Does Mass Have to be Said in a Church?

Q: Does a priest have to say Mass in a church?  –Paula

A: Now this is a simple question with an answer that is perhaps more complex than one would think!

When Canon 897 states that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the source and summit of all worship and Christian life, it is quoting verbatim from Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (11). Since, as we have seen so many times before in this space, canon law follows theology, the direct connection between the Code of Canon Law and a theological conciliar document should not be at all surprising. Canonical requirements concerning the sacraments are driven by the theological significance of those sacraments; thus it is entirely logical that the tremendous reverence which the Church teaches us to have for the Eucharist plays out in the canons that pertain to the celebration of Mass.

Canon 932.1 states that the Eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place, unless a particular necessity requires otherwise, in which case it is to be held in another, suitable place. The most obvious “sacred place” is of course a church building; but this term also applies to chapels (called “oratories” in the code) that have been established as such by the diocesan bishop (cf. cc. 1223 and 1229). Such chapels are routinely found on college campuses, in hospitals, and in some countries even in airports and train stations.

This is the norm; but the canon immediately admits that there are admissible exceptions. In general, the Church’s assumption is that while Mass should be celebrated in the most reverent environment possible, it is often better to celebrate it in a less ideal place than not to celebrate it at all. What sort of scenario constitutes a “particular necessity” that would permit Mass to be celebrated in a place other than a church or chapel? For starters, any Catholic who has served in the military will point out that on countless occasions, Catholic priests who serve as military chaplains must of necessity celebrate the Eucharist in tents or in the open air, on land or at sea. To cite an example familiar to us all, how many Catholic churches are readily available to US soldiers serving right now in the Middle East?

An even more common situation in which Masses are offered in places other than a traditional church involves missionary areas. A missionary priest might travel hundreds of miles to a remote village, where he celebrates the liturgy in the back of his pickup truck, if no better option is available! Along similar lines, Masses must necessarily be offered in makeshift places in those areas where the Church is being persecuted (think communist China) or is simply forbidden to exist (like Saudi Arabia). In countries with few or no Catholic inhabitants, foreign embassies, particularly of those countries with a traditionally Catholic populace, often have priests on the ground who regularly celebrate the Eucharist inside the embassy compound for Catholic members of the diplomatic staff.

It goes without saying that offering a Mass under such conditions is less than ideal. But the reality is that many Catholics throughout the world do not have the luxury, as we do here in our country, of freely and openly travelling to a Catholic church for Mass on a regular basis. It would be difficult to argue that the Masses celebrated under these less-than-perfect circumstances are less reverent because of the place where they are held!

Note that canon 932.1 does not specifically mention any of the above scenarios. It provides a more general norm, that is to be interpreted and applied to particular concrete situations. So how does it apply to ordinary American daily life, which is devoid of political persecution and other extreme conditions like those mentioned above? Can one reasonably interpret that the Eucharist may (for example) be celebrated in a private home, in a hotel room, or outdoors?

Some additional guidelines for the celebration of Mass, which provide a bit more specific direction, are contained in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM). As we saw back in “Can You be Refused Holy Communion if You Kneel?” the GIRM provides liturgical norms which are not addressed in the Code of Canon Law. These norms, approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, were published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2003. (See”Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for a more detailed discussion of the role of the Bishops’ Conference in the life of the Church.)While they do not actually form part of the code, these norms are really laws and are to be followed at all Catholic liturgical worship here in the United States.

Chapter V of the GIRM mentions the places which are suitable for the celebration of Mass. It notes that “for the celebration of the Eucharist, the people of God normally are gathered together in a church or, if there is no church or if it is too small, then in another respectable place that is nonetheless worthy of so great a mystery” (288). We can see here that once again, offering Mass in a church building is always the norm. If, however, a church has been damaged by earthquake or fire, or a group of Catholics is gathered for the Eucharist in a location where there simply is no Catholic church available, or there is a church but it is too small for the number of faithful present, it is entirely permissible to celebrate Mass elsewhere. Sometimes in such circumstances priests celebrate the Eucharist in a school auditorium or gymnasium, or in a fire hall or hotel conference room. Such locations are obviously not designed to be used for Mass, but they are not intrinsically inappropriate places either.

If a priest is travelling, and either there is no Catholic church at his destination, or he arrives there too late to get to it, there is no particular reason why he may not celebrate Mass privately in his hotel room. Again, this is a less than ideal location, but ordinarily there is nothing inherently objectionable about a normal room in a typical hotel that would render it unsuitable for Mass.

Similarly, if a priest is on some outdoor excursion, far from buildings of any kind, he may celebrate Mass outside in an appropriate place. Before his election to the papacy, John Paul II frequently led groups of Polish teenagers on camping and hiking trips, and every morning they would find a clean, level rock or tree stump upon which he celebrated the Eucharist for them.

Could Mass be celebrated in a non-Catholic church? As a general rule, it may not, because the confusion that this might cause in the minds of simple, uneducated members of the Catholic faithful (not to mention the members of the non-Catholic church!) is potentially very great. After all, if a Catholic priest offers Catholic Mass in (let’s say) a Lutheran church, and a couple of hours later the Lutheran pastor leads a Lutheran Sunday Service in the same place, many people might naturally think that there is little difference between the two.  If this were to happen on a regular basis, one could easily envision that Catholics soon would begin attending the Lutheran service, and Lutherans the Catholic Mass, with little or no regard for the significant theological differences between them.

But as surprising as it may seem, the code actually does permit a Catholic Mass to be celebrated in a non-Catholic church under very specific circumstances, and there is a solid rationale for this permission. Canon 933 states that if (a) there is a good reason, (b) the diocesan bishop permits it, and (c) care has been taken to eliminate the possibility of scandal, a Catholic priest may offer the Eucharist in a non-Catholic church building. Imagine, for example, that a huge Catholic parish church, with thousands of parishioners, has been demolished in a hurricane. A nearby Baptist church was spared, and its pastor kindly offers the Catholic pastor the use of the church early on Sunday mornings, before the Baptist service. If the diocesan bishop approves, and the situation is explained very clearly to the Catholics of the area, the Catholic pastor may indeed use the Baptist church for Mass—until, of course, the Catholic church is rebuilt. Obviously this is a less than ideal situation, and it is not intended to be permanent. But the Church realizes that it is far better for Catholics to temporarily attend Catholic Mass in a non-Catholic church, than not to have Mass at all!

Thus far there seem to be numerous situations in which offering Mass in a place other than a Catholic church is permissible. So are there any scenarios in which it would not be allowed?

The key to interpreting the rule involves necessity. In all of the permitted examples referenced above, there was a real need to offer Mass outside of a Catholic church. If such a Eucharistic celebration were not permitted, the Mass could not take place.

So it logically follows that if a Catholic church is readily available, under normal circumstances it is difficult at best to justify the celebration of Mass elsewhere. Using a private home, when the residents are fully capable of coming to the parish church, or saying Mass in the parish garden, when the crowd could easily fit inside the church building, would not be in accord with either the code or the norms of the GIRM. If Mass can be said in the church, then it should be said in the church!

We see that the Church is realistic about the many difficult situations that Catholics face throughout the world, and is not hesitant to make accommodations so that they can participate in the celebration of the Eucharist insofar as it is possible. At the same time, however, the sacred nature of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is to be upheld as much as it can. The Church thus engages in a balancing act, always with the good of the souls of the Catholic faithful in mind. Whenever possible, they should not be deprived of the great privilege of participating in the Mass.

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