When Celebrating Mass Alone

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When Celebrating Mass Alone

ROME, 14 NOV. 2006 (ZENIT)

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

Q: I was recently speaking with some of my brother priests about the celebration of a private Mass when there is no server and no congregation, just the priest. There seemed to be no uniformity on how it is to be done, and the only thing we could find in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) is a few lines found in No. 254. It says, "Mass should not be celebrated without a minister or at least one of the faithful, except for a just and reasonable cause. In this case, the greetings, the introductory or explanatory remarks, and the blessing at the end of the Mass are omitted." I know this question really is of no interest to most people, but I think many priests (at least the ones I have talked to) would like some guidance on this topic. — D.C., Sioux Falls, South Dakota

A: Our correspondent also laid out a scheme of what he believed should be omitted in this case. I will use the scheme although modifying some details.

Although this might appear to be a rather obscure point, nothing in liturgy is so obscure that liturgists cannot find points to disagree on — and this is no exception. Therefore some of what I say is just my personal opinion based on what I believe to be an adequate interpretation of the law.

The most difficult aspect to interpret regards what is encompassed under the Latin term "Monitionis." The English translation of this term as "introductory or explanatory remarks" may give rise to a very broad interpretation.

Other languages have generally preferred to keep the technical term "monitions," which may be more restrictive. Either way, neither the original Latin rubric nor the translations are really that helpful in resolving our query. As far as I know there is no official interpretation from the Holy See.

Before entering into detail I wish to mention that some priests believe that this form of Mass with no faithful present is now forbidden. This is not the case. Indeed, present canon law, by requiring a just cause for celebrating alone, and no longer a grave cause as did the 1917 code, has actually made it easier to celebrate such a Mass even though it should always be seen as an exception and to be avoided whenever possible.

All the same, many priests have on some occasion been faced with the choice of celebrating alone, or not celebrating. Both canon law and the law of grace recommend celebrating Mass as the better thing to do.

The basic model to be followed would be the rite of Mass with only one minister present, omitting whatever would be directed toward this minister as well as the gestures of turning toward the minister for these greetings.

Therefore when a priest celebrates alone he does the following:

— After kissing the altar he recites the entrance antiphon and makes the sign of the cross.

— He omits the greeting at the beginning of Mass ("Dominus vobiscum") and the invitation at the beginning the penitential rite ("Fratres, agnoscamus ..."). The rest of the penitential rite is as normal.

— He recites the invitation to the orations ("Oremus"), for these are not just invitations directed to the people but invitations in which he himself is included. The same criterion is obeyed for the introduction to the Our Father which is not omitted.

— He includes the introduction to the readings and Gospel ("Lectio sancti ...") but does omit the greeting of the people at the Gospel ("Dominus vobiscum"). He includes the conclusion to the readings and Gospel ("Verbum Domini"). These are also for his benefit and not just greetings to the people.

— At the presentation of gifts he recites the prayers offering the bread and wine but omits the response "Blessed be God ...." He also omits the "Pray Brethren" ("Orate, fratres") along with the response "May the Lord accept ...."

— Unlike the other "Dominus vobiscum," I believe that the one which forms part of the initial protocol of the preface dialogue should always be said. The norms are clear that the Eucharistic Prayer must always be said integrally and that it retains its plural form even when the priest is alone. As this dialogue is inseparable from the Eucharistic Prayer it should always be recited.

In support of this interpretation of the particular character of this "Dominus vobiscum" is the fact that even when Mass was generally celebrated toward the east, the rubrics did not ask the priest to turn toward the people at this moment as happened in almost every other case, but rather to look at the altar cross.

— Although the Eucharistic Prayer must be said in its entirety, the memorial acclamation ("Mysterium fidei") does not form part of the prayer. Therefore both introduction and acclamation are omitted. This rubric is explicitly stated in some orders for concelebration when only priests are present at the Mass.

— The giving of the peace ("Pax Domini sit semper ...") is omitted.

— The moment of showing the host is easily confused. In fact we have two prayers which are placed one beside the other.

Here, the norm of No. 268 of the GIRM is followed: "If, however, the minister does not receive Communion, [or there is no minister] the priest, after genuflecting, takes the host and, facing the altar, says quietly the 'Domine, non sum dignus' (Lord, I am not worthy) and the 'Corpus Christi custodiat' (May the Body of Christ bring) and then receives the Body of Christ. Then he takes the chalice and says quietly, 'Sanguis Christi custodiat' (May the Blood of Christ bring), and then consumes the Blood of Christ."

— After holy Communion the priest recites the Communion antiphon before purifying the sacred vessels.

— After a period of silent thanksgiving the priest says "Let us pray" and recites the prayer after Communion.

— Both the final blessing and the "Ite missa est" are omitted. Mass ends with the "Through Christ our Lord. Amen" of the closing prayer, followed by kissing the altar and either a bow toward the altar or a genuflection toward the tabernacle, as the case may be, before withdrawing.

These gestures are considered as sufficient forms of conclusion. There is no need to add other gestures not foreseen in the ritual such as making the sign of the cross.

Of course, this in no way excludes the recommendation that, immediately after Mass, the priest dedicates some moments to personal thanksgiving for the grace and privilege of having celebrated the Holy Sacrifice. ZE06111422

* * *

Follow-up: When Celebrating Mass Alone [11-28-2006]

Pursuant to our comments on a priest celebrating alone (see Nov. 14), one Australian correspondent asked: "You mentioned that when celebrating alone the priest should go up and kiss the altar before reciting the Entrance Antiphon, etc.

