Lay Led Liturgy


The concept of lay led worship sometimes evokes strong reaction. Recently I heard one person claim that it has been ‘banned by the Pope’ and another that it is ‘a move by lay people to push priests aside’.

The fact that a priest is not always available to lead Eucharist was acknowledged by the Vatican with the promulgation of Directory for Sunday Worship in the Absence of a Priest in 1988. This demonstrates that the issue is not a recent one, or confined to Australia.

This document stresses the importance of the faithful praying together on Sunday, sets out the conditions for holding Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, and offers forms for lay-led celebrations.

The Directory gives to conferences of bishops the responsibility of adapting its norms to the conditions and culture of their people. In 2004 the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference published Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest: Directives for the Dioceses of Australia.

The Directory gives to diocesan bishops the responsibility of deciding the circumstances under which Sunday assemblies without the Eucharist may be held. Several dioceses in Australia have produced their own guidelines, for example, Brisbane’s ‘Guidelines for Lay Leaders of Liturgy’ issued in 2001.

These directives and guidelines all emphasise strongly the importance of communities celebrating the Eucharist if at all possible: ‘They are only to be used if Sunday Eucharist is genuinely impossible’, ‘Every effort should be made to achieve the ideal of assembling for the Eucharist each Sunday’.

Very strict conditions are placed on the circumstances under which a layperson may lead worship and the type of liturgy that may be celebrated with lay leadership.

When a community is unable to celebrate Eucharist on a Sunday, one option is to hold a service consisting of readings from scripture followed by the sharing of communion. This form of liturgy is called ‘Sunday Celebration of the Word with Communion’.

A Celebration of the Word with Communion can never be a substitute for Mass. Throughout the history of the Church, celebrating Eucharist has involved doing what Christ did at supper on the night before his death - taking the bread and wine, blessing them, breaking the bread and pouring the wine, and sharing them. Only the last of these four actions, communion, may be included in a lay led liturgy.
If we readily accept communion as a substitute for Mass, there is a danger that we will cease to be a eucharistic community which gathers to give thanks, not just to receive communion. Eucharist is an activity we do, not just something we receive passively.
Because of the danger of confusing Eucharist and communion, it is preferable to celebrate a Liturgy of the Word alone, without including the distribution of communion, on a weekday.

The era of priests always and everywhere being available to lead daily Mass or to celebrate every Catholic funeral is passed. The faithful still need and want to gather to pray and to bury the dead. It is essential that lay people chosen to lead the People of God in prayer be given appropriate training to enable them with do so with reverence and grace.


Elizabeth Harrington