RESPONSE: Mass Without the People is Legitimate

By Helmut Hoping

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing local churches to shut down their worship life. Yet not every diocese is prepared to cancel all liturgical celebrations. To name just two examples: the Archdiocese of Freiburg broadcasts the celebration of Mass from the cathedral church daily in livestream; the Archdiocese of Hamburg has asked priests to celebrate the Mass, when necessary, alone, representatively for the faithful who can no longer participate in it.

Three liturgical scholars have now offered sharp critique of Masses that are celebrated by priests behind closed doors. They even speak of “ghost Masses,” which they say do not correspond to the contemporary understanding of Eucharist. The authors appeal here to no. 7 of the liturgy constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. It states there that “in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members.” The authors express it like this: “The liturgy is enacted communally and publicly by all the baptized.”

The “missa sine populo” (Mass without the people) incriminated by the authors is of course not the basic form of the celebration of the Mass. But for the Council it is a legitimate form. This is because all liturgical actions of the church “are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church” (SC 26), even as “communal celebration … is to be preferred … to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private” (SC 27).

Because in the offering of the Eucharist “the work of redemption is exercised continually” (Code of Canon Law 904), the Catholic Church recommends that priests celebrate daily, for “even if the faithful cannot be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church” (ibid).

The authors see in this an understanding of liturgy which is not longer contemporary. For individual celebrations of priests they use the derogatory terms “private Mass” and “private celebration,” which are found in neither the Council nor canon law. A livestreamed celebration of Mass which, because of the coronavirus epidemic, a priest celebrates alone or with an acolyte and cantor, cannot be compared to a private Mass with priests celebrated in the Middle Ages on side altars for the poor souls in purgatory. To claim today that priests consider the Eucharist to be “their own private possession” is thus highly inappropriate.

The text employed by the authors for their understanding of liturgy cites Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” Thus, for a communal celebration it is not a matter of the size of the liturgical assembly. At the celebration of Eucharist on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, on which the community ordinarily gathers for the Eucharist, in the cases of an exceptional situation forced upon us by the coronavirus pandemic, two or three of the faithful should join in the celebration if possible.

Of course Matthew 18:20 applies also and above to prayer and hearing the Word of God, such as in families, or when two or three people pray Vespers in church, whether broadcast or not. No one claims that vicarious representation in the “ecclesia orans” [praying church] only happens by priests. The aversion of the authors to Masses celebrated by priests for others during the coronavirus pandemic is striking. Their suggestion ultimately leads even to cancelling all Masses and being bound together as the People in prayer and hearing the Word of God. For a church that possesses the center of its life in the celebration of the Eucharist, this is a deeply offensive suggestion which touches upon the identity of the Catholic Church.

I agree entirely with the authors in their appeal “to awaken and encourage spiritual potential in families, circles of friends, and social networks” during the coronavirus pandemic, including “by means of the creative use of digital media.” The phenomenon of a “digital church” is not new. Faithful who are not able to participate physically in worship services have been able for some time to participate with spiritual benefit in televised or internet liturgies (“church on the screen”). The possibilities for a world-embracing “ecclesia orans” [praying church] are certainly not yet exhausted in this case, even as the celebration of the Eucharist – the sacrament of bodily presence par excellence – reaches its limits in the “digital church.”

But the Eucharist has always been celebrated for those who cannot physically take part in it. The coronavirus pandemic demands unconventional solutions. Of course it would be desirable to broadcast not only Mass celebrations, but also Vespers and other forms of the Word of God at times. But to play off celebrations of the Word of God against individual celebrations of priests in closed churches in the present exceptional circumstances is recognizably motivated by a well-known critique of the Catholic understand of church, eucharist, and the office of priest such as is set out in the texts of the Council – when one doesn’t read them selectively. But the coronavirus pandemic is not well suited to making theological hay from it.

Helmut Hoping is professor of dogmatic and liturgical theology at the University Freiburg in Breisgau. He is a permanent deacon and was theological adviser to the German Catholic bishops’ conference from 2006 to 2014. This article is reprinted with kind permission of Translation awr.



  1. I appreciate this response, but it seems too weak to me. He does not offer a sufficiently robust defense of the inherent worth of any Holy Mass offered for the good of the Church and of the world, for the good of the priest himself (for he, too, is a sinner in need of redemption through the sacraments), and for the good of the faithful he specifically prays for. In reality, what the other three Germans said amounts to a deconstruction of any orthodox notion of liturgy.

