Private Mass: An Eastern Orthodox View

The recent news of the Vatican Secretariat of State’s instruction on the celebration of Mass at the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome includes the suppression of private Mass. This particular point provides a new opportunity for embracing the Eucharist as the sacrament of the assembly – a pillar of Eucharistic theology valued by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The news reminded me of a question that had circulated on social media about the Eucharist during the pandemic. With so many restrictions imposed by the pandemic, was it possible for Orthodox priests to celebrate Divine Liturgy privately, on behalf of their parishioners?

Orthodoxy has always emphasized the communal nature of the Eucharist. I would go so far as to claim that the gathering of a community is essential for the Eucharist. Certainly, one can find citations of Acts 2:1, “they were all in one place together,” as the archetype for Eucharistic assemblies. The community gathers in obedience to Christ’s commandment to observe this rite in his memory.

The Local Eucharist

One occasionally encounters the Eastern concept of the local Church as an emphasis. The Church in Alexandria, Athens, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Moscow, Bucharest, Washington, DC. The image of a communal gathering in a specific place, based on the archetype from Acts 2:1, shapes Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist.

Orthodox have always understood that the local Eucharist was part of the one Eucharist offered by the one Church of heaven and earth. Emphasizing the local character of the gathering was not designed to diminish the unity of the Church. Ritual practices like diptychs and concelebration both represented and reinforced the indivisible unity of the Church gathered throughout the world, even if the others participating were invisible.

Concelebration and the Laity

The openness to concelebration seems to underscore Orthodoxy’s concept of the communal nature of the Eucharist. Despite variations in the minutiae of requirements and customs, Orthodoxy has always encouraged visiting bishops and clergy to actively participate in concelebration. Laity were also welcome to participate in the Liturgy of another Church, as long as they carried a letter from their bishop that verified their legitimacy.

In the twentieth century, Nicholas Afanasiev pushed the concept of concelebration further. In his rehabilitation of the laity and retrieval of Eucharistic theology, Afanasiev identified the laity as the concelebrant of the Liturgy. His assertion is wholly compatible with the liturgical texts which use the first-person plural to entreat God to give us Christ, over and over again.

These concepts of Eucharist as communal – a gathering of a community, in a specific place, with the people’s concelebration – fits hand-in-glove with the customs concerning multiple Eucharistic celebrations in one place. Parishes are supposed to have only one liturgy with one community, each Sunday. A priest cannot preside at more than one Liturgy – nor can multiple liturgies be celebrated on the same altar.

Multiple Liturgies on Same Altar Prohibited

One can find larger cathedral communities with multiple liturgies celebrated at different times (e.g., 8:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m.). In each instance, a different priest presides, and a second altar is used by placing a second antimension on an auxiliary table in front of the main altar.

An antimension is an icon of Christ in the tomb, with relics sown into the fabric and the bishop’s signature. The relics signify the ancient practice of celebrating Eucharist on the grave of a saint, and the bishop’s signature authorizes the priest to preside at that liturgy.

One should not view this situation as normative. This accommodation is an exception to the rule of one Liturgy for one community in one place. Technically, a completely different community celebrates the second Liturgy. Orthodoxy is averse to multiple liturgies celebrated in the same space on the same day.

So, the basic principle governing the Orthodox concept of the Eucharist is one Liturgy, one place, one community. One year ago, Orthodoxy struggled to celebrate Liturgy when gathering sizes were severely restricted. Some Churches decided to appoint small crews of people to celebrate Liturgy while encouraging the rest to participate through the livestream. On the one hand, the retention of a minimal crew honored the Orthodox communal priority – a minimum of two people constitutes a community. On the other hand, a theological rationale emerged that described the small crew Liturgy as an offering for everyone else.

The Eucharist as an Offering – and a Gift Received

Orthodoxy does not contest that the liturgy is an offering. The anaphora of St. John Chrysostom explicitly says, “we offer you this liturgy,” the community’s act of gift-giving to God. It is easy to lose the offering’s sibling in this paradigm – Liturgy as a gift received from God. Orthodoxy is just as prone to clericalizing Liturgy as the Roman Church.

Justifying a practice through a theology of offering risks diminishing the Eucharist as an event during which all receive God’s gift (and then share it with the least of the Lord’s brethren). For this reason, I applaud the Vatican’s decision to promote communal liturgical practices. After all, the West also enjoyed a robust retrieval of Eucharistic ecclesiology that honors the laity’s ministry. This is a step in the right direction toward honoring the communal nature of Liturgy as essential.

Perhaps one of the tasks Orthodox and Catholics can pursue together is a renewed emphasis on ritualizing the Eucharist as a gift received from God. One way of doing this is to have everyone receive Communion from the hands of another – a principle that would be applied to all, including bishops, patriarchs, and popes. This principle was incarnate in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions during the medieval era, so it belongs to the repository of tradition. Restoring it could go a long way towards illuminating the Eucharist as a gift received and diminishing the tendency to clericalize Liturgy – if Church leaders have the courage and humility to permit it.

Maybe the Vatican’s instruction on suppressing private Masses can be the first in a series of steps that renew Liturgy of and for all.

2 comments

  1. Not only essential, but constitutive, i.e. “where two or more”, anamnesis at table, etc.

  2. Deacon Nicholas has it right. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 120, begins, ‘Once the people have gathered’. This wording clearly presupposes that the normative celebration of the Eucharist is with an assembly present.

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