Q. Every summer, my husband and I go on a cruise. Only one cruise line (Holland America) continues to have a priest on board to say Mass. When we travel on other cruise lines, frequently we have missed Sunday Mass because there was no priest on board and we could not get to a Catholic church if we happened to be in port. Is missing Mass in such circumstances a mortal sin? (Millersville, Maryland)
A. Most moral theologians, I am certain, would say that you have incurred no sin. If no priest was available, you simply had no opportunity to participate in a Sunday Mass and so the obligation does not apply.
I am aware that there might be rigorists who would say that you were not compelled to go on the trip in the first place, or that you were bound to choose the one cruise line which did have Mass aboard or that you could have selected a shorter cruise that did not conflict with a day of obligation.
But those people, I believe, are being stricter than God. Recreation and relaxation are legitimate physical and mental needs, as well as gifts from God. God is reasonable, and I don’t think one cruise annually without Mass is an abuse of a privilege.
But here is what I would suggest as the safest solution, and it’s one that is envisioned by the church’s official teaching documents. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 2181 says that Catholics “are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.” And the Code of Canon Law in No. 1245 allows a pastor, in individual cases, to dispense from the Mass obligation “for a just cause.” (Note that the code says “for a just cause” rather than for a “grave” or “serious” cause.)
As a pastor, I would consider a once-a-year cruise to be a “just cause.” The same provision of the code allows a pastor, when granting a dispensation, to assign some other “pious work.” It could be, for example, reflecting on the Scriptural readings for that day’s Mass, reciting the rosary or, after you have returned home, attending a Mass on a day when you are not obliged.
So my recommendation is to consult your pastor next time for such a dispensation. That way, you will be fulfilling the letter of the law as well as its spirit.
Q. Please help settle a discussion I have been having with some friends. The question is whether a priest can celebrate Mass (and, necessarily, take Communion) while in a state of mortal sin, if the Mass is already scheduled and people are waiting for it to begin. First, can he do so if confession is easily available to him? Next, if confession is not easily available, can he just try to make a perfect act of contrition and go ahead with the Mass? (Houma, Louisiana)
A. If the priest in question has the opportunity to confess his sins before celebrating Mass, of course he is obliged to do so. (A priest is bound by the same requirement as other Catholics: to be in the state of grace in order to receive the Eucharist worthily.)
But what if there is no opportunity to confess before a Mass for which the priest is scheduled? The church’s Code of Canon Law speaks to that situation directly in No. 916: “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.”
If a congregation is expecting a Mass and there is no practical opportunity to recruit a substitute-celebrant, for the good of souls the priest may profess his sorrow privately to the Lord (“perfect contrition” is based on the love of God rather than the fear of punishment), celebrate the Mass and go to confession later.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.