AMEN CORNER Response: The problem of too many people going to Mass

by Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

This piece is a response to “AMEN CORNER: There’s Always Room at the Table” by Margaret Daly-Denton.

I enjoyed the reflections in Margaret Daly-Denton’s AMEN CORNER piece and I found them to be very helpful. I fully agree with here that every Christian ought to be near the eucharistic table during the celebration. However that is not always practical given the logistics of our current buildings.

This led me to the unusual question as to whether we simply have too many people coming to Mass.

I know this is an absurd question in these days of clergy shortage, but Scripture expresses a preference for one bread and one cup. If we take this seriously we could ask ourselves how many people can receive from one bread and one cup? 50? 100? In the miracles of the loaves Christ divided the people into groups of 50 or 100. If, as many Scripture scholars say, these passages are in fact written by an early Christian community that is reflecting on both the miracle of Our Lord and their own Eucharistic practice. Then we could ask if there was an early Christian practice of multiple Eucharists being celebrated for different smaller assemblies.

I know that there are other factors at play here, such as the lack of availability of bigger places to celebrate, but the early Church in Rome was made up of different communities (or proto-parishes) celebrating in different parishes. Ignatius of Antioch’s ideal of a single Eucharist per diocese gave way to multiple Eucharists presided by presbyters (I do realize that there is a lot of discussion of Eucharistic origins, such as Baldovin’s recent proposal on the origins of the fermentum in Rome coming from non-Eucharist celebrations, instead of multiple Eucharists, but the parish structure did gradually emerge from the practice of the early practice of the early church).

In our brush-struck history of the Eucharist, with the legalization of Christianity under Constantine in the fourth century, we see the adoption of the basilica form of church that made space for big assemblies. Archaeological studies tell us that the internal walls in the basilica separating the area of the clergy from the assembly (such as can be seen today in Rome’s San Clemente Basilica). Nonetheless these were bigger assemblies than could receive Communion from one bread and one cup. At this stage the fact that many Christians no longer received Communion every week made the point rather moot.

I have traced elsewhere the desire of the assembly to be near the altar. But until St. Pius X, the faithful didn’t receive Communion more than once or twice a year. A hundred years ago, with Pius X’s liturgical renewal many assemblies were quite large and modern parish churches often date to this period, whereby the Tridentine ideal of being able to see the altar from the whole church building was the guiding principle. Today we have a different situation, whereby many churches have been renovated after Vatican II, so that the altar is now closer to the assembly, but perhaps the line of sight to the altar from everywhere in the church is not quite as respected as in the original building.

On top of this, we often have churches that are larger than we need and which (other than Christmas and the odd funeral or other particular event) are rarely full. In particular weekday Masses are often held in churches than are less than 10% full. As numbers attending particularly weekday liturgies drop, maybe we should concentrate on providing meaningful worship spaces for the assembly to properly participate around the altar. Then when we have larger numbers at a given celebration, we should think as to what makes most sense logistically for as active a participation as possible given that the biblical preference for a small assembly has been sacrificed for a greater pastoral benefit of a large assembly coming together for a particular event.

St. John Paul II once warned a group of Canadian bishops that it was necessary to fight against an anonymity invading our Eucharistic assemblies, which is a danger when people have been clustered together to form a mega-assembly.

On a practical level, we clearly need to balance the tendency to cluster to limit clergy burn out caused when priest are running around celebrating liturgies in half empty churches. Yes, we have to keep the show on the road; and yes, at times we do need to limit the number of Eucharistic liturgies by clustering assemblies and creating large groups. But we must also avoid the easy temptation of creating an anonymous crowd of people who do not really constitute an assembly of the Christian community. These are not simple decisions and often need an almost Solomonic wisdom on the part of the Church’s leaders.

Neil Xavier O’Donoghue is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. He is currently a lecturer in Systematic Theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. He has studied at Seton Hall University, the University of Notre Dame, and St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a Doctorate in Theology from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.


    1. The papal mega Masses are obviously an exception. Something good (i.e. celebrating as a member of an intimate Eucharistic assembly) is being sacrificed for the benefit of celebrating in an assembly led by the Pope. However I believe that the modern Papal Mass was really only started by Paul VI and is quite new.

