Non Solum: Baccalaureate Mass

A reader has sent in these timely questions about Baccalaureate Masses:

  • Does anyone have knowledge about the historical development of the Baccalaureate Mass?

  • If one is involved in the preparation of the Mass at a high school or college/university:

    • Is there a specific set of Mass propers one uses?  (i.e. Which Mass from the Roman Missal is prayed?)

    • Similarly, are there readings that you use every year?  If yes, which ones?  If no, how do you go about selecting readings?

    • Do you include the Gloria in your Baccalaureate Mass?

Let me say at the outset that I think celebrating a Baccalaureate Mass is a laudable custom. It is a liturgical event bringing before God an important moment of transition in the lives of the faithful at a school, as students conclude their course of study and turn to the future. I would see it as an occasion of joy, thanksgiving, and humble recognition of need.

That said, it seems to me that the Baccalaureate Mass falls under two categories that pose considerable challenges to the liturgist.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades (Fort Wayne-South-Bend) congratulates graduates of the University of Saint Francis after a baccalaureate Mass on May 1, 2010. Photo: Today's Catholic News.
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades (Fort Wayne-South-Bend) congratulates graduates of the University of Saint Francis after a baccalaureate Mass on May 1, 2010. Photo: Today’s Catholic News.

First, school Masses in general come with some challenges. Do the students and faculty enter into them with a good attitude or are they corralled under pressure? Does the assembly have a shared repertoire of prayer and music that fosters participation? Is full participation cultivated or is attendance considered “enough”? School Masses can suffer from a tendency to plan the Eucharist as if it were a school assembly–showcasing achievement and giving speeches (with God as “our sponsor”)–rather than grappling with the more profound aspects of liturgical worship as they reveal the mystery of sin and death overcome by the pascha of Jesus Christ.

The second category is: big liturgy. A Baccalaureate Mass will bring together a lot of people from many different places who don’t always worship at all, much less all together: students, parents, family members. How to engage them? (See participation questions above.) What sort of hospitality is needed? The right sense of scale is needed, for processions, attire, music, and ritual.

* * *

Turning to the first question: “Where does the Baccalaureate Mass come from?” I did some looking around to see if I could find an account of the origins and history of this practice.

There are Baccalaureate Masses at Catholic schools, and Baccalaureate services at schools with a Christian history. Oxford College at Emory University in Atlanta had this to say:

The baccalaureate service originated with an English statute of 1432 that required every degree candidate at the University of Oxford (England) to deliver a sermon in Latin. British practice was continued in colonial America, and baccalaureate services have since become an integral part of commencement exercises, marking the completion of an educational program, just as opening convocation marks the beginning.

Columbia University in New York has something similar on its website. Their description in turn has been repeated, almost verbatim, on Wikipedia. But a qualification in the Columbia website (“it is believed”) plus that little red flag at Wikipedia (“citation needed”) should alert us to the possibility that claims about its origin may lack a factual basis.

Frankly, it seemed a little fishy to me. All the candidates giving sermons in the same liturgy in order to qualify for their degree? Really? I could not find a reference to it in Munimenta Academica or Documents Illustrative of Academic Life and Studies at Oxford (Henry Anstey, 1868), which relies on manuscript sources beginning in 1350 and continuing through the fifteenth century up to “a collection of comparatively modern statutes—of the years 1564-5.” (This work does make reference to the Mass of the Holy Spirit at the start of the school year, however, which is a fun fact to know.)

Happily, whether or not an Oxford preaching requirement of the fifteenth century is behind it all is pretty much beside the point today. If anyone can point us to a source that traces the origins and development of the Baccalaureate Mass, please do so in the comments.

* * *

As for the second set of questions, I know of no requirements concerning which Mass texts to use or which readings, aside from the general guidelines depending on the calendar day. Readers may wish to share their experiences in answer to the questions concerning what they use for Mass texts, readings, and Gloria.


  1. Really good topic! I generally use the liturgy of the day as much as possible & hope the homilist can link the 2. I don’t use a Gloria, however. If the readings on a ferial day don’t “work” we (I) choose something else! If it’s an obligatory memorial or feast I stick with that with the rationale the feast has something to offer that shouldn’t be discarded. Mass texts? There’s a treasure trove in Masses for Various Needs or a Votive Mass to the Holy Spirit or the patron saint of the school/sponsoring community or diocese. I’ve got a file I can send!

  2. We tend to use the readings of the day for our commencement liturgy, but this has not always the case.

    In the past, a liturgy preparation group – composed of graduating undergraduate and graduate students, facilitated by several campus ministers – presents a few readings and decides which one to suggest to the presider and/or homilist. The president of our university (who typically presides and preaches) then re-gathers this group of graduating students, for a ‘breaking open the word” of the liturgy’s readings. Some students have never been exposed to a deep reflection on scripture before and their comments and experiences have for the most part been gift to me.

    Our liturgy attracts no less than 7, 000 persons in an arena setting (complete with sharing of the Cup and all (mostly!) standing for the duration of the communion procession) for both undergraduate and graduate graduating students and their families. Yes, we sing a Gloria. In the event that our liturgy falls during the Easter Season, we also celebrate with a Sprinkling Rite, but because we are on the quarter system this rarely happens.

    The orations are have differed in past years: from the Votive Mass of the Holy spirit, for giving thanks to God, and even for the evangelization of peoples. EP for various needs, using the Church on the Path of Unity with accompanying preface has been used.

    Do other communities include a commissioning of graduating students as part of their celebration?

    1. @john michael reyes: When I was in charge of music and liturgy Saint Mary’s College we always included a twofold blessing/commissioning as part of the concluding rites: one directed at the graduating students themselves and their future, and another directed to the faculty, staff, and families as a blessing for, and thanksgiving of, those who have supported the graduates throughout their academic journey.

      This was a tradition that was started long before I arrived (perhaps it started when Diana Macalintal was there) and it is still done as far as I know.

  3. What you call Baccalaureate Mass we’d call Valete or Graduation Mass.
    Readings of the day (after all, that’s what the Ordo is for!!).
    Thankfully, there’s only one homily and that’s from our Chaplain!
    Do we include the Gloria? Unless there’s liturgical reason not to, yes.
    Music wise: full proper of the Mass; Prelude, postlude (so the musicians and organist can show off !!) Processional; Resp. Ps; Offertory; Communion (generally more reflective music); Recessional.

  4. May I offer a small quibble? Since teaching in Catholic high schools for 19 years and having participated in 19 of these Masses, I believe it is not accurate to call them baccalaureate Masses as no one is receiving a bachelor’s degree. Would it not be more accurate in high schools to call these “graduation” Masses?

    1. @Anthony Andreassi:
      The baccalauréat is the qualification conferred in France at the end of secondary school. Also, the International Baccalaureate is a secondary school qualification availabel in many countries, including England and Wales where some schools offer instead of or as an alternative to A-levels.

      I point this out merely to be pedantic.

  5. Anthony A, I agree! I was following what seemed to be a common usage when I looked on line. A number of high school websites referred to it this way and so did the reader who inquired. But I think it is more appropriate to simply call it a “graduation Mass” for high schoolers.

  6. As far as I can tell, the chief criterion for picking readings at our Baccalaureate Mass is to keep things as short as possible. Here on the East Coast people get restless after 50 minutes.

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