Can Priests Cancel Public Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?

Q:  I’d like to help my fellow parishioners clarify the difference between “canceling all Masses,” and priests who are saying a “private” Mass and either recording it or live-streaming it for the faithful to watch from home.

Would this be a correct statement: It’s not that Masses are cancelled; it’s that the faithful coming to church to celebrate puts everyone at risk of spreading this virus … thus Mass continues to be celebrated privately, often live-streamed or recorded and posted online, and the faithful are encouraged to follow the local laws to stay-at-home.

More succinctly, is it accurate to say: “Banning public gatherings does not cancel Mass; it changes how it is celebrated”?  Thank you. –Julie

A: Like millions of sane, reasonable Catholics around the world these days, Julie is trying to make logical sense of the current situation—in which many bishops have (illegally, as was discussed in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?”) banned the faithful from attending Mass, and ordered the parish clergy to say a private Mass instead.  In many places these Masses are being live streamed over the internet; and the faithful have been told repeatedly that “Masses are still being celebrated in church as usual; they just aren’t being celebrated publicly.”

So is it correct to say, as Julie suggests, that in many parts of the world, Mass nowadays is “just” being celebrated privately instead of publicly?  This is, after all, how many bishops are phrasing the matter: they have told the faithful that “public acts of worship” have been cancelled.

If you sense that there is something about the wording of these sorts of statements that doesn’t feel theologically right, you’re on to something.  The fact is that both theologically and canonically, there is no such thing as a private Mass.  Strictly speaking, every Mass is public—because the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the Catholic Church’s highest form of public worship.

Here’s what canon 837 has to say (emphases added):

837.1.  Liturgical actions are not private actions but celebrations of the Church itself which is the sacrament of unity, that is, a holy people gathered and ordered under the bishops. Liturgical actions therefore belong to the whole body of the Church and manifest and affect it; they touch its individual members in different ways, however, according to the diversity of orders, functions, and actual participation.

837.2. Inasmuch as liturgical actions by their nature entail a common celebration, they are to be celebrated with the presence and active participation of the Christian faithful where possible.

(At this point, some might latch onto that very last phrase, “where possible,” and object, “but in this time of contagion, it isn’t possible!”  We’ll come back to this spurious argument later.)

This canon wasn’t concocted out of thin air: its wording was largely cribbed from Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.  Here’s what that document, written back in 1963, had to say (emphases added):

26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the “sacrament of unity,” namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops. Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.

27. It is to be stressed that whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.This applies with especial force to the celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments, even though every Mass has of itself a public and social nature.

(Once again, we’ll return to the phrase “so far as possible,” found in SC 27, later on.)

While we’re citing official church documents, it’s worth noting that the Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise cites SC 26 and 27 when discussing the communal nature of the Mass, in its paragraph 1140.  Unsurprisingly, the Church’s teaching on this point has always been consistent: by definition, every Mass is public.

This is why, if you’ve ever wandered into a church and discovered a priest quietly celebrating a Mass at an unscheduled time, you were (whether you realized it or not!) welcome to join him.  If he happened to be alone, you might have felt as though you were intruding—but as we just saw, SC 27 says that celebrating Mass in the presence of the faithful “is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.”  By the way, note the use of the term “quasi-private” here: it was deliberately chosen because by definition, a Mass is never private, even if a priest is in fact celebrating it by himself because nobody else happens to be there.

True, as we saw in “Can a Pastor Ban a Parishioner from Coming to Mass?” a person who deliberately engages in misconduct, which seriously disrupts the prayerful atmosphere and prevents others from praying peacefully, can be asked (or ordered) to leave the church; but this cannot be done to those who simply wish to pray at Mass together with the priest.  As the abovementioned article explained, this would constitute an egregious violation of their rights.