      I am not so naive as to expect us to stop all Masses with more than 50 participants. However, I am suggesting that we give due weight to the spiritual benefit of celebrating the Eucharist in small intentional assemblies, even to the degree of constructing small purpose built chapels where these celebrations can take place.

      On an interesting aside, I think that for many people the most meaningful experience of a papal Mass is for those that manage to attend the Pope’s daily Mass at St. Martha’s chapel in the Vatican.

      1. I want to express considerable disagreement with the underlying principle of Fr O’Donoghue’s article paper concerning the need for altars of adequate size.

        If the shape of the mensa was originally the same as the top side of a cube or a short oblong, then we need to ask why the much longer altars of the late Middle Ages came about. Those longer altars came into being by the simple expedient of extending the mensa, in effect adding a further section of the same size as the central portion to each end of that central portion, or a further top side of the cube at each end of the central cube. The extensions were made necessary by the development of the Tridentine Rite, with the altar missal on its stand being moved from one end to the other, the addition of altar cards at each end, etc. And those accoutrements were rendered necessary notably by the disappearance of ambones and by the way in which all ministries at the Eucharist were accreted to the priest.

        One problem for us today is that we have got used to those longer altars, and many think that this is how altars should be. They become convenient parking places for a multiplicity of chalices, making the altar look disedifyingly like not much more than a sideboard covered with trophies. The symbolism of one bread and one cup is lost.

        Now that we have one or more ambones for the proclamation of the Word, there is no need for those extensions at either end of the mensa.

        In my opinion Redemptionis Sacramentum was quite wrong to ban the filling of chalices from a larger decanter or a lipped chalice at the time of the fraction. The underlying principle of that document was to bolster the status and prestige of the priest, something which its authors thought had become diminished and degraded. The thought of lay persons having to assist with the filling of chalices was abhorrent to them, and additionally they were quite unfamiliar with what Communion under both kinds for the laity looks like, since it never happens in Rome.

        With the return of a single decanter or larger chalice, the necessity for loading an altar with multiple filled chalices at the preparation of the altar and procession of gifts is rendered redundant.

        I advocate a return to a cube shaped altar with fewer vessels, rather than a long sideboard laden with metal cups.

      2. Hi Paul. I don’t think we are in such disagreement. I have nothing against the smaller cube shaped altar with fewer vessels. In fact, I think the ideal would be a small altar with one bread and one chalice for a Eucharist where only about 30-50 people are present and they can all receive from that altar. If that is not the case, then I do think that the altar should be big enough to elegantly hold enough vessels for the entire assembly to receive Communion, under both Species. In many churches that would entail having a larger altar. What I am not in favor of is either having assemblies where people don’t receive or using the reserved Sacrament in the Tabernacle as a matter of course. The Tabernacle should be used for the Viaticum (when it is not possible to celebrate the Eucharist in the sick person’s room), for bringing Communion to the sick and for adoration. It should not be used during a normal Mass. This entails being organized enough to have a good idea how many will receive Communion before the preparation of the gifts and having an altar that is big enough to hold the vessels necessary for Communion.

        Again my ideal would be a smaller altar, and a smaller assembly. If that is not the case, then the altar needs to be bigger to be fit for purpose. Regarding the use of a jug or a pitcher to consecrate the wine, I have no particular opinion. Once the one bread and one cup symbolism is lost, I don’t see much difference between multiple cups or using a pitcher. However the altar sholuld be big enough to hold the necessary vessels. Additionally I would prefer that the altar hold those vessels in such a way that it doesn’t seem to be a table full of second hand chalices at a market, but to hold them elegently. Hence my argument for “plenty good room” on the altar. But if we could celebrate with a smaller assembly, then I am perfectly at home with a smaller altar.

