catholic ritual or not. So I did not go to Communion, because I still was not sure what was really in that ciborium, or if I should receive it from these lay people.

    At the end, we got another little lecture about how they hoped we enjoyed (is this theatre?) the Service and people don’t realize how much work they go to preparing these, and all the prayers and such were very carefully selected for our spiritual growth. Here something twitched in me; who is this woman to be supervising my spiritual growth?

    So then they picked up ciborium (again no bow, no genuflect) and walked out the side door. I ran after them because I had to know what this was all about? “Excuse me, but who are you and what was that and what is in that ciborium and where are you taking it?”

    Their faces lighted up. They were thrilled to explain it all to me! Their words were, “This is the WAVE of the FUTURE in the Catholic Church! With the priest shortage, lay people are taking over more and more of the priestly duties. This is a Communion Service to REPLACE the Mass. We GO AROUND DOING THIS for absent priests.”

    So I asked, “But are those consecrated hosts you’re carrying around?” “Oh yes, don’t worry, these are real.” “Oh, well then it’s strange during this whole service never once did we genuflect.” Disapproving looks from both of them.

    Wave of the future, eh? I pray not.

  21. RichardT says:

    Mundabor, you put it more elegantly than I did, but I think we agree.

    But I would go further – I think there should not be Liturgy of the Word / Communion services in these circumstances (other than in remote mission territories), at least for a few years.

    Why? Not because of any inherent problems with the service itself, but because where the congregation are poorly catechised it leads to the sort of confusion that you refer to.

  22. Vox clamantis in deserto says:

    In the diocese of Graz-Seckau (Austria), where I have lived for the last two years, HE bishop Kapellari forbade distribution of the Holy Communion at Liturgies of Word (or any other “substitutions” of the Holy Mass). Clearly it is meant as a step towards distinguishing Holy Mass from any other prayer/liturgy/whatever else. The previous bishop was quite liberal (read “a supporter of alternatives to Holy Mass”), HE Kapellari started a painfully slow brick-by-brick process…slow, but as quick as possible, it is much easier to destroy than to build…

    It’s exactly as was written above – such liturgies are reasonable in remote mission territories, maybe in protestant countries with tiny Catholic minorities…but in Austria? Yes, there are some remote villages, but virtually everybody has a car and goes shopping at least once a week…but on Sundays, liturgies of word still flourish. The distance which is ok to drive for shopping suddenly becomes too long to drive for a Holy Mass. Obviously a supermarket is more important than a Sunday obligation…

  23. I think the reason why some people might think that a Communion service fulfills the obligation is that they in fact see the obligation to attend Mass as an obligation to receive Communion and which will therefore be fulfilled mainly by the reception of Communion. I hope this doesn’t apply to a lot of people, but I have encountered this belief illustrated by the fact that a person asked me if it would be sufficient to go to the prespytery and ask a priest if they could receive Communion if they did not arrive back from a trip on time. I guess the reason why such a peculiar belief might develp is the emphasis of the meal aspect to the detriment of the sacrifice the Mass. I have also encountered people expressing a feeling that they are not being spiritually fed at Mass if the readings are in a language they do not understand, even if they are in fact able to receive Communion.

    If these two attitudes are at all common, then it is no wonder that some may think that a service at which one can hear the word of God and receive Holy Communion fulfills the Sunday obligation and more or less substitutes for a Mass. It is, of course, very sad that such a misunderstanding of the Mass should exist, and even more peculiar if the priest did not make it clear that this does not fulfill the obligation and that the service is more of an option for people who are hindered from travelling even to a nearby parish for Mass and for whom the obligation thus falls away. I can see that this might possibly be the case for people with incapacities who do not have private means of transport or anyone to give them a lift, or else very poor people unable to afford any form of transport and who would have to walk through very dangerous areas to get to the neighbouring parish. It would not, however, apply to most people in a city well supplied with Catholic churches. To someone who lives large parts of the year in an area where one has to drive 60km to the nearest Mass on largely inferior roads (at least compared to many of the roads in the States) and sometimes in adverse conditions, the notion that any reasonably mobile person would not go to a parish close by one’s own for Mass in a case like the above simply seems incredible.

  24. Joe in Canada says:

    Unfortunately I knew a priest who would expressly NOT look for a replacement when he went away (once for 6 weeks). Not only would he tell parishioners NOT to go to another parish, but he would not schedule Communion services. Instead, his parish had Morning and Evening Prayer on Sunday, and he told his parishioners that they should go to those services. This was in a a city large enough for parishioners to go elsewhere, or for him to find a replacement. No wonder the laity can sometimes get confused!

  25. I would not attend a Liturgy of the Word in the circumstance described. In fact, I don’t see any reason to offer one, and as others observed, a good pastor (shepherd) would make every effort to see that a priest were available to offer at least one Sunday Mass in the pastor’s absence. With modern means of communication, one should be locatable, even if the deacon or other qualified parishioner has to drive somewhere to pick up that priest. In any case, Sunday Mass is important, and even a long drive is probably not unreasonable these days on occasion. Why cannot the faithful be expected to make the slightest sacrifice for Jesus, who made the supreme sacrifice for us?

