Can a Priest Celebrate Mass Alone? Voices from Antiquity and the Middle Ages

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.

 

 

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22 comments

  1. Some of the more pious would maintain that no priest ever celebrates a Mass alone; always present are the angels and the whole Communion of Saints. But try to take up a collection from them.
    The recent Holy Fathers have encouraged priests to celebrate Mass daily, even alone. I think it’s a laudable practice but it carries with it the danger that the priest would consider the Mass his private devotion, a frame of mind some priests carry with them when celebrating with a community. How many priests still refer to “my Mass”? And as the priest carries on his private devotion at the altar, the people carry on their private devotions in the pews.
    I guess the key for me is: can the priest who celebrates privately also celebrate with a community in a manner that encourages “full, conscious and active participation”?

  2. #1John S asks a pertinent question…

    In a western state two weekends ago, small parish, priest said Mass ad orientem, about 90 people there, I think the priest said Mass alone.

    Two women praying rosaries, three young adults on cell phones. Priest did not seem to want to interact with any one but the wall in front of him. He said Mass alone. He would not wait for the people’s response to finish before he started back up again.

    Can a priest say MAss alone? Yes. Should a priest say Mass alone? Please no.

    1. @Ed Nash:

      The three young adults on cell phones were probably following on an iMissal app…I use one when attending Low Mass.

      The priest was leading the people by facing the same direction toward the Lord, and not the focus.

      1. @Jay Edward:
        Maybe, maybe not. From where I sit I can see a lot of screens. Some, mostly among the younger middle-aged, have the readings. (Do serious lectors like that?) Some, mostly young, have phone messages. Some, mostly very young, have games. The ancients are paying attention to the altar because they can’t make those apps work.

      2. @tom_blackburn@juno.com:

        That’s another thing. Sometimes I attend Daily Mass where the lector reads with heavily accented English and I have trouble making out what is being said, so I use a daily readings app.

        I don’t think Lectors should be offended if someone wants to recieve the Word by listening and reading…on the few occasions I’ve lectored, it wouldn’t bother me one bit.

        If people are texting or surfing the Internet at Mass, that is a problem, but there are legitimate Mass related uses of smart phones during the liturgy.

  3. I’m in agreement with the ancients but I’m not sure this is a confrontation that excites me. A priest praying Mass alone may be in the company of the angels and saints, but holds the same holds true for a praying community, even one distracted by texting and rosaries, with or without the Mass.

    The best emphasis for clergy these days is good preaching and public leadership of prayer. A poor preacher and clueless presidency might get the attention of the saints and angels, but probably not favorable reviews from them.

  4. I found the article a little unclear as to whether the author was referring to individual celebration (i.e. with the presence of a single server) or individual solitary celebration (without anyone aside from the priest present).

    Certainly it was only greater reflection and a developing theology of the priesthood (whatever opinion one might hold of such a theology) that enabled individual solitary celebrations. But the idea of a social setting did not completely disappear, as could be seen from the extremely limited number of cases for which it was allowed until relatively recently.

    For the earlier earlier theologians and canonists, the argument had a strong legal tenor: the rite itself (which is why the earlier ones held that there had to be at least 2 persons present, to validate the truth of the plural greeting). While others were added, and canonical reflection evolved to regard a single person as representative of a whole community, reasons based on the rite provided the basis for the law all the way up until Paul VI changed the law to allow for individual solitary celebration in lesser than grave reasons.

    I find it interesting that while the current rite in the missal for individual celebration alters some prayers from the plural to the second-person singular (e.g. the Confiteor), others (such as the salutations) are left in the second-person plural – thus seeming implicitly to address a wider audience .

  5. Saying Mass alone might be required for the viaticum, but this would be a rare case. One would hope that a priest would bring with him a pyx of hosts to the bedside. Even traditionalists today strongly insist that at least one server is present for any Mass.

    In my view, reservation of the Eucharist has now become more focused on the ill and dying and not adoration. The more esoteric and mysterious aspects of the Eucharist such as Corpus Christi or even simple Benediction have, in my experience, fallen by the wayside. We are all the more impoverished when the mystery of the Eucharist is not shown in all its facets.

  6. I had already indicated on the initial (German) blog post that this post does not reflect the breadth of the tradition, witness but Peter afamian’s eloquent defense of a hermit priest’s celebration of Mass alone in his cell. Last time I checked, Peter Damian was still a doctor of the church.

  7. This is in reply to Jordan Zarembo. It was my understand historically that reservation of the Eucharist came about expressly for having it available for the sick and drying and that the later practices of adoration came about because the Eucharist was being reserved.

  8. There are more than hermit priests (St. Charbel Mahklouf, Bl. Charles de Foucauld for more recent examples) who might have a sound reason to celebrate privately. There must be hundreds of retired or infirm priests who do so either because they have no place to “help out” or don’t want to or can’t assist in a parish; priests who are restricted but not laicized; priests who are not part of the diocesan and parochial establishment who belong to religious communities but might live alone or have some specialized ministry, etc. (think Teilhard de Chardin). This would be especially true on weekdays. Admittedly, this is not an ideal situation, but these marginal or “boundary” celebrations could very well remind a priest that the Mass is first and foremost and act of worship (latria) and that the Sacrifice can be worthily offered even by himself acting alone — unusually, for sure — in persona Christi et Ecclesia).. And for the record, I am neither a Traddie, Krazie, or ordained in the last 10 years.

    1. @Reyanna Rice:

      Thank you for this information. Even though what you have said is the case, adoration should not be sidelined. This sentiment is the ex-traditionalist in me, as the accent in traditionalism is strongly on adoration and not reservation.

