How Many Masses Can a Priest Say on Sundays?

Q1:  I recently received notice from a local parish that since the state has ordered that no more than ten people may attend any religious service, there will only be one Mass on Sunday.  It said a priest can only offer a second Mass the same day if at least 20 will be assisting.

The exact words in the notice are “…by Church law, priests are not allowed to binate or trinate (that is to say a 2nd or a 3rd Mass on the same day) for less than 20 faithful.  Thus we cannot put more than one Mass on Sunday.”

I looked online and only found this:
Can. 905.1. A priest is not permitted to celebrate the Eucharist more than once a day except in cases where the law permits him to celebrate or concelebrate more than once on the same day.
Can. 905.2. If there is a shortage of priests, the local ordinary can allow priests to celebrate twice a day for a just cause, or if pastoral necessity requires it, even three times on Sundays and holy days of obligation.

?  Thank you for any assistance. –Astrid

Q2: Thank you for your articles regarding the limiting of the Sacraments in the time of COVID. It was exactly what my soul needed after a night of weeping when my parish announced it would have a lottery for seats at Christmas Masses.

I have a follow-up question on your response to the question from Philip in this article.  I understand that signing up for Masses is one way to mitigate crowds.  However, once all of those spots are filled week after week, and many of the faithful are essentially shut out from the celebration of the Eucharist time and again, shouldn’t the clergy have some obligation to add opportunities for Mass?

My parish is the cathedral, and we have only five Masses, all at 30% capacity and we have three priests, two deacons, and the Bishop available.  I’m sincerely devastated by the response of our churches here in the US… –Laina

A: The Church has long had laws explaining how many times per day a priest is permitted to celebrate Mass, depending on the day and on the particular circumstances.  Even in “normal” times, the various rules might already merit a thorough discussion in this space; but in this mind-bending past year when countless Catholic clergy around the world have illegally, arbitrarily, and cruelly thrown both sacramental theology and the Code of Canon Law out the window “because of the virus,” the discussion takes on a new twist.

Let’s first take a look at what the canons actually say, and the reasoning behind them.  Then we can focus on the particular situations described by our two questioners.  In the process, we’ll also see that just before Christmas 2020, the Vatican issued a new decree allowing priests to celebrate even more Masses in the Christmas season, for as long as the virus perdures.

First of all, canon 904 provides theological context for the Church’s laws on this subject.  Priests are to celebrate Mass frequently, bearing in mind that in the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice the work of redemption is continually exercised.  In other words, our faith teaches that every Mass which is offered to Almighty God calls down innumerable graces upon us, which helps to make the world a better place!  The canon adds that daily celebration of the Mass is earnestly recommended, since even if the faithful are unable to be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church in which priests fulfill their principal function.  As is true in any religion which has a priesthood, offering sacrifice is what Catholic priests primarily exist to do.

Before we go any farther, it’s important to point out that a validly ordained priest always has the ability to celebrate Mass validly, and nobody can ever take this away from him.  As we saw in “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” and “Can a Bishop Forbid a Priest to Say Mass?,” even when a priest has been ordered not to say Mass—if he has been excommunicated, for example, or has been laicized—he nevertheless retains the power to do so.  If for such reasons a priest has been forbidden to say Mass, and yet does so anyway, the Mass will be illicit, or illegal; but it will still be a real, valid Mass (see “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for more on the distinction between validity and liceity).  Consequently, in the discussion that follows, whenever it’s said that a priest “cannot” say Mass more than X times per day, this means that doing so would be illicit.  But even if a priest were to illegally celebrate 50 Masses in one day, they would all be valid Masses.  We see here the tremendous power of the sacrament of Holy Orders, which gives a man the ability for the rest of his life to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, even if he’s not supposed to.

Now, returning to what the law says regarding the number of times a priest can offer Mass each day, Astrid has correctly cited canon 905.1, which provides the basic norm: ordinarily, a priest is not to celebrate Mass more than once per day, except where the law permits him to celebrate more than once.  Note for the record that the canon does not say that every priest must celebrate Mass once per day; as we saw in “Do Priests Have to Say Mass Every Day?” the law is carefully worded in part to acknowledge the possibility that a priest might find himself in a state of grave sin—and until he is able to get to confession, it is obviously preferable from a theological standpoint for him to refrain from celebrating Mass in this spiritual state if he can.

Let’s look more carefully at the wording of canon 905.1.  It indicates that even under ordinary circumstances, the law permits a priest to celebrate Mass more than once per day on certain occasions.  The “law” referred to here isn’t located in the Code of Canon Law itself; it is found in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), the Church’s primary collection of liturgical norms pertaining specifically to the Mass.

The GIRM was last updated by the Vatican in 2011, and a current text can be found here, on the Vatican’s website.  The occasions on which a priest can by law say more than one Mass per day are found in paragraph 204.  As can be seen, they include (but are not limited to) two Masses on Holy Thursday, three on All Souls’ Day, and three on Christmas Day.  Since the universal law allows all priests to say multiple Masses on the dates indicated, this incidentally means that no bishop or religious superior can forbid this.  As was discussed at length in “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” a lower authority cannot overrule a higher authority—and if a lower authority tries nevertheless to do so, we are required to obey the higher authority.  This is, by the way, a fundamental legal principle that is not limited to the Catholic Church.

In short, canon 905.1 tells us what all priests can do without any additional permission, or special concessions, or extraordinary circumstances.  But the following paragraph of canon 905 (also noted by Astrid above) provides an additional set of rules regarding the number of Masses a priest can say per day.  Canon 905.1 addressed ordinary situations, applicable to every priest; but according to canon 905.2, in certain circumstances priests can do even more.

This second paragraph asserts that “if there is a shortage of priests,” the local ordinary (a term which includes the diocesan bishop and a couple of other clergy of the diocese [cf. c. 134.2], as discussed in “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?”) can allow priests to celebrate two Masses per day “for a just cause.”  The canon states further that “if pastoral need requires it,” priests can be allowed to celebrate Mass three times on Sundays or holydays of obligation.  There is an awful lot going on in this paragraph, so let’s take it apart.

For starters, there must be a “just cause” for canon 905.2 to be applied.  We took a look at the term “just cause” in “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” but in short, a cause is just when it is reasonable.  For example: if a priest is living in a monastery, without any responsibility for the pastoral care of the faithful, and he routinely celebrates Mass alone or almost alone, there is probably no reason why he would need to celebrate two Masses on an ordinary day—so it would be hard to imagine a “just cause” for doing so.  In contrast, a priest involved in parish ministry may frequently need to say more than one Mass a day, for the good of the faithful entrusted to his care (note that the canon also refers to “pastoral need”).  To cite only one of many possible scenarios, a parish might have a scheduled weekday morning Mass and then a funeral Mass that afternoon … and there may be only one priest available to celebrate them both.  Or perhaps there are two daily Masses scheduled at a parish, and the priest who normally celebrates the second one is sometimes unable to get to the church on time, leaving only one priest available at the parish to say them both.  This type of situation unquestionably constitutes a “just cause” and “pastoral need” warranting the bishop to allow priests to say two Masses on the same weekday.  These sorts of scenarios happen all the time—and that’s why in many, many dioceses all around the world, bishops have given a sort of blanket-permission to the parish clergy to say two Masses whenever genuine need arises.

Next, canon 905.2 references “a scarcity of priests.”  To illustrate this point, we can reuse the examples just provided.  If, say, the pastor of the parish decides he’ll celebrate the funeral, and there’s an assistant pastor (a.k.a. a parochial vicar) or some other priest there who is able to say the regular morning Mass, then there is no need for the pastor to take both Masses—so canon 905.2 would not apply.  Similarly, if there are two regularly scheduled weekday Masses, and two priests assigned to the parish, each ought to be able to say one of them.  But we all know that in most of the world today there is a dire shortage of Catholic clergy, and so it often happens that there is only priest available when more than one Mass has to be celebrated on an ordinary weekday.

Finally, canon 905.2 speaks of Sundays and holydays of obligation.  Clearly, a priest who is assigned to parish ministry must celebrate Sunday Mass for the faithful of the parish, and it usually happens that one Mass is not enough!  Even if there are several priests at a single parish, the size of the parish may require them each to say as many as three Masses each on Sundays/holydays, so as to enable everyone to attend.  This is not rocket-science, and virus or no virus, we all understand how it’s supposed to work.