    I notice, meanwhile, that our Eastern brethren are suggesting something like non-public celebrations of the Divine Liturgy:

    “After the Ecumenical Patriarch’s announcement, a letter sent by Archbishop Elpidophoros of America to parishes clarifies that services in the USA may continue behind closed doors and without any parishioners present in the church.”

    1. Well I can understand that you disagree with them but I would avoid asserting so readily that they’re not orthodox.

      I try to avoid notions of grace as a thing or quantity, as if more Masses always means more grace, apart from how well each of them is a good presentation of the communal nature of the sacrament as our Lord gave it to us. Our Lord gave us sacraments to build up the Church and the Christian bonds between all the members.


      1. I understand not wishing to quantify grace, although in SOME sense it must be a something because it is neither identical to the divine essence nor identical to the substance of a man; it is, as scholastic theology defines it, a quality of the soul, and qualities admit of more and less.

        But more broadly, I think the disagreement is not about whether the Mass is communal or not. It is rather about what the community is. Do we see the Church’s worship as primarily located in a community present right here and now, in this building, or do we see it as a time-and-space-transcending mystery that unites the Church triumphant, the Church militant, and the Church suffering, bringing together men and angels, people near and people far away, our ancestors and our contemporaries — and obviously, the people present here and now?

        If we see it the latter way, we will of course want to have the faithful present, but their absence will not fundamentally change the mystery being entered into.

      2. Thanks for this, Peter.

        Off the top of my head I’d like to say that I’m sure it’s both, and not in a competitive or zero-sum way. I think of how the Mass is not 50% meal and 50% sacrifice, but 100% each, and the more it is AUTHENTICALLY either of them in the right way, the more it becomes the other. Same with so-called vertical and horizontal dimensions. Same with being God-centered and human-centered.

        So: the reformed liturgy is intended to be completely and entirely the local community and completely and entirely entry into the transcendent communion of saints. I’m sure we haven’t (I haven’t) figured out how to do be aware of both dimensions so that each informs the other. But playing them off against each other or trying to lessen either of them is not helpful.


      3. Lord, increase our Faith! Woman, great is your Faith! And in the Liturgy itself: “Increase in us, faith, hope and charity”.

  2. Overlooked in this discussion is the limit we seem to place on transcendent worship we have yet to experience. It seems more likely that the Mass, as developed and pieced together from human elements, is a mere slice of a greater expression of praise. One very thin slice of bread in a rich and varied loaf. Some believers traditionally opt for a very thin slice indeed.

    If we accept a Last Supper beginning, the Mass was instituted for believers. Jesus intended a purpose of grace and inspiration for service. It seems that the development of Mass as a devotional expression (the emphasis on a very materialistic every-day celebration) or a private tap into something more grand (the justification for individual Masses) were not part of the original mission.

    That’s not to say that human creativity can’t develop and move beyond an original. I notice a certain selectivity about what can be evolved, and what can be explained, and what is rejected.

    The Church has far greater issues than how a few of its members pray when they are alone. Developing a more fruitful ars celebrandi is worth the attention. Private Masses, not so much.

  3. Such intransigence from the liturgical “Left” is as maddening as that of the “Right” with their latest denunciations of bishops who have mandated Communion in the hand! Every sacrament has “boundary cases.” An emergency baptism can take place in a hospital setting with tap water; confirmation can be given by a priest for someone in danger of death, general absolution can be given under certain circumstances; martial consent can be given by proxy, and in theory a laymen elected pope could be ordained deacon-priest-bishop on the same day. Whether the so-called “private Mass” fits into such a categorization might be debatable, but that certain situations call for the suspension of liturgical norms and ideals is indisputable. I for one am celebrating quite alone in my small oratory yet have rarely felt as united to my community not to mention all the angels and saints.

  4. With our churches closed and the Eucharist broken by a few though unshared by many, there has been an ‘emptiness’ this Easter. The various occasions where video transmissions have been broadcast by parish priests have been much appreciated as occasions of prayer, yet a true sharing of the Eucharist has been thwarted through our inability to be physically present. You cannot truly share a meal that you watch taking place somewhere else. Maybe these hard days of contagion will teach us the real meaning of Eucharist. The ‘darkness’ that Francis spoke of recently might be the pre-curser to a new light and a fresh understanding of our Christian journey. In the meantime, we watch and wait for the Christ to reveal himself during these difficult and troubled times as he did over a supper table in Emmaus or over a breakfast fire by the water of Tiberias. The gathered community, physically present, is an essential element of Eucharist. It is not something we look on as spectators but an action in which we are active participants

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *