News Analysis

Are deacons really ‘celebrating Mass’ in the Amazon?

A screenshot of the controversial talk by Fr Giovanni Nicolini

Sandro Magister, the veteran vaticanista for Italy’s L’Espresso, wrote a column last week headlined “In the Amazon Married Deacons Are Already Saying Mass. And the Pope Knows It”. That’s splashy, to say the least.

The story got a good deal of the play one might expect, in most of the places one would expect it to play, but details and corroboration of the headline claim have been hard to come by.

The bones of the story are that Fr Giovanni Nicolini, an elderly Italian priest of some significant regard in his home country, is on video claiming that a bishop of the Amazon region took a phone call from a deacon who had no priest to say Mass of a Sunday, The bishop reportedly told the deacon to “say Mass” himself. Fr Nicolini also claimed that Pope Francis heard of the bishop’s decision and gave his approval. La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana on Tuesday reported that Fr Nicolini had admitted the story was hearsay.

With the shortage of priests to serve the Amazon among the issues on the table for next month’s Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the region, and relaxation of clerical celibacy a central focus of debate, the story struck several chords.

It’s worth noting that in Spanish-speaking Catholic cultures there is a tendency to refer to any organised public prayer as a “Mass”. It happens in Italian, too. In English, we used to speak of a “Deacon’s Mass”, which really was a “Liturgy of the Presanctified” over which the deacon would preside, omitting the Consecration and distributing reserved Eucharistic species at Communion. It’s the sort of thing that happens in lots of places where there aren’t priests to serve.

If deacons are attempting to say Mass, there’s a serious abuse happening. That the faithful don’t know the difference between a Mass and a Deacon’s Mass is a catechetical problem, but one hardly confined to the Amazon region. This is one story about which it’s worth not getting exercised just yet.