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Sunday, 11 April 2010 09:13

Parishes prepare for possible emergency absence of priests on Sundays

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Catholics are accustomed to showing up for Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday and seeing the parish pastor or parochial vicar walk out into the sanctuary to celebrate Mass. Sometimes, in a parish with a deacon, he is there as well.

However, once in a while priests, like the rest of us, experience illnesses, family emergencies or take a vacation. When that happens they look for assistance from a fellow diocesan or religious priest — often a man who has reached retirement age of at least 70 years old.

Currently nearly one-quarter of our diocesan priests are retired and living in the diocese. Those that are able are called to fill in for their brother priests when they are on vacation, taking a retreat or are ill. Several religious priests reside in the diocese and are also available for what they call “supply ministry.”

Still, there is a chance with the shortage of priests in the Springfield diocese — as in many areas of the country — that a priest just isn’t available every weekend. That’s why deacons, parish administrators and others have now completed training for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest (SCAP).

Plainly said, if a parish priest has an emergency and can’t celebrate Mass, the ritual provides the liturgies of Morning Prayer, Morning Prayer with holy Communion, Evening Prayer, Evening Prayer with holy Communion, Celebration of the Liturgy of the Word and Celebration of the Liturgy of the Word with holy Communion.

To implement this new diocesan policy, five training sessions were held from September through January, said Father Joe Ring, director of clergy services, pastor of St. James Parish in Riverton and priest-moderator of Resurrection Parish in Illiopolis. In all, 213 people from 82 parishes and Sacred Heart Convent attended the sessions. In order for a parish to use Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, they must have attended the training, and receive a mandate from the diocesan administrator.

“Our first priority is to always have Sunday Mass. Weekday Masses are not obligatory,” said Father Ring. “The training for conducting Sunday celebrations is an emergency plan that grew out of committee of the Presbyteral Council in 2008. The policy mandates that each deacon was required to go through the training and we recommended that each parish send two people with or without their pastor.”

Sister Mary Jean Traeger, OP, parish life coordinator for St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Springfield, was called on to put her training to work the very day after she completed a training session. “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we didn’t have a priest available to celebrate Mass and it was the last Mass of the weekend for our Latino population,” she said.

“I really didn’t know about it until the last minute. So I announced to the people who were there that a priest wasn’t available, but they could stay for the celebration, go home and pray quietly, or return to Cathedral that evening and attend Mass,” she said. “Basically everybody who was there stayed.

“I did the leader’s part. We had enough hosts in the tabernacle to have Communion,” she said. “If there hadn’t been enough, we wouldn’t have distributed Communion.” Scheduled lectors proclaimed the readings and the Intercessions and the people who were going to provide the music proceeded with that.

“The people were clear that this was an exception,” Sister Mary Jean said. “I think they were grateful they could celebrate something because they were already gathered.”

Father Ring said he is naturally grateful that in situations like the one at St. Katharine Drexel, a person like Sister Mary Jean was trained to carry on. However, he hopes that typically a priest will be available for Mass.

“Truthfully, most of the time if a priest is going to be unavailable it is not an emergency and he (the pastor or parochial administrator) can find somebody to cover,” Father Ring said. “However, that doesn’t mean it is easy. I don’t know how often these emergency types of situations are going to happen, but we have to be ready. That’s why we had the training sessions.”

Note: More information on Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest is available on the diocesan Web site www.dio.org under the heading Office for Worship and Catechumenate, Liturgical Norms, SCAP.