      @Rev. Richard Middleton:

      Fr. Middleton: […] “There must be hundreds of retired or infirm priests who do so either because they have no place to “help out” or don’t want to or can’t assist in a parish” […]

      I’ve seen two approaches to the ministry of very elderly priests. In one diocese, the very elderly are warehoused (sad to say) in a former seminary. I became acquainted with a late priest through a friend. He concelebrated a morning Mass in a small chapel (not intended for lay participation) with priests who are well enough to concelebrate. The rest of the time he was very socially isolated. By contrast, in my current diocese some very elderly priests celebrate weekday parish Masses and hear confessions. This reduces a lot of strain on pastors who are the only priest in their parish. I’ve never had the chance to ask one of the elder priests whether they enjoy serving parishes as visitors. I would hope that their participation would help alleviate any social isolation.

  9. I think a priest celebrating Mass truly alone – not even a server – should be rare, and confined mostly to the situations Fr. Richard describes in #8.

    The argument John raises in #1 resonates strongly with me, about devotional attitude within the priest and his demeanor being different alone vs. with the community. This is one of the great dangers of solo celebration, and one of the reasons why it should be rare and only out of necessity.

    I lament the present practice of which I’m aware in some parishes, in which on a given weekday, one priest presides for the parish’s Mass in the church, but the other priest – rather than concelebrating that Mass – chooses to celebrate Mass in his room…not out of necessity, but mostly out of private devotion. This does more, in the eyes of many people, to erode the unity of the priesthood (or at least the presbyterate in a given parish or even diocese) than theological arguments ever will. Concelebration is here to stay…get on board, and get over yourself.

    Also, can we please eradicate the expression “saying Mass” from the lexicon of us liturgists? Of course, “we all know what it means”, right, but since one of the foundational principles of our worship is that words matter, perhaps we could speak more precisely, at least on liturgical blogs?

    I’m as guilty as anyone from time to time, but I try to catch myself before using that expression. Such a casual misstatement diminishes both the significance of presidential singing, but also more importantly, the importance of non-presidential words to the liturgy: the scriptures, chants, the responses of the people.

    I’ll be more patient with people raised a generation ago who still use the expression “saying Mass” because they grew up with it…I think we in the liturgical community can do better, right? Words matter a great deal…

    1. Jeremy Helmes : Also, can we please eradicate the expression “saying Mass” from the lexicon of us liturgists? Of course, “we all know what it means”, right, but since one of the foundational principles of our worship is that words matter, perhaps we could speak more precisely, at least on liturgical blogs?

      If words matter, I think it’s worth learning what they mean and how they’re being used, preferably to banning their use.

    2. @Jeremy Helmes:

      I lament that practice too. I would have understood it 50 years ago when there was no shortage of Priests. But today? Better to schedule a second daily Mass, at a different time, for a different demographic.

      Example. My parish has 3 daily Masses. The First Priest offers the 5:50 AM Mass. It’s a commuter Mass, so we get a lot of Pentagon commuters. The second Mass is at 9:00 AM. We get a lot of homeschoolers, children, and retired people. The Third is an 11:45 AM Mass. We get a tremendous number of people who will come during lunch hour.

    1. @Jay Edward:
      Could he not attend Mass from the pew? That assumes he is vacationing in a place where there is a catholic church.
      Our parish priest was recently very sick and was unable to work for several months. The Sunday before returning (gently) to his duties he attended each Mass from the pews as a gentle easing back into the parish. Both he and parishioners found it a moving experience. More importantly he found it an instructive one that has caused him to reflect on both practical things (the state of the PA system) and also the manner in which he leads the parish in celebrating the Eucharist.

    2. @Jay Edward:
      Really – so it is just about loading up your bank account with God. So, it becomes a transaction, an object you can obtain.

      Eucharist is a communal action (accepting that certain circumstances always allow for common sense exceptions).

      It used to be an *old priest’s tale* that a priest was required to *say* mass daily or it was a mortal sin. Can remeber the Jansenist and guilt that drove guys to arrange this – it got to be ridiculous.

      It is not a system set up for score keeping.

  10. Sunday –the Lord’s Day– has always been THE day for celebration of Eucharist.
    When did daily Mass become the practice in the church? And why?
    Before daily Mass became the practice, what was the weekday worship of Christians like?
    Is it time to dialogue once again about alternatives to weekday Mass, with increasingly scarce priests and to refocus attention on Sunday Mass? And restoring holy days that have been transferred to Sunday back to their original day (e.g., Ascension Thursday)?
    In the contemporary world how can we best sanctify time?

  11. If I can borrow a bit from my Anglican background, we say that the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are “generally necessary for salvation.” That is, generally, they are a mandatory feature of the salvation process. This language leaves wiggle room for various exceptions — chiefly, for people who intended on being baptized, but died some how en route, or parents who intend to baptize their children, but are met with tragedy. (The other sacraments are “particularly necessary” for a given individual, by contrast.)

    What does this have to do with Mass? Generally, I think most of us would agree that there should be biologically living people present at Mass. The Church Triumphant does not need the grace of the sacrament, and the Church Penitent has no physical means of partaking of it (plus at the end of the day, they’re inbound to join the first category sooner or later). That leaves the rest of us. There are exceptions to this general requirement — a priest who is isolated for whatever reason but wishes daily Mass being the chief example, but these cases should be considered just that: exceptional.

    The rise of Low Mass (which, to be clear, I do like and occasionally prefer) featuring a priest and a server quietly doing the work of the Mass while an optional congregation silently observed, prayed, or did their devotions did, indeed, distort the communal nature of Communion. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters have no such tradition. It has its place, but as an exception to what is, as I would say, generally necessary or generally preferred.

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