QUAERITUR: Surprised by a Communion Service with a lay leader

From a reader:

Whilst on holiday in Bournemouth, UK I called into one of the RC churches to say a few prayers. It seemed as though Mass was about to begin but, to my great shock, a lay woman went up onto the Sanctuary and said that, since the priests were away, they would celebrate the Liturgy of the Word and also receive the Eucharist as the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in the tabernacle. To my increasing shock she led the congregation in all of the opening parts of the Mass including the penitential rite and, when the time came, read the Gospel herself from the pulpit. She did not say the eucharistic prayer but led everyone in the Our Father using the words from the Mass whilst standing at the altar, arms raised in the same fashion as the priest.
I did not participate but knelt at a separate altar of Our Lady somewhat flabbergasted. At this point I had to leave anyway but have been quite thrown by this, so I ask; is this allowed in a Catholic Church?

It is permitted for lay people, in the right circumstances, to have a Communion service in the absence of a priest or a deacon.  They cannot just decide to do it on their own and they cannot make it up as they go.  There are conditions, an order of prayer, etc.

However, at this point I must confess my ignorance of what is included in that order of prayer.  I have never been involved in one of these, of course.  Why would I be?  And I have been anywhere where these services were necessary.  I haven’t delved into what is done.  I imagine that the first part is going to be rather like Mass, with a penitential rite and readings of scripture.  I simply don’t know if the leader must later stand at the altar or pray with arms in the “orans” position in the manner of a priest.

Readers here will be able to chime in and clear this up.

And before they do, I hope everyone reading this will stop and say a prayer for an increase in vocations to the priesthood.

If there are many Communion services with lay leaders going on, something is deeply wrong and the whole local Church must mobilize and foster vocations.

It isn’t rocket science.

Fostering worthy worship, traditional worship, with male-only service at the altar, is a first and necessary step.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Rob in Maine says:


    The UCCB has a document on this:

    “The proper ritual for the Liturgy of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion is found in Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass. The specialized provisions of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest are not appropriate to weekday celebrations.”

  2. Peggy R says:

    We are in a diocese with a need for vocations. When our current bishop arrived, he soon established regulations and a training process for (I don’t know the proper name) these kinds of Services of the Word, with or without communion, in the absence of a priest. Lord knows what the people were doing on their own. We do have parishes administered by lay (some women religious) “parish life coordinators” who usually have some sort of master’s in Catholic theology and “ministry”. Our bishop has brought in many African priests, yet sadly some of the faithful avoid those masses b/c they complain they don’t understand the priests.

    I do get uncomfortable with the idea there is “lay leadership” at parishes. The only “leader” in my mind is the pastor, then the PV. I don’t like the idea that some of us are “greater than” or “different” from other laity. I think there is a movement among “lay ministers” to attempt to obtain some sort of canonical status and recognition, which I don’t ever see happening.

  3. Precentrix says:

    As far as I know…

    The ‘order of service’ for the LotW and Holy Communion seems to have been followed, from what I know. However the ‘leader’ should not have used the ‘orans’ position to my knowledge, should have been dressed normally etc….


    The thing should not have been happening at all. Even were it a Sunday. It’s not like it was a three day journey from the nearest church with a priest.

  4. Manhattan Trid says:

    In the United States there is an offical liturgical book known as “Sunday Celebrations In The Absence of a Priest”. Haven’t seen the book myself so I am unaware of its contents. The USCCB website has some guidlines for both Sunday and weekday celebrations without a priest but they make not (’emphasize’ would be too strong a word) that it should only be used in actual priestless situations.

  5. iPadre says:

    If a priest scheduled during my day off or vacation does not show for weekday Mass, my deacon may do a Communion service. However, if he is not present, the people can easily go to another church for daily Mass. When I arrived, if the priest did not show up and the deacon was not present, the Ext. Mins. would do a Communion service. I put a stop to that. It’s not about receiving Communion, it’s about attending daily Mass. Communion is the fruit of the Mass, which only a priest can offer.

  6. acardnal says:

    While researching my above post, I found this statement of the USCCB regarding the EF Mass. The statement doesn’t mention Summorum Pontificum until the very last sentence! I don’t like the statement and think it needs to be rewritten … perhaps Bishop Sample of Marquette could write it.


  7. Nan says:

    A communion service with a lay person does start rather like Mass; in the little blue Communion of the Sick booklet from 1984 bearing the imprimatur of Bishop Speltz of St. Cloud, there are a couple of rites outlined. One is for Communion in Ordinary Circumstances, the other for a Hospital or Institution.

