Mass without a congregation

In my ‘previous incarnation’ as a contributor on the Anglo-Catholic blog, I wrote an article about the debated question of whether a priest should refrain from celebrating Mass if there are no faithful attending.

There is a doctoral thesis on this subject: Fr Marian Szablewski CR, Mass without a congregation : A Sign of Unity or Division?

The Anglican tradition, like Orthodoxy, has always been rigorous in prohibiting Mass or Divine Liturgy at which only the priest is present. The 1662 Prayer Book contains this rubric: And there shall be no celebration of the Lord’s Supper, except there be a convenient number to communicate with the Priest, according to his discretion. The question can be legitimately asked about how many is the “convenient number”.

The strict view would uphold the ecclesial dimension of the Eucharist. It is an act of the Church and not a private devotion of the priest. That theology is correct according to the constant tradition of the eastern and western Churches. What became abusive in the middle ages was the cramming of scores of altars into side chapels of large churches so that priests could celebrate each day to receive endowments and stipends. All too often, it was all about money.

The Roman Catholic Church has been, and still is, the most flexible in this matter. Canon law stipulates that a priest should not celebrate Mass alone, but have at least a server or a lay person making the responses, but a solitary celebration is not to be forbidden absolutely if there is a good reason. A motive of piety and love of the daily Mass is generally thought to be adequate as a good reason. It frequently happens that a priest is in good standing with his Church and Bishop (not sanctioned or suspended, etc.) but has no pastoral ministry, for example for reason of having a teaching post or doing further theological studies at a university.

In times gone by, the Church was much stricter about this rule, and Blessed Charles de Foucault in his hermitage in Algeria was deprived of the Sacraments for several years. He applied for and obtained a special indult from the Holy See to say Mass entirely alone – since there were no other Christians anywhere at all nearby, and the local Muslims were hardly to be expected to come and assist at Mass (seeing as he never converted any of them).

Like Anglican clergy attending Mass in the manner of laity, Roman Catholic priests since Vatican II have been encouraged to concelebrate. Whilst this is more than normal at ordinations or at the Chrism Mass celebrated by the Diocesan Bishop, it is not compulsory. Many priests, especially regulars in communities, have found that daily concelebration instead of daily Mass at a side altar is detrimental to their piety and fervour. I have had the experience of being in the Benedictine Abbey church at Fontgombault (France) at about 7 in the morning (after Matins and Lauds) and seeing a priest at each side altar silently offering Mass as if it were his last. The piety and spirit of prayer are overwhelming in the golden candle light reflecting on the stone walls of the ancient church.

It would seem that the Eucharist has both dimensions – the ecclesial aspect, the res et sacramentum of the Church’s unity, but there is also the priest’s own spirituality, and if the priority is there, there is nothing wrong with the priest finding communion with God and the universal Church in a spiritual manner. The Church on earth is in communion with the Church of heaven and the souls of the departed. In such a perspective, the priest is never alone at Mass, unless all that exists is what we see and hear on earth – and then we would be atheists and materialists!

It would be an error to prefer private Masses to public Masses (all Masses are public). Simply it seems better to celebrate Mass rather than pack everything up and go home because no one turned up for Mass. I also mentioned the case of Blessed Charles de Foucault, a solitary hermit with a contemplative vocation. A useful rule is to make sure the door of the church is open to emphasise the fact that no Mass is private.

Going through the comments on the Anglo-Catholic article I noticed several comments from a Roman Catholic academic who argued for rigour. Either get into a proper canonical situation and appointed to a parish ministry or give up your priesthood! My mind tends to construct a reductio ad absurdam from a situation. Parishes without priests, and priests without parishes because a a canonical problem that no one in authority has the will to resolve. The ultimate punishment would be to have a big high wall with the priests on one side and the laity on the other. The serpent has eaten its tail and the whole thing is absurd and loses credibility to any person with an ounce of intelligence. I don’t want those polemics here, since I am not attacking the Roman Catholic Church or any other community or person.

Daily Mass, especially without a congregation, is not Anglican. Anglicanism is a reformed tradition and the ‘private’ Mass and the chantry priests were done away with in the sixteenth century. Before the mid nineteenth century, you had box pews, three-decker pulpits and organists with enough time to go fishing during the sermon! I write from a ‘generic’ western Catholic point of view, though I seem not to belong to any ‘traditional’ Church at present other than a vaguely defined and reduced TAC. Of course it is possible for a priest to go through his entire life without celebrating Mass after the day of his ordination – but of course such a priest should never have been ordained! Tallyrand (called une merde dans un bas de soie by Napoleon) is hardly a reference for the rest of us!

This comment from March 2010 illustrates an epitome of reformed austerity:

If we are to consider Anglican patrimony, George Herbert in “A Priest to the Temple” considered a monthly Communion possible but unlikely, a quarterly communion much more likely. Weekly communion was a luxury for cathedrals and other collegiate institutions. I have maintained the discipline of the daily office for forty years – from long before ordination – and only very rarely in that time have I had even the possibility of being present at a daily liturgy, much less of celebrating one. I do not wish to stop any priest from celebrating a daily mass if he can find a congregation, but such a practice is neither ancient nor central to Anglicanism. Nor is it common in Orthodoxy. The 1969 canons of the Church of England require a celebration on Sundays, principal Feast Days, and Ash Wednesday (though more is allowed). I would not wish to press for more – particularly bearing in mind the needs of priests in full time employment.

Perhaps a little historical perspective is useful. In the Roman Catholic Church before Vatican II, Mass without a congregation was known as a Private Mass (Missa privata). Josef A. Jungmann defined such a Mass as “a mass celebrated for its own sake, with no thought of anyone participating, a mass where only the prescribed server is in attendance or even where no one is present, as was the case with the missa solitaria“.

The practice of building side altars in churches and having priests celebrate daily masses with or without faithful goes back to the seventh century. The practice has continued ever since, though with efforts to limit it. The present Code of Canon Law states: “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“. The Reformers naturally, and the Anglicans were no exception, opposed it as being contrary to the dimension of the Eucharist as a shared meal.

Since John XXIII, the term private Mass has been avoided in order to stress the fact that all Masses are public, even if no one turns up. Pope Paul VI also stressed that “No Mass is Private“, explaining that “each and every Mass is not something private, even if a priest celebrates it privately; instead, it is an act of Christ and of the Church“. Since the liturgical reform of 1969, there is a form of Mass sine populo. This would seem to be preferable to the term private.

My own practice is to continue celebrating Mass even though I live in a place in a nominally Roman Catholic country where about 5% or less practice their religion (the percentage is higher in the cities), and those who don’t believe in the “true church” would hardly be inclined to believe in any other. In the end, the question is what represents reality (understood in the sense of Plato’s Universal Idea) the most – the mystical and eternal Church with which we enter into communion through prayer and the Sacraments, or the “reality” of the secular world that has extinguished spirituality and turned its back on God? Who would profit from one less Mass in the world?

The reasonable conclusion of the write-up of Fr Szablewski’s thesis is:

This disapproval arose from the Church’s growing awareness “that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the pre-eminent act of public worship, always enacted in the name of Christ and of the Church.” There was hence a need for a new expression, free of the ambiguities inherent in such a term as Private Mass.

Today the Church expects that in a Mass without a congregation there should be besides the priest at least one other person to make the Mass responses. In normal circumstances, the priest should try to find a congregation, however small, or else concelebrate in another parish.

The likelihood of a priest being unable to find anyone to be present at his Mass celebration or to participate in another priest’s celebration is very remote – as “on the Missions or in an isolated place where the priest is alone”. The Church does allow for this unlikely eventuality, but stresses the need for a congregation.

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