Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 26

Vatican website translation:

B) Norms drawn from the hierarchic and communal nature of the Liturgy

26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the “sacrament of unity,” namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.

Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.

Latin text:

B) Normae ex indole Liturgiae utpote actionis hierarchicae et communitatis propriae

26. Actiones liturgicae non sunt actiones privatae, sed celebrationes Ecclesiae, quae est “unitatis sacramentum”, scilicet plebs sancta sub Episcopis adunata et ordinata.

Quare ad universum Corpus Ecclesiae pertinent illudque manifestant et afficiunt; singula vero membra ipsius diverso modo, pro diversitate ordinum, munerum et actualis participationis, attingunt.

Slavishly literal translation:

B) Norms from the character of the Liturgy as proper to the action of a hierarchy and a community

26.  Liturgical actions are not private actions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is a “sacrament of unity,” that is to say, a holy people gathered and organized under Bishops. [St. Cyprian of Carthage: Concerning the Unity of the Catholic Church, 7]

Therefore they [the liturgical actions] apply to the whole Body of the Church, they manifest it, and they affect [it]; however they touch the individual members each in a different way, according to the variety of orders, tasks/offices, and active participation.

Having established general norms for the reform/restoration/renewal of the Liturgy, the Council Fathers now list some norms drawn from the nature of the Liturgy as both communal (a gathering of the baptized [and those seeking baptism]) and hierarchical (an assembly of the baptized differentiated by orders [lay/clerical], tasks/offices [e.g., principal celebrant/concelebrating presbyter], and active participation [e.g., server, choir member]).

The strongest principle articulated here is that liturgical actions are public acts, celebrations of the Church, from which it will be deduced that forms of celebration that highlight the communal dimension of the liturgy are preferred to those that are (quasi-)private.  Readers of the Pray Tell blog may wish to discuss liturgical practices which embody or challenge this principle over the last fifty years.  Examples might include the multiplication of “private” Masses in religious communities vs. Eucharistic concelebration, communal vs. individual celebration of infant baptism, preference for Form I of sacramental reconciliation, etc.


  1. I think the most blatant example of a private liturgy in American Culture, is a wedding. I can give readers a long list of reasons for that statement, but I am sure you know them already.

  2. I am just commenting from my experiences in our little corner of Providence.
    Practices which embody this;
    baptisms (of one or more babies) at mass as the norm for reception of the sacrament.
    Baptism, Eucharist and confirmation of adults (RCIA) dispensed at the Easter Vigil and the RCIA rites celebrated at parish liturgies.
    confirmation at a regularly scheduled parish liturgy
    we even had a wedding at a parish liturgy.
    offering penance services as well as Saturday afternoon confessions.
    We have special liturgies where the Sacrament of the sick is dispensed to all who are gathered.
    We certainly have the hierarchy of ministries – presider (concelebrants) deacon, lector, cantor, choir, EMHC, hospitality- each doing the ministry proper to each.

    Practices which challenge this;
    WEDDINGS!!! I constantly hear the cry “But it’s MY mass!!” from recalcitrant brides who are unchurched. I have to explain that it is the Church’s liturgy at which you will receive the sacrament of marriage, it is not your mass!
    Liturgies at which the dead are remembered (memorial masses) – again, the family refers to “my husband’s/sister’s/son’s mass” because that is who is being remembered and think they can have whatever music they want.
    Private baptisms, complete with papparazzi.

  3. I’ve worked very hard over the years to make weddings true celebrations of the church. That includes teeing off brides, grooms, and parents who just couldn’t believe that I refused to see this as ” their” wedding. Have I mentioned the niece/nephew/cousin/sibling who plays/sings like an angel who couldn’t possibly not have a starring role in the wedding of the century. But I have to admit to considerable failure. Save for the occasional wedding of two active parishioners who fill the church with worshippers, the best readers, etc, I have to urge the few practicing Catholics present at most weddings to respond to the prayers. Do I get partial credit for some weddings at regular parish masses and no here comes the bride?

