ASK FATHER: Sister started Mass without the priest

From a reader…


On Friday, my family and I arrived at Mass (NO) a few minutes early and took our usual places. When Mass was about to begin, a Sister (non-identifiable) came out to announce that the priest was running a few minutes behind, but that he told her to begin without him. She said we would begin with the First Reading. Then she asked us all to stand and she began the Penitential Rite. I looked at my family, told them to follow me, and we walked out. I don’t know how long it took the priest to arrive but I was stunned to say the least, and angry. What, if anything, can or should be done? We attend this Mass during the week and, thankfully, an FSSP Mass on Sundays about 45 min away. Thank you, Father, for any advice you can offer.

Ahhh! Beginning Mass without the priest….

That’s sort of like beginning a baseball game without a pitcher.

Sure, the umpire can squat down behind home plate, the base coaches and the officiating crew can take their places, the vendors can start hawking beer and popcorn up and down the stadium, and the fans can hurl invectives or cheers down upon the field of play. The announcer can even pretend to describe a few plays, while making banal comments about the weather and the state of the fans.

No one would mistake that for a baseball game.  They’d walk out.  They’d demand their money back.  The League would probably get involved and discipline the one responsible for allowing it to happen.

How much better – if Father was delayed – would it have been for Sister to lead the faithful in a decade of the rosary, or a litany, or a prayer for vocations, rather than pretend to “begin Mass” without the priest.

I think a politely worded letter of inquiry (“Is it an accepted custom here, when the priest is late, for someone else to start saying Mass until the priest shows up?”) sent to the pastor and the chancery office might be called for.

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  1. Netmilsmom says:

    I’ve seen this happen before. We actually just walked out and went to a later Mass.
    I wonder if there is some confusion on the Sister’s part about whether or not she can substitute a “Communion Service” for Mass. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

  2. Southern Baron says:

    I was impressed, given how wacky things can be, when this happened one weekday and Sister did not take it upon herself to lead a “Communion Service.” She worked for the diocese and I suppose had a tad more standing than the rest of us, so she suggested that she might read the readings aloud, and then returned to her pew. That was it. The usual after-Mass rosary group started early, and prayed that Father was safe and well, wherever he was. He was back the next day.

  3. Rob in Maine says:

    That happened once at our hospital chapel a few years ago – only the Priest couldn’t make it so a Sister did the Mass. There was no consecration. Instead the Holyy Eucharist from the tabernacle was distributed. Still, it was jarring.

    Afterwards I did some sleuthing and found this document:

    Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest

    So, the Church does have contingency rituals where the faithful can worship without playing priest.

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    And of course, it’s possible that Father just meant “Sing some hymns and stall,” or “the heck with it, I won’t be there till Communion, so start the Communion service in the absence of a priest,” but Sister didn’t understand. It’s also possible that Father ordered Sister to do something stupid like start Mass without him; and Sister didn’t know enough/was too flustered to ignore this and stall, and/or start the Communion service in the absence of a priest.

    Liturgy of the Hours is a good stalling technique also; it doesn’t hurt anybody to go to Lauds before Mass.

  5. Iacobus M says:

    I’ve been around a while and seen some ridiculous things, but never this. I would have walked out too, and my “letter of inquiry”, well, I would TRY to make it polite . . .

  6. Siculum says:

    This kind of thing is not atypical. It can also happen with deacons too.

  7. Marie Teresa says:

    @Netmilsmom: that was my first thought as well, that it was an emergency and a Communion Service was offered … but from the original question, something seems amiss!

    In our tiny parish, we have a lay-female chomping at the bit … she has distributed Communion at Mass in place of the priest, and while she has point blank stated she will not attend weekday Mass (should one ever be offered), she would be happy to lead a Communion service.

    If a lay person attempts a Mass – then there’s no question of leaving!! A Catholic is obliged to walk out the door!

    What about a female lay person distributing Communion instead of the priest? Do you leave or stay? There is no other place to attend Mass, and while it’s illicit, it doesn’t invalidate the Mass.

  8. Father S. says:

    Just as we can only “attempt” ordination of women, this perhaps well-meaning sister can only “attempt” to start Holy Mass. If the priest just rolled in at some point, he failed to start Holy Mass.

  9. Lepidus says:

    How about a non-Mass WITH a priest? Parish has 2 priests. Once a week, there is an evening Mass (along with a morning Mass). Whenever one of the priests is out, they always cancel that evening one. (Can’t work too hard, you know). Anyway, one of those days fell on a day that had a regularly scheduled Exposition, which ends before the evening Mass with Benediction. So the (Indian) priest comes to do the Benediction. Apparently he was told that he is only allowed the one Mass, so instead he did a Communion service. Not sure that was technically correct, but given orders at least it showed he was thinking about the people…..

  10. Sonshine135 says:

    I have been to church on a Saturday Night OF where the Priest didn’t show. It does result in a Communion Service. If you don’t have a choice in the matter (i.e. no other church available/only time you can get to Mass), I am not seeing a problem here. Assuming the nun was trying to perform a “communion service” and not “start a Mass”, I think the more precise question is does a communion service fulfill your obligation? I found the following article on EWTN’s website. The answer, as I suspected, gives a lot of leeway to the Ordinary. My impression, however, is that these types of services should be rare, and consist of the liturgy of the word alone. So, it isn’t so much that this should be a “Communion Service”, rather, it should be a service that focuses on the scripture. Read for yourself. It is as clear as mud:

  11. Per Signum Crucis says:

    What Sonshine135 said. Also, unless you are absolutely certain that a blatant heresy or abuse is occurring, it seems profoundly disrespectful to just walk out: unlike a baseball game, you have not paid for entry, programme, popcorn etc. Better to stay grounded, see what develops and then, if still uncomfortable with it, seek advice from the priest himself (who in this case apparently OK’d the sister to start in his absence) or the diocesan office. Exceptional circumstances do occur and they should be precisely that – exceptional.

  12. Some may think this is a technical distinction, but I don’t think so…

    A person who is not a priest can (in proper circumstances) lead a “communion service” that involves similarities with the Mass — but to anyone who knows what Mass is, it should be very plain it is not Mass. If the priest can’t get there, or is unaccounted for, this may well take the place of a scheduled Mass. Bishops have rules for these things.

    But what cannot happen is for the Holy Mass to be begun without the priest.

    So if, say, a layperson steps up to lead a communion service, then it should be made obvious that that is what is happening; and with either an explanation of where the priest is, or else prayers for the priest who may be ill or in some difficulty.

    And if this begins, and then — voila — the priest arrives? We start at the beginning of Holy Mass, even if that seems duplicative.

  13. KateD says:

    Rather than leave, I’d stay as a witness, film the event with a smart phone and send it on to the bishop so that he can have objective verification of what happened and be better able to straighten it out, otherwise it’s just he-said-she-said. As a parent, I would hold my children who “know better” responsible if they just stood by or left when their more reckless sibling did something naughty. No doubt Our Heavnly Father will call us to task if we leave our brothers and sisters in faith to behave in error. It is excruciatingly painful to watch as abuses unfold against Our Lord, however, we need to hold firm at the foot of the cross. Perhaps our faithful hearts can provide some comfort to Him.

    Regarding Communion Services, I can see where they would be totally appropriate for a church under persecution (China, parts of the Middle East and Africa) or for an isolated and remote community. But in the continental US? Is that what it was intended for?

  14. Chatto says:

    A few comments here have touched upon this situation, along with Masses cancelled, etc…and what to do in such situations. I think the Church already has the answer for this. It’s called the Divine Office. Even in the Extraordinary Form, it is possible for the laity to sing/recite the Office in common, without a cleric present. The Rudgate Singers of York do this every week with Compline, wherein certain of the prayers are changed (in the official book, published by the FSSP) to reflect the fact that there’s no ordained minister. Surely this can be done with the OF as well?

