Mass without a congregation

foucauld altar 225x300 Solitary Mass

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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8 Responses to Mass without a congregation

  1. Stephen K says:

    I think a lot depends on how you understand the Mass. If you think the Mass is an elaborate incantation leading up to the consecration and Elevation – which is the way I think a lot of traditionalists tend to regard it unconsciously – then masses sine populo would seem perfectly acceptable. Indeed, one of the common protests against the idea of concelebration when it was introduced or adopted in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that it “reduced the Mass-power” that all those priests could have produced by saying individual Masses. In other words, the concept was that each Mass added to a “quantity” of grace. This understanding has theological problems of its own.

    On the other hand, if you think of the Mass as a dynamic mysterious process by which the prayers and gestures of a group of believers produce a charism and flow of love – Eu-charis – between them, then the idea of a priest solitary at the altar would seem incongruous. If sacraments are visible signs, the solitary priest is less a sign of communion than the “two or three gathered in His Name”.

    It all goes back to other discussions which have touched on the nature of priesthood: is it better understood as a “status” or an “action”? And if a person stands up – solitary – in the church or field or street and raises hands and voice to declaim and ask the grace and blessing of God on behalf of and for all people, do we have sacrament? That is, grace-channelling and mediation? I would find it hard to deny its possibility. And if the Mass prayers are recited without a congregation – even of one – do we even have a “Mass”, that is, a memorial sacricifice? Again, surely the words and ritual mean something if the focus is not to be on the person celebrating. But, if yes, then if a Mass is celebrated, who gets the benefit, those who attend only or everyone who has ever lived?

    Perhaps the truth is all of this and other things besides, and perhaps we have to approach the issue with a view that we get out what we bring in the first place. Perhaps this is an issue that mainly confronts an ordained person. After all, most of us don’t consider saying the Mass prayers if we aren’t, and we generally don’t even turn our minds to the millions of Masses said we don’t attend and don’t even know about, however they are celebrated. An interesting question.

    • Your final paragraph is haunting, and reflects exactly what my wife observes: these matters being of interest only to the clergy. The laity generally have no sense of responsibility to their priests, the duty being on the side of the priests. When there are no more priests, there is no further need to go to church – or one worships outside the “sacramental system”. The laity can study the Scriptures and have different forms of prayer, and a few might be inclined to use the Divine Office.

      That is exactly the cause of the current crisis of vocations. Why would a young man give up his life and freedom for so little? Without the sacerdotal aspect, Protestant ministers can be married, and there is no point in excluding women from the ministry. I am sure many women would be better at spiritual direction and “opening” the Scriptures. The obstacle to “revisionism” is the notion of a priestly “character” and something like the theology of the icon – the icon of Christ the priest.

      When I was at university, I came across Cyrille Vogel’s Ordinations Inconsistantes et Caractère Inamissible, published in Turin in 1978. It is a collection of short essays related to this subject. Vogel clearly contests the Catholic doctrine according to which bishops and priests, even when excommunicated or deposed from their functions can confer valid Sacraments provided the right matter, form and intention are present. For example, the sacrament is conferred according to an approved liturgical form and the minister has the “intention of doing what the Church does”. Vogel rightly notices that such a doctrine makes vagante priests and bishops possible. In Vogel’s work, this doctrine is unknown in any of the oriental Churches, Old Catholicism or the Reformed Churches, or in the Roman Catholic Church before the end of the twelfth century and beginning of the thirteenth.

      What does Vogel propose? We seem to have the notion that an excommunicated or deposed priest really loses the priesthood and absolutely becomes the layman he was before ordination. There is no inamissible character. Ordination can be reversed! The Sacrament of Order is possible only in the official communion of the Church and in accordance with canon law. This book is extraordinarily well researched and written and would be difficult to refute other than by an argument of authority (eg. the Council of Trent). If this thesis were true, then through the theory of “economy” as found in the oriental Churches, quite simply, ordination is valid because the Church says it is and for no other reason. The teaching authority truly has power over truth and reality itself. The Pope says the moon is made of green cheese and it becomes so! The Church can switch the priesthood on and off like a tap or an electric switch. To Anglo-Catholics and post-Tridentine Catholics, the idea is preposterous and even heretical. Yet, Vogel based his work on Patristic and ecclesiastical sources, and did a scientific piece of work. In all fairness, we would need to refute him on his own ground by proving that the inamissible character of ordination was known in the early Church, perhaps by a fresh examination of St Augustine’s refutation of the Donatist heresy.

      It certainly would be very convenient for the Church hierarchy to deny any priesthood outside its own canonical system. Adopting Vogel’s conclusion, confirming St Cyprian’s theology and Donatism, would take away any credibility claimed by “loose cannon” traditionalist groups. A bishop has only to say to his priests “Get into line otherwise you will not be priests the minute I say so” to whip them into shape. The problem with this notion is essentially that there is nothing objective or ontological about the priesthood. It is merely an institutional nomination to a ministry – unless the ontological character affirmed by the Council of Trent can come and go at will. I suppose we have to know what we want.

      The question ought to be put – is there any need for an ordained priesthood? Can not a congregation elect a person and that person becomes a “priest” because then people have said so? We seem to be in the world of men like Hans Küng and Schillebeeckx. Deconstructing the medieval notion of the priesthood is tempting, but I suspect it is like peeling away the skins of an onion. This is what happened at the time of the Reformation, less so with Luther and the Anglicans, more so with Calvin, Zwingli, the Anabaptists, Puritans, etc. The next stage is the “secular church” of Bonhöffer, an idea I can sympathise with – but I still ask myself how far one goes before rejecting Christianity altogether!