  4. We’ve covered the wedding/funeral dichotomies quite extensively here many times before.
    I’ve advocated folding weddings into the scheduled Vigil Masses, a total upheaval of the apple cart, but that’s what it’ll take to mitigate a huge cultural clash with consumerism and narcissism.
    Funerals, “say the black, do the red.”

    1. @Charles Culbreth – comment #4:
      The level of congregational participation depends on the wedding, the couple, how Catholic they are and how many Catholics they know. Like so many of our funeral Masses, most of our wedding Masses have a predominantly Protestant congregation which presents challenges for participation, although most of our couples prepare a program and some go so far as to ask them to respond.
      We also have an option for weddings to be at a Sunday Mass as it would be celebrated and where only the bride, groom, best man and maid of honor are in the normal liturgical procession walking behind the servers but in front of the priest and deacon.
      We’ve only had one of these so far in five years, but in May, we will have another at our principle 9:30 AM Mass. It might catch on more broadly after this.

      1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #7:
        Dear FRAJM, my experience with truly liturgical weddings over four plus decades also amounts to a precious handful. But at the pinnacle of those was a wedding about 30 years ago (a couple of choristers with me) who did simply work with parish staff to fold their wedding into the scheduled Mass option. The joy was and is still (as is the evangelism) tangible and immeasurable. Set the new paradigm, Fr.
        Our rites, when done with love, care and propriety are the best tools of evangelism, new or “old.”

  5. Fr. Michael – coming at this from a different stance; so, help me understand how one can take this statement:

    “Liturgical actions are not private actions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is a “sacrament of unity,” that is to say, a holy people gathered and organized under Bishops.”

    And, then, draw the conclusion that the council fathers (via this statement) intended that all sacraments be celebrated within the Sunday communal liturgies? Is that really what this means?

    Take into consideration:
    – confirmation – rarely done at a Sunday celebration
    – ordination – almost never done in a Sunday celebration nor in the community that the ordinand was called from
    – funerals
    – weddings
    – baptisms (if not individual; special time on Saturday or Sunday)
    – reconciliation
    – sacrament of the sick

    So, a quick tour and very few sacraments are intended within a Sunday eucharist.

    Now, do believe and advocate for including/inserting some sacraments into the Sunday communal eucharist
    -baptism (this can be a powerful practice)
    – confirmation (unfortunately, our current adolescent group practice makes this almost impossible for a Sunday liturgy)
    – ordination (if only we did do this in the Sunday eucharist)
    – reconciliation (gets at the nature of the sacrament – Rome has discouraged any *gneral form*; thus, focusing on the *individual* celebration while trying to make that individual celebration *communal*
    – sacrament of the sick (have experienced, again, powerful use of this in Sunday eucharists)
    – matrimony (rarely on weekends except in the Hispanic or bilingual celebrations where an older couple have their vows shared)

    So, why focus on just matrimony? (for sake of argument, appears to try to use this #26 interpretation to address serious, societal/church/parish/staff/clerical issues around marriage? Is that really the intent of #26?)

    In fact, appears that since VII the lived experience is to focus on sacraments (more like RCIA) and have those involved form a *base community* – this seems to be more effective but it does, in a sense, compete with the Sunday eucharist. Is this a quasi-private celebration? Wouldn’t think so – not sure that is what VII meant..

  6. Just to add – realize that folks today, cultural norms, societal expectations, etc. can take the above list and make it into a *quasi-private* function.

    (Note – used to dread marriage preparation because of the above *cultural norms*; pressures, etc. such that you could lose any and all liturgy/sacramental focus. Yet, dioceses have excellent pre-Cana prep (again, similar to RCIA process); some catholic high schools/colleges have focused on the sacrament especially from the context of divorce; maturity; supporting a fully human, fully alive decision. What about earlier posts about confirmation – many advocate moving away from the adolescent step (like a Bar Mitzvah approach) and going back to the Eastern church practice. Funerals – have seen parishes bend over backwards to provide a supportive continuum for those facing death – visiting prior to, viaticum prayer services; doing a semi- parish community gathering for the funeral with choir, ministers, etc.; providing a communal meal, f/u support. Is this more *communal* than some type of Sunday gathering?

