There appears to be an opening of some common ground in a disputed aspect of the liturgy. It is skepticism about concelebration, whereby many priests vest and act in a priestly, sacramental role at the Eucharist along with the main celebrant.
Progressives are skeptical because the liturgy only needs one presider, because concelebration clericalizes the liturgy and overemphasizes ordained ministry, because priests should get over the idea that they have to get in “their” Mass each day, because priests too can attend Mass as members of the assembly.
Those more traditional-minded are skeptical because it hasn’t been done for so many centuries, because its introduction after the Second Vatican Council seems to be an innovation or a rupture, because it is unclear what “concelebration” really was in the first millennium or before Trent, because it could reduce the total number of Masses being offered.
When I was ordained a priest in 1993, I expected that I would never concelebrate in the abbey church. (The reader may take a wild guess which paragraph above gives the reasons for concelebration-skepticism in Collegeville.) We’re in a different place now, having moved closer to the practice of the wider church, and now it’s unproblematic for me or any other priest to concelebrate. During the week, anyway – we don’t do it on Sundays at Saint John’s, and certainly not at monastic profession where the Benedictine habit expresses the common monastic life of us all, ordained and not ordained.
Cardinal Cañizares, prefect of the Vatican liturgy office (Congregation for Divine Worship), recently made skeptical comments about concelebration:
The Council did indeed decide to widen the faculty for concelebrating in accordance with two principles: that this form of celebration of the Holy Mass adequately manifests the unity of the priesthood, and that it has been practiced up to now in the Church both in the East and in the West. Hence concelebration, as Sacrosanctum Concilium also noted, is one of those rites that it is fitting to restore “according to the primitive rule of the holy Fathers.”
In this sense, it is important to look, however briefly, into the history of concelebration. The historical panorama that Msgr. Derville offers us, even if it is —as he modestly points out— only a brief summary, is sufficient to let us glimpse areas of obscurity, that show the absence of clear data on Eucharistic celebration in the earliest times of the Church. At the same time, and without falling into a ingenuous “archaeologism,” it does provide us with enough information to be able to state that concelebration, in the genuine tradition of the Church, whether eastern or western, is an extraordinary, solemn and public rite, normally presided over by the Bishop or his delegate, surrounded by his presbyterium and by the entire community of the faithful. But the daily concelebrations of priests only, which are practiced “privately,” so to speak, in the eastern Churches instead of Masses celebrated individually or “more private,” do not form part of the Latin liturgical tradition.
Moreover, the author seems to me to succeed fully when he examines in depth the underlying reasons mentioned by the Council for extending concelebration. This widening of the faculty to concelebrate needs to be moderated, as we can see when we read the Council texts. And it is logical that it should be so: the purpose of concelebration is not to solve problems of logistics or organization, but rather to make the Paschal mystery present, manifesting the unity of the priesthood that is born of the Eucharist. The beauty of the concelebration, as we said at the beginning, implies its celebration in the truth. And thus its power as a sign depends on the way it lives and respects the demands that the concelebration itself brings with it.
When the number of concelebrants is too large, you lose one of the essential aspects of the concelebration. When it is almost impossible to synchronize the words and gestures not reserved to the principal celebrant, when the concelebrants are distant from the altar and the offerings, when there are not vestments for some of them, when there is a lack of harmony in the color or the shape of the vestments, all this can obscure the manifestation of the unity of the priesthood. And we cannot forget that it is precisely this manifestation which justified the widening of the faculty to concelebrate.
As long ago as 1965 Cardinal Lercaro, president of the Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de sacra liturgia, wrote a letter to the Presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences, alerting them to the danger of treating concelebration as simply a way of dealing with practical problems. And he reminded them that it could be opportune to encourage it, if it helped the piety of faithful and priests.
I would like to look at this last aspect very briefly. As Benedict XVI stated: “I join the Synod Fathers in recommending ‘the daily celebration of 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 the Mass’s unique spiritual fruitfulness. If celebrated in a faith-filled and attentive way, 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.”
1. The issue is the nature of the liturgy and the nature of the liturgical assembly. I agree with the Cardinal, citing Cardinal Lercaro, that concelebration should not be a way of dealing with practical problems (such as a way for each priest to “get his Mass in” or “earn his Mass stipend” for the day).
2. As the Cardinal suggests, concelebration is best reserved for celebrations with the Bishop.
3. The nature of the assembly or of the occasion might suggest concelebration at other times. Examples would be the pastor and his associate(s) concelebrating on the parish’s patronal feast, or a priest representing each community concelebrating when communities come together, e.g. at pilgrimage shrines.
4. Concelebration is there to express the nature of the church, not the piety of the individual priest. A priest concelebrates to express his membership in the priesthood in relationship to the entire community.
5. It follows that concelebrants should always vest. I’m always shocked to see priests in clericals or lay clothes or monastic habit do a quasi-concelebration by mouthing the Institution Narrative (perhaps the epiclesis and a few other things also) from within the congregation . This is a bad combination of convenience and clericalism. It is an abuse and should be stamped out.
6. In an imperfect world, concelebration is better than many priests celebrating Mass individually. Here I part company with those who are skeptical of concelebration because the Church is “losing Masses.” Alas, even Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) has spoken of the “infinite value” of every Mass in support of each priest celebrating individually. I realize that if you do the math, 10 priests saying private Masses is ten times more Masses than those same 10 priests concelebrating at one Mass. But where sacraments and grace are concerned, it’s rarely a good idea to “do the math.” Many of the distortions and abuses of liturgical history arose precisely from “doing the math.” Ten priests at ten altars, each celebrating the ‘sacrament of unity’: something has gone off the rails here. I would appeal to the Cardinal’s excellent point that concelebration isn’t a way to deal with practical problems – and I would put the counting of private Masses in the category of a practical problem.