How many Sunday Masses are enough?
In light of fewer priests, the diocese seeks a balance in what’s best for pastors, parishioners and the integrity of the Mass itself
By Sue Schulzetenberg
Note: Bishop John Kinney has charged the Planning Advisory Council of the St. Cloud Diocese to design a plan or a planning process for the diocese. The council’s goal is to present a proposal to the bishop by spring 2012. The council is looking at many dynamics in the diocese, including statistics like the number of priests, number of Catholics and Mass attendance as well as parish vibrancy and growing opportunities for lay leadership. One of its parameters for planning is that no priest should be responsible for more than three weekend Masses that use the Sunday readings. This article, part of an occasional series on diocesan planning, explores the rationale for the three-liturgies parameter and the challenges and advantages associated with it.
Every weekend, September through May, about 232 Masses are celebrated in parishes in the 16 counties of the St. Cloud Diocese.
More and more, priests celebrating these Masses are reaching retirement age. Already, about 25 percent of the priests serving are 70 years old or older. As the diocese is faced with the prospect of fewer priests in the future, the question arises: Who will preside at these Masses?
Some parishioners offer what seems at first to be a simple answer: Have the remaining priests preside at more Masses every weekend. In practice, however, this approach is fraught with complications. And it fails to address a legitimate question: Are all those Masses necessary?
Protecting priests and the Mass
Bishop Kinney issued a guideline in 2009 stating that no priest should be expected to celebrate more than three liturgies with Sunday readings per weekend. This guideline refers to canon law, which states that the local ordinary can allow priests to celebrate Mass twice a day for a just cause, or if pastoral necessity requires it, even three times on Sundays and holy days of obligation. The guideline also notes that the Eucharist is the summit and source of all worship and Christian life and that priests should prepare themselves properly through prayer before Mass and offer thanks afterwards.
The guidelines are designed to protect the integrity of the Mass, help the Mass be seen as a celebration rather than another obligation and protect priests from simply becoming worn out, said Father Robert Rolfes, diocesan vicar general, in a 2010 Visitor article.
“It’s not feasible” to continue to ask priests to celebrate more and more Masses, said Planning Advisory Council member Deacon Steve Pareja of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Sartell. He said priests are very busy people with hours not limited to nine-to-five.
“To fully pray with presence and [to] truly [focus] on the Word and on their homily takes a tremendous amount of energy,” said Rita Clasemann, a member of the Planning Advisory Council and parish life coordinator at St. Mary Parish in Mora and St. Kathryn Parish in Ogilvie. “I think that by the time you get to the fourth or fifth one, you’re running out. The Eucharist should not be something that you’re doing just going through the motions.”
Father Kevin Anderson, pastor of Christ Our Light Parish in Princeton and Zimmerman, said it is important to think about the health of priests in the long run. He said priests are not only celebrating Masses on weekends, but also providing reconciliation and presiding at funerals and weddings. All of those activities added up can take a toll on priests.
Celebrating one Sunday liturgy every Saturday evening and two every Sunday, Father Jerry Dalseth, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Pierz and St. Michael Parish in Buckman, says he would not recommend more than three Masses per priest per weekend. In addition to the length of the Mass, time is needed for preparation and traveling. His weekends also often include weddings, funerals and baptisms.
“It takes a lot of energy. You have to be very intent and prayerful and concentrate. It’s more strenuous than a lot of the physical exercises,” he said.
Fewer Masses can also mean more collective energy from the congregation and stronger participation with a fuller church, Father Anderson said.
Bishop George Speltz, a former bishop of the St. Cloud Diocese, addressed the importance of having churches full for Mass back in 1985. At that time, he recommended eliminating any Masses in which attendance was less than 50 percent of the church building’s capacity.
“The assembly itself is the primary sign of the liturgy and the gathering of that assembly into one body — at one time and under one roof — was the ideal practiced in the early Church and insisted upon by the Church Fathers. . . . The purpose of the Eucharist — binding us into one body in Christ our head — is defeated by an approach which puts individual convenience before the gathering together of the whole parish community,” Bishop Speltz wrote.
Parishioners at Christ Our Light in Princeton and Zimmerman have experienced a reduction in the number of Masses offered several times. Christ Our Light is the result of the merging of St. Edward Parish in Princeton and St. Pius X Parish in Zimmerman. Before the parishes twinned, each had three Masses every weekend. After they twinned, four Masses were offered between the two parishes. Then the Masses dropped to three, which is the number still offered today.
Confronting the challenges
A negative of cutting Masses is that people get accustomed to the time when Masses are offered, said Father Anderson. Also, he added, universally, the overall number of people that attend Mass initially drops when Masses are cut. Christ Our Light has recuperated from the decrease with the attendance back up and is doing well financially, he said.
Statistically, when Masses are eliminated, attendance and financial contributions drop but return within six months, said Jane Marrin, director of the Planning Office for the Diocese of St. Cloud.
Deciding which Masses to cut can be difficult. Father Dalseth recalls when St. Joseph’s and St. Michael’s were twinned 11 years ago and both parishes wanted Masses at the same time. Since then, the parishioners have become comfortable in attending Masses at each of the churches as well as other churches in the area.“Maybe it’s our responsibility in each parish to do some educating on the priority,” Clasemann said. “What is our priority when it comes to our Lord?”
Parishioners could be asked to reflect on how far they travel for other events and what kind of flexibility they show to attend them, she added. “Doesn’t our Lord deserve the same kind of consideration?”
Tom Ehlinger, Planning Advisory Council member and member of St. Anne Parish in Kimball, said limiting Masses will affect parishioners, but he encourages them to look at the parish as a whole.
“If the parish currently has three Masses on a weekend but all of the Masses are only one-third of their capacity, they could get by with one or two Masses,” he said. “Parishioners would need to adjust their schedules to attend a Mass at a different time, but bringing together a larger group of parishioners at Mass may have many benefits in itself.”
Although eliminating a Mass at any parish brings challenges, some Masses might be easier to eliminate than others. Already, many parishes have only one weekend Mass or less, like All Saints on River Street in Holdingford, which has only weekday Masses.
“Ideally, the Eucharist would be celebrated in every faith community that knows and supports each other,” said Franciscan Sister Clara Stang, a member of the Planning Advisory Council. “With the smaller number of ordained priests, it’s just plain difficult. That’s probably the saddest thing that’s happening in the Catholic Church — the lack of priority people give to Eucharist and the restraints that come about when there aren’t enough clergy.” Sister Clara said the ideal solution is for there to be more ordinations. Although 19 men are in the seminary for the Diocese of St. Cloud, their numbers do not make up for the number of priests approaching retirement. Only 15 diocesan priests are less than 50 years old.
“There is no perfect solution that will satisfy every single person,” said Deacon Pareja. “I think what we need is open dialogue. What we need to do first is open our hearts up to the Holy Spirit and say, ‘Lead me Lord.’”