Common Ground on Concelebration?

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.”

My thoughts?

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.



  1. I have mixed feelings about concelebration, but generally dislike it because of *both* the reasons given at the beginning of this article. However, I can’t ever shake how positive my first experience of it was. I was in high school and there were two young priests staying at my parish that weekend as guests. The principal Mass ended up being celebrated by four priests and the buzz afterward was very positive – a few years earlier several parishes had closed/merged and everyone was being told that more parishes would close due to the growing priest shortage. Seeing four priests (two of them being fairly new) celebrate Mass made it seem, at least for a few moments, like maybe the diocese wasn’t in as much trouble as everyone kept saying it was.

    Some people forget that seeing more than one priest at a time is actually kind of rare.

    1. “Some people forget that seeing more than one priest at a time is actually kind of rare.”
      Agreed Jack, isn’t that true!

      If concelebrations are done properly they are truly wonderful to experience. Especially with a bishop and the same number of priests on either side of him facing the assembly, all vested alike, is truly a beautiful sight. Likewise, one priest as the main celebrant with 1 or 2 other concelebrants is likewise beautiful if done correctly. Too many, done sloppily is an eyesore.
      I have a picture of an 9th century Mass w/ the bishop as the (central) presider and the presbyterium behind him at the altar. Looks like a concelebrated OF except the hosts are braided and there are two handles on the chalice.

      I have always maintained that there is no room for sloppy presiding…period.

      Sloppy presiding is what has given the Vatican II Mass a bad name. If presided well with appropriate choir and cantor most complaints against the OF evaporate.
      I used to train lay leaders (formerly called lay presiders) using the SCAP for Holy Communion services. It’s all about posture, and presiding well. Speak clearly, sit w/ hands on top of knees, practice your readings from the ambo the day before, arrive early, no loose leaf sheets and take your watch off your wrist, we don’t want to see it or worse, see you looking at it. No distractions and never ever break from script (unless it’s an emergency), this is liturgical time not time for a commercial.
      Pay attention to what you’re doing and practice, practice and practice. Make it worthwhile and uplifting.

      Sorry, back to topic. If done well, concelebrations can be magnificent!

      1. Dale, why should lay leaders/presiders be instructed to “never ever break from script” except in the case of emergency? Why would they be held to a more rigorous standard when presiding over a non-Mass liturgy than a priest is held to when presiding over a Mass?

        (I’m not trying to play “gotcha”, I’m curious what your explanation is. Maybe you’re using “script” more loosely than I interpret it.)

      2. Jeff, I don’t think I said anywhere that lay leaders should be held to a more “rigorous standard” ? I don’t follow you?

        Not breaking from script means to not interject personal statements or comments. We had one priest that always stopped to make a comment. An example was when he stopped in the middle of the collect to state “oh it’s advent that’s why we didn’t sing the Gloria”. Now if there was a parishioner who had a heart attack then of course they should assist (as I have done) or ask for help.
        I trained using “Called to Preside” by Theresa Cotter. She states succinctly “One of the most common ways in which the presider transgresses the guidelines of good presiding is by not staying in the ritual… when we step out of that ritual we interrupt the prayer of the assembly…”
        As I stated there is no room for sloppy presiding/liturgy, it reflects poor planning and not taking seriously their ministry regardless lay or cleric.

        I hope you respond because I don’t follow your line of questioning.

      3. I don’t think I said anywhere that lay leaders should be held to a more “rigorous standard”?

        I was referring to lay leaders being told to stick to the script, while priests are (in some places) encouraged not to (and not only because of the quality of the new translation).

        Not breaking from script means to not interject personal statements or comments. … “oh it’s advent that’s why we didn’t sing the Gloria”.

        Okay. I get that.

        “One of the most common ways in which the presider transgresses the guidelines of good presiding is by not staying in the ritual… when we step out of that ritual we interrupt the prayer of the assembly…”

        I can certainly agree with that.

        I didn’t interpret “not sticking to the script” as necessarily meaning “stepping out of the ritual”.

  2. 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.
    Lack of harmony? Does the cardinal mean different colored vestments, or some concelebrants wearing just the alb and stole, others the alb, stole, and cope, and still others wearing alb, stole, and chasuable? In the east different colors are common in concelebrated liturgies, and I’ve been to plenty of concelebrated masses over the years in the latin rite with different colored vestments too, especially at Newman Club gatherings.

    In some religious houses, mostly in Europe, concelebrants are still wearing just a stole over the habit. Even though this was forbidden a while back.

    In the Greek Orthodox Church concelebrants don’t mouth the words at all, but simply stand about the altar and each concelebrant may take over one or more of the prayers, or may say nothing. Our latin custom of celebrants in some regimented fashion reciting the prayers in unison isn’t so much concelebration, but co-consecration. I don’t think that was the practice in the patristic era, or the Church’s intention then.

