Roman Curia and Private Mass: An Age-Old Problem

by Andrea Grillo

The statements contained in the letter from Cardinal Sarah with regard to the “individual Mass” must be read in the light of an age-old question. Ever since the Roman Church has given itself a centralized bureaucracy, this organization has begun to assume the role of a “corporation” within of the Roman Church, shaping traditions from a unique and very one-sided notion of ecclesial life. All this started already in the Middle Ages and became even more accentuated after the Council of Trent. Hence it is not possible to understand the words of Sarah’s letter except by placing them within the context of the “form of life” that the Roman curia has imposed on its members for many centuries.

This environment clearly exerts pressure for the precise institutional purpose it pursues. It directly affects the experience of the subjects who are part of it. It is the “form of life” that becomes embodied in particular understandings and practices. Since the Middle Ages, the prayer secundum usum Romanae Curiae (“according to the use of the Roman Curia”) imposed itself on all clerics. This created that form of the “breviary” which became, for centuries, the ordinary form of prayer for all clerics. Note that this form was lightened in its burden of psalms and prayers due to the bureaucratic work required of curia officials.

In a similar way, the Roman curia, with its inevitably bureaucratic forms of life – that is, by reason of the duties to be performed by its members – has left its profound mark on the experience of the Eucharistic celebration, often reducing it to a “private mass” before the workday begins. It still happens today that many “officers,” before starting their workday, approach prayer and Mass in a strictly private form: alone, without community or people.

I am told that even the youngest members of the Roman curia, e.g. the numerous young priests who serve in the Congregation of Bishops which affects the life of various national Churches, often experience prayer and Eucharist rigorously individualistically, without community or people. They are to contribute to the choice of pastors but do not themselves live any sort of pastoral life. This anthropological, pastoral, spiritual, and theological limitation of the Roman curia then has the potential to inform all the curias of the universal church.

It is no coincidence that one of the most worrying implications of this trend was the idea, boldly conceived and proposed by the Roman curia, that we can speak of the right of every priest freely to decide  “in Masses celebrated without a congregation… to use either the Roman Missal published in 1962 … or the Roman Missal promulgated in 1970” (no. 2). This article, which stands at the beginning of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, is a sort of premise necessary to understand the reactions to the ban on “individual Mass” imposed by the Secretariat of State.

On this very delicate point, every priest – read every official of the Roman curia – is convinced that he does not have to answer to anyone. And we are entirely within that understanding, in full force for 1300 years, in which the Mass has been spoken of as an ecclesiasticum officium (“ecclesiastical office”). This distortion of worldview and perspective took on an apologetic in the last 100 years which was at first anti-modern and then anti-conciliar.

Thus it is that a norm arises from the particular environment of the Roman curia with all its inevitably determinative anthropological and ecclesiological characteristics. This norm endangers a more spiritually and theologically pastoral norm which would make the “individual Mass” a rare exception for extreme cases. Then the Mass, understood as a communal act rather than individual act, would normally be celebrated or concelebrated with the people for the salutary benefit of the priest’s spiritual and personal nourishment.

It is not surprising that Robert Sarah, as cardinal of the curia, acted along with three other cardinals of the curia – Burke, Mueller, Brandmueller. The strength of the usum Romanae Curiae overcomes any reasonable theology, spirituality, or anthropology. Sarah is able to put forth the strangest and most idiosyncratic arguments to make his case and to guard jealously those privileges that bureaucratic practice has imposed on the homines curiae (“men of the curia”).

By God’s grace, not everyone in the Roman curia aligns with these extreme ideas. There are notable examples that move in different and even opposing directions. But the Masses at the side altars of St. Peter’s have almost become, over the decades, symbols of the reliability and loyalty of obedient curial officials. This comes about in general silence, nourishing a sort of parallel life on the liturgical level, and it leaves its mark.

Inevitably, even the liturgical reform is perceived by the Roman curia as an excessive, unnecessary, and optional symbolic-ritual apparatus compared to the normal practice for curia officials. The normal practice is individual acts, in a language no longer in use, and this practice runs the danger of forming not just curial profession identity, but even Christian and ministerial identity.

The ancient privilege is defended with such fragility and theological naivety. But more important than the arguments themselves is the urge to use any available argument, even less reasonable ones, to stay within one’s cocoon. Even to the point of arguing that it would be better for each official to celebrate another private Mass than for two or ten curia officials to come together to concelebrate – so as not to “diminish the gift of grace” and bring about “immeasurable damage.”

But grace has nothing to do with it. The only thing at stake here is the freedom to remain what we are: lesser or greater princes who “say Mass” on their own, in Latin, perhaps with the old missal, without responding to anyone but God. At the heart of the Roman curia, for centuries, the highest obedience has been combined with the most radical and indifferent anarchy. Bringing the spirit of the liturgical reform into the Roman curia is the first major reform of the curia. It concerns the most delicate roots – i.e., the symbolic and ritual roots – of a different ecclesial and pastoral self-understanding, so that the pyramid is truly inverted.

Until the pyramid is turned upside down, the private Mass will always appear to be the purest, most intense, and most pious Mass. And there will always be a free-ranging theologian ready to demonstrate that a private Mass can be more public and participatory than a Mass with a crowd of people.

And thus it will be possible to keep sleeping peacefully and in the grace of God in the largest of the seven rooms of your 300 square meter apartment: because the curial style, at least at its most notable degrees, is about much more than the individual Mass.

Andrea Grillo teaches liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.

Reprinted with permission from Munera. Translation awr.
Featured image: Pope Francis celebrates daily Mass with a community in Santa Marta.



