Overfilled Churches in the 5th Century

by Markus Tymister

leoOn June 21, 445, Pope Leo the Great wrote to the patriarch of Alexandria:

So that everything in our worship service is in proper agreement, we wish to preserve the following custom: when a more solemn feast day brings about a more numerous assembly of people, and such a multitude of the faithful comes together that the basilica is not able to contain the one group, without doubt the offering of the sacrifice is to be repeated, lest only they who came first be admitted to communal prayer, while those who came in later and couldn’t find a place be excluded. For it is entirely reverent and reasonable that each time the basilica where the worship takes place is filled with another group of people, a subsequent sacrifice be offered. It is clear that if the custom of only one Mass is preserved, one portion of the people would be deprived of their worship and would not be able to offer the sacrifice, unless they gather at an earlier time of day.

Ut autem in omnibus observantia nostra concordet, illud quoque volumus custodiri, ut cum solemnior quaeque festivitas conventum populi numerosioris indixerit, et ea fidelium multitudo convenerit,quam recipere Basilica simul una non possit, sacrificii oblatio indubitanter iteretur: ne his tantum admissis ad hanc devotionem, qui primi advenerint, vedantur hi, qui postmodum confluxerint, non recepti: cum plenum pietatis atque rationis sit, ut quoties Basilicam, in qua agitur, praesentia novae plebis impleverit, toties sacrificium subsequens offeratur. Necesse est autem, ut quaedam pars populi sua devotione privetur, si unius tantum Missae more servato, sacrificium offerre non possint, nisi qui prima diei parte convenerint.” (Leo I, Epistola 9 Ad Dioscorum Alexandrinum, 2, in Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, vol. 5, ed. J. D. Mansi et al., Firenze 1761, 1142).

There should only be a second Sunday Mass when the church is so overfilled that not every is able to participate in the liturgy. Here something becomes clear about the understanding of Eucharist for Christians of that time. The priest does not offer something for the people or in their name, but rather, all offer the sacrifice. This is a right of Christians and one may not deprive them of it. For Pope Leo the liturgical practice is taken for granted that every Christian brings his or her gifts of bread and wine to Mass (the Pope did the same!), which are then gathered together and brought to the altar.

old-st-peterAt a time of constant and explosive growth of communities, Leo was concerned as bishop for the right of Christians to the celebration of Mass. But the reason for an additional celebration of Mass on the same day is the overfilling of the church and not the more convenient time schedule of the individual Christian. As long as the church is not overfilled, one Sunday Mass per community is entirely adequate.

Translated and reprinted with permission from the blog Populo Congregato. Original: “Überfüllte Kirchen im 5. JahrhundertFr. Markus Tymister is faculty member at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.



  1. It would seem that means Saturday evening anticipated Masses should be abolished.

    All are welcome, unless your schedule conflicts.

    Good luck with that.

    I am actually much more sympathetic to this as an ideal than my remarks above might seem to indicate. It has a fundamental leak: people can shop not only within parishes for a schedule, they can shop between parishes (since 1983), unless a bishop decreed a uniform time (just nobody die during that time, ok?).

    Another way to look at things is that many/most parishes with multiple Sunday Masses are co-existing sub-parishes that share the same facilities and staff. Is that fundamentally wrong? I am not so sure it is.

  2. So as far back as the fifth century they were dealing with their version of C&E Catholics. I believe even earlier the Didache mentioned a problem of the faithful who were not attending worship every week. Some things never change.

  3. I find this post very timely for my situation. Two months ago my parish implemented the next step of our restructuring plan where we now share a priest with the neighboring parish. As a result, we went from four weekend Masses to two, with two other Mass times celebrated at our partner parish. As a result, we have lost nearly half of our normal weekend attendance, either to our partner parish or to other area parishes. Even lifelong members, faced with having to change their Mass time, chose instead to change parishes.

    Instead of “I follow Paul… I follow Apollos… I follow Peter…” we now have “I like Saturday evening… I like an early Mass… I like to sleep in…”

  4. I am not at all surprised.

    And, to play to the role of Middle-Aged Geezer, I will note that Sundays in America are quite different than they were 50 years ago. I can remember when the only businesses open on Sundays were: bakeries, pharmacies, fast-food places and certain restaurants (many restaurants were closed on Sun-Mon – finer dining establishments were more typically closed), stationery stores (a peculiarity of New York State blue laws), some gas/petrol stations (many were closed – that’s why it was important to have state-sponsored ones on public parkways) and places of public amusement/recreation/sports. There was no shopping otherwise. There were no scheduled sporting events for minors in school. (There were Sunday drivers, though.)

    The shift in Sunday from Dominica to become bis-Sabbato is a thing that has to be contended with.

  5. Picked up a different focus and emphasis. Note – the local community had only one liturgy – the whole community was gathered. One of the frequent complaints you hear today is about *gathering a community* when you have 5 or 6 weekend liturgies. When does the community gather as one? And what does that say about those who want their own liturgy style e.g. guitar, organ, quiet, TLM?
    It gets back to ecclesiology – do we gather because of convenience, personal preferences, etc.??? What does that say about our church?

    1. @william dehaas:
      At our 3 mass parish people gather as one during the Triduum where a great deal of sensitive negotiation is needed to ensure that everybody’s nose is equally put out of joint.

  6. Count me another middle-aged geezer skeptic, but on the dissent. Of course 2016 America is different from 1956 or Rome in 456. My takeaway is that the people offer the sacrifice in union with the clergy. Clergy exist to lead liturgical service, not provide it.

    That said, there are attitudes church leadership can shift or nudge to optimize the celebration of feasts. If there’s a complaint along the lines of “Why don’t people show up for holy days?” Maybe a 17th or 18th or 5th century Christian might ask, “Where is the feast?”

    My parish observes ethnic celebrations from Latin America, the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii. The attendance for all of them far outstrips USCCB-imposed obligatory observances. Pondering a mid-week December celebration of Simbang Gabi, for one example, I don’t think it’s just the reception afterward. But it doesn’t hurt.

    As for Sundays and holy days, I just don’t think the institution takes them seriously enough.

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