    As for a return to the multiple altars with each celebrant racing to see who ends first, no thanks. Mass is not a priest’s private devotion and he shouldn’t be celebrating it as his personal right. He can attend another priest’s Mass like the rest of us, or concelebrate.

    Cardinal Llovera’s concern seems to be another traditionalist episode of making something out of nothing, or a tempest in a teapot. I fully expect bishops will ignore this as they have other rulings from the CDW.

  3. If you do the math, ten priests doing ten celebrations is not of more value than the infinite value of the sacrifice of Christ. Adding infinities yields only one infinity. So the infinite value of the Mass is NOT a reason to multiply services.

    It is possible for one infinity to be larger than another, but adding or multiplying is not the way to accomplish it iirc.

  4. I remember attending the ordination of a young priest in my native France in the diocese of possibly the most pre Vatican II bishop of the nation.
    Some 60 priests around the altar, with the Medieval bishop reigning on his well ordained crowd. With one little nun organizing the singing.
    Way too much ‘malehood’ there.

    I love a concelebration with priests of various denominations. And I absolutely love it when a couple of Anglican women priests, with a Lutheran woman priest added to the mix, join in at the altar.

    Then, yes, it all looks normal and well at the altar 🙂

  5. Concelebration, or as mentioned above ‘just presence in the Assembly’, would work better for most people (and priests) if Communion could be assured in ‘both kinds’ from that very celebration and not at all from the tabernacle. The Cardinal’s article seems to emphasize the Liturgy as ‘holy spectacle’ and not as truly the celebration of all present — the lay people and their servants (the clergy) in union with their Bishop. ‘Actual participation’ is not a ‘private matter or a matter only of devotionals’ but rather all of God’s family coming together and worshiping in the presence of the Holy Trinity.

  6. A real theological and liturgical issue arises, I believe, not with concelebration but with what is often its alternative, the solitary Mass. The first words of the Ordo Missae are “Populo congregato”, and the liturgical books do not provide for Mass without at least one person present to answer the prayers (and to represent the congregation to which the priest ministers).

    Nevertheless, the solitary Mass seems to have become extremely common, even among younger clergy (in the past at least a server was required to be present in addition to the priest, and after Paul VI’s legislation, at least one member of the faithful.) The theological and liturgical/symbolic reasons for this seem to me profound. I presume this solitary practice is possible only because priests regard the Mass as their private possession rather than as a ministry in and for the people of God, and the notion that “the church” is somehow invisibly present seems to me contrary to the very nature of liturgy as a symbolic world.

    In places where there are many priests (Rome, for example) there are many who celebrate alone even on Sundays, and for the merest personal convenience, omitting the apostolic obligation to participate in the Christian assembly. Now that is a liturgical abuse of a quite different order to concelebrants in ill-matched vestments.

    Twenty years ago Thomas Rausch (“Is the Private Mass Traditional?” Worship 64 (1990): 237–42) argued that the solitary Mass had been forbidden at least from the 9th century.

    1. the liturgical books do not provide for Mass without at least one person present to answer the prayers

      That’s not actually true, though certainly, the practice is less than ideal.

      The GIRM provides for Mass without a minister:

      “254. Mass should not be celebrated without a minister, or at least one of the faithful, except for a just and reasonable cause. In this case, the greetings, the instructions, and the blessing at the end of Mass are omitted.”

      Ironically, the greater prevelence of the solitary Mass today seems to be an unintended consequence of the effort to root out the private Mass with one minister. Removing the private Mass was largely succesful, but the removing the desire of priests for daily celebration other than concelebration was not and when the practice had a resurgence, the infrastructure and liturgical culture that allowed those private Masses had been destroyed.

  7. Recently my parish was assigned a third parochial vicar. Each of us priests wants to say Mass daily and so we are concelebrating our morning daily Mass. None of us wants to celebrate private Masses. However, having a third priest allows us now to provide small group Masses at the Catholic high school twice a week. I think the problem in a parish with many priests is that only one Mass is celebrated daily when the abundance of priests could allow for more opportunities in school settings, nursing homes, etc. Having another priest also helps when there are funerals, which are common, and thus we don’t normally have to binate during the week.
    Apart from the daily Mass conundrum, concelebration for major solemnities would seem appropriate, certainly Holy Thursday, Midnight Mass, and the Easter Vigil.
    But in today’s Church in most places, I don’t think concelebration is a huge problem.

