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Liturgy: When There's a Medical Emergency

ROME, JAN. 20, 2008 (Zenit) - Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: During a weekday Mass a parishioner collapsed during the Prayers of the Faithful. Someone with a cell phone called for assistance from a local hospital. The emergency team arrived, brought in a gurney, questioned the stricken man, took his blood pressure, managed to get him onto the gurney, and wheeled him out to the waiting ambulance. Meanwhile, the presider kept on with the Mass, right through the consecration and Communion, while all of this was going on just a few feet away from the altar. While visiting another church some years ago, I witnessed a different reaction to an apparent medical emergency. During Sunday Mass the presider noticed that a woman was visibly becoming faint; he left the altar and caught her before she fell, then took her to the back of the church and left her in the hands of the ushers, who presumably hadn't been in a position to notice the emergency as it was developing. Then he resumed the Mass. This seemed a lot more caring and communal than simply ignoring an obvious medical emergency. Is there some statement somewhere to the effect that nothing but nothing should interrupt the Mass? -- C.A., Urbana, Illinois

A: There is no overall rule, other than common sense and pastoral tact, to respond to such emergencies.

While the Mass should not generally be interrupted, circumstances such as those described could lead to a temporary interruption with no disrespect shown.

It would also depend on the particular moment during which the medical emergency occurred. For example, it is easier for a priest to notice a fainting parishioner during the readings then during the Eucharistic Prayer when many priests avoid looking toward the assembly.

My own reaction in this case would probably have been to interrupt the Mass at least while the emergency team was doing its work. This is, in part, because such situations polarize everybody's attention and nobody would follow the Mass anyway. Also, if the parishioner was in danger of death and no other priest was available, then it would be necessary to leave the altar and administer the sacraments.

That said, I do not wish to censure the priest in the first case as I am unaware of all the circumstances that led him to decide that the most appropriate course was to continue the Mass. The priest in the second example reacted with commendable attentiveness and sensitivity to a particular situation, but different circumstances might lead to different reactions.

A particular case is when the subject of the medical emergency is the priest himself. If a priest is unable to continue celebrating a Mass due to a sudden illness, then another priest may continue the Mass from the interruption point. This includes the case in which a priest only managed to consecrate the species of bread; the replacement priest continues the Mass from the consecration of the chalice.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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