    Again, have seen some of the above done very well in small rural parishes – everyone is there anyway. Becomes a significant challenge for urban/suburban parishes. (sometimes you just have paid or volunteer staff present). Are these practices *quasi-private*?

  7. “Whenever two or more are gathered in my name . . . ”

    ISTM that the current dichotomy drawn between private and communal gatherings is meaningless. “Private prayer” used to mean the prayer of one person in isolation, and if we had sense it would still mean that. When talking about marriage ceremonies, funerals, etc. we are not talking about prayers of isolated individuals, so why the talk of “private” prayer? Sometimes those two ceremonies have more people present together than there are at Sunday Mass!

    I think that part of the controversy between the trads and the new folks is due to the new folks making an unwarranted assumption about the old Mass — that it used to cater to “private” praying. It never actually did that, though individuals could pray as individuals at Mass. We never, in fact, pray as anything other than individuals, though indeed we do pray *with* others.

  8. Our common parish practice includes: RCIA rituals rotated through the weekend liturgies; infant to age 7 baptisms at the Sunday Mass; introduction of 1st Eucharist and Confirmation candidates to the Sunday assemblies with celebration of both sacraments during the Sunday masses of the Easter season. Anointing of the Sick happens every few months at a daily Mass as well as in the home/hospital. Funerals usually happen at the daily 12:10 liturgy. We have a few weddings each year, and one or two may be at the regular Sunday liturgies. Major anniversaries are celebrated on Sundays.

    Recently, we also blessed and sent the newly ordained deacon and his wife to his new assignment, blessed and sent the young people of the parish to a week with the migrant workers in the northern part of the state, and the Advent reconciliation service was wrapped in a meditation on Our Lady of Guadalupe.

    With many years of practice, the community expects and welcomes the liturgical aspect of our common lives.

  9. I have never experienced private prayer.

    Whenever I pray, even when alone and without words, all the angels and saints are present.

    My closest experience to private prayer is a journal I keep that is a conversation with myself. Sometimes I am aware that God informs that conversation.

  10. Re: Bill deHaas’ comments in ##5 and 6: I don’t think that the Council Fathers intended that sacramental liturgies would all be celebrated in the context of the Sunday Eucharist, rather that whenever sacramental liturgies were celebrated their liturgical form would preferably express their communal and hierarchical character.

    Thus, e.g., whether or not a diaconal ordination would take place on a Sunday, the preferred form of that liturgy would be one in which the ordaining bishop would be surrounded by representatives of the colleges of presbyters/priests and the college of deacons as well as a significant number of the lay faithful in a church building appropriate to such a gathering (a cathedral? a parish church?) rather than one in which the ordaining bishop performs the liturgy for a single deacon with one or two other deacons, [presbyters], and lay faithful in attendance in his private chapel. Are both forms valid conferrals of the sacrament? Presumably yes, but the Council Fathers opt for a liturgical FORM which more adequately signifies the hierarchical and communal nature of the Church.

    A more controversial example might be comparing the form of a Sunday Eucharist in a parish church in which a presbyter/priest, assisted by a deacon, lector(s)/reader(s), acolyte(s)/server(s), cantor(s), schola/choir, ushers, etc., with the form of a Sunday eucharist celebrated privately by a priest in his hotel room without the assistance of another minister (which, according to present canon law, is to be done only in extraordinary circumstances). Both are valid liturgical celebrations of the Eucharist (since the claim is made that the angels and saints are invisibly present as the congregation at the “private” Mass), but I believe the Council Fathers would have preferred the first FORM over the second as more expressive of the hierarchical and communal nature of the liturgy.

    1. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #12:

      Fr. Joncas: but I believe the Council Fathers would have preferred the first FORM over the second as more expressive of the hierarchical and communal nature of the liturgy.