  15. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    The is no way WHATSOEVER that Mass can begin without a priest. If he accepted a stipend for this “Mass”, he has not satisfied its obligation (stipends are offered for MASSES, not for CONSECRATIONS).

  16. frjim4321 says:

    Ed is correct here.

    Indeed, it was not appropriate for the dear sister to begin the mass.

    If for no other reason, it would least to great confusion for the faithful.

    That alone would be reason not to do this.

  17. frjim4321 says:

    least = lead

  18. Patrick-K says:

    Can people really not wait 20 minutes? Are they truly that busy?

  19. Bedens says:

    I don’t believe there is anything at all wrong with quietly walking out.

    Last year when my husband was in RCIA, the pastor of the church whose program he was attending instructed the candidates to come to the parish’s Lenten Penance Service to make their First Confession. He assured them there would be numerous priests in attendance with various stations set up around the church.

    What actually transpired was something I had never witnessed before and can only describe as a cross between an altar call and the express line at a fast food restaurant. There weren’t numerous priests in attendance – only the pastor of this parish and the priest conducting the parish Lenten mission. Everyone was instructed to form two lines as if we were going up to receive Holy Communion, only we would be confessing our “top three sins” to these priests out in the open in this line. Not only were there no stations set up around the church, there was no option to go to Confession anonymously.

    I told my husband what he was seeing was NOT the Sacrament of Penance and we got up and walked out and promptly went to the chapel at EWTN the next day so that he could make a proper First Confession.

    Again, I don’t see anything wrong with quietly leaving the sanctuary.

  20. friarpark says:

    Regarding whether a Communion service fulfills your Sunday obligation the answer is no. But if you are unable to attend Mass due to circumstances beyond your control (illness, attending to a sick person, etc) then your obligation is suspended (not the right word but it is not coming to me). Fr. Z has addressed this (in much more precise words) in the past.

  21. The Cobbler says:

    I wonder not so much whether walking out is acceptable/obligatory if a layman/woman attempted to start Mass (as opposed to a Communion Service or other prayers), as whether attempting to prevent it is acceptable/obligatory. I suppose it might depend whether a layman/woman attempting to start Mass is sacrilegious or blasphemous? Would that fall under the canons about “simulating a sacrament”?

    “Rather than leave, I’d stay as a witness, film the event with a smart phone and send it on to the bishop so that he can have objective verification of what happened and be better able to straighten it out, otherwise it’s just he-said-she-said.”
    I’ve read enough tales of the perils of he-said-she-said that I’d suggest in this day and age responsible parents ought to be teaching their children to use their fancy electronic gadgets to discretely record any number of amiss situations; but I suppose one has to learn, also, how to determine the extent to which a reasonable expectation of privacy would not permit that. (Frankly, if there is a situation in which you are going to be “telling on” someone at all, clearly you’ve judged that whatever cause is in question has trumped privacy in that instance — if the situation was private at all, I mean — and should probably be recording it if there’s likelihood that your word will be disputed; but even then, the correctness of that judgement becomes more crucial if you’re recording and not merely bringing forth accusational claims on your own word.)

  22. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If it’s an event in a church and it’s not Confession or a similar consultation, it isn’t private.

  23. Cobbler said:

    I wonder not so much whether walking out is acceptable/obligatory if a layman/woman attempted to start Mass (as opposed to a Communion Service or other prayers), as whether attempting to prevent it is acceptable/obligatory. I suppose it might depend whether a layman/woman attempting to start Mass is sacrilegious or blasphemous? Would that fall under the canons about “simulating a sacrament”?

    In theory one can imagine stepping forward to stop something that shouldn’t happen; in practice, I think you should just rule that out. First, you have to be really sure what you think you see, and know, is really what it is. Second, even if you’re clear, and correct, in your judgment that a sacrilege is going on, you have to wonder what will happen if you try to intervene. It’s easy to see how such an attempt might result in physical injury, the police called, etc.

    If you really think something must be done, then you bring that concern directly to the one who has the authority to do it.

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