  8. Concelebration can be a problem at events like Papal funerals, Consistories, or the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Ireland, in June. ( Some priests of Dublin diocese have voiced the hope that there will not be phalanx of 100 or more robed bishops at the closing event of the Congress, the Statio Orbis. We are assured that there will be good lay representation, but somehow that does not reassure me.
    Anthony: How would you arrange the celebration?
    The mission of the ordained priesthood is to serve the priesthood of the whole Body of Christ. This is the aspect that badly needs to find more effective expression in liturgy.
    Ordained priests and bishops are about 0.0404% of the church. The other 99.9596% is rather a large elephant outside the sanctuary.

  9. Concelebrations at the Parish level are rare except for Holy Week services when there is one service but more than one priest. When there are 2 or 3 priests from a parish, it is more like “co-consecration” rather than a “concelebration” of many priests with the bishop, or of many bishops that image diocesan or supra-diocesan churches.

    The only “concelebration” at the parish level that I have witnessed was a concelebration of Vespers at the local Orthodox Church. During Lent the Orthodox Deanery has Vespers each Sunday evening at a different church. Priests and people come from surrounding parishes, and have a social afterwards.

    Seven priests vested in copes gave the impression of a “diocesan” like gathering even without a bishop. Since the celebration was followed by a deanery gathering including the laity, it did not have a strong clerical flavor.

    With many dioceses adopting the clustering and collaboration of parishes, perhaps we should think of “concelebration” as making present a more diocesan, supra-parish or deanery gathering.

    The Orthodox Vespers provides a good model. Given fewer priests, there are going to be few opportunities for concelebration of the Eucharist. However Evening or Morning Prayer could easily begin or end many collaborative events among parishes.

    The Liturgy of the Hours provides the ability to feature the concelebration of not only priests and deacons but also pastoral associates, e.g. as readers and preachers, and music ministers as cantors.

    In terms of “solemnity” we ought to think of these “concelebrations” as occasions of higher solemnity even if the liturgy of the day does not require it. The Orthodox Vespers concelebration celebrated the deanery more than the liturgical occasion. Sunday evening was a convenient occasion since most parishes have a Vigil (Vespers plus Matins) on Saturday evening but nothing on Sunday evening.

  10. The Chrism mass is routinely concelebrated with all the priests from the diocese who attend; my just-arrived Worship has an article on the Chrism mass that finds the “presbyteral intrusion” into the Chrism mass theologically AND liturgically objectionable. As a member of the diocesan choir, I am routinely present at the mass. In the choir loft, the sight below during the EP is the most prominent illustration of the “clericalism” problem I have seen — the vested ordained men crowding into the sanctuary, several rows of empty pews (where the concelebrants sat during the other parts of the mass), and then a mass of lay people kneeling. This was NOT a picture of the people of God assembled in union with the Bishop; nor was it a marvelous sign of the unity of the priesthood. It was a medieval court scene of a lord and his courtiers gathered ’round the throne, with the laity in a posture of submission and at a great distance from the altar. With such high clericalism in view, the oils that were blest, the chrism that was consecrated, and the parish reps receiving them in the name of the various local communities, seemed relegated to a pragmatic, second class status.

  11. Mary and Ann – you left out those bishops/dioceses that change the focus of the chrism mass to one of celebrating priesthood and having every priest in the diocese repeat their vow of obedience to the bishop and the pope.

    1. You mean the Chrism Mass isn’t about the priests repeating their vows? That’s the emphasis around here – all the priests are expected to show up at the Cathedral that day – to the point that daily Masses are cancelled here in the North Country!

    2. Well, Brigid, in the midst of all the aspects listed in the Redemptionis Sacramentum, that orientation of the Chrism Mass was not detailed as an “abuse” – gee, are we surprised?

  12. Our parish hosts a revolving cadre of ‘foreign’ priests studying at the universities surrounding us. They live in our rectory for months, sometimes years. Having one of these priests concelebrate with our pastor provides an introduction for the new priest to the people of the parish. It is helpful to the congregation and I hope to the ‘temporary’ priest.

  13. One local parish here is “home” to a retired priest who regularly assists at a concelebration. Sometimes he’s a little unsteady on his ancient legs and I assume his physical frailty is the reason why he does not now function as the main celebrant.

    He had served as pp in an adjoining parish a few years ago and the opportunity for him to retire, but still “in the swim” is a genuine pleasure for parishioners, his fellow priests and for himself.

  14. Fr Ruff mentions pilgrimage shrines as his no.3.
    At the International Mass in Lourdes they usually try to have a bit in each of the main languages. That is one case where concelebration seems necessary. It can drag if the readings are repeated in each language but I see no other solution. The sermon is another matter.
    Less satisfactory is where two or three dioceses, often British, have to share a Mass at the grotto. There is a tendency to try to have a some from each diocese and so it risks being a scrum or general mismash. The Italian pilgrimages are larger and avoid this problem. The sacredotal league, with say 200 priests, presents other issues.

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