  2. Dale says:

    I well remember this issue being discussed in seminary. The perfect answer is that there should always be a worshipping congregation for every Mass, but what if this does not happen? Effectively, the Orthodox do not usually offer a daily Mass (“Usually” because certain Orthodox groups, especially, at one time, the Ruthenians often did so), but what of a major feast day? The priest usually comes very early, begins the proskomedia (Preparation of the elements before the Mass, which often takes almost as long as a Latin low Mass), and if no one shows up; what to do? Does the priest stop the service and go home? Does he wait until someone shows up? The final conclusions drawn by our liturgy professor was that regardless of actual physical numbers, or lack thereof, in the church itself, in every Mass and office is attended by countless members of the heavenly hosts and of course, those who have passed, but are still in full and corporate union in perpetuity with the Church. A priest is never alone when he celebrates the divine mysteries.

    Of course, many, both Orthodox and Catholic would disagree with the above; and would say that the priest must not continue the service. But for me, personally, it made both liturgical as well as theological sense. How many of us, mostly on vacation, have visited a small church to find a priest, alone, in solitude offering the Mass? I have always found this in some manner just as uplifting as a packed church.

    • Thank you, Fr Dale. You have expressed this beautifully.

    • frjeromeosjv says:

      My thoughts exactly! One is NEVER alone but enjoys the company of the Communion of Saints i.e. that “silent cloud of witnesses”… Broadcasting live over the internet my daily Mass also, for me, justifies its offering even with nobody physically present because a) ref the above regarding the worshipful company of Heaven and b) the viewers, whom I trust are in sympathy and in faith, prayerfully and spiritually uniting their intentions with mine during the offering (as opposed to just spectating)… It is for that reason that I voice the responses, vocalising in the immediate environment of the Mass on behalf of those watching. I also persist in offering because of the numerous occasions when folk have arrived late, or have wondered in off the street (a sign outside notifies that Mass is being offered).

  3. Fr. James Blacker says:

    ideally one would celebrate the Mass with a congregation present. However what does one do when it has been published that a Mass will be said at such and such a place and at such and such a time but no one turns up? It may be that no one will come but it is also possible that someone is making their way to be present at the Mass but are currently late through one reason or another. Does one not continue as planned and celebrate the Mass? This question was addressed by the poet Rudyard Kipling in his poem “Eddi’s Service:

    Rudyard Kipling
    Eddi’s Service
    (A.D. 687)

    Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
    In his chapel at Manhood End,
    Ordered a midnight service
    For such as cared to attend.

    But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
    And the night was stormy as well.
    Nobody came to service,
    Though Eddi rang the bell.

    “‘Wicked weather for walking,”
    Said Eddi of Manhood End.
    “But I must go on with the service
    For such as care to attend.”

    The altar-lamps were lighted, —
    An old marsh-donkey came,
    Bold as a guest invited,
    And stared at the guttering flame.

    The storm beat on at the windows,
    The water splashed on the floor,
    And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
    Pushed in through the open door.

    “How do I know what is greatest,
    How do I know what is least?
    That is My Father’s business,”
    Said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.

    “But — three are gathered together —
    Listen to me and attend.
    I bring good news, my brethren!”
    Said Eddi of Manhood End.

    And he told the Ox of a Manger
    And a Stall in Bethlehem,
    And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
    That rode to Jerusalem.

    They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
    They listened and never stirred,
    While, just as though they were Bishops,
    Eddi preached them The Word,

    Till the gale blew off on the marshes
    And the windows showed the day,
    And the Ox and the Ass together
    Wheeled and clattered away.

    And when the Saxons mocked him,
    Said Eddi of Manhood End,
    “I dare not shut His chapel
    On such as care to attend.”

    Fr. James

  4. A few brief thoughts:

    1. “We pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven”… “… join with the angels and archangels, thrones and dominations in their unending hymn of your praise…” (or in the eastern rites, “Rank on rank the host of heaven”, etc.). See also the back wall of the Basilica of San Clemente, painted with figures of the saints. Surely, the Mass is never said alone, but with the communion of the saints and the heavenly host mystically present.

    2. The canonical rigorist you mention has a dubious grasp of Roman Catholic theology, I think. A man may not simply “give up” the priesthood, for us; again, Psalm 110 springs to mind, and “juravit Dominus…”, but also “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”.

    3. The priest who rarely if ever says Mass should not be the norm, but not all were reprehensible: Vivaldi, after all, was ordained but unable to act as a priest much (if at all) due to his health. Yet his music is surely a worthy (while of course, not comparable) sacrifice of praise!

  5. Chris says:

    If we thought of the Mass first as an act of communion with God, and then by extension as an act of communion with one another, wouldn’t it make sense to think that while a Mass celebrated with a community would be preferable (fulfilling both of the above), a Mass celebrated without the community present would still have tremendous value? In other words, whether or not we are joined by the faithful people, or by the saints and martyrs, or even by the heavenly hosts themselves – even were they not present, we are still in the presence of the most Holy Trinity, with whom we might surely delight in sharing eucharistic fellowship?

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