Last Sunday, at the beginning of the prayer after the offering at Church, the pastor faltered, stumbling over her words for the first time. She followed up with, “I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling well—I have to ask you to excuse me.” She requested that the choir director finish leading the prayer, and she disappeared.
After a moment of surprised silence, the choir director took the podium and led the rest of the prayer. I was staring at the bread and pitcher on the altar, waiting for communion. Communion is only served once a month at this church, so my first thought was, “We’ll have to skip communion.”
But we didn’t. The director of religious education and an older gentleman—my husband hypothesizes he was retired clergy—ascended the altar, did the blessing over the bread and “wine” (actually juice since it’s a “dry” congregation), and distributed the tiny plastic cups and little cubes of bread. The rest of the service, with the exception of a gentleman coming out at the end to let us know the pastor was okay, went off pretty much as it always had.
When we got outside, my husband beat me to saying what I had been thinking: “That never could have happened at a Catholic service.”
I had been trying to picture how this scenario would have played out in a Catholic church. Someone would surely accompany the priest out to make sure he was okay. There would be a long silence. Finally, some brave soul, perhaps church staff or the cantor, would apologize, lead a prayer, and dismiss the service. All would file out quietly, and perhaps a bit bewildered. There are two reasons the scenario plays out this way in my mind.
- Catholics have less of a sense of “ownership” of our worship services and our faith than many other denominations do. We show up, we stand, sit, and speak at the appropriate times, we go home. If a priest encountered a health emergency during Mass, that would be the end of Mass in most places; I don’t think many congregants would feel comfortable enough, or bold enough, to ascend the altar and finish things up themselves — although I’m sure hundreds of us have the Mass memorized and could recite it in a pinch.
- Non-ordained Catholics “can’t” perform the Eucharist. They “can’t” consecrate the body and the blood. With no priest, the show can’t go on. And if it does, there will certainly be outcry from those who feel the service was “desecrated” by a lay person daring to perform the holy rites.
This is bad for parishioners, as it leads to a general malaise and disengagement that I think we’ve all witnessed. But it might be even worse for clergy, who are asked to bear the burden of leadership almost completely alone. I’ve seen a geriatric priest leaning heavily on his walker, barely able to speak, show up at Mass when the regular priest was gone because the deacon could not perform the Eucharist (although he handled everything else.) I’ve seen two different priests in my home parish, on two different occasions, hobble up to the altar, back at work far too soon after major surgery.
By locking down the most meaningful part of worship service for most Catholics, the Church has imposed working conditions on its clergy that are downright abusive. I’ve been in jobs where I’ve felt I “can’t” take a day off, and it’s a heavy load to bear no matter how much you love your work.
In last week’s service, I reflected on how unfortunate it was that the pastor had become ill at a summer service, when the associate pastor is on his sabbatical and help is scarce. Yet, it turned out that help wasn’t so scarce after all.
I came away from that service feeling strangely buoyed — proud that we had managed to make church “happen” despite our leader’s absence. More and more Catholics are realizing this power, too, as they set up alternative worship communities and “guerrilla communions.” For the sake of Catholics and clergy everywhere, I still pray for that day when we will all be welcome to make one another’s burdens lighter.