The Dilemma of Priestless Sundays
By James Dallen. 
Foreword by Bishop William E. McManus. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1994. Pages, xiii + 146. Paper, $9.95. ISBN 1-56854-042-6.

A slumbering ecclesiastical giant raised its weary head in 1988 to a Catholic world short on priests and long on Sundays. Tenderly responsive, genetically regulatory, but still bleary-eyed, the Congregation for Divine Worship released the Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest. In the United States, the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy joined the slumber party with its 1991 response, Gathered in Steadfast Faith: Statement on Sunday Worship in the Absence of a Priest.

Now, in the quiet alley, James Dallen bangs serving spoon to stewpot with The Dilemma of Priestless Sundays (Liturgy Training Publications, 1994).

Catholics have painted themselves into a corner. Sunday eucharist stands at the center of the faith. Only ordained priests may preside at eucharist. But there aren't enough priests to provide eucharist to every community every Sunday. What to do?

The problem is not new. Catholic missionary efforts have always created more communities than priests. As Dallen points out, "What is new today is that long-established churches find themselves in a parallel and steadily worsening situation due to the lack of priests" (p. viii).

The dilemma of priestless Sundays is hitting home in countries around the world. Dioceses have trouble staffing parishes. Stable parish priests resist the vagrant servitude of sacramental automatons. ("Do you love me only for my ontology?") The faithful despair that they will have neither priests nor parishes. The church's official solution is to gather the community on Sunday sans priest for a prayer service at which communion may or may not be served from a previous eucharist. The double publication of directories from Rome and Washington exposes the danger of the problem. Dallen successfully exposes the danger of the solution. "The issue to be addressed is not Sundays without priests but Sunday assemblies without the eucharist" (p. 137).

The complexity of the issues may not occur to the average Catholic. Does Sunday without a priest incapacitate a parish church? Is there really much difference between Mass with a priest and communion service with some other minister? What relationship exists between liturgical leadership and the ordained ministry? What implications follow for a Catholic spirituality formerly linked to the eucharist?

Dallen covers it all--ecclesiology, sacrifice, ordination, eucharist, sacramentality, and tradition. He ranges across scripture and church history, generously investigating eras beyond the patristic and lands beyond Europe. The topic desperately needs treatment, and Dallen has found a voice that will ring through the morass.

Because the author writes with passion, that voice sometimes sounds exaggerated, unclear, meandering, and argumentative. A more dispassionate presentation might make a more convincing argument, but it would lose the raucous edge that taunts the reader helplessly into a debate which concerns everyone in the Catholic Church.

This review first appeared in Worship 70/2 (March 1996):179-180.