I want to send a message to all the Geraldton Diocese about Sunday Celebrations in the absence of a Priest. However before I do, I want to say a few things about Sunday itself ' The Lord's Day.
For centuries and indeed for two millennia we Catholics have been gathering on Sundays and we do it for a variety of reasons.
The main reason is that God calls us to worship Him. He has told us in so many ways 'Remember that you and everything you have is my gift. I love you with an everlasting love'. No wonder then we gather to worship, and pray and thank Him, on whom we totally depend.
God also calls us to his table to be fed and nourished. As the king in the Gospel(Mt 22:2-14)called so many people to his wedding feast, God calls us to the banquet of his own Son.
The reason we gather on Sunday, or as we call it the Lord's Day, is that it is the day of Jesus' resurrection. There we meet Jesus, our Risen Lord, in one another, in the Priest, in his Word, and in the Eucharist. At the same time we celebrate and rejoice that Jesus is with us each day of the week. He is with us in fact each moment of the day. Jesus our Risen Lord truly lives within us through his Holy Spirit.
When we gather God says such things to us as 'You are never alone. In my Son you are one body.' As we come to Mass we are joined to the strong, the weak, the leader, the lonely, the stranger, the joyful and those who are hurting.
As we gather for Mass God reminds us 'You are my child and also my family. I love you as a daughter / son and I also love you as a family'.
These are briefly some of the main reasons why we come together on Sundays. When we do celebrate the Eucharist with the Priest though, this is the ultimate. It is ultimate Worship. It is the ultimate banquet. It is the best way of being the Body of Christ and the People of God.
Now while most towns are blessed with the gift of a priest, unfortunately around our Diocese a number of towns cannot celebrate Mass every Sunday. Some celebrate it fortnightly and others have this opportunity only once a month.
Occasionally there are other times too when Mass is not possible - such as when a priest is sick or away for a good reason such as an annual break or an important meeting.
It is not easy nowadays to find a priest for a supply. In a Diocese like Geraldton with the isolation and vast distances it is becoming almost impossible. Recently we have had a priest from Ireland for two months and a priest from Toowoomba in Queensland for two months. Then another priest from Sydney will be coming for a month. The last two are 77 and 80 respectively.
Five of our Priests will be away for two weekends with 90 of our young people and adults for World Youth Day in Sydney in July this year.
When there is no Mass does that mean we don't come to church? No. It is still important to gather as God's family and the Body of Christ. We have opportunities nowadays of Sunday Celebrations in the absence of a Priest. While it is not the Mass, Christ is still present in people as they gather, in His Word and in Holy Communion.
In the early days of our Catholic history when there was no Eucharist and no Communion Services, families still gathered to pray, and their faith grew strong.
My sister Dorina, a Josephite Sister, told me that when she was in Margaret River many years ago Mass was only celebrated once a month. Despite this I can certainly vouch for her faith in God and her wonderful love of the Eucharist. She did have the gift of a Convent Chapel and the Blessed Sacrament reserved. With her Sisters she gathered there daily to pray.
Pope John Paul II wrote an Encyclical in July 1998 on 'Keeping the Lord's Day Holy' (Dies Domini). In it he challenged us to make Sunday the 'soul' of our week.
In the encyclical the Pope referred directly to the celebration of the Mass, however much of what he said applies also to the 'Sunday Celebration of the Word and Communion'. Sunday itself, he reminds us, is a day of rest, joy and worship. Our Risen Lord is with us. The Pope wrote 'Time given to Christ is never time lost, but is time gained' (n.7)
Around Australia, especially in rural areas, many people gather where there is no priest on a Sunday for the Celebration of the Word and Communion. The Australian Bishops have made provision for this and have issued a Pastoral Handbook for Australia called 'Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest'. In it the principles are outlined on when such a celebration could take place as well as the format for the celebration.
People in our Diocese have been trained to lead such a celebration and others will be trained in the future. Apart from being a responsibility it is also a special privilege to lead these celebrations. With the appropriate training people have the confidence to do that.
To come together each week to celebrate Mass is the call of Jesus, our Lord and God, and the call of our Church. In line with this I echo the same call when there is no priest present, 'Come together each weekend to Celebrate the Word and Communion'. When such celebrations take place they begin with these words '
'Welcome to this Celebration of the Word with Communion. A priest is not available for us to celebrate the Eucharist today. We are grateful for the gift of the Eucharist that was celebrated here '¦ Saturdays /Sundays ago when bread was consecrated for us today. We hunger for the next Celebration of the Eucharist when we can feast again on God's Word and Food at this table. In the meantime, we have assembled as the People of God to be nourished by God's Word and to share Holy Communion'.Here we see the sense of being united with the wider worshipping church. There is also the desire and the longing for the next opportunity to celebrate the Mass.
Please continue to support our Priests and love them as they happily serve you and stretch themselves quite a lot for you, the People of God.
Let us continue to pray regularly that we will have the Priests needed in our Diocese and Church to celebrate the Eucharist and to be good Shepherds for you the People of God. We long and pray also that one day we will have the ideal, namely that each member of our Church and Diocese have the opportunity to celebrate the Mass, the Sacred Eucharist, each week.
Justin Joseph Bianchini
Bishop of Geraldton
30th May 2008