Celebrating the Mass Alone

1983 Code of Canon Law Eased the Norm

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In your article «Celebrating the Mass Silently» (January 7, 2008), you say that daily Mass «is recommended for all priests even if nobody can be present.» Your opinion is based, presumably, on Canon 904: «Daily celebration is earnestly recommended.» However, I have always understood that the rules of the Church on this matter make it clear that a priest should not celebrate Mass if there is not at least one other person present. This is based on the undeniable fact that the Mass is not a private devotion, but the public worship of the Church, and is stated clearly in Canon 906: «A priest may not celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least one of the faithful, unless there is a good and reasonable cause for doing so.» I would think that the private devotion of the priest, however commendable, would not constitute such a «good and reasonable cause» when faced with this prohibition. — P.A., London
A: This comment is from several years ago, but I wish to revisit the topic.
First of all, I agree with our reader’s principle that the Mass is essentially public worship and not a private devotion. It would not be correct for a priest to prefer to celebrate alone whenever having at least one member of the faithful is possible. I would also say that he should usually prefer a community celebration.
However, I would beg to differ that saying Mass alone is forbidden or that a priest’s desire to celebrate daily Mass would not constitute a «good and reasonable cause.»
The canons referred to by our reader are the following:
“Canon 904. Remembering always that in the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice the work of redemption is exercised continually, priests are to celebrate frequently; indeed, daily celebration is recommended earnestly since, even if the faithful cannot be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church in which priests fulfill their principal function.»
«Canon 906. Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful.»
Therefore we have two norms which are not in contradiction. One recommends daily Mass; the other requires the presence of the faithful.
Of these two canons the older tradition is that of Canon 906. The prohibition of Mass without a server, or at least the presence of a member of the faithful who could respond, is found since the 12th century. There were some exceptions, such as during time of pestilence, if it were necessary to bring viaticum to the dying, if the server left during Mass, or if the priest would be obliged to abstain from celebrating for a long time. The insistence of the presence of the server was because the server represented the whole Catholic people.
It must be noted, however, that Canon 906 is actually less restrictive than the equivalent Canon 813.1 of the 1917 Code. The new code no longer requires the presence of the server but any member of the faithful. Also the older code required a “grave cause” or serious necessity to celebrate without anybody present. The current code indicates the weaker expression “just and reasonable cause.” According to a respected commentary: «Such a cause would be demonstrated whenever a member of the faithful is unavailable and when the priest is unable to participate in a communal celebration, for example, as a result of illness, infirmity or travel. A just and reasonable cause would not be the mere convenience of the priest or his preference for celebrating alone.»
On the other hand, the recommendation to celebrate daily is relatively new. The 1917 Code obliged priests to celebrate several times a year, and it was generally considered that three or four times was sufficient to fulfill the obligation.
However, the practice of daily celebration was increasingly promoted as part of a priest’s mission and became ever more common. In this case any celebration of Mass would be a public act because a priest is a public person and his liturgical acts are never a question of private devotion but always an action of the Church.
It was in this context that the Servant of God Felix Cappello (1879-1962), the great Jesuit canonist, gradually persuaded the Holy See to ease the restrictions and consider the personal desire of the priest to celebrate Mass as sufficient cause to celebrate even if no member of the faithful were present.
This line of thinking about the Mass as the priest’s central mission was reflected in the thinking of the Second Vatican Council and in papal magisterium. For example, the conciliar document Presbyterorum Ordinis states:
«13. Priests act especially in the person of Christ as ministers of holy things, particularly in the Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrifice of Christ who gave himself for the sanctification of men. Hence, they are asked to take example from that with which they deal, and inasmuch as they celebrate the mystery of the Lord’s death they should keep their bodies free of wantonness and lusts. In the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which priests fulfill their greatest task, the work of our redemption is being constantly carried on; and hence the daily celebration of Mass is strongly urged, since even if there cannot be present a number of the faithful, it is still an act of Christ and of the Church. Thus when priests join in the act of Christ the Priest, they offer themselves entirely to God, and when they are nourished with the body of Christ they profoundly share in the love of him who gives himself as food to the faithful. In like fashion they are united with the intention and love of Christ when they administer the sacraments. This is true in a special way when in the performance of their duty in the sacrament of Penance they show themselves altogether and always ready whenever the sacrament is reasonably sought by the faithful. In the recitation of the Divine Office, they offer the voice of the Church which perseveres in prayer in the name of the whole human race, together with Christ who ‘lives on still to make intercession on our behalf.’”
I believe that it is this reflection on the centrality of the Mass in the life of the priest and indeed in the life of the Church that led to the easing of the restrictions that we find in the 1983 code, while maintaining the principle that the community celebration is always preferable.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal also touches on this subject.
“19. Even though it is on occasion not possible to have the presence and active participation of the faithful, which manifest more clearly the ecclesial nature of the celebration, the celebration of the Eucharist is always endowed with its own efficacy and dignity, since it is the act of Christ and of the Church, in which the Priest fulfills his own principal function and always acts for the sake of the people’s salvation. Hence the Priest is recommended to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in so far as he can, even daily.
“254. Mass should not be celebrated without a minister, or at least one of the faithful, except for a just and reasonable cause. In this case, the greetings, the instructions, and the blessing at the end of Mass are omitted.»
Finally, the 2013 Directory for the Ministry and the Life of Priests:
“67. The priest is called to celebrate the Holy Eucharistic Sacrifice, to meditate constantly on what it means and transform his life into a Eucharist, which becomes manifest in love for daily sacrifice, especially in fulfilling the duties and offices proper to his state. Love for the cross leads the priest to become himself an offering pleasing to the Father through Christ (cf. Rm 12:1). Loving the Cross in a hedonistic society is a scandal, but from a perspective of faith it is the fount of interior life. The priest must preach the redemptive value of the cross with his style of life. It is necessary to evoke the irreplaceable value for the priest of the daily celebration of the Holy Mass — the ‘source and summit’ of the priestly life — even if it should not be possible to have the faithful present. In this regard Benedict XVI teaches: ‘To this end I join the Synod Fathers in recommending «the daily celebration of the Holy Mass, even when the faithful are not present.» This recommendation is consistent with the objectively infinite value of every celebration of the Eucharist, and is motivated by its unique spiritual fruitfulness. If celebrated in a faith-filled and attentive way, the Holy Mass is formative in the deepest sense of the word, since it fosters the priest’s configuration to Christ and strengthens him in his vocation.’”
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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. 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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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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