According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Nos. 46-90), the Eucharistic celebration, the Mass, has four parts: introductory rites, the liturgy of the Word, the liturgy of the Eucharist and the concluding rites.
The Eucharistic celebration, or Mass, ends with the concluding rites, not with the liturgy of the Eucharist, and clearly, not during the Communion rite. To the concluding rites belong the following:
a) Brief announcements, should they be necessary;
b) The Priest’s Greeting and Blessing, which on certain days and occasions is expanded and expressed by the Prayer over the People or another more solemn formula;
c) The Dismissal of the people by the deacon or the priest, so that each may go back to doing good works, praising and blessing God, and
d) The kissing of the altar by the priest and the deacon, followed by a profound bow to the altar by the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers” (No. 90).
In other words, Mass lasts through Communion, the closing prayer, the final blessing and dismissal.
Though the Church teaches clearly about the Rites of the Eucharistic celebration — and it is hoped that all faithful people know about it — in reality, some still leave the church after receiving Communion. It becomes a habit at many churches. Some pastors observe: “At the beginning of Mass, my church is half full, during the responsorial psalm, it is fuller, then after the communion, it becomes a half full again. I try to ask people to arrive and to leave the church on time, but after a few Sundays, it goes back to the same habit. One time, during Holy Week, I asked people ‘Among Jesus’ apostles, who left the Last Supper before it ended?’ Of course, people knew the answer: ‘Judas.’ Nicely and humorously I reminded them ‘I hope today and from now on, none of us plays the role of Judas.’ People joyfully laughed, and truly, all of them stayed to the very end of that Mass, even after the final hymn. However, when the story is no longer remembered, my church faced the same challenge.” What are the reasons for this situation?
Looking for the Reasons
There is more than one reason to explain why people leave during or after Communion. Considerations include the time, the exit, the location, the parking lot, and seasonal and personal needs.
The Time. At some churches, when there are too many Masses, and the time between Masses is too short, people have a tendency to leave early to avoid the traffic jam in the parking lot. It is also observed that the majority of people at the early Mass stay until after the blessing, while congregations at the later Masses have a tendency to leave early. Perhaps because more seniors attend the earlier Masses? Or because people have personal plans once the day is shorter? The worst case is the evening Mass. People leave Mass before it is too dark. A longer Mass is also a challenge. When the priest or deacon gives a homily that is too long, and the homily does not attract much attention, people leave the church earlier than usual.
The Exit. In addition to the problem of time is the exit. If a church with a big congregation has only one or two exits, leaving the church is not easy. When a large number of cars leave the parking lot from a few exits at the same time, it is understandable why people want to leave the church early and quickly.
After leaving the parking lot of the church, there is another challenge: some exits are very close to a street light or a stop sign, or the church is near churches of other denominations. It seems that a good time for the celebration at one church is also a good time for the celebration at another church!
The Parking Lot. The parking lot of some big churches is too far away from the place of worship. When the weather is not good, people do not have the patience to wait for a long time in their car. It is observed that those who park their car farthest, and for some cases, nearest to the church, have a tendency to leave the parking lot soonest.
In parking lots that were not designed and built properly, there is a bottleneck at the exit of the lot. At the bottleneck, people either have to concede or to wait for other cars to take their turn. If they need to hurry, clearly their patience is tested.
Seasonal Needs. In some places, the attendance of the congregation depends on the season of the year. If there are programs such as soccer or football, “good parishioners” still try to go to church to fulfill their duties with God, but also do not want to miss their hobby or the sport of their children.
Another group who wants to leave the church early is the group of people who work during the festival season. Many of them are students and low-income people. They argue that, if they miss their work, the family has to suffer. God understands their needs! To save time, and for convenience, they go to work immediately after attending Mass. Should the church adjust to their reasonable needs, or should they have to adjust to the schedule of the church?
Personal Needs. One time a pastor asked a parishioner why he often left the church early. It bothered not only the celebrant but also the people sitting around the parishioner. The answer was: “I am on call. Whenever there is a call, I have to go.” Other people leave the church during Communion because they have an important appointment coinciding with the time of Mass. What should be suggested?
Catechizing the Congregation
Catechizing is always important, especially in the above cases. In the mind of some people, the most important part of the Eucharistic celebration is the liturgy of the Eucharist. To them, this means that, if they have fulfilled that one part, they fulfill the requirement of attending Mass! The pastor, or catechists of faith formation should catechize people to understand the importance of attending a full Mass.