  1. Re: One loaf of bread – Unfortunately, Bishops and/or Roman authorities have so restricted what is “valid” matter for the bread of the Eucharist and made it difficult to bake palatable unleavened loaves we have pretty well lost the important symbolism of the “Breaking of the Bread.” If the liturgical guidelines were minimally changed in this area and even if it multiple loaves were necessary at a Mass for a large congregation, at least the members of the assembly would be sharing in bread that was broken into pieces. Individual hosts are one of my pet peeves.
    Re: A flagon or pitcher vessel for the wine – This always made more sense to me. I understand the restriction of laity filling chalices can be somewhat seen as “encroaching” on the role of the ordained as sacramental presence of Christ “enacting” the actions of Christ at the last Supper (took, blessed, broke and gave). But if the laity can give the sacrament, why not break/pour…of course then next thing Bishops think of is that the laity will want to “Take and Bless”! They assist, not preside. The laity have baptismal dignity, but exercise their ministry in a hierarchy of roles. There is not confusion among the laity I know that they are somehow concelebrating or diminishing the symbolism of Christ breaking the bread. Altars do look like a display of chalices at a Church Goods store, now, especially smaller altars. And frankly there’s a greater danger of spilling the Precious Blood for people like me who have essential tremors, and limited space on the altar. Let someone else, the deacon, an extraordinary minister “pour out” the Blood of Christ at the Lamb of God. It worked well in the past.
    RE: size of the altar — I’ve always advocated the principle the altar size should be in proportion to the space. Shape (cube, close to square, rectangular) isn’t such a big concern for me. Let the altar be made of noble and worthy material, weighty enough that it isn’t moved once installed. Our Bishop mandates that the mensa must always be of…

    1. I can’t say I’ve ever heard the ban on communion decanters be justified to keep us lowly laypeople away from the Precious Blood (and I’ve worked in some fairly traditional parishes). The arguments I’ve always heard are to minimize potential for accidents with the Sacrament as well as to avoid particularly annoying purifications at the end of mass (and of course the “Church says so” argument). Additionally, any time saved not pouring wine at the offertory will still be used pouring the Precious Blood at the fraction. I’ve always found filling the people’s chalices before mass to be the lesser of all evils when the normal discipline would be inconvenient. The way I always thought of it was the priest says “this is the chalice of my Blood,” not “this is the crystal decanter of my Blood.”

    2. Someone has written that the altar should not look like the trophy table at a bowling banquet. And yes, its size should be in proportion to the space.

      1. “Someone has written that the altar should not look like the trophy table at a bowling banquet.”

        The only way to truly eliminate that aesthetic would be to significantly reduce the number of communion ministers at large masses or to ditch communion under both substances altogether (neither of which I’m a fan of). Changing a particular liturgical aesthetic is often a give and take: something is usually gained at the expense of something else.

    3. Concerning the smaller congregation, one bread (which looks like actual bread) and one cup and square altar. There’s already a movement approved by the Church that does all that in the parish setting (at least there, where i’ve been). The Necatechumenal Way. They also have the Kiss of Peace after the prayer of the faithful which is astonishing and just awesome. Their altars are kind of big but oh well.

      The one thing that bothers me is that they remain at their seats during the Communion and do not approach the altar although one could argue that this is irrelevant since they worship in small spaces.

  2. Actually, he didn’t say chalice. That’s the word in English which resembles the Latin word caliz which is more accurately translated as cup. Like in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth “when we eat this bread and drink this cup”. Just saying.

  3. So many thoughts, so little time.

    I think there is a point of diminishing returns with congregation size that may fall into the “no knows I’m here” feeling but until there are more priests, the desire the for smaller congregations can only be solved by a single priest providing for 8 Masses on a Sunday morning at a parish or small churches where a priest can Pony Express his way to 6 six smaller communities on a given Sunday morning. The Church does have a bigger is better direction when it comes to buildings.

    And also: humans act that a spill of the Precious Blood offends God when the notion of the word “spill” denotes accident. Is it easier on God’s self esteem if it is a priest that spills a drop of the Precious Blood rather than a non ordained? Every one has an accident once in a while. If one believes that God can get over it, then the Church can too. This is not advocating carelessness but asking why this issue of microscopic particles and drops will remove the deeply symbolic visual of “one bread and one cup.”