In the situations mentioned in canon 905.2, the local ordinary is expected to “allow” priests to say multiple Masses as just noted.  Back in pre-virus days, when everyone understood that Catholic clergy are, as a matter of course, supposed to make an effort to minister to the faithful entrusted to their care, this went without saying!  But for the benefit of those who, in the era of the virus, suddenly fail to grasp this elementary aspect of clerical ministry … the code explains in canons 383 and 387 (among others) that diocesan bishops are to be solicitous for the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful for whom they are responsible, and are to ensure that the faithful are able to grow in grace through the celebration of Mass and the sacraments.  This is, after all, the whole point of the existence of diocesan bishops and parish clergy—and the appearance of a virus on the scene doesn’t magically negate it.  Thus it is simply unthinkable that a diocesan bishop would know that the needs of parishes in his diocese require the clergy to celebrate multiple Masses some or all of the time, and yet fail to authorize it as described in canon 905.2.

It was an awareness of this very “pastoral need” which prompted the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments to issue a decree before Christmas, permitting priests to say as many as four Masses on Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Epiphany (January 6).  Cardinal Robert Sarah signed the decree (the official Latin text of which can be read here), which enables diocesan bishops to allow priests to say this even greater number of Masses “for the good of the faithful.”  The Vatican was motivated by the fact that in many nations, civil officials have restricted church attendance to only a fraction of the building’s actual capacity (as Laina indicates in her question).  This type of cap on attendance at Mass naturally requires Catholic clergy to offer even more Masses than they normally would, to enable everyone to attend—and the Vatican decree authorizes this in a special way on the three holydays of obligation during the Christmas season.  (In some parts of the world, January 6 is not a holyday of obligation; see “Holydays of Obligation, Part I” for more on this.)

But as generous as this allowance is, it is not unprecedented by any means!  In missionary regions, and those parts of the world where only a handful of priests are available to minister to huge numbers of faithful, even greater allowances for multiple Sunday Masses Tagle Masseshave long been given to them.  A dramatic example of this used occasionally to be cited by Cardinal Luis Tagle, who now works in the Vatican but was formerly the Archbishop of Manila, Philippines.  Cardinal Tagle used to describe the heroic efforts of the parish priests of Manila, explaining that many of them routinely—i.e., in pre-virus days—would celebrate eight Masses on Sundays in order to enable all the Catholic faithful to attend.

Needless to say, such extremes are not provided for by canon 905, so Cardinal Tagle (or his predecessor) presumably obtained the necessary authorization for this from Rome.  But note that even if he hadn’t, these Masses were all valid, as was already discussed above; and since they were all being celebrated for the spiritual good of the faithful entrusted to the care of these overworked and exhausted priests, it’s pretty hard to argue that there was something “wrong” about them doing this.

Speaking of “wrongly” celebrating too many Masses for the spiritual good of the faithful … let’s take a look at the very last canon of the code, which happens to be in the section addressing procedural law.  Canon 1752 first talks about the transfer of a pastor from one parish to another—but then deliberately ends with a fundamental maxim that should ever be on the minds of Catholic clergy: in the Church, the salvation of souls must always be the supreme law.

It’s easy for both theologians and canonists to get so nit-picky that they miss the whole point—that Our Lord became man in order to redeem us by His death, and He established His Church on earth in order to get us all to Heaven.  You could say that the Church and all its teachings and rules exist for one purpose: the salvation of souls!  This is why it makes no sense to cite canon law in support of an action which denies the spiritual goods of the Church to sincere Catholics who have a right to receive them, need them and ask the clergy for them.  With that in mind, let’s turn now to our two questions.

In light of all that we’ve seen thus far, it should be evident that whoever told Astrid’s parish that “by Church law” priests cannot say a second or third Mass for fewer than 20 people is living in a fantasy land.  The notion that (say) 19 Catholics who need to attend Mass must be denied this by law is not only flat-out false, it’s both ludicrous and offensive—as it amounts to an assertion that “you aren’t important in the eyes of the Church because there aren’t enough of you.”  There has never been any such law, as it violates theology, charity, and common sense!  Contrast this nonsense with what Our Lord Himself said:

What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?  And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.” (Luke 15:4-6)

That is not to say that a priest must always necessarily say an extra Mass if he knows it can be Good Shepherd Massesattended by “only” one person.  But if for some reason “only” one or two people show up for a Mass, of course the priest celebrates it anyway!  In this time of social distancing and capacity-limitations, it could be that a second or third Mass is attended by “only” a few people out of necessity—and so what?  If a priest is responsible for the souls of those few people, how could he argue that he “can’t” say another Mass for them?  And more to the point, why would he ever even think in such terms?  Surely the angels weep when they see Catholic priests abandon the faithful in this way.

Speaking of weeping, Laina’s situation is just as heart-breaking as it is illegal.  In her region, civil officials have apparently placed a 30%-capacity limitation on church attendance; and she notes that “many of the faithful are essentially shut out from the celebration of the Eucharist time and again” because there aren’t enough Masses for everyone to attend.

Let’s do the math.  Laina tells us that “we have three priests, two deacons, and the Bishop available.”  The deacons can’t celebrate Mass, as was discussed in “What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?” but that leaves four ordained priests (counting the bishop) who can each say three Masses on Sundays and holydays of obligation—and as we just saw above, they can say four Masses each on Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Epiphany.  That means, if pastoral need requires it, that they can say a total of eight Masses on weekdays, 12 Masses on Sundays and holydays, and 16 Masses on the three Christmas holidays mentioned.

So does pastoral need require this?  Well, since Laina tells us that “many of the faithful are essentially shut out from the celebration of the Eucharist time and again,” it is obvious that the number of Sunday/holyday Masses currently being celebrated isn’t enough!  Although we can’t say for certain that the size of the parish actually requires 12 Sunday Masses or 16 Christmas Masses, it does require them to be scheduling more Masses than they currently have!

That it’s even necessary to explain this boggles the mind.  Imagine, if you can, a parent who prepares X amount of food for dinner every night—even though he is perfectly capable of cooking more—knowing full well that X isn’t enough to feed all his children.  And when he sees that the children are perennially hungry, his response is something like, “But the government said!” and assumes that this constitutes sufficient justification for letting his kids starve.  Who in his right mind would ever suggest that this is good parenting?

The parallel between parents/children, and parish clergy/faithful, is a sound one—except that we Catholics know that depriving people of Mass and the sacraments (which can lead them to spiritual death) can be infinitely worse than depriving people of food (leading to their physical death).  To quote Our Lord again, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28).  Before “coronavirus” became a household word, our Catholic parish priests and diocesan bishops understood this intuitively, and routinely made every effort to minister to the faithful!  Yet somehow, the moment the virus became the international center of attention, many Catholic clerics instantly barred the doors (sometimes literally) and refused to help the desperate laity who are, by definition, unable to help themselves.

Back in the Year for Priests (2009-2010), then-Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the Catholic priest as an alter Christus, or “another Christ,” explaining the direct connection between priestly ordination and self-sacrificing ministerial service to the faithful:

…[A]n authentic service to the Word requires of the priest that he strive for deeper self-denial, to the point that he can say, with the Apostle, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The priest cannot consider himself “master” of the Word, but its servant….

For the priest, then, being the “voice” of the Word is not merely a functional aspect. On the contrary, it implies a substantial “losing of himself” in Christ, participating with his whole being in the mystery of Christ’s death and Resurrection: his understanding, his freedom, his will and the offering of his body as a living sacrifice (cf. Rom. 12: 1-2). Only participation in Christ’s sacrifice, in his kenosis, makes preaching authentic! And this is the way he must take with Christ to reach the point of being able to say to the Father, together with Christ: let “not what I will, but what you will” be done (Mk 14: 36). Proclamation, therefore, always involves self-sacrifice, a prerequisite for its authenticity and efficacy.

As an alter Christus, the priest is profoundly united to the Word of the Father who, in becoming incarnate took the form of a servant, he became a servant (Phil 2: 5-11). The priest is a servant of Christ, in the sense that his existence, configured to Christ ontologically, acquires an essentially relational character: he is in Christ, for Christ and with Christ, at the service of humankind. Because he belongs to Christ, the priest is radically at the service of all people: he is the minister of their salvation, their happiness and their authentic liberation, developing, in this gradual assumption of Christ’s will, in prayer, in “being heart to heart” with Him. Therefore this is the indispensable condition for every proclamation, which entails participation in the sacramental offering of the Eucharist and docile obedience to the Church. (June 24, 2009, emphases in original)

Even without citing any canon law at all, surely this quotation in and of itself answers both our questions.  Christ came to earth and gave Himself to and for us completely, down to His last drop of Blood.  As an alter Christus, a Catholic priest is expected likewise to sacrifice himself for the good of the souls of the faithful.  Like Christ, a priest is supposed to do whatever he can, in order to bring the laity to God.  Like Christ, he’s supposed to help them—because he loves them.

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