Canon Law and Simulating the Mass

Q: Last week we visited a missionary priest’s organic farm…. It was Sunday and I told the priest that we were worried that we wouldn’t get to Mass that day, since the farm is far away from the nearest parish church.

So the priest offered to say Mass for us. However he warned us that they do not have hosts or Mass wine.  He said he would use the whole wheat bread we had for breakfast and banana wine they made.

During the “Mass,” the priest did not follow the sequence provided by the Roman Missal, though the readings, Prayers of the Faithful, blessing of gifts, “consecration” and doxology were there.

I was shocked, really, by what I witnessed. But I convinced myself that the priest was aware that it was not intended to be a Mass since he warned us beforehand.

However, is the use of inappropriate species excusable?

We will be going back there…. I am planning to bring unconsecrated hosts and wine if ever we are faced with such an inconvenient situation. I am especially worried since we will bring a youth group there. –Kevin

A: Kevin is a layman working for the Church in his diocese, and in that capacity he has occasional contact with the priest who has this farm.  He knows perfectly well that this was not a valid Mass.  So what was going on here, and why?  And was there any justification for it?

It’s impossible for a priest to celebrate a valid Mass—that is, one in which the host and chalice are truly consecrated into the Body and Blood of Christ—if he doesn’t have valid matter.  And canon 924 tells us what valid matter for Mass is: the Mass must be offered with bread and wine (c. 924.1).  The bread must be wheat (c. 924.2), and the wine must be made from grapes, and not corrupt (c. 924.3).  The reference to corrupted wine indicates that wine cannot be used if it has fermented to the point where it has become not wine, but wine vinegar—because vinegar would constitute invalid matter.

The proper type of wheat bread is specified in canon 926: the bread must be unleavened, in accord with tradition in the Latin Church.  (Note that in the eastern Catholic Churches, one does encounter the use of leavened bread in the liturgy, and this is totally legitimate.  As we saw in “Are They Really Catholic? Part I,” there exist within the universal Catholic Church a number of eastern Churches, mostly consisting of groups of former Orthodox who reconciled with Rome in centuries past.  They are truly Catholic, but their liturgical rituals are often extremely different.  For many centuries they have used leavened bread in their divine liturgy, and so they continue to do so validly today.)

Canon 841 tells us that only the Supreme Authority of the Church can define what is necessary for the validity of the sacraments.  That’s why a priest of the Latin Church, like the one Kevin describes here, cannot decide on his own that he can celebrate a Mass using “the whole wheat bread we had for breakfast” (which undoubtedly was leavened) and wine made not from grapes, but from bananas.  This sort of radical change in the matter used in the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass—far and away the Church’s most important liturgical act—could only be made at the highest level.  (And nobody should expect such a radical change any time soon.)

Thus it couldn’t be clearer that this “Mass” which Kevin attended was invalid, as no consecration was effected since the matter used was not valid.  As Kevin points out, the priest appeared to be well aware of this; he pointed out in advance that he would use this matter because “they do not have hosts or Mass wine.”  So the question logically presents itself: if the priest knew full well that he wasn’t celebrating a valid Mass, what was he doing then, and why?

Throughout the history of the Church, there have always been cases where a priest was unable for whatever reason to celebrate a valid Mass, even though he wanted to.  Bedridden priests, as well as priests in prison, in war zones, or travelling in rugged conditions, have found for a variety of reasons that celebrating Mass was simply impossible.  In such situations, priests have frequently prayed what is known informally as a “dry Mass.”  They have recited the prayers of the Mass, but without the consecration, as a way of devoutly offering prayer to God in the best way they could under the circumstances—as a rule skipping the canon and the words of consecration entirely.

Nowadays, relatively few Catholics are familiar with the concept of a “dry Mass,” but back in the day when the only means of transoceanic travel involved long weeks on a ship, a travelling priest often was prevented from saying Mass by severe weather.  Waves could at times rock the boat so much that there was a realistic fear that a chalice filled with the Precious Blood of Christ could be overturned.  In cases like this, when a priest said a “dry Mass” it was perfectly obvious to anyone who attended it that it wasn’t really a Mass.  The priest didn’t hold any matter in his hands at all while reciting the words of consecration.  So it was impossible for anybody acquainted with the normal order of Mass to reasonably think that this type of prayer constituted a real Mass.