"This surprised me, because on the occasions when I have celebrated alone I have followed the rubrics of the Order of Mass Without a Congregation, in the Sacramentary, which states that the priest does not go up and kiss the altar until after the penitential rite. I was always interested in this difference from the Order of Mass With a Congregation because it was a remaining continuation of the practice in the former rite, and it seemed to make sense spiritually, too. Not that Mass is about my personal piety, of course.

"Looking up the rubrics in the latest Latin Missale Romanum I found that they do indeed specify, in what is now called the 'Ordo Missae, cuius unus tantum minister participat,' that one should go straight up and kiss the altar before reciting the Antiphon and making the sign of the cross.

"However, unless I were celebrating Mass in Latin, I would be using the English-language Sacramentary, and naturally following the rubrics in it, which specify kissing the altar after the penitential rite.

"This prompted me to look at the prescriptions of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal 3, which indeed specifies the newer practice of kissing the altar before the penitential rite. But GIRM 3 has not yet been promulgated in Australia, so I would hardly be expected to follow its prescriptions in this matter, even if I had been aware of them.

"So now I'm in a dilemma: Which rubrics should I follow: the new ones when celebrating in Latin and the old ones when celebrating in English? Or the new ones always, even though they are not yet in force in Australia?"

There are two points to be addressed. The first is that, effectively, in the new Latin Missal the movements and gestures of "Mass at which only one minister assists" have removed most of the distinctions between this form of Mass and a Mass with a congregation.

Apart from the different moment of kissing the altar, the rubrics stipulated that the priest remain at the left-hand side of the altar for the readings and move to the center for the presentation of gifts. He now celebrates all the rites at the center of the altar although with the option of using the ambo for the readings.

The logic behind these changes is that the model or paradigmatic form of Mass is a Mass with a congregation, and only those things change which in some way acknowledge the non-presence of the congregation.

When the new missal was presented, it was suggested that the differences found between both forms of celebrating in earlier editions of the reformed rite was perhaps due to an oversight.

The second point has to do with what rubrics should be followed. The new GIRM, having been approved by the Pope, does not require the promulgation of a bishops' conference to gain legal force. The bishops do not approve the text but rather its official translation for the particular country as well as any adaptations they may wish to submit to the Holy See.

At the same time, the changes do not usually become obligatory until after the Holy See approves the translation and the conference promulgates the new text.

Therefore, at the moment we could say that, in Australia, the norms contained in the Latin text of the new GIRM may be applied to a vernacular Mass but are not yet obligatory and either the old or the new rubrics may be followed. In the United States, however, and in any other country that has already promulgated an official translation, the new rubrics must be followed.

Other readers made the point that Mass is never really alone. As one priest from Chicago wrote: "Some priests would essentially agree that without at least one minister present, certain greetings, gestures and movement would be unnecessary, even illogical since no one would be present to respond.

"However, why not proceed with the Rite of Mass with One Minister Present in its entirety? After all:

"1) We are never truly alone when we celebrate Mass because the Church Triumphant and Suffering are always present, and are actively participating and answering;

"2) To eliminate them would be to overemphasize the 'functionistic' presence of the Church Militant as a 'necessity'' and thus inadvertently justify why [some] priests don't celebrate Mass daily;

"3) Keeping everything intact would be simpler than having to memorize what must be eliminated; unity of rubrics would be less complicating."

As the priest said, everything would be much simpler if we could always follow the rite as if a minister were present.

All the same, apart from the obvious matter of fidelity to Church norms, we would observe that insofar as the Mass is a ritual it is a human act performed on earth and as such, the ritual or external elements should reasonably respond to the concrete situation in which the celebration is carried out.

It is certainly true that the Church's other members are also attending the celebration. But the ritual acknowledges this presence in other ways, for example through the Sanctus, by asking for their intercession and by interceding for those who have died.

There may also be some advantages with following this rubric. The fact that a priest has to remember to make these changes when no assembly is present may actually benefit his celebration of Mass by helping him concentrate and avoid a routine and mechanistic celebration.

Likewise, it may actually intensify his awareness of the presence of the Church triumphant and suffering as well as the Mass' role as intercessory prayer for all, and not just for those physically present.

Noting the difference when celebrating alone may also benefit his way of celebrating for a congregation, since he may be less likely to take the assembly for granted and will value its role as a sign and manifestation of the Church.

In making these clarifications to the rubrics it is not my wish to offer any encouragement to the practice of solitary celebration, which has historically always been considered a liturgical anomaly.

Even though the present rubrics make it easier than before to be able to celebrate such a Mass, it would be liturgically and theologically incorrect, and perhaps even spiritually unhealthy, for a priest to prefer such a celebration if the possibility of celebrating with a server or for the faithful were available to him.

A slightly different case would be the priest whose only alternative to celebrating alone is to concelebrate. Some priests, while not objecting to concelebration as such, find that daily concelebration over a prolonged period is detrimental to their fervor.

Some find, for example, that being unable to recite the prayers according to their own natural rhythm, as well as being impeded from being able to choose a particular Mass formula or Eucharistic Prayer, over time leads them to be less attentive to the celebration.

This can occur especially in priestly residences where the daily celebration has little external solemnity. Since concelebration is never obligatory, a priest may sometimes legitimately opt to celebrate alone providing that there is no possibility of celebrating with at least one minister. ZE06112829

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