Only four or five parishes in the diocese of Providence have more than one priest in residence.
Rhode Island’s priests are largely on their own and this isolation can present a problem when a pastor expects to take a legitimate and deserved day off. Rhode Island priests have taken advantage of an over-night respite from their duties for over half-a-century. This interval presented no problem when two, three or even four priests resided in the Rhode Island’s rectories. But now the pastor’s day off could well upset the traditional routine of daily Mass in every parish.
The return of deacons to the Church’s active ministry a quarter century ago seemed to present a viable alternative to priestless weekdays. One day a week the deacon might preside at a Communion service consisting of the day’s Service of the Word and the distribution of Holy Communion. Occasionally a woman religious might be asked to preside at such a service. Sometimes due to a pastor’s unexpected illness, a deacon’s service might be requested at the last moment. For the most part, these occasional interruptions to the nearly universal practice of daily Mass in area churches drew no official comment. But gradually it has dawned on our nation’s liturgists that offering Holy Communion is not the same as offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Receiving Communion apart from Mass is always the exception. It has lately been the official (that is, canonically correct) practice of the contemporary Church that Holy Communion should never be distributed apart from Mass except to the sick and the dying. Even in rural areas where there is no available church or no available priest, deacons may offer a Communion service only on Sunday when the people would ordinarily have a canonical right to participate at Mass. There is, however, no canonical right to Mass on weekdays. Certainly the extreme rural conditions envisioned by liturgical law do not prevail in Rhode Island where no believer is ever more than ten minutes from a church. Local pastors have recently been instructed to post the daily Mass times of area churches so worshippers can sensibly plan their weekday liturgical observance should their own parish church not provide one.
The slight adjustment to a parishioner’s devotional life that the occasional transfer to a neighboring parish might involve contains a wealth of theological instruction. With all due respect to the excellence of Holy Communion and to the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ present there, the noblest duty of the Catholic communicant is not personal spiritual nourishment but rather the worship of the Father through the renewal of Christ’s salvific sacrifice. The on-going Presence of Christ in Holy Communion certainly nourishes the believer but it does not effectively renew the infinite worship of God as Holy Mass does every time it is celebrated. It is this element of proper worship, this formal renewal of Calvary, this re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross, which is missing in the parish Communion service. The convenience of a memorial meal must never be allowed to substitute for the true sacrificial banquet that forms the very heart of Catholicism. The occasional inconvenience of worshipping at St. Mary’s Church on High Street rather than St. Joseph’s Church on Main Street could be a random reminder of what a treasure the authentic celebration of Mass truly is.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the Church’s pre-eminent activity. Although the Church rightly invests much time, talent and treasure in her teaching activities and in her charitable ministries, the Church, like Christ, exists first and foremost to adore, worship and praise God the Father. And nothing exalts the Father more than the perennial celebration of his Son’s supreme act of obedience on Calvary. On the Cross, Jesus pledged himself to be in total compliance with his Father’s plan even in the face of betrayal, torture, death and apparent failure. On the Cross, Christ and the Father were truly and vividly one. Such placing of oneself sincerely in the hand of God is what true worship is all about. Worship is the formal, ritual alliance of man’s will with God’s Will, made uniquely available to believers through Jesus Christ. Clearly the reserved Sacrament distributed as Holy Communion unites the believer to Jesus Christ, but only the Body broken and the Blood poured out during Mass distinctively offers the Father the worship due him as the Almighty and Everliving God.