      I agree that the Council definitely desired to curtail the abuse of “private Mass” and the multiplication of Masses at side altars. However, I have met more than one priest who holds to the honored custom (and former canonical requirement) that a priest say Mass every day even if not for a congregation. In these priests’ view, the ontology of the priesthood requires that a priest offers the Holy Sacrifice at least daily for the living, the dead, the corporate church, and the heavenly hosts. All of the priests I know who hold this position will not say a private Mass for the day if they have previously celebrated Mass for a congregation.

      I do not read SC 26 as an indictment against a priest who occasionally says private Mass for his own spiritual good and the benefit of creation seen and unseen. Rather, I read this article as an admonition against the preferences of some religious priests in former years, as typified by sentiments such as “I’d rather say my own Mass every day than sit in choir.” Concelebration is an important advancement towards the Mass as a truly communal gesture, but concelebration is not a requirement or appropriate in every circumstance.

    2. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #12:
      Thanks, Fr. Michael. Given that the context and frame of reference for this article #26 was 50 years ago, would agree that the council fathers were supporting a *reformed* approach/principle about the community’s liturgical life – sacraments, etc. (don’t think it is helpful to go down the *exception* route in terms of what an individual priest may or may not do – that misses the point of this article). Would suggest that the *standard* litugical form carries over in other areas e.g. sacraments’ rituals now included scripture; opening/closing prayers; prayer of the faithful, emphasizing the sacrament’s symbols/signs, use of added ministers, inviting larger groups of families, etc.

      Given this, would suggest that #26 does not lend itself to these types of personal opinions: “experience with truly liturgical weddings over four plus decades also amounts to a precious handful. But at the pinnacle of those was a wedding about 30 years ago (a couple of choristers with me) who did simply work with parish staff to fold their wedding into the scheduled Mass option. The joy was and is still (as is the evangelism) tangible and immeasurable. Set the new paradigm.”

      Does raise lots of pastoral ministry team questions. For example, why is scheduling every funeral at the parish daily mass time a requirement? Is this better than an approach that sees each occasion of a sacrament as a chance for those people of God to celebrate using the form that expresses their communal and hierarchical character?
      Wonder if reducing or scheduling has more to do with priest shortage or utilitarian reasons – it also competes with another approach that sees every sacrament as an event to build small communities, do enhanced education, enhance the participation and understanding, etc. (fact – very few urban/suburgban parishes have only one major liturgy – thus, we already have a situation in which there are multiple community liturgies. So, where do you drew a line when you have significant events in the community e.g. large family asks to celebrate their parent’s 50th wedding anniversary with a family eucharist with friends? (how is this any different than a funeral?) How does the pastoral team decide on policies? (multiplying masses does seem to fly in the face of article #26 – or does it? Would we say that these requests are quasi-private? Often, there are no diocesan policies and so, practice differs by parish and pastor – what does this say?)

      Just some idle thoughts.

  11. Isn’t the point that a sacrament symbolizes something? There has to be someone to sense the symbol for it to symbolize. It is not just many vs one, but the Gospel going out to the whole world.

    A wedding can be “private” even if the church is full. The marriage is a sign to all of God’s love. That love can be seen beyond the wedding. But does a similar visibility accompany other sacraments? Does a confirmation effect a change that others can see in that way? Does the private Eucharist effect good changes that others see? I think that evangelical quality is the difference between private and communal.

  12. Jordan —

    You speak of a priest’s saying Mass “for his own spiritual good and the benefit of creation seen and unseen”. I think you’ve distinguished the real difference between “private” and communal Masses. “Private” Masses are communal, but they are also specifically about the spiritual good of particular members of the community, which indirectly, of course, benefits the community.

    We need another word..

  13. Re: Mr. Zarembo’s and Ms. Olivier’s comments in ##14 and 17. Present terminology in the OF seems to be “Mass celebrated with a congregation,” “Concelebrated Mass,” and “Mass celebrated with the assistance of a single minister.” None of these delineate the form of celebration I was describing, which some have termed a “solitary” Mass. Notice that I wasn’t denying the validity of such a form of celebration, but it’s relative impoverishment as a sign of the hierarchical and communal nature of the Church’s liturgy.

