Canon Law and the Mass Pro Populo

Q: At my parish, the same Sunday Mass used always to be the one celebrated by the pastor pro populo.  No stipend was ever taken for that Mass because it was not for anyone’s personal intention.

In the past few years, though, the pro populo Mass has been routinely shifted to a different Mass which is almost never celebrated by the pastor himself, and is attended by very few people.

The only possible reason for this change that I can see is simply financial: more stipends for the other Sunday Masses by shifting the pro populo Mass to one that often has no stipend offered or intention requested at all.

Can the Sunday Mass pro populo be celebrated by another priest?  I believe that the parish priest can even celebrate the pro populo Mass by himself if he’s travelling, for example; he doesn’t have to celebrate it within the parish.  But can he effectively exclude the majority of parishioners from it and turn the duty of celebrating it over to another priest or priests, on a more-or-less regular or permanent basis? –Nellie

A:  Before tackling these questions, it’s important that everyone understands what a “pro populo Mass” is.  We’ve seen before that ordinarily, the faithful can offer a stipend and request that a Mass be celebrated at their parish for a specific intention (“Mass Intentions and Stipends, Part I” and “Part II”).  But church law mandates that both diocesan bishops and parish priests regularly offer certain Masses pro populo, or “for the people” for whom they are spiritually responsible.   Let’s first take a look at what the law actually requires, and after that we can look at Nellie’s specific situation.

Canon 388 explains what a diocesan bishop is required by law to do for the people of his diocese.  The first paragraph tells us that a bishop must say Mass for the faithful who have been entrusted to him, on Sundays and other days which are holydays of obligation in his region (note that holydays of obligation vary from place to place, as discussed in “Holydays of Obligation, Part I” and “Part II”).  Canon 388.2 is even more explicit: it states that the bishop must celebrate these Masses himself—although if he is lawfully impeded from doing so, he is either to have someone else say the Mass for him, or is to say it himself on a different day.

Note the word “lawfully” in the second paragraph.  A bishop might be literally unable to say Mass at all on a Sunday or holyday of obligation, if (to cite a few examples) he is recovering from heart surgery, or he has been taken prisoner by a government hostile to the Church, or his diocese was effectively destroyed in a massive earthquake the night before.  If he is physically incapable of saying the Mass pro populo, that certainly constitutes a lawful impediment!  Less dramatic “lawful” situations exist too: let’s say that on Sunday morning, the priest of a parish within his diocese is discovered to have died in his sleep—so the bishop rushes to the parish to console the people but also to cover for the priest, by celebrating the Sunday Masses for the intentions that were already scheduled there.  You don’t have to be a canon lawyer to appreciate that situations like this are beyond a bishop’s control, and that the bishop presumably would say the Mass pro populo personally if he were humanly able to!  In contrast, it should be a matter of common sense that if a bishop has already planned that his celebration of Sunday Mass at 10 AM will be for the people of the diocese, but is then asked by (say) the Prime Minister or some other oh-so-important person(s) to say that Mass for his/their intention instead, the answer should be a polite no.  The bishop cannot simply disregard his obligation to offer a Sunday Mass pro populo because someone comes along and wants him to celebrate it for a different intention—and if he did, it could not be considered “lawful.”

That said, as was discussed in “How Many Masses Can a Priest Say on Sundays?” a bishop can certainly celebrate more than one Mass on Sundays if there is a genuine need to do so—and so it is entirely possible that he might offer one Mass pro populo, and another one or even two Masses for other intentions.  There is no requirement that a bishop who says more than one Mass on Sunday must offer them all for the people of the diocese.

So what happens if for some reason the diocesan bishop fails to fulfill this obligation?  Canon 388.4 says that he is to make up for this “as soon as possible,” by saying as many Masses pro populo as he may have omitted.

As has been said so many times before in this space, canon law follows theology—and the theology behind canon 388 should be evident.  A bishop’s fundamental reason for existence is the salvation of souls, whom he is expected to shepherd (cf. cc. 375, 383).  Praying for the faithful is the most basic means of spiritual assistance, and offering the sacrifice of the Mass is the Catholic Church’s highest form of worship (c. 897, and see “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” and “Refusing a Funeral Mass, Because of the Virus” for more on this canon).

The obligation to celebrate these Sunday/holyday Masses for the people of the diocese isn’t suspended when the diocese has no bishop.  As most Catholics probably know, when a bishop dies, or retires, or is removed by the Pope, there is frequently an interim period before the new bishop is named and comes to take possession of his diocese.  As we saw in “Who’s in Charge of the Diocese When There’s No Bishop?” a temporary administrator takes the helm until the arrival of the new bishop.  And canon 429 specifies that this administrator is bound to apply the Mass pro populo in accord with canon 388, as discussed above.  Thus the people of the diocese can always count on a Mass being said for their intention, on all Sundays and holydays of obligation.

The obligation of a parish priest to celebrate Mass for the people of his parish is fundamentally parallel to that of the bishop for the people of his diocese.  Canon 534.1 states that the parish priest is required to say a Mass pro populo on Sundays and holydays of obligation.  And as was the case with the diocesan bishop, if the parish priest is lawfully impeded from this celebration, he is to arrange for someone else to say the Mass on those days, or offer it himself on other days.  Canon 534.3 lays out the same requirement that we saw in canon 388.2: if the parish priest has failed to carry out this obligation, he is obliged to say as many Masses pro populo as he has omitted, “as soon as possible.”

Nowadays, due to the extreme shortage of diocesan clergy in many parts of the world, it’s not uncommon for one priest to be the pastor of two or even more parishes.  Canon 534.2 explains that such a priest is only required to say one Mass pro populo on the days mentioned above, and it is to be applied for all the people of the parishes.  Since the value of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is infinite, the parishioners of these multiple parishes aren’t being short-changed!

When there is no parish priest—if he has retired, died, been transferred or removed—the obligation to celebrate Masses for the people on Sundays and holydays of obligation perdures.  As canon 540.1 tells us, the parochial administrator, who temporarily oversees the operation of a parish until a new parish priest arrives (c. 539; see Who’s in Charge of the Parish When There’s No Parish Priest?” for more on this), is bound by the same duties as the parish priest himself, which of course includes the celebration of the Masses pro populo.

Now that we’ve established what the code says on the subject, let’s look at the situation Nellie describes.  She says that in the past, the same Sunday Mass was always the Mass celebrated for the people, and the parish priest said the Mass.  As we can see, when it comes to fulfilling his obligations under canon law, this certainly fits the bill.

These days, however, the Mass pro populo has been “routinely shifted to a different Mass which is almost never celebrated by the pastor himself, and is attended by very few people.”  Well, scheduling the Sunday Mass pro populo at a different time is certainly not a problem; there’s nothing in the law to say that it must be celebrated at the same time every week!  Nellie adds that this Mass is sparsely attended—and once again, this is quite immaterial so far as the law is concerned.

She also tells us that this Mass is usually said by a priest other than the pastor.  As we’ve already seen above, canon 534.1 says the pastor is to have someone else say the Mass pro populo if he is “lawfully impeded.”  The question Nellie raises amounts to this: is her parish priest “lawfully impeded” from saying the Mass for the people, because he is saying Masses at other times instead?

Nellie asserts that the only possible explanation for the pastor’s failure to celebrate the Mass pro populo himself is that he wants to receive a Mass stipend.  It’s true that no stipend is offered for a Mass pro populo; while in contrast, a priest ordinarily receives a stipend for a Mass celebrated on Sunday for a specific intention.  So Nellie seems to assume that her parish priest is delegating some other priest to say the Sunday Mass for which he will receive no money—so that the parish priest can say a different Mass for which he’ll get a nominal amount.

Technically, she could be right.  But what seems far more likely in this scenario is that the parish priest wants usually to be the one who celebrates the “main” Sunday Mass which is attended by the most people; and since that Mass is the most well attended, it’s only logical that parishioners commonly ask to have that Mass celebrated for their own intentions.  We don’t know the size of Nellie’s parish, but it could very well be that people are constantly clamoring to have that “main” Sunday Mass celebrated for their 25th wedding anniversary, or the repose of the soul of a relative, or other kinds of intentions.  The pastor may have concluded that organizationally, it makes more sense to allow parishioners to schedule their intentions for the “main” Sunday Mass, and move the Mass pro populo to (let’s say) a very early time-slot, which has far less demand.

Note that as was discussed in the abovementioned “How Many Masses Can a Priest Say on Sundays?” it’s quite possible, canonically, for the pastor of the parish to say both Masses.  In that case, he could lawfully accept a stipend for the “main” Sunday Mass offered for a specific intention, and celebrate also the Mass pro populo, which has no stipend.  After all, a priest who says multiple Masses on the same day can accept a stipend for one of them, though not for all of them (c. 951.1).  In any case, it appears that for whatever reason, Nellie’s pastor is not saying both of these Masses.  It could simply be that there are enough priests at the parish to celebrate all the Sunday Masses without the pastor needing to say more than one.  We don’t know the details.

Nellie claims that the parish priest is “effectively exclud[ing] the majority of parishioners” from the Sunday Mass pro populo, but it’s pretty hard to see how that is possible.  True, the Mass might be offered at a time when fewer people want to attend Mass; but that’s a far cry from telling parishioners that they cannot attend it even if they want to—which is what “excluding” them would imply.

Tragically, there are parishes/dioceses around the world where for whatever reason (or no reason), the Mass pro populo is never celebrated, and hasn’t been celebrated for decades.  It’s amazing to encounter Catholic clergy/laity who say simply, “Oh, we don’t do that in our parish/diocese,” as if following the universal law of the Catholic Church was somehow optional!  If you’re Catholic, it’s not.

If this were the case in Nellie’s parish, and there were no Mass pro populo celebrated at all, it would be worthy of protest, as we’ve just seen here.  But unless there’s more to the story that we’re missing, it’s hard to see how the situation in her parish is worth complaining about!  If this is the worst “problem” that the people of this parish encounter, that the parish priest isn’t usually celebrating the Mass pro populo himself … they are truly fortunate.  In this time of worldwide, across-the-board violations of the rights of the faithful to Mass and the sacraments “because of the virus” (discussed in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” and “Can Priests Cancel Public Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?” among many others), illegal and outrageous refusals to celebrate funerals (“Refusing a Funeral Mass, Because of the Virus”) or to distribute Holy Communion on the tongue as is the norm in the Church (see “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” and “Episcopal Conferences and Communion on the Tongue”), millions of desperate Catholics around the world would surely be delighted if Nellie’s question about the Mass pro populo was the most serious canonical issue in their parishes.  Let’s pick our battles wisely, and not sweat the small stuff.

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