Canon Law and Consecrating the Eucharist

Q:  Is it permitted for a priest who notices he did not consecrate enough Hosts to step to the side, with another paten of unconsecrated hosts, and perform a second consecration of just those hosts (not also consecrating wine a second time), all within the same Mass?  At Mass recently, our priest communicated under both forms, but then before distributing Holy Communion to the faithful, he noticed he was short of Hosts, and told the congregation he was going to “essentially perform another Mass within this Mass, but a mini-Mass.”  Then he returned to the altar with the second paten of consecrated Hosts and went forward with the distribution of Holy Communion.

When I contacted the priest he was flippant.  Is this something I should be concerned about?  –Natalie

A:  Natalie’s experience is not unique.  It is both surprising and sad to discover how many priests are apparently ignorant of the law on this subject.  Let’s take a look at what church law actually says, and the answer to her question will be clear.

Canon 927 states that it is absolutely forbidden, even in cases of extreme necessity, to consecrate one species without the other, or even to consecrate both, outside of the Eucharistic celebration.  The Latin text of the canon (which is the only truly “official” version) is actually even stronger, although it’s difficult to find an equivalent phrase in English: the word nefas indicates that such an action is so horrible that it is utterly unthinkable!  We’ve run into this term before in this space: in “Can a Priest Ever Reveal What is Said in Confession?” the word nefas was used with regard to a priest violating the seal of confession.   This should give readers a pretty good idea of the seriousness with which the Church regards the notion of a priest consecrating either bread or wine outside of Mass.  It is simply not to be done!

Some might wish to argue, however, that if a priest performs a second consecration during Mass, as did the priest in Natalie’s case, this is licit because it does not occur “outside of the Eucharistic celebration.”  Superficially, it may sound like a good argument—but it’s not.  It’s critical to keep in mind that the Church presumes that priests are following the order of the Mass as it has been established, as set down in the approved liturgical books.  As canon 838.1 notes, the ordering of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and (in those specific aspects provided by law) by the diocesan bishop.  The following paragraph is even more specific: it is the prerogative of the Apostolic See to regulate the sacred liturgy of the universal Church (c. 838.2).

In other words, when priests celebrate Mass, they must follow the orderings of its parts as is prescribed in the liturgical books.  They may not reorder the Mass, even if they think there is a “good” reason for it.  A priest might feel, for example, that the congregation really ought to exchange the sign of peace at the very beginning of the Mass, rather than shortly after the recitation of the Our Father—but he has absolutely no authority whatsoever to actually make that change.  He must follow the liturgical books, whether he personally likes or agrees with them or not!

Reordering the Mass in an unapproved way would be bad enough; but the situation Natalie describes is even worse.  The priest in this case apparently celebrated the Mass in accord with the liturgical books until the time came for the distribution of Holy Communion to the congregation—at which point he realized that he had failed to consecrate Hosts sufficient for everyone present who wished to receive the Eucharist.  He might have thought that there were enough consecrated Hosts already in the tabernacle, and only discovered his mistake at the last minute.  Alternately, he may have originally intended, at the time of the regular consecration, also to consecrate a ciborium full of Hosts—and simply forgot, leaving the ciborium back in the sacristy when he was preparing for the Mass.  Regardless, it’s an oversight, the responsibility for which must ultimately be laid at his feet.  Obviously this is a critical component of preparing to celebrate Holy Mass in the presence of the faithful!

Evidently, in an attempt to correct the oversight, the priest then performed a second consecration, between his own reception of the Eucharist and the distribution of Communion to the faithful.  There is absolutely no liturgical leeway that permits such a deviation from the approved ordering of the Mass.  Nothing in either the Code of Canon Law, or the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, can be construed to permit it.  (As was seen back in “Can You Be Refused Holy Communion if You Kneel?” the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, or GIRM, contains the Church’s official norms for the celebration of Mass.)  Given the Church’s strict insistence on the following of the liturgical books, this definitely constitutes a violation of canon 927, in that it involved the consecration of one species without the other—i.e., consecration of Hosts, but not of the wine and water in the chalice—outside of the established time for the Eucharistic consecration according to the prescribed order of the sacred liturgy.  It also contravened canon 838, as the priest in question took it upon himself to create a new ordering of the Mass in this case—something which only Rome is permitted to do.

(Note that there is one situation in which a priest celebrating Mass may, and indeed should, repeat the words of consecration at a later point in the Mass—which may at first glance appear to contradict canon 927.  If a priest has pronounced the words of consecration over the chalice, and at a later point he realizes that it contained no wine but only water, he is to pour out the water, put wine and water into the chalice as required, and then say the words of consecration again (GIRM 324).  A closer look should reveal that while the priest repeats the words of consecration a second time in this case, it does not contradict canon 927 at all.  Rather, the repetition is to correct a presumably innocent, yet very serious error: the consecration of the contents of the chalice did not take place the first time, since the water in the chalice constituted invalid matter for consecration into the Blood of Christ.  Ensuring that a proper consecration does indeed take place at Mass is obviously preferable to doing nothing at all about such a grave oversight!   This legitimate exception, however, clearly does not apply to the case Natalie describes.)

We’ve established how this situation should not have been handled—but what was the priest actually supposed to do, when he discovered that there weren’t enough Hosts in the tabernacle to distribute to everyone present who wished to receive the Eucharist?  It’s a tricky question, particularly since the faithful had the right, under canon 843, to receive Holy Communion at that time.  One clear option, however, was to break the inadequate number of Hosts (presumably there were at least some in the tabernacle?) into fragments, so that there were enough for all.  Depending on the number of people present at the Mass, this could very well have solved the shortage completely.

Additionally, if the priest noticed the problem before his own Communion, he could have broken his own Host into multiple fragments, consuming one himself, and distributing the others to the congregation.  The GIRM actually encourages priests to do this on a regular basis anyway:

… it is desirable that the Eucharistic Bread, even though unleavened and made in the traditional form, be fashioned in such a way that the Priest at Mass with the people is truly able to break it into parts and distribute these to at least some of the faithful. However, small hosts are not at all excluded… (GIRM 321).

Yet another possibility would have been to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful from his chalice, assuming that some of the Precious Blood still remained there at the point when the priest realized the problem.  Regarding the use of the priest’s own chalice, there is no distinction made in the GIRM between the priest’s chalice and a chalice used for distribution to the Faithful (cf. GIRM 285a).

We can see that several alternatives existed.  But the ideal solution to the dilemma, of course, was to ensure that it never arose in the first place.  In a typical parish church, where multiple priests take turns saying the regularly scheduled Masses, it goes without saying that one priest can’t always be certain that another one has already consecrated enough Hosts at an earlier Mass to suffice for the needs of attendees at the next one.  That’s why the average daily Mass-goer often will see the priest approach the tabernacle before Mass and take a brief look inside—he’s checking to determine whether he needs to consecrate an additional ciborium of Hosts or not.  Since priests are human like anyone else, mistakes happen; but every possible care should be taken to try to avoid them.

What about the Hosts consecrated in Natalie’s case, at this priest’s improper “mini-Mass”?  Well, what he did was illicit, but nevertheless the Hosts were validly consecrated.  We can see the immense power of a Catholic priest, who is able to change bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood, even at a time when he really shouldn’t!  The faithful who attended that Mass with Natalie did, therefore, truly receive the Eucharist.  So in that sense, at least, Natalie has nothing “to be concerned about.”  Let’s pray for our priests, without whom we would have neither Mass nor Eucharist, and also pray that mistakes like this one may be avoided in future.

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