by Markus Tymister
The church father Cyprian (+ 258), bishop of Carthage from 248/249 until his banishment and death, applied the term celebrare (celebrate) to the Eucharist in his writings for the first time in history.
In one of his letters he wrote:
Sed cum cenamus, ad convivium nostrum plebem convocare non possumus, ut sacramenti veritatem fraternitate omni praesente celebremus. – (Cyprianus, Ep. 63, 16, ed. G. Hartel (CSEL 3/2), Vienna 1871, 714.)
“But when we hold our supper, we are not able to call the people to our table, in order to celebrate the truth of the sacrament with the entire brotherhood present.”
The background is the dispute about whether it is permitted for Christians to celebrate the Eucharist in the morning only with water. No doubt some communities did this as a precaution, so that afterward they would not be discovered to be Christians because of the smell of wine. Cyprian argued that Christian, in the celebration of the Eucharist, had to do what Jesus himself had done – namely, offer a cup filled with wine and water. The objection that Christians could therefore celebrate the Eucharist only in the evening, because Jesus celebrated the Last Supper in the evening, Cyprian refuted by his argument above: assembling the entire community in the evening is not possible because of the daily duties of individuals, therefore Christians celebrate the Eucharist even in the morning, because they celebrate the resurrection of Christ in it. For Cyprian, it belongs to the truth of the sign in the celebration of the Eucharist that there be bread and a cup with wine and water, and equally so, the assembly of the entire community (the present of all the brothers and sisters).
Theodulf (+ 821), court theologian to Charlemagne and bishop of Orléans 798-818, wrote to the clergy of his diocese at the beginning of the 9th century:
Sacerdos missam solus nequaquam celebret, quia sicut illa celebrari non potest sine salutatione sacerdotis, responsione plebis, admonitione sacerdotis, responsione nihilominus plebis, ita nimirum nequaquam ab uno debet celebrari. Esse enim debent, qui ei circumstent, quos ille salutet, a quibus ei respondeatur. Et ad memoriam illi reducendum est illud dominicum: ‘Ubicumque fuerint duo vel tres in nomine meo congregati, et ego in medio eorum.’ (Mt 18:20). – (Thedulf of Orléans, 1. Kapitular VII, in Capitula episcoporum, vol. 1, ed. P. Bommer (MGH), Hannover 1984, 129.)
“A priest may never celebrate the Mass alone, for just as Mass cannot be celebrated without the greeting of the priest and the response of the people, the admonition of the priest and again the response of the people, so it certainly cannot be celebrated by one alone. For the presence is needed of those who stand gathered around him, whom he greets and who reply to him. Thus he must be reminded of what the Lord said: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.’ (Mt 18.20).”
The fact that Theodulf saw the necessity of admonishing his clergy with clear words about this tells us that some of his priests no doubt were celebrating Mass alone, without presence of a community, probably because a stipend for it had been given to them. Theodulph certainly knows of the possibility, alongside the bishop’s Mass when this was necessary, also celebrating additional Masses for the intention of the individual donor; but these Masses had to be scheduled so that the priest and additional participants could take part in the Eucharistic celebration of the bishop, to which they were obligated. Theodulf assumes that the giver of the stipend would of course participate in the Mass. – (cf. Theodulf of Orléans, 1. Kapitular XLV, in Capitula episcoporum, vol. 1, ed. P. Bommer (MGH), Hannover 1984, 141-142).
William Durandus (+ 1296), Bishop of Mende from 1285, wrote in Rationale divinorum officiorum, his work on church architecture and the liturgy:
Generaliter autem dicendum est quod illa est legitima missa in qua sunt sacerdos, respondens, offerens atque communicans, sicut ipsa precum compositio euidenti ratione demonstrat. – (G. Durandus, Rationale divinorum officiorum IV,1,39, ed. A. Davril – T. M. Thibodeau (CCCM 140), Tournhout 1995, 254.)
“In general it is to be said that that Mass is legitimate in which is present the priest and one giving the answer, one offering and one sharing in Communion, as the structure of the prayers clearly shows.”
Translated and reprinted with permission from the blog Populo Congregato. Original: “Kann ein Priester die Messe alleine feiern? Stimmen aus Antike und Mittelalter.” Fr. Markus Tymister is faculty member at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.