I ran across a funny, tongue-in-cheek commentary on what should be done if Mass is interrupted by a gunman. The piece was written by a priest at his own blog in response to the following question…
“I have a question for you. Suppose during a EF Mass, a gunman or threatening person enters the church, and opens fire. What can be done within the rubrics to protect the Blessed Sacrament, the priest, the servers, and the congregation? Please keep in mind that the congregation is made up of slow, aging men, who no offense to them, really can’t protect anyone.”
[Read the whole article here.]
The reply is quite funny and well worth the read (especially for any Catholic familiar with the rubrics), but in the end it does deal with a serious issue. Mass can be interrupted by any number of outbursts, verbal protests, natural disasters, sudden emergencies, or even a violent assault. Throughout the centuries priests have been martyred while standing at the altar offering the Sacrifice of the Mass. What better way to catch a Christian during times of persecution than in the very act of worshipping Christ in the Holy Eucharist. To find Christians gathered around the altar praising their God has always been a welcomed target for enemies of the Church.
During times of war, Mass has been disturbed by cannon and gunfire, troops storming a captured city, or bombs falling from above. Also during war, Mass has been celebrated near the frontlines as soldiers prepare for battle and partake in what may be their last reception of Christ’s Body here on earth. At any moment an enemy barrage or sudden attack could jeopardize that sacred moment.
Of course, these extreme examples are not typical in most of our ordinary parishes here in the United States or in most places in the Western World (although sadly there are places today where this sort of thing does still happen). For most of us, we do not go to Mass wondering if the church will be bombed while we worship or hoping that Father is not gunned down as he consecrates the bread and wine.
The final point from the article I cited above is that when Mass is suddenly interrupted by an act of great violence, if the people are directly attacked in some way or threatened with death, the rubrics do not spell out some pre-planned maneuver to counteract the menace. Generally in such circumstances the Mass is suspended and the threat is answered with whatever means are necessary…basically, common sense prevails, and the rubrics cannot replace common sense when faced with a life-or-death struggle. A gunman is not going to wait for the priest to cite some Cannon Law or turn to the correct page in his Sacramentary. Obviously the gunman is not “playing by the rules,” so consulting the “rule book” is a waste of precious time.
This is not to say that the rubrics tell us nothing about what to do when the Mass is interrupted in a more ordinary way, absent gunfire and explosives. Just as there are specific guidelines dictating how the Mass ought to be celebrated, there are also guidelines instructing us what to do when the Mass does not go as planned. The case of an armed gunman is extreme, but there are other unplanned emergencies that come up from time-to-time that do fall within the guidelines laid out in the rubrics. During these times, the Mass can usually continue while the emergency is handled by competent individuals in the congregation.
Coincidentally, a couple of days after reading the article mentioned above, the Mass I attended was interrupted by a man who apparently was having a stroke or some other sudden medical emergency. I say that the Mass was “interrupted,” but quite literally it was not interrupted. As the Mass continued on, I was completely unaware of the event as it unfolded on the other side of the church. The gentleman’s needs were handled quietly by those sitting nearby. A woman called 911 on her cell phone and others sat with him and his wife as they waited for the paramedics. I had no idea that any of this was going on until I heard a gurney unfolded and its wheels struck the floor with a thud.
However, our priest apparently had been alerted to the situation right away and had even sent an altar server to find out what had happened. I thought it odd at the time that a server would leave the sanctuary and I noticed upon his return that he whispered something in Father’s ear. But Mass continued, and so I focused again on the Liturgy while fellow parishioners did what was needed for the elderly gentleman.
On at least two other occasions I have witnessed similar situations, when someone has collapsed or fainted or suffered some sudden physical ailment during the Mass. And always the priest is called to perform his ministerial duties at the altar, while those in the pew attend to the needs of their fellow parishioners. The Mass must go on!
I am always struck by the wisdom of the Church in setting the guidelines for the celebration of the Mass. Every detail is planned for and every eventuality is considered. Even the gunman scenario described above is addressed indirectly in the rubrics by allowing for the suspension of the service when people’s lives are threatened. As the before-mentioned priest blogger duly noted in his conclusion:
32. If, while the priest is celebrating Mass, the church is violated before he has reached the Canon, the Mass is to be discontinued; if after the Canon, it is not to be discontinued. If there is fear of an attack by enemies, or of a flood or of the collapse of the building where the Mass is being celebrated, the Mass is to be discontinued if it is before the Consecration; if this fear arises after the Consecration, however, the priest may omit everything else and go on at once to the reception of the Sacrament. (From the old De defectibus)
In all of this it should be remembered that the Mass gives to us God Himself, physically present as food and drink. Knowing this, we ought not leave anything to chance.