|ROME, 1 JULY 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Recently at our local national shrine I was visiting the Blessed
Sacrament when a young priest whom I had never seen before began to set
up for Mass. I sat down to wait, really happy to be there for this
surprise Mass; it was 10 p.m. The priest "said" the whole Mass silently.
At first I was confused. I'd never seen this before. It actually was
quite beautiful nonetheless, and he did speak once, to invite us to
receive Communion. Tell me about this please. If the canon is a public
prayer, how can this be? Was it indeed valid?
T.H., Santa Clara, California
A: From the description I would suppose that the Mass was celebrated
by a traveling priest who had not had time to celebrate beforehand. In
this, at least, he showed commendable devotion to his daily Mass, which
is recommended for all priests even if nobody can be present.
If a priest celebrates alone or with just an acolyte he may use a
subdued voice in celebrating Mass. He may not, however, "say" any part
of the Mass internally. Because the Mass is a public prayer of the
Church, all of its parts, including the readings, must be proclaimed
This vocal proclamation, even if audible only to the priest himself,
is required for the Mass to be licit and is essential to the validity of
Pope Pius XII affirmed this point in a 1956 discourse regarding
silent concelebration. The issue was later formalized in a decree of the
then Holy Office on March 8, 1957, that declared that according to
Christ's institution, only he who pronounces the words of consecration
In the case at hand, given the late hour, the priest was probably
surprised to see anybody present at all and might not have known how to
Although perhaps excused by inexperience, the moment he realized that
there were people present and interested in participating in the Mass
(as shown by his inquiry regarding Communion), he should have celebrated
in such a manner that the people could hear him and take the parts
proper to the assembly.
In this way the Mass as an action of the whole Church would have been
manifested more clearly.
All that I have said up to now presupposes that the priest celebrated
according to the ordinary Roman rite and in the vernacular.
If he was using the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, then he
would have correctly celebrated Mass in a low voice and in Latin.
* * *
Follow-up: Celebrating the Mass Silently [7-15-2008]
the wake of our piece on a priest praying a silent Mass and the need for
vocalization (see July 1), a related question from a Dallas, Texas,
reader sprung to mind.
Our reader asked: "In the event that a priest becomes unable to make
a vocal sound (due to illness), does he validly celebrate the Eucharist
while mouthing the words (and thinking the words), or must the vocal
chords be sounding? What about the obligation to pray the Divine Office?
Is it fulfilled only if vocalized?"
There is no general rule for such specific cases, and probably each
situation would need to be studied by the Holy See.
The statements from Pope Pius XII and the Holy Office regarding the
invalidity of silent concelebration referred to the case of a priest
using only the "verbum mentis," or mental words, with no attempt to
accompany the words vocally. Therefore this stricture does not directly
bear on our particular case.
I think that, if the priest were to attempt to say the words while
thinking of them even though he was incapable of emitting clearly
intelligible words or even of making any audible sound, then he would
I would say that this is possible because he is making an effort to
vocally say the words even though physically impeded. I stress that it
is only an opinion and subject to correction if Church authorities were
to decide otherwise. I have been unable to find any authoritative dictum
that could be clearly applicable to our case.
A priest in such a situation should always consult the Holy See,
preferably through his bishop or religious ordinary, so as to receive
clear instructions as to how to proceed.
Because this kind of case also presents obvious pastoral
difficulties, the Holy See or the bishop might establish particular
conditions for the priest so that he may be strengthened by being able
to celebrate Mass while avoiding any confusion for the faithful. For
example, he might only be limited to concelebration, or celebrate alone
without the presence of the faithful, etc.
Unlike the Mass and the other sacraments, it is no longer legally
binding to vocalize the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, when
praying by oneself.