    Two sincere questions (meant genuinely for my enlightenment and not for polemic purposes):

    1) What does “the ontology of the priesthood” mean, such that it would entail a daily celebration of the Eucharist?
    2) Was daily celebration of the Eucharist a canonical requirement or a strong exhortation for priests?

  14. Fr, Michael – always taught that number 2 was – strong exhortation but no a canonical requirement (can’t swear but remember Swift responding this way in class). In fact, daily mass was development in the the early medieval period, correct? Almost an outgrowth of piety?

    Number one – always amused when appeals go out to *ontology of the priesthood* – almost like a blanket permission that covers a wide range of issues, mistakes, shibboleths, etc.

  15. @Mike Joncas, @Bill deHaas:

    Daily Mass is not a canonical requirement in the 1983 code, although “daily celebration is recommended earnestly.” (#904)

    Bill – what marks the “early medieval period”? I ask because Augustine makes reference to daily Mass. There is also a reference to daily Eucharist in a writing attributed to Hippolytus.

  16. While Article 26 helped steer the liturgy away from excessively introspective and individualistic spiritualities of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it fostered two problematic trends in late twentieth century American Catholicism (Bill #15 touches on some of this in a less systematic way)

    1. Catholicism historically has been present in many institutions (parishes, religious orders, schools, hospitals, confraternities, etc) and Catholics have been fed liturgically and spiritually in all these places. The bad tendency that has arisen is too great an emphasis upon the diocesan and parish structures as locations for liturgy and spiritually and a neglect of other locations. It is bad because the postindustrial age forms people who love diversity and self expression. We are neglecting the huge diversity which has characterized Catholicism in favor of bland one size fits all parish cultures, and then wonder why we have culture wars about the liturgy and music there.

    2. The term “private” has been used to denigrate people whose experience of Christianity (both communal as well as personal) does not fit the parish model. Catholic families especially of the same ethnicity have historically been the backbone of Catholicism. I am Catholic because my family is Catholic. Those ethnic and family structures are crumbling and so is church attendance and involvement (like weddings and funerals) with it. We should not be denigrating the wishes of family members at weddings and funerals as private! Families are Christian communities just as much as the parish is a Christian community. We are a community of communities. If all I had was the parishes of my adult life, I would no longer be a practicing Catholic just like so many others.

    Sociologically, going way back to Fichter, we have recognized that parish self descriptions using primary language (family, community) are fictions. Parishes are secondary organization (actually nonprofit businesses!) arranged around the religious aspects of people’s life. More recently the research behind American Grace has shown that the abundance benefits of church attendance (health, well being, etc) are a result of the religious networks (families, close friends, small groups). A person who merely sits in the pew without a religious network obtains none of those benefits. So the more person oriented (I would not call them private) social networks related to congregations are more important that the official ministerial (i.e. business service oriented) networks of congregations (I would not call them public).

    Quite frankly I don’t think public private language is useful anymore. Even community language is suspect. I routinely use network language since it is more descriptive and less ideological. I also find it a good translation of ecclesia in the NT, e.g. the network at Corinth or the network in X’s house, or the network in Asia Minor, etc.

  17. Thanks for Mr. Pinyan’s comment in #20. I was aware that the 1983 Code of Canon Law strongly exhorts rather than requires priests to celebrate Mass daily. My question was whether or not the earlier Code had the same legislation.

    Fr. Taft has written done some interesting research distinguishing between daily communion and daily celebration of the Eucharist in the patristic period. Apparently in some communities one would take home enough of the consecrated element(s) from the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy to commune oneself and one’s household during the week, thus providing for daily communion without daily celebration of Mass.

    1. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #22:
      1917 Code, can. 805:

      Sacerdotes omnes obligatione tenentur Sacrum litandi pluries per annum; curet autem Episcopus vel Superior religiosus ut iidem saltem singulis diebus dominicis aliisque festis de praecepto divinis operentur.

      So the old code merely said “several times per year” (with emphasis on Sundays and feast days). The new code, then, leans more towards daily Mass than the old code.

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