    It starts with several variations of the greeting, then the penitential rite, followed by liturgy of the word. There are several short passages from scripture included in the booklet but we read from Sunday’s Word as it’s a regularly-scheduled Communion service. This is followed by general intercessions. Then for the Liturgy of Holy Communion, we pray the Lord’s Prayer and do use words from Mass when holding up the Host and of course when giving to each individual. This is followed by a prayer and the concluding rite has options for priests/deacons and laity.

    Note that my Communion service takes place at a nursing home on Sunday morning and is followed by the Rosary. This is for a population that can’t get out and can read scripture themselves or watch Mass on tv so they’re happy to have someone show up with Communion. We don’t have a real altar; just a table with a small cloth on it, a tiny crucifix flanked by two electric votive candles so we have the appearance of flame. Nor is there any requirement for orans position; I’m not a good candidate for that as I’d like to pull people’s arms down when they do that.

    Because I do this periodically and with directions, the outcome of a communion service with laity leading it could be different somewhere else.

  8. Yet another reason why Communion from the Tabernacle should be allowed ONLY for taking Communion to the sick.

    This kind of substitute “Mass” is another bitter fruit of breaking the essential link between Mass and Communion that is the result of Communion from the tabernacle. The bishops have become enablers of this disfunctional situation.

  9. Philangelus says:

    I became a EMHC while in college in order to bring the Eucharist to a local nursing home, and this is pretty much how we did our services there. We would do the opening prayer out of the missal, read the readings, give a briefish homily, do the prayer of the faithful, and then skip to the Our Father. We never prayed with our hands extended, though. Then the Sign of Peace, and we would distribute Holy Communion.

    Please keep in mind that this was out of a parish that had a female chaplain doing the homilies every third week, glass chalices, standing during the Consecration, and everyone joining in the middle aisle to hold hands during the Our Father, and communal penance services twice a year. But yes, we had a mini-Mass minus the consecration part. It never occurred to me to ask whether this was okay because the two older gentlemen who brought me down there had always been doing it this way.

    Now I’m going to check out the links above and see how much time I’ll be doing in Purgatory for that. :-(

  10. John Nolan says:

    It would appear that this woman was following the norms laid down by the Bishops’ Conference. The ciborium is placed on the altar before the Our Father is recited, and the leader does indeed ‘preside’ from the altar at this point. These services are allowed on Sundays provided that no Mass is celebrated in the church that day (and this would include the Saturday evening anticipatory Mass). The ‘orans’ position is post-V2 affectation whether used by clergy or laity.

    I have never attended one of these services, and have no intention of ever doing so.

  11. PhilipNeri says:

    Fr. Thompson has it exactly right. Abolish communion from the Tabernacle.

    And while we’re at it: abolish “communion services.” They do little more than sow confusion.

    The Church in Japan survived almost 200 yrs w/o a priest to say Mass. . .my guess is that St. Bubba-upon-the Tyne can go a Sunday or two. No, it’s not ideal, not even close to the ideal. But too many credentialed lay “leaders” use these services to prop up their opposition to the ordained priesthood and wedge themselves into the pastoral life of the parish in a way that usurps the priest and the proper celebration of the Mass.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  12. Geoffrey says:

    I have been to one or two weekday “Communion Services”… always by accident because I hadn’t read in the parish bulletin that there would be no daily Mass at that time, for whatever reason.

    The few times I have attended, the format was very similar to Mass, with a laywoman “vested” in an alb and giving a “homily” (reflection) after reading the Gospel. I have made it a point to always consult the parish bulletin from now on!

    One local parish I know of always had 3 daily Masses: morning, noon, and evening. With the loss of two priests (due to illness and death), there are now only 3 Masses on Fridays; on Mondays through Thursdays, there are always 2 daily Masses and 1 Communion Service (the times alternate so it is never the same every day). I am not sure of the format of this liturgy, as I have not attended…

  13. Blaise says:

    Readers might want to add a prayer for Bishop elect Philip Egan in whose new diocese of Portsmouth is Bournemouth. I believe it probably has more parishes or chapels of ease with weekday communion services than most dioceses in England and Wales.
    If a priest is not available to say weekday mass in a parish where there is mass most days of the week I see no call for a communion service of the kind described. I would have thought recitation of the divine office (perhaps combined with additional readings of the day) combined with adoration of the blessed sacrament would be more appropriate.
    I don’t think we should go as far as Fr Augustine Thompson suggests for the opposite reason that there would be an increased risk of the reposed blessed sacrament not being seen as the same as the sacred species consecrated during Mass.