    Disclaimer: I voluntarily drove two hours to get to Mass this morning, which is not unusual for me. It did not seem unduly burdensome. I have nothing else more important to do most Sundays.

  26. RichardT says:

    Catholicofthule said (6:29 pm):
    “it is no wonder that some may think that a service at which one can hear the word of God and receive Holy Communion … more or less substitutes for a Mass.”

    I’ve said this before, but I went to Catholic schools until the age of 18, first Communion classes, Confirmation classes, Mass every Sunday – without even once hearing that there was anything more to Mass than hearing the word of God and receiving Holy Communion.

    The first I heard of the Sacrifice of the Mass, was hearing it condemned by a Protestant when I was about 20. My first reaction was “do we believe that?”

    My second reaction was to think that I had an awful lot of catching up to do!

  27. Ah, yes, the Sunday obligation questions. Little to add to Fr. Z’s comment, but I recall some great stuff by Ligouri about “15 minutes by donkey is far enough, less if it is very hilly”.

  28. benedictgal says:

    Last Saturday evening, there was a scheduling problem in my parish. When I walked in, the deacon asked me if I could call the associate pastor to see if he could come and celebrate Mass. The deacon then said that if Father could not come, then, he would do a communion service. I looked at the deacon and I told him that I did not think that it was licit since, as it was the anticipated Saturday vigil, the faithful could return tomorrow or go to a parish that was several blocks away for Mass (since their was 1/2 an hour later than ours). The deacon looked at me rather quizzically, telling me that he had done this before. Even the lector was in agreement.

    The hand of God was with us as Father answered the call and Mass would be celebrated. I think I did upset some of the people when I was insistent that what the deacon intended to do was wrong. I hope Dr. Peters comes back for this one.

  29. robtbrown says:

    Glen M says:

    The pastor should ask his parishioners to remember their envelopes are still required for their church, not the one they attend in his absence.

    Is that a joke?

  30. robtbrown says:

    Sandra_in_Severn says:

    We can complain about the lack of priests in our parishes, but it is more than critical, it is a crisis, to those in the military services. In the States, it is NOT a hardship to leave the base/post, and go to Mass in the local community. However, for many places overseas, (including ships and in hostile fire (combat) areas), there are no alternate means to attend Mass on Sunday, or any other day; nor to receive the sacraments (Reconciliation and Anointing/Last Rites).

    I had a friend in Rome, a Navy brat, a grad of the Naval Academy, then a Marine, who was ordained for an archdiocese but wanted to be a military chaplain. He was told no.

    And my understanding is that the military has no problem getting Protestant chaplains.

  31. APX says:

    @Andrew Saucci
    I would not attend a Liturgy of the Word in the circumstance described. In fact, I don’t see any reason to offer one.
    Four. One Saturday, and three on Sunday during the regular scheduled Mass times. We do have a priest shortage, so I understand not being able to bring in a spare, but we don’t have a church/Sunday Mass shortage. People should be encouraged to attend Mass somewhere else. There’s no need for a LOTW /w Communion service, let alone four.

  32. For those situations where it is not possible to attend Mass — going camping in a remote area, inclement weather — our custom at “Chez Alexandre” is to have a Liturgy of the Word. There is no assumption that it replaces the Mass. Whomever is there gathers around the kitchen table, at the center of which is a crucifix with two lighted candles. An officiant stands at the head of the table. The order is as per usual.

    Sign of the Cross
    Penitential Litany
    First Reading
    Second Reading
    Homily (read from the Office of Readings)
    General Intercessions
    Lord’s Prayer

    It takes about fifteen to twenty minutes, and is followed by a light breakfast. There is little fancy preparation involved, as those who wish will simply use a hand missal. I have a copy of the Office of Readings in one volume, from before it went out of print. (I also have a Benedictine version, in three volumes.)

    Or, if we’re feeling lazy, we just do five decades of the Rosary. Whatever.

  33. Nabuchodonosor says:

    Evelyn Waugh to Monsignore McReavy [editor of The Clergy Review]

    Combe Florey House
    15 April 1965

    Rt. Rev. Monsignor,

    Pray forgive me for troubling you. I do so because I am told you are often kind
    enough to give expert advice to troubled laymen.

    When I was instructed in the Faith 35 years ago I was told of the obligation to
    hear mass on the appointed days (a) that it applied only to those living within
    three miles of a church and that the invention of the motor-car had not modified
    this ruling, and (b) that the obligation applied only from the Offertory to the
    Priest’s Communion.

    Is this still the law?

    I do not ask what is best for me; merely what is the least I am obliged to do
    without grave sin. I find the new liturgy a temptation against Faith, Hope and
    Charity but I shall never, pray God, apostatise.

    I enclose an envelope for your kind reply.

    Your obedient servant,

    E. Waugh

    FOOTNOTE: Waugh was told that on the first point he was technically correct but
    that obligation referred to the whole Mass.

Comments are closed.