QUAERITUR: Can a priest say Mass alone?

From a reader:

My question: is it valid and is it licit for a priest to say Mass when entirely alone?  (ie no server, just the priest, the rites and God)  I know this is not encouraged and that it is always preferred to say Mass with a congregation.  But what about the priest who wants to offer daily Mass (I am one of them) with an unusual ministry, and do not always have access to my parish church?  Or when one travels through a Muslim country?  I cannot find a straight answer on this one.

Yes, it is both valid and licit. 

It is far better, strongly preferred, that a priest have someone else there, to serve and/or make responses.

The reasons for this are two-fold.   First, every Mass is an act for the whole Church.  It is good to have others there.  Second, priests will do a better job of saying Mass when others are there.  It is certainly easier with a server and someone to respond.  However, never imagine that another person has to be there for validity of the Mass.  Ten thousand lay people at a Mass contribute nothing to the priest’s ability to say Mass and consecrate the Eucharist validly. 

Also, a priest is never really alone when saying Mass.

There is an old phrase, "Father said Mass alone today, in the company of all the choirs of angels."

The Church Militant is not the only dimension of the Church that counts. 

The norms covering this state that priests should not say Mass alone "except for a just and reasonable cause" (GIRM 254).  The fact that the priest wants to or needs to say Mass is considered a good enough reason to say Mass alone.  If memory serves, this is clarified also in the Directory for Priests.  If it is a choice between saying Mass alone or not saying Mass at all, the obvious choice is to say Mass. 

The priest performs a magnificent work of mercy when he says Holy Mass for an intention, when he prays for the living and the dead. 

If we really believe what the Church says about Holy Mass, how can we think for a second that the priest should not say Mass every day, alone or not?  Save The Liturgy – Save The World, right?  Priests are not obliged to say Mass every day… but…

I would add the caveat that just because the priest is alone, that doesn’t mean that he is not bound to follow the proper rubrics in which ever Missal he uses, and follow the calendar.  Mass isn’t the priest’s private property.  He must use vessels and vestments and do it reasonably and right.   Also, he should be sure that he observes decorum as to where he celebrates Mass.  This requires conviction and discipline.

Concentration camps will be another matter.  We will deal with that as circumstances require.

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39 Responses to QUAERITUR: Can a priest say Mass alone?

  1. Fr Martin Fox says:

    Thank you father!

    This argument about how a priest cannot offer Mass without others present has been something of a cudgel used against priests, that they are doing something wrong when they offer the Mass alone. Many priests are in circumstances where this is their opportunity to offer the Mass as they firmly believe they are obliged to; it is likely the only opportunity they will have to offer Mass in Latin, and ad orientem. What happens is this: a vicar or priest in residence will do this on days when he’s not assigned a “public” Mass; and then someone else will fuss about it, or perhaps the pastor will cluck his tongue.

    I believe it’s very important for priests to develop good habits about how they offer Mass; speaking for myself, it’s not so easy to undo those habits later. So for newer priests to be able to offer Mass as they believe they ought to, is important.

    Finally, a priest is entitled to time off, and while he loves his people, being able to offer Mass very quietly, without having any other considerations (such as checking in with folks before or after), is more conducive to relaxation and rest — at least for some priests — than folks may imagine.

  2. Konichiwa says:

    Your second to last paragraph reminds me of some friends at Mass on a mountain top. It was a windy location and people were not properly oriented. It seemed to me that the Mass had a huge novelty component to it as there was a “Sermon on the Mountain” aspect to it. The worst part was the altar was the same stone shared by another person that the priest sat on while consecrating the bread and wine. It makes me sad just thinking about it. Who am I to judge right? But seeing that people are lead by example and learn through experiences, I believe bad liturgy teaches people that somethings aren’t important and misleads the us. Like you say, Fr Z, “Save the Liturgy. Save the world.”

  3. xgenerationcatholic says:

    My dearly departed uncle, he died in June and eternal rest grant unto him, always said Mass every day, most likely alone. That’s what he was formed to do. I think a lot of his fellow Jesuits had given up saying daily Mass. I like to think that our dead relatives are in pretty good shape, especially his brother my dad, and that he said a few for me. I’m sure he did it always reverently and always the exactly correct way.

  4. Cory says:

    Let’s say you have three priests and one of them says the daily Mass at 8AM. Would it be ok for one of the remaining priests say Mass privately and have the third priest serve and then switch so that the third priest is saying the Mass and the second priest is serving?

  5. Hidden One says:

    I have found that mentioning that priests normally celebrate Mass every single day, even alone, to Protestants can be a great opportunity to explain the significance of the Mass and completely different orientation that the Mass has compared to most Protestants’ Sunday services.

    @Cory: There is nothing wrong with priests serving other priests’ Masses. Obviously, the serving priest does not communicate. I have known, on one occasion, that a seminary professor, himself a very good priest, had promised at least one seminarian that if the seminarian visited after ordination he would serve the new priest’s private Mass – and so it happened.

  6. irishgirl says:

    On my first trip to Assisi, Italy in 1977, my pilgrimage group (six of us, and our driver-guide) stopped at the church in ‘Rivo Torto’ where St. Francis lived for a time with his first followers.

    I remember seeing a priest (probably a Franciscan) saying Mass alone ‘versus populum’ at the altar built over the replica of the shelter that St. Francis used.

    It made an impression on me-I had never seen anything like that before, or since.

  7. iudicame says:

    SAYING MASS ALONE – How does this work? Does the priest SAY his part and read the response? Or say out loud both parts? Or something else?

    m

  8. medievalist says:

    Perhaps some priests do not say Mass alone because there’s no -audience- congregation, whose sacramental priestliness is necessary to -actualize- confect the most Blessed Sacrament of OLSJC whose -symblolic- Real Presence we -applaud- adore…..blah, blah, blah.

    If you don’t believe the Mass to be a spiritual act and prayer, then there’s no point to it without an audience. In fact, you’d feel pretty dumb standing versus populum if no one was there. Of course, you could always turn ad Dominum unless you had “objections” to this.

  9. Charivari Rob says:

    iudicame – “SAYING MASS ALONE – How does this work?”

    I believe there’s some section in the Missal headed “Mass when not in the presence of the People” that gives the priest the black & red for that situation.

    I recall seeing a Missal on a reading stand, opened to that page & heading – in a small room in a prior parish of mine that had been fitted out as a beautiful little rectory chapel.

  10. Fr Matthew says:

    I once attended a day of reflection for priests where the guest speaker was Avery Card. Dulles. During a Q&A session, one of the priests in attendance said something implying that it was passé for priests to celebrate alone because of the essentially communitarian nature of the Eucharistic celebration (or something like that). The cardinal diplomatically but firmly corrected him, pointing out the intrinsic value of offering the sacrifice of the Mass. He ended by mentioning that he did it himself on occasion.

    @iudicame: The priest mostly follows the rubrics for Mass with “just one minister” but omits the dialogued parts (“Dominus vobiscum…”) that only make sense when addressing a congregation, and says all the rest himself. This is explained in the part of number 254 of the GIRM which continues the quote Fr Z cited above: “Hoc in casu salutationes, monitiones et benedictio in fine Missae omittuntur.”

  11. THREEHEARTS says:

    I always understood and it never changed that no matter what, even on holiday the Priest is to offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

  12. xgenerationcatholic says:

    One priest told me he did not say Mass alone because you don’t have a birthday party by yourself.

  13. Andrew says:

    “If memory serves, this is clarified also in the Directory for Priests.”

    Directory on the Ministry and life of priests No. 49, Celebrating the Eucharist Well.
    It is necessary to recall the irreplaceable value that the daily celebration of the Holy Mass has for the priest, be it in the presence of other faithful or not.
    ——————

    Vat. II Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 13:
    In the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which priests fulfill their greatest task, the work of our redemption is being constantly carried on; and hence the daily celebration of Mass is strongly urged, since even if there cannot be present a number of the faithful, it is still an act of Christ and of the Church.

  14. E.Lizabeth says:

    Fr. William Shelley, NYC, when celebrating privately offers the Mass for the conversion of sinners, no doubt in the “company of all the choirs of angels”.

  15. The overemphasis upon “concelebration”, esp. in religious houses and seminaries, has contributed to the idea that a priest offering Mass without a member of the faithful present is somehow “wrong”, even “criminal”…
    Even in some “orthodox” circles, a raised eyebrow can be detected if, when there are a number of priests around, Fr. so-and-so prefers to offer Mass privately instead of concelebrating all the time.
    We gots to work this one out!

  16. You mentioned Mass in concentration camps at the end of your post. I have posted about two Masses in Belsen just after it was liberated in 1945: http://www.misyononline.com/misyonforum/node/742. Though in neither case was the priest celebrating Mass alone, both instances for me highlight the Mass as the Holy Sacrifice. I find the account of the first of these incredibly moving: a Polish priest using a makeshift altar with another priest dead at his feet.

  17. Han says:

    Fr. Coyle–
    I think the sentence about KZs was not about celebrating Mass alone as such, but rather about following rubrics, vestments and vessels, and decorum. I believe that Fr. Z’s point was that the fact that priests operating under circumstances of sever persecution had to make do with what little they had cannot become an excuse for cutting corners on liturgy in other circumstances.

  18. Random Friar says:

    I prefer not to concelebrate, but I will usually do so at conventual or diocesan Masses involving a large number of priests. But the odd thing is that concelebration is absolutely “prohibited” in places where it is seen as “discrimination against” the non-ordained. I’ve been through many places like that. Then, when I go to offer Mass by myself, I invariably got a look of astonishment or horror.

    I was not ordained for my looks. I was ordained to offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the living and the dead, to forgive sins, to minister to His people in Christ, and to preach the Good News to all creation.

  19. RandomFriar: THIS is the point, I’m afraid; I know of a certain graduate program, where priests were in the majority, that PREVENTED them from con-celebrating, because of the whole “women-ordination” thing; so, my superior, along with a few other faithful souls offered Holy Mass each day in an out-of-the-way chapel.\
    Good for you, Father, good for you!

  20. mike cliffson says:

    Can we come to concentration camps, father, if you’ve any gen, any firsthand quotes, to share?

    Part of how I see the faith even todaygoes back to (only second hand, but we knew some of the sources) reports of mass in the camps: Like penal times – sorter pretending to be not even clustered -in the isalnds, but so close to us! There was only one priest( hermetic, very,) about wh’d been in one , only a few laiety. I remember worrying about the lookouts etc onopoint duty missing mass and communion thast others might hear it and receive, it didn’t seem fair..
    Elevation sorter in the chest, and their communion was but the merest speck, not evn a crumb, of anything vaguely bready, wine maybe a thimbleful of water with a bit,say, of orange peel stolen( a shoot-on-sight offense) from the rubbish secretly steeped a day or so.. I am so scandalized whenever I see a communicant brush themself off after communion, those specks are our lord for 5-6 prisoners….. words cannot convey the impression such live memories had on my mind around first communion & confirmation… one heard of similar in iron curtain countries, china….
    And it must all still be going on..

  21. mike cliffson says:

    Fr Coyle
    just followed yr link, impactante, very. Appreciated.

    saying mass “in comfort” or in persecution,is there any sorter connection with St paul being = at home in wealth and in poverty, or am I being a blethering layman?

  22. ipadre says:

    What greater gift do we priests have! To celebrate Mass with a packed church or alone in a small room, the Mass is the Mass is the Mass! In seminary, they tried to convince us that we should never say Mass alone because it is for the people. Reality is, everyone benefits a worthy celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If the Mass were to only be celebrated with a congregation, the poor hermit, without a congregation would have one sad life without the Mass. Of course it is preferred to have a congregation present for this most awesome gift, but better for a priest to say the Mass when there is no congregation, than to not offer it at all. It may sound pietistical, but St. Paul put it best, “We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.”. What more do we need!