  14. iPadre says:

    To play the devils advocate, we always had Communion from the tabernacle in the Extraordinary Form before the Council, but never had “Communion Services”. Many times, Communion Services come from a false understanding of “empowering” the laity.

  15. PhilipNeri says:

    If I’m not mistaken, communion services should not be regularly scheduled events. i.e. “Communion Service every Wednesday at Noon.” Daily Masses are wonderful; however, they are not required. And communion services should not be used as a substitute for them. If a priest isn’t available, those present can pray the Office or the rosary.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  16. Blaise says:

    A quick piece of googling reveals that while Sacred Heart parish in Bournemouth has a service of liturgy of the word and communion today, the parish of the Annunciation and St Edmund Campion in Bournemouth has mass at St Edmund Campion on a Monday.
    The two churches are 3.9 miles and 9 minutes drive apart (as per the ever optimistic google maps driving directions). Surely the parishoners could arrange a lift share to drive to the nearby parish for mass. Interestingly the parish of the Annunciation and St Edmund Campion has two churches (themselves 2.1 miles or six minutes apart) but only has weekday mass in one or the other with no mention on its website of Eucharistic services in place of Holy Mass.

  17. irishgirl says:

    Amen to what ipadre and Father Philip Neri, OP said and did! Good for you, dear Fathers!

  18. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    I’ve not researched the actual texts to be used, but having attended a couple such things over the years (e.g., at airport chapels on Sundays w/ travel), this sounds very much like what I saw; too similar to be coincidence, so it’s probably what the rubrics call for. fbow.

    One comment on the PN’s line above “The Church in Japan survived almost 200 yrs w/o a priest to say Mass.” Distinguo: the Faith survived there, yes, but “the Church” did not. No priests (and mttp, no bishops), means no Church.

  19. acardnal says:

    For Frs. Augustine Thompson O.P. , Philip Neri: “Fr. Thompson has it exactly right. Abolish communion from the Tabernacle.”

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but how does one ensure that a sufficient number of hosts are consecrated at Mass for the unknown number who may attend that day? Or would you allow the priest to go to the tabernacle if there are more attendees at Mass than hosts you consecrated at that Mass?

    I am aware of the practice of placing a dish near the entrance for attendees to place an unconsecrated host it as they arrive. That dish is then brought to Father just before Mass begins or at the Offertory. The problem I have observed with this practice is that not everyone who plans to go to communion places a host in the dish, and there are always those who arrive late for Mass without placing a host in the dish and go to communion.

  20. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Dr. Peters,

    both as to the classical Bellarminian definition (which I can’t litterally remember) and the theoreretically-theologian definition (viz, “the Mystical Body of Christ”), the Church did survive in Japan. (Though the hierarchy did not.)

    However, the point is: the situation in Japan was 1. absolutely singular [the Lord promised that what happened to Japan at least won’t happen to the Church as a whole], 2. absolutely miserable, and 3. absolutely en attente du prêtre (to borrow the French term). The did not want to replace the term, but desperately [to use the normal language without inferring the actual theoretical state known as despair] wished to have one.

  21. weneleh says:

    Every one of the priests in the Diocese of Trenton, NJ is going to be going away with the bishop starting tomorrow (Tuesday) through Thursday. My parish has two morning Masses each day and a third one on Wednesdays. We will be having a communion service with one of our deacons rather than Mass. While it’s not ideal, it is far better than the priest that came from another diocese for the last couple of years. All throughout his homilies he tried to convince us how much we needed women priests. Even my jaw dropping and dagger stares from the pew didn’t shut him up.

  22. Banjo pickin girl says:

    iPadre, what you say is interesting about preconciliar days. In our extremely conservative Dominican parish, Communion is served from the hosts consecrated right then plus what is in the tabernacle. The other priest or deacon who will serve on one side of the rail will go to the tabernacle and remove the ciborium in there. I am relatively new there but with the altar rail still in use, no women in the sanctuary during Mass, etc. I have felt that what happened at that parish was they took on the new form of the Mass but simply kept doing everything else as they always had.

  23. wanda says:

    Praying, praying for more holy vocations to the priesthood. Dear Seminarians, we need you! We are despeartely in need of Dicocesan Priests. You are needed in the trenches, dear men. The Church needs you, the flock desperately needs you.

  24. JohnE says:

    I used to be an EMHC and attend daily Mass. Our parish actually has two daily Masses — one early in the morning for people who have to get to work, and one a little later for retirees, etc. The earlier service was started several years ago as a Communion Service by one of the deacons. This was later changed to be Mass, with Communion Service only if the priest could not make it for some reason. However, this is quite often. For instance, the parish calendar for this month shows 9 of the 20 weekdays being communion service; there are usually at least a few more due to priest no-shows.