In some churches, there is a program to teach catechism to the whole congregation prior to Mass. The church should explain the importance of all parts of the Mass, including the presence of the Lord during the liturgy of the Word, and the mission of the faithful. It should be emphasized that the liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the presentation of the gifts and ends with the prayer after Communion. It does not end during Communion or at the end of Communion. One who, without an emergency, skips out on any part of the Mass has not satisfied his Sunday obligation.
A participant shared his story during a meeting of parents whose children were attending faith formation. When his child asked him why his catechist told him Mass has four parts, and his parents count Mass as only three parts, he did not know how to answer. From that time on, the man decided to stay to the very end of Mass.
Leaving Mass too early is also somewhat disrespectful to Christ and His body. Receiving the body and blood of Christ, and then leaving the church immediately, does not allow an intimate bond between giver and receiver. That relationship becomes mechanical or even superstitious. It does not reflect well the teaching of Jesus: “Amen, Amen I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:47-51). Receiving the body and blood of Jesus must be within a mood of thanksgiving, love and unity. Clearly, leaving Mass in a hurry does not reflect the mood of love and thanksgiving.
It is also disrespectful to the congregation. When the majority of parishioners are still attentive to Mass, someone suddenly leaving the church too soon gives scandal. One priest nicely catechized the congregation by telling his own story. He loved concerts, and went to them often. One day, at a concert, he had a sick call and had to leave immediately. He knew that what he did was necessary, but he also sensed the annoyance of the people who adjusted their sitting position to let him pass by. It seems they wanted to ask: “Why are you leaving at this beautiful moment when the concert is at its peak?” From his seat to the end of the row, he had to excuse himself to all the people he passed.
Mass closely unites all of us to Christian life and mission. After receiving Holy Communion, the final blessing and dismissal sends us forth to transmit what we have received to our brothers and sisters. The Roman Missal translation in 2011 gives the congregation a clear mission: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” or “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” These wishes come from the meaning of the great commandment: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). This is the mission of the Church and of each faithful person. If the faithful leave after Communion, they lose this important component of their spiritual life.
In addition to the catechesis, the priests should check:
The Time. Are Mass schedules too close to each other? Time required for Communion needs to be considered. Of course, the reverence of the distribution of the host is very important, but if it takes longer than is necessary, it becomes a challenge. The priest should determine why it is too long. Does the church have enough extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion? Are more ushers needed to assist the congregation to receive the body and the blood of Christ properly? What station usually gets stacked? Is there any solution?
Sometimes, the meditation song for communion is too long, and it becomes entertainment.
If the parish provides a “good time” event after Mass, it will give the congregation a great opportunity to build up friendship and community life. At some parishes the pastors even provide free coffee and donuts, and invite the congregation to come to the hall to get to know and talk to one another. Many ministry coordinators said that, through these informal conversations, they invite more people to join their ministries. With this hospitality, people do not need to rush home, but stay longer after Mass to talk to each other.
The Parking Lot. Is there a bottleneck? Is there enough light? Does the parking lot have designated parking for handicap, elderly, expectant mothers, etc.? Does it have signs to direct people, or signs that will lead people to where they are going: church, parish office, restrooms, parish hall, youth room? The parking lot should be well kept and free of rubbish. The best way to teach this is to lead by example. An off-duty officer to direct traffic is very helpful to assist people getting in and out quickly and safely.
Seasonal and Personal Needs. Catechism and explanation of the beauty of the Eucharist help people to see if they themselves can find an alternate solution for their needs. Some people decide to go to church on Saturday afternoon.
Finally, blessing the people at the end of Mass makes this time more personal. Instead of announcing only normal activities of the parish, make the final moments of Mass a joyful recognition of individuals and of the community. For the first weekend, bless those who celebrate birthdays in that month. Let the choir sing an appropriate song to wish them a happy birthday. Ask the whole congregation to pray with them and, together with the celebrant, bless them.
Save the second weekend for those celebrating a wedding anniversary during the month. Those celebrating silver and golden jubilees should be recognized specifically. Invite them to come forward, and have the community pray with them. The Church has many good songs for congratulating them.
The third weekend is for those who serve the Church. They can be the lectors, altar servers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, greeters, ushers, catechists, etc. This kind of appreciation is a good invitation to people who want to know more about these ministries that serve the Lord. There are prayers for these ministers in the Book of Blessings.
This joy can be even greater if the church has a good choir or a good cantor, and a good dismissal song can generate exciting energy — people should leave the church with joy!
FATHER DAO ministers to people as pastor at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish of the San Bernardino diocese in Temecula, California.