Celebrating the Mass Silently

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Celebrating the Mass Silently


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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 vocally.

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 the consecration.

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 validly celebrates.

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 react.

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.

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Follow-up: Celebrating the Mass Silently [7-15-2008]

In 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 celebrate validly.

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.

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