    I was one of the EMHCs that would lead communion services and it was pretty much as the questioner described. In the beginning we would even wear a white emcee/server robe with a rope cincture, but the pastor ended that after awhile also. I finally stopped going to daily Mass, except for the one day of the week where there is always Mass, because I was disheartened by the number of communion services and priest no-shows. I also felt that it just seemed too casual for a layman, even an EMHC, to do this. It seemed a little too much like “self-serve” communion. I think it would be more appropriate to pray the Liturgy of the Hours or a Rosary for vocations.

  25. This is a topic of great interest to me. I wrote an article on this issue that was published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review last year. I posted it with some minor additions on my blog a few months ago. You can find the article here:


    The article provides a great deal of factual and background information that would help further discussion of this issue. Bottome line – weekday communion services have never been authorized by Rome.

    I am not the only one who has questioned the appropriateness of these “services”. One Bishop in New York reached similar conclusions when he ended such services in his diocese.

    Even when they are conducted they should never resemble or mimic the Mass or be conducted by only one person.

    I am beginning a four day retreat and will not be able to access the internet again until Thursday evening. I wanted to share this comment before I lost the internet connection.

    I hope you and your readers will find this article useful and that it will contribute to this worthy discussion.

  26. mike cliffson says:

    Google maps has 8 ” RC churches ” within 5 miles of the centre of bournemeouth, including one in Poole.
    Even if they’re already at one priest per2/3 parishes…

  27. Rachel K says:

    I agree with Dr Peters’ comments about the Church in Japan. My husband made a visit to Kyoto several years ago for a conference. He researched carefully before travelling and on arrival and discovered that there is no Mass in the entire city on a Sunday, let alone any other days. He attended the Eucharistic Service in an attempt to try and fulfil his obligation. Kyoto is the ancient capital and I felt very sorry to hear his experience with the Church there as St Maximillian Kolbe put so much energy into mission there- let’s pray for his continued intercession for the Japanese.

    There is much work to do in the Diocese of Portsmouth, where I was brought up. The Tablet (Pill), God Bless ’em, are launching an attack on Mgr Egan, which is always a sure sign of someone’s credentials as a sound and faithful Catholic! I am sure he will bring many changes for the better- there is a collapse in vocations there and many parishes are closing or now without a priest.
    We were on holiday in that diocese last week and had a lovely mass on Sunday at the Dominican Priory in the New Forest. A fantastic visiting priest (OP) from the US who is currently residing in Switzerland, but came for the sisters’ retreat; he gave a great sermon. Wonderful sisters! Some of them teach at Maryvale and I believe have a part in some new catechetical material- perhaps another reader can expand on their involvement in that? So good things going on in the area too…

  28. Rachel K says:

    Mike Cliffson- I am sorry to say that they are down to one priest per four parishes in some places.

  29. q7swallows says:

    Fostering worthy worship, traditional worship, with male-only service at the altar, is a first and necessary step.

    I could not agree more. There is a certain ontological correctness about it all–from my woman’s point of view. Thank you for putting it so clearly. I really miss an unabashed masculine rigor and clarity from the clergy where such ‘jobs’ or ‘roles’ and frameworks are concerned.

  30. Joy says:

    “If I’m not mistaken, communion services should not be regularly scheduled events.” Fr. Philip

    Correct – a few years ago we were short a priest due to a serious injury on his part and it was quite impossible for the pastor, then 80 years old, to make the trip over to us more than once a month. Daily Mass has never been offered here, so that was not an issue. We survived on “Communion and Word Services” for 6 months, but the Pastor made available to the parishoners copies of (I can’t remember the exact name) pamphlets which discussed “what to do in the absence of a priest”. Per these pamphlets: These services are not to be “scheduled” at all (which led me to believe they were only done in the case of a sudden illness or other unexpected situation where a substitute priest could not be found due to no advance warning) – in our case we are so remote I guess it was decided to do these Sunday services with our lay leaders (who were all very careful – and all very male – to explain this was NOT a Mass, and hosts were “pre-consecrated” – also different chair, different placement of chair- never going behind the altar, etc…), as going to Mass elsewhere entails nearly a full day’s travel.

  31. If there are many Communion services with lay leaders going on, something is deeply wrong and the whole local Church must mobilize and foster vocations.

    Yes, and it will turn out that the biggest thing that is deeply wrong is the ascendancy of liberals. I have said before, and will say again, that liberals LIKE priest shortages. They think priest shortages will compel the Church to do away with priestly celibacy and, above all, start ordaining women.

    Communion services should be abolished. They are a way for feminists to get into the sanctuary and play priest. This is an attempt to get people used to the sight of women in the sanctuary and start questioning why they shouldn’t also be celebrating Mass. I have heard of a place where Communion services were held even though a priest was available, because a woman wanted to be at the altar — a situation where the priest ought to have made a whip out of cords. Plus, in these poorly catechized times, too many people think Communion services are “Mass without a priest,” as if such a thing were possible.

  32. Nan says:

    @wenelah, that’s just the Diocesan priests. Don’t you have any parishes with Religious priests? I can think of three not far from my parish. My parish always has Mass though; I’m at the Cathedral and there’s always someone there for us. Eastern Catholic churches are also an option if you have any.

    Re: Seminarians, St. Paul Seminary has 104 seminarians; the College Seminary, St. John Vianney, has 135. Note that Abp. Nienstedt fasts from meat on Fridays with the intention of fostering vocations and asks that the rest of us in the Archdiocese join him. It seems to be working.

  33. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The church in Japan had priests and bishops; it was just that those priests and bishops were stuck overseas. They were never not under somebody’s jurisdiction in the hierarchy.

    Moving along… The North Block of the Southern area of Kyoto Prefecture has three priests to serve seven parishes, and they celebrate Mass in each parish in turn. There may have been some parish consolidation, though, because the Catholic parish directory for Japan only lists nine parishes in Kyoto-fu.

  34. zekarja says:

    It is not necessary for us to receive Communion daily or weekly for that matter. The Eastern Churches have never seen a need for lay people to distribute Communion in absence of a priest. The people pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

    I could sympathize with having a lay person lead a Communion service on Sunday in absence of a priest. However, a lay person shouldn’t be standing behind the altar (especially in the orans position).

    If a priest is around enough for people to confess their sins, I don’t see ANY need for a lay person to lead a Communion service. Frequent Communion is not absolutely necessary for one’s salvation.

  35. Volanges says:

    Our parish is one that for the last couple of years has seen itself with no priest on more Sundays than I care to remember. On those occasions the Church says that the Bishop should provide us with the opportunity to gather as a parish for worship and that he may permit Communion to be distributed. Redemptionis Sacramentum 164 & 165

    In Canada the ritual for this is found in Sunday Celebration of the Word and Hours The opening rites are different from Mass and there are slight differences when the Celebration of the Word includes the distribution of Communion (placement of the ‘Sign of Peace’ for example).

    The former Pastor prepared two men and two women (that’s just how it worked out, nobody else wanted to do it) to lead this celebration and we take turns doing so. The leader of prayer is a lay person dressed in regular clothes. It should be noted that there is nothing wrong with someone dressed in an alb, the garment proper to all baptized. We avoid the alb for lay ministers because it is too easily misinterpreted as someone wanting to ‘play priest’ unless the Pastor takes great pain to explain it many times beforehand.

    The person leads the prayer from a seat in the sanctuary placed in such a spot as to emphasize the empty Presider’s chair. The orans position is used when praying.

    After the Sign of the Cross and the Greeting the Introductory Remarks are thus:

    Today, we, the people of God,
    gather to hear and respond to God’s word,
    to return praise and thanks,
    [and to share Christ’s sacrament.]
    We look forward to that day
    when we will once more celebrate the Eucharist,
    as Christ commanded us to do in his memory.
    Our community makes its worship
    in union with the Church throughout the world,
    with N. our Pope, N. our bishop,
    our pastor, Father N., who is unable to be with us,
    and with our brothers and sisters in neighbouring parishes
    who keep holy this day
    in the celebration of the Lord’s sacrifice and supper.

    An EMHC leads the Communion Rite from the altar. The EHMC brings the Blessed Sacrament from the Tabernacle to the altar, leads the community in The Lord’s Prayer, shows the Host and says “Ecce Agnus Dei…” , then consumes the Host and distributes Communion to the community. After Communion he/she recites the Prayer after Communion.

    Then we have the announcements, the collection, the blessing (the Rite provides blessings for both deacons and lay people) and dismissal.

    Would it be better to have nothing? When I hear someone say that they like this more than Mass because more people are involved I want to say ‘Yes, having nothing would be better than having people make these comments.” Personally I would be happy to have a Liturgy of the Word without Communion or, even better, a sung Morning Prayer. But I’m not the Pastor so I don’t get to make these decisions.

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