    Have the priest consecrate a large ciborium of hosts and a flagon of wine and let lay people who know what they are doing separate the Consecrated Body and Blood of Christ into chalices and ciboria. No the Church will not allow this to happen because it could appear (thanks Paul Inwood) that the priest’s role is diminished or confused.

    When the congregant chalices are placed to the outer edge of the altar and the priest says the prayers over his chalice only, then Fr. Neil, they not only look like second hand chalices but they feel like second class chalices.

    Thank you for a thought provoking reflective article.

    1. So many thoughts, so little time: part #2. (Thanks, Ed!)

      1. When I moved from the Upper Midwest to the Northwest, I shocked to see so many parishes that had “priest’s chalice” that had only enough wine in it for “Father only.” I hope there aren’t too parishes left in the US/Canada where it’s not just “one of the chalices, only a bit bigger, for visual purposes”–but I suspect that’s wishful thinking on my part.

      2. There are smarter ways to arrange 2-6 chalices and 1 ciborium can be arranged, besides on “the outer edge of the altar” that diminishes what Ed described. Hard to describe, but in short, don’t have them on the edge and not just on 1 edge, but in the middle or on 2-3 sides (It’s true, for large events, the root of this conversation, once you get up to 8 to 80 to 800 chalices, then what?). And make sure the ciborium and presider’s cup is as close to the assembly as possible and as far away from the presider as possible.

      3. Our retired bishop’s solution to the time to pour: pre-pour all chalices, save the 1 chalice. I never found this better, because you’re often trusting young altar servers to carry several pre-filled chalices, or a tray of pre-filled chalices. (“What possibly could go wrong?!!?!”)

  4. I have to say that I have never, in 48 years of witnessing Communion under both kinds, seen any spillage of the Precious Blood [I am sure others can’t wait to leap in and say that they have…. 🙁 ].

    What I have seen, however, on quite a few occasions, is people taking it upon themselves to dip (dunk) their host into a chalice and then drip/spray bits of consecrated bread and wine onto the surrounding floor…. Another very good reason why self-intinction, indeed any intinction, should be banned. (And before anyone points out that Redemptionis Sacramentum 104 already did attempt to ban self-intinction in 2004, the practice was already established well before that and has continued.)

    1. Paul’s post reminds of a “spillage” story which I have shared in the distant past but may bear repeating. About 25 years ago, I accidentally moved my arm in such a way as to overturn a partially filled communion cup just before the distribution of communion. A deacon hastened to the sacristy to bring some towels which I directed him to place over the spill until after communion. Following Communion I got down on my hands and knees and carefully absorbed all the precious blood into the towels. While I was doing so there were audible sobs from some people in the pews who were touched by the care I demonstrated. One lesson I drew from that is that while nobody weeps over spilled wine, some do weep over the spilling of precious blood. That is the only incident of spillage that I recall over 45 years of priestly ministry.

      1. A different spillage story I heard from my best friend who witnessed this: when the sanctuary furnishings for Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral were being dedicated in the mid-1990s partial renovation (a much more thorough renovation of the entire interior is currently underway, after the first complete restoration of the exterior in decades was completed two years ago – which revealed a much more comely edifice than we previously had reason to imagine*), Chrism spilled onto . . . the carpeting around the altar. Said chrismated carpeting of course was soon cut out and disposed of in the customary way. Another reason to avoid carpeting the sanctuary….

        * With virtually no press coverage, even though the cleaning was regularly a subject of pleasant amazement by local residents in the ‘hood.

  5. Perhaps we can say that the celebration of the Eucharist in monastic-sized communities tends to be rich and fulfilling. I might observe that many clergy experience smaller assemblies for multiple presidencies at daily Mass even outside a men’s or women’s cloister–maybe more than Sunday Masses.

    As for practices involving decanters, pressed wheat patties, carpet, large-scale anonymity, and whatnot, perhaps we should just concede that worship in mortal spheres is inherently imperfect. The Serenity Prayer comes to mind.

  6. The heading should read “The problem of too many (not may) people going to Mass”. [Thanks. Corrected. -Ed.]
    But many communities would wish that they had to deal with the ‘problem’ of too many people going to Mass!!

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