Contrast this type of non-Mass, prayed in cases of necessity, with what happened when Kevin visited this farm.  First of all, it was Sunday, and the priest on the farm “[did] not have hosts or Mass wine.”  Really?  Why not?  Even if Kevin and the others hadn’t come to the farm on that day, the priest surely should have been prepared to celebrate Sunday Mass on his own.  And if for some reason the priest couldn’t, or didn’t want to, celebrate a Mass himself (see “Do Priests Have to Say Mass Every Day?” for more on this issue), as a Catholic he was nevertheless obligated to attend Sunday Mass just like any layperson!

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that something unexpected had occurred, which left this priest without valid matter for Mass that Sunday.  Perhaps someone had promised to bring wine and hosts to the farm that morning, and had failed to do so, and this was not at all the fault of the priest.  If this is what happened—though there’s nothing to indicate that it is—it would appear that the priest had several different options.  Kevin says that “the farm is far away from the nearest parish church,” and he and his companions “were worried that we wouldn’t get to Mass that day” because they would be too late.  Why couldn’t this priest offer to accompany them to the parish church after the regularly scheduled Masses had finished, and celebrate Sunday Mass for them properly there?  Surely this priest is known to the pastor, as it is “the nearest parish church” to the farm where the priest lives/works.

If for some reason this genuinely wasn’t doable, then the priest might have celebrated the abovementioned “dry Mass,” minus a consecration.  As a cleric, this priest should know that there are other prayer-options as well.

Instead, what the priest did is objectionable for two reasons.  First, he knowingly recited the words of consecration over invalid matter, aware that his words would have no effect.  In short, he was deliberately simulating a Mass, something which could hardly be interpreted as offering glory to God.  And secondly, he did this in the presence of laypeople who were counting on him to celebrate a real Mass—and then distributed the unconsecrated bread to them in an invalid communion.  This is no laughing matter: canon 1379 tells us that pretending to administer a sacrament is a crime, and it is to be punished with a just penalty (to be determined by the diocesan bishop).

The Church’s reason for criminalizing such an action should be obvious.  The Catholic faithful are utterly dependent upon ordained priests to administer the sacraments—and as a rule, we naturally presume that sacramentally, what the priest appears to be doing is real!  For a priest to knowingly pretend to do X for the faithful, while in reality doing non-X, is simply unconscionable.

It’s true that accidents, mistakes, and genuine misunderstandings can happen, and a sacrament can inadvertently be administered invalidly.  Imagine, for example, that a priest is overtired or unwell, and innocently mixes up the words of absolution over a penitent in the confessional.  Such an action would obviously be a problem, but it definitely would not constitute a crime.  In short, the difference between the legal ramifications of human error, and those of deliberate deceit, should be obvious.

So what, if anything, should Kevin do?  After asking this question, Kevin discovered that this particular priest has a long and sad track-record of conflict with the diocesan bishop, who has already objected to the priest’s heterodox actions in the past.  It would be wise for Kevin to inform the bishop of what has happened here—because if the priest has done this during a visit by Kevin and his friends, he’s likely to do it again.  The bishop is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful of his diocese (cf. c. 387), and so he naturally will want to prevent blatantly invalid celebrations of “Mass” like this one from being celebrated for them in future.

Kevin is being reasonable when he says that when he brings a youth group to this organic farm in the coming days, he will bring valid matter with him so that Mass can be celebrated properly.  But an even better suggestion might be to keep his youth group away from the farm altogether, if possible!  Alternately, Kevin could arrange to bring them there later in the day, after attending Mass at the parish church; or he could ask another, dependable priest to come along to say Mass for them.

Instead of attending a bewildering non-Mass like this one, it would be better to attend no Mass at all.  In genuine difficulty, when it’s not humanly possible to celebrate a true Mass, there are other things that priests can do to give glory to God without confusing the lay-faithful.  It’s easy for us to hurl criticisms at this priest, but let’s leave that for his bishop-superior.  Far better, and more constructive, if we all stop and say a brief prayer for that priest right now.

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