When You Can't Have Mass

When a community is unable to celebrate Sunday eucharist, one option is to hold a service consisting of readings from scripture followed by the sharing of communion. This form of liturgy may be led by a lay person.
The structure of these services is familiar because they are very much like the first part of the Mass - introductory rites followed by a Liturgy of the Word. Parts which are peculiar to Mass, such as the preparation of gifts, eucharistic prayer (or anything that resembles a eucharistic prayer), the ‘Lamb of God’ and communion from the cup, are omitted. The presider’s chair is left vacant.

As a rule, the readings of the day as set down in the Lectionary for Mass are used. If communion is to be distributed, it follows the Lord’s Prayer and sign of peace. A prayer and blessings conclude the celebration.

The name given to this form of liturgy is “Sunday Celebration of the Word with Communion”. Calling it a “communion service” focuses on just one part of the celebration and downplays the importance of the Liturgy of the Word as a complete and authentic act of worship. Referring to it as a “eucharist service” is dangerous because it could suggest that sharing communion is the same as celebrating eucharist.

A Celebration of the Word with Communion can never be a substitute for Mass, only a replacement. Throughout the history of the Church, celebrating eucharist has involved doing what Christ did on the night before his death - taking the bread and wine (Preparation of Gifts), blessing them (Eucharistic Prayer), breaking the bread and pouring the wine (Fraction Rite) and sharing them (Communion). Only the last of these four actions, communion, may be included in a lay led liturgy.

Distributing communion outside of Mass on a regular basis may have the unfortunate consequence of weakening the integral connection between celebrating eucharist and receiving communion. There are anecdotal stories of people preferring “Sister’s Mass” on the priest’s day off or of Mr Smith “saying Mass” because the priest suddenly took ill. Many Catholics don’t recognise that worship that doesn’t include the eucharistic prayer isn’t Mass.
Communion without eucharist can lead to a confused or incomplete misunderstanding of eucharist. It may also give secondary status to the real presence of Christ in the proclamation of the word and in the assembly gathered in prayer.
There is a danger that we will cease to be a eucharistic community. A eucharistic community is one 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, parishes sometimes choose to celebrate a Liturgy of the Word alone without including the distribution of communion. While this may cause a negative response from some people, it is an option which avoids separating communion from eucharist, its proper context. Not receiving communion regularly apart from Mass increases our yearning for the eucharist which has always been central to the Catholic tradition.
Other forms of Liturgy such as morning and evening prayer may be used instead of a Celebration of the Word with Communion when Mass is not a possibility.

Elizabeth Harrington