  1. With the tongue not entirely removed from the cheek…

    Given there is a worldwide shortage of priests, if all these priests in the Vatican are so desperate to express their vocations, perhaps they will all start volunteering to be deployed to parishes where the sacraments cannot be celebrated regularly for lack of a priest…

    1. I believe that clergy in the Vatican are asked by their bishop to serve there and do so as loyalty to their bishop rather than because of reluctance to serve in the diocese.
      It would not be practical for a priest to serve five days a week in Rome and each weekend in, say, rural France or in Brazil. One or the other but not both.

      1. I believe that clergy in the Vatican are asked by their bishop to serve there and do so as loyalty to their bishop rather than because of reluctance to serve in the diocese.
        It would not be practical for a priest to serve five days a week in Rome and each weekend in, say, rural France or in Brazil. One or the other but not both.


        No one is asking for that, but they are possibly asking that those priests be deployed in pastoral situations in the Rome area. Some seminaries in Rome send their students out into Italian parishes at weekends to acquire pastoral experience, but as soon as they are ordained — if they remain in Rome for further studies, for example — all that comes to an end, just at a time when it would be most useful.

      2. Indeed Paul but note that I was responding to Tom McLean’s suggestion that Vatican based priests volunteer “to be deployed to parishes where the sacraments cannot be celebrated regularly for lack of a priest.” This may describe the area around Rome. I do not know. Such volunteering would not work for areas far from Rome or “worldwide” as in Tom’s comment.

    2. Peter, I don’t doubt that, but as part of reforming the culture spoken of in the piece, the question perhaps needs to be asked whether so many of these jobs need to be filled by clerics. And especially so if the current occupants of the roles find that the roles themselves are not all that consistent with a presbyteral vocation!

      1. Thank you Tom
        In your earlier comment it seemed that you were challenging their motivation.
        The size and composition of the Curia is another question altogether. Lay staff would require higher salaries which may be a relevant consideration.

      2. I don’t doubt that there are some who’s motivation is less than good – that is only human sinfulness after all. I also don’t doubt that there are some who’ve had a good motivation distorted – again, reality of sin etc.

        Lay staff might also be cheaper though if it means having fewer higher skilled people. But it is also a theological statement on the role of the laity in the church.

  2. Leaving aside the theological point that “community” does include those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and not only those physically present at our side (socially distanced or not), I would suggest that perhaps any perceived problem that has occasioned the liturgical phenomena that Andrea decries is the consequence not of the habits of the Roman Curia, but of the reality that in many locales even a vernacular, ad orientem liturgy does not actually foster “community.” It can be difficult to feel part of a “community” when one is constantly being talked to by a series of amplified speakers or singers, with a mandated set of responses and songs and an all too obvious hierarchy of lay ministers exercising their own version of what they might otherwise decry as “clericalism.” It isn’t inviting and it doesn’t foster community, which is supposed to develop organically and not by mandate of the person with a microphone. All too many liturgies are altogether very off-putting, regardless of and sometimes in consequence of how clearly every amplified word can be heard and every face and gesture seen.

    1. Thanks for this good comment, Lee. I agree! (It’s also one of my major irritations when sound systems are TOO DARN LOUD.) I think we have a long, long way to go in learning how, in our cultural contexts, to celebrate the reformed liturgy well, so that the experience is communal and within this, a real encounter with the divine and the transcendent within the community.

      I take some consolation that things aren’t as bad as I think in that most peoples’ tastes nowadays are very different than mine. Things in the liturgy (especially music) that I find trite or sentimental or tacky or for many other people, I’ve gradually come to realize, real experiences of the divine. Not everyone is an introverted monk into chant and polyphony! With this realization, I’ve gradually come to disagree with Cardinal Ratzinger that contemporary liturgies are too often communities turned in on themselves and celebrating themselves. No, most people celebrating contemporary liturgies don’t have the somewhat elitist tastes of a Joseph Ratzinger or an Anthony Ruff, and they are experiencing a real opening out to God within forms that I would have to grow a bit to be able to appreciate. Ratzinger’s statement perhaps says more about his personality than it does about contemporary liturgy.


  3. Clerical hierararchs turned in on themselves, with nary a sheep ever in sight, muchless smelling like one?! Medieval courtier dressing and privileged attitudes? What could possibly be or remain wrong? The Vatican is not a stinky/bloody/suffering incarnate reality, i.e. in persona the Incarnate One, nor has it been for a verrry long time. Prayers for Francis, metanoia is long overdue.

  4. As I understand the instruction, “4 Groups of pilgrims accompanied by a Bishop or a priest are assured the possibility of celebrating Holy Mass in the Vatican Grottos.”
    But a group of pilgrims not accompanied by a priest cannot hear Mass with their former parish priest, now serving in the Curia, on the grounds that he did not accompany them on their pilgrimage. That would amount to a Private Mass which is now suppressed.
    Have I misunderstood the new rules?

    Note: If the objective of the new rules was simply to prevent Mass being said by a priest with a Congregation of one then that could simply be stated. A sensible arrangement to cater for the clergy serving in or visiting Rome and pilgrims or visitors wishing to go to Mass could be devised. That does not seem to be what the rules do.
    SC 54 does not refer to the faithful being able to say or sing Mass in Italian yet that is the only language offered to those not in a group accompanied by a priest or bishop under these rules. Grillo does not address any of this.

  5. Is it worth remembering that Our Lord famously was accused of eating with sinners, and that on previous Maundy Thursdays the pope washed the feet of prisoners?

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