But what if a priest is celebrating Mass not in a church, but in a hotel room or another place which, by its very nature, is not open to the public?  This scenario was addressed in “Does Mass Have to be Said in a Church?” but in general, there are legitimate reasons why a priest might offer Mass somewhere other than a church (see c. 932.1, which notes that Mass is to be said in a sacred place, unless in a particular case necessity requires otherwise).  If a priest is travelling, and says Mass in his hotel room, the odds are pretty high that nobody in the vicinity of the hotel is even aware of what he is doing—so he’ll likely be celebrating that Mass all by himself.  But this does not mean that his Mass is “private”; theologically, it’s just as “public” as any other Mass!  Rather, his Mass will end up being said all alone, simply because the general public are rightly unable to wander in and out of other people’s hotel rooms, and so nobody is going to stumble unwittingly upon his unannounced celebration of Mass.

If, by way of contrast, a priest is saying Mass by himself in an open place other than a church, and people do happen to see him doing so and want to join him, they cannot be forbidden to do so.  This sort of situation happens more often than you might think: a priest might arrange to say Mass in a corner of an empty dining room on a cruise-ship, for instance, or among the ancient ruins of a tourist-filled site where Saint Paul once preached—and it can sometimes be surprising to see how quickly Catholics find out and want to attend the Mass.  They are, of course, always allowed to do exactly that.

The Church’s theological understanding of the public nature of the Mass is the rationale behind canon 906, which tells us that except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful.  (This canon was discussed in a different context in “Can a Bishop Forbid a Priest to Say Mass?”)  The term “just and reasonable cause” is a fairly low bar; see “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” for a more detailed discussion of the phrase.

Here again, some might wish to object, “but the virus constitutes a ‘just and reasonable cause’ for a priest not celebrating Mass in the presence of the faithful!”  This argument is entirely without merit, as can be seen clearly in the Church’s past history, whenever the issue of offering a Mass alone—or “privately,” if you wish to misuse that term—arose.

If you look at the history behind the wording of canon 906, it’s easy to see that it represents a marked change in the current, 1983 Code of Canon Law relative to the previous code of 1917.  In the 1917 code, then-canon 813.1 stated unequivocally that a priest could not celebrate Mass without the presence of a “minister” who would serve the Mass and make the responses; the second paragraph permitted a woman to make the responses, although she was not permitted to serve the Mass or come close to the altar.  Back in 1917, of course, the traditional Latin Mass was the norm in the Latin Catholic Church—and if you’ve ever attended one, you understand what is meant by “responses,” since a significant portion of this rite of Mass consists of a sort of “dialogue” of prayer that alternates between the priest and the server(s).  For generations, the Church’s position was firm: if a priest wanted to offer Mass, there had to be at least one other person present.  Otherwise … the Mass could not be celebrated, period.  As church officials indicated in their discussions back then, it didn’t make much sense to keep repeating throughout the Mass phrases like “The Lord be with you,” “And with your spirit,” if there was nobody there but the celebrant, right?

It is undeniable that the previous code, which was in force well before the Second Vatican Council ever spoke of the Mass’s “public and social nature” and “communal celebration,” nevertheless embraced that theological concept firmly.  The 1917 code’s refusal even to permit a priest to offer Mass in the absence of a congregation was actually much more stringent than the 1983 code’s canon 906, which (as we just saw) allows a priest to say Mass alone for a “just and reasonable cause.”

Historically, whenever the Church has addressed what to do when a priest wants to celebrate Mass and nobody else is present, that situation has always, always arisen because there simply is nobody else in the vicinity.  In other words, the problem existed only because the priest wanted/needed a congregation, and there just wasn’t anybody available!  A concrete historical example of this, which is at once both very clear and truly heartrending, can be seen in the life of Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916).

Charles de Foucauld was a member of an old, aristocratic French family, who was raised a devout Catholic but subsequently lost his faith.  Charles joined the French military and was sent to Algeria, which at that time was under French occupation.  Returning to France, he rediscovered his Catholic faith, and was ordained a priest in 1901.  With the permission of his superiors, Charles went back to northern Africa, where he essentially lived as a hermit, praying for the conversion of the inhabitants of that region.

As a priest, Charles de Foucauld was of course able to say daily Mass—but at that time the Church’s law required at least one other person to be present to pray the Mass with him.  Since Charles was surrounded by non-Christians, and he only sporadically encountered a fellow-Catholic who happened to be passing through the area, Charles was unable to celebrate Mass on a regular basis.  His inability to regularly worship God in the highest way possible was  tremendously painful for him, as can be seen from notations in his diary, like these:

November 21 [1907]. — Dwelling in Hoggar would be of an extreme sweetness, thanks to solitude, especially since I now have books; if it were not for want of Mass.
I have always the Blessed Sacrament, to be sure; I renew the sacred species, when a Christian passes by, and I can say Mass.

December 25 [1907]. — Christmas; no Mass, because I am alone.

January 1, 1908. — Unite me to all the sacrifices offered up today. No Mass, because I am alone.

Charles prayed earnestly for two favors: firstly, that a Catholic would arrive, thus enabling him to celebrate Mass; and secondly and more specifically, that he would receive a positive answer to a petition sent to Pope (and later Saint) Pius X, requesting a dispensation that would permit him to say Mass alone.  Without a phone or any regular means of receiving mail, Charles waited in his solitude for a long time, agonizing at his inability to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

When the Pope finally did hear of his request, he granted Charles a dispensation instantly.  Charles de Foucauld finally received the news in a letter from a friend, on January 31, 1908.  He was now allowed to say Mass every day, even if there was nobody else present; and over a century later, his joy still rings through the words he penned in response to the news:

Deo Gratias! Deo Gratias! Deo Gratias!  O God, how good Thou art!  Tomorrow I shall be able to say Mass!  Christmas! Christmas!  Thanks, my God!  (Charles de Foucauld: Hermit and Explorer, by René Bazin, pp. 263-264.)

Here’s the takeaway from Charles de Foucauld’s experience: in the 20th century, when the Church began to relax the restriction that prevented priests from saying Mass alone, it was this kind of situation that it had in mind.  As should be obvious, Charles would have been utterly delighted if Catholics came and asked to attend his Mass—but there weren’t any Catholics around at the time.  The allowance for a priest to say Mass alone “for a just and reasonable cause,” found in the current canon 906, was never, ever in a million years meant to suggest that priests could celebrate Mass alone because they barred the faithful from attending Mass, when they were right there in the vicinity and wished devoutly to be present at the celebration!

If further corroboration is necessary, there’s more to be found.  In 1949, the then-Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments (today known as the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments) issued the Instruction Quam plurimum, in answer to a number of different queries submitted by diocesan bishops (found here, on pages 493-511).  One of the topics involved the celebration of Mass by a priest alone—or more precisely, without even a server who could assist the priest and make the responses, as discussed above.

The Congregation made reference to then-canon 813 of the 1917 code, which (as we’ve already seen) required the presence of a server, or at least of someone who could make the responses.  It asserted that only a very few exceptions to the law were allowed, and one of them is directly relevant to the issue at hand: “in a time of pestilence, when it isn’t easy at all to find someone who can fulfill the role of server, and otherwise a priest might have to refrain for a significant period of time from celebrating Mass” (p. 507, section 2c, my translation).  This exception parallels Charles de Foucauld’s situation exactly.

Let’s look closely at what this means.  The Congregation was declaring that the law at the time, which said a priest could not celebrate Mass without at least one other person present, was to be observed—unless another person couldn’t be found because everybody was ill.  Put differently, if even one person could be found “in a time of pestilence” who could be present at the Mass, there was no need for any exception to the rule, because of course any Catholic who wanted to attend the Mass could do so!

Quam plurimum makes a different, passing reference which is also of interest to us.  It notes that “The practice of celebrating Mass without a server, or indeed with nobody present at all, seems to have arisen in monasteries” (p. 507, section 1).  Note that this refers to liturgical praxis in centuries past, when concelebration was not allowed—so monks all celebrated their Masses individually, at different altars at the same time.  This statement shows once again that historically, when priests offered Mass by themselves, it was only because nobody else was available to attend.  If someone could be present at a monk’s Mass, then obviously he would.  And while Quam plurimum doesn’t use exactly the same phraseology found in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, like “the social nature of the Mass” or “communal celebration,” the theological rationale is identical: ideally, people should attend every Mass, because the Mass is the Church’s highest form of public worship.

This is why even today, priests are ordinarily forbidden to celebrate Mass on Holy Thursday in the absence of the faithful.  As we saw in “Holy Week in the Era of Coronavirus,” an exception was granted by the Congregation for Divine Worship for Holy Thursday 2020, when “the faculty to celebrate Mass in a suitable place, without the presence of the people, [was] exceptionally granted to all priests.”

So to return to Julie’s question, you could say that forbidding the faithful to attend Mass “changes how Mass is celebrated,” but only in the negative sense that it is not being celebrated correctly.  You cannot forbid people to come to church to attend Mass!  If a diocese or a parish asserts that “public worship has been cancelled,” it is effectively saying that no Masses are being celebrated at all—because every Mass constitutes public worship.  And if it claims that “Masses are indeed being celebrated, they’re just being said privately” … well, that statement makes absolutely no theological sense whatsoever.

And while we’re on the subject of non-sense, it is likewise nonsensical to claim, as many clergy are doing, that “when you watch a Mass via live streaming, it’s the same as being present,” and “Mass is being celebrated for everybody, it’s just that you now attend Mass virtually rather than physically.”  As any two-year-old child can tell you, talking to Daddy by phone or Skype is definitely not the same as talking to Daddy in person!  The Catholic faithful do not need advanced degrees in theology or canon law to know that there is indeed a fundamental, essential difference, and they are being deprived of their right to Mass and the sacraments.  This is not rocket-science.

Back in 1949, a British journalist and former policeman named Eric Arthur Blair published a futuristic novel about a dystopian world, where in an attempt to control the population, words were twisted by the authorities to mean the exact opposite of their true definitions.  Writing under the pen name of George Orwell, he coined the terms “doublethink” and “newspeak” to describe this deceptive technique—which would later be commonly melded into one term, known around the world today as “Orwellian doublespeak.”

The Ministry of Truth … was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH  (1984, Chapter 1)

These days, huge swathes of the Catholic population around the world are being addressed in similarly deceptive terms, which apparently are being used with the intention of placating them while depriving them of their most basic rights in the Church.  And just as the protagonist of Orwell’s famous novel, Winston Smith, struggled to maintain his sanity in an environment where words were distorted to mean things which he knew they really didn’t, so Catholics in numerous countries are grappling with terminology that’s suddenly being used by many Catholic clerics in ways that the faithful can innately sense are inaccurate and misleading.

Reality is not complicated.  The Mass is public by definition, and if you want to attend, you have a right to do so—and “attend” means exactly what everyone has always known that it means, being physically rather than virtually present.  Receiving the sacraments is likewise a right (discussed countless times in this space, in articles such as “Can Catholics be Prohibited From Marrying in Lent and Advent?” as well as “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” and “Can You be Refused Holy Communion if You Kneel?” among many others), and in accord with canon 843.1, if you want/need to receive them, they cannot be denied to you.  True, if the virus really is causing significant problems in your region of the world, it’s only common sense to take appropriate precautions at church, such as sitting far apart; but in the nearly 2000-year history of the Catholic Church, no physical illness has ever theologically or canonically superseded the faithful’s spiritual wellbeing (see “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” for more on this).

It’s time to stop playing word-games, and acknowledge that words like “public” and “private,” and “participate” and “it’s for your good,” have not suddenly acquired new definitions which they never had before.  Let’s heed the warning given to us by Our Lord Himself:

Let your “Yes” mean “Yes,” and your “No” mean “No.”  Anything more is from the evil one (Matt. 5:37).

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