  23. nemo says:

    Our FSSP priests say Mass every day. If they do not say a scheduled Mass, then they say a private Mass. In the old churches they say private Masses at the side altars.

  24. kate_rub says:

    Valid and licit yes, but is it really desirable?

    And is the need to have a bit of a holiday from the people a good enough rationale for saying Mass without anyone to at least say the responses?

    I’m not sure the trend of the discussion above really reflects the hermeneutic of continuity.

    Traditionally, at least up until the 1983 Code (and still depending on your interpretation of it!), Mass without anyone else present was restricted to the most rare circumstances possible, such as the need to confect the Eucharist in order to give Viaticum. In all other circumstances priests had to find at least a server.

    I can understand the reaction to contemporary trends such as congregationalism and over-emphasis on concelebration, but we should strive to retain the proper balance, not go to the opposite extreme.

    I’ve seen FSSP priests deliberately wait out until the congregation of a previous mass departs so they can say mass all by themselves, and for priests to refuse to act as servers for each other in order to facilitate this. And I think that is poor practice and does nothing to advance the cause of traditionalism.

    The Mass is the public worship of the Church; the presence of the people (even if just a server) is not necessary for validity, but is important symbollically.

    I agree that saying a daily Mass is extremely important and valuable – but wherever possible, round up a server or congregation member for it!

  25. Jack Hughes says:

    St Leanord of Port Maurice said that a Priest who without good cause (i.e. somebody severed his hands from his body) does not celebrate Mass daily deprives so far as he can deprives the Blessed Trinity of Praise and Glory, the angels of Joy, sinners of pardon, the good of help and grace, the souls in purgatory of soccor and refreshment, the Church herself of immense benefit and his own soul fo medicen and remedy.

    Where will find a robber so notorious? says the good Fransiscan

    If God willing I am ordained I will celebrate Mass every day WITH a server; even if it is just some wet behind the ears novice who I cornered on the way to the Sacristy and intimidated into serving me (as he rushes off to get the cassock and cotta I will smile to myself and think Novices :) )

  26. FrCharles says:

    Follow this link for a thoughtful and rubrically responsible plan for offering Mass in the OF on those days when circumstances or the theological climate of where he lives mean a priest does not have at least a server.

  27. Eric says:

    I recently read a Bethlehem book to my kids; “Between Forest and Hills” by Ann Lawrence. In it a semi-domesticated talking raven would provide the responses for the priest when no one else was present.

  28. Fr Martin Fox says:

    Threehearts:

    Offering Mass daily is strongly encouraged, but not required of priests. If you think about it, I’m sure you can see reasons for that.

    About concelebration:

    It’s funny: in some places, concelebration was — as indicated — seen as something reactionary, and overturning the prohibition was a goal of those seeking to be more faithful to the tradition; whereas in other places, concelebration was seen as the agenda of the progressives, and those seeking to maintain fidelity to tradition were resistant to it!

    I’ve come around to the view of our genial host: do it well, and do it rarely.

  29. catoholic says:

    When Mass is concelebrated at my parish church, it makes me think that priests are like buses: you can’t find one anywhere, but then three or four appear at once! I sometimes wish that they would pursue a different “division of labor” and have one priest celebrate the Mass, while the others came later to hear confessions or just to be available. Of course, I know a priest’s main job is not to “be available,” but some seem to have taken a master class in the art of evasion! Very grateful for all of them, nevertheless, and praying for their continued wellbeing.

    (First-time commenter here. Hello everyone!)

  30. AnAmericanMother says:

    Hi catoholic!

    Mike Cliffson,

    I think the more straitened the circumstances, the more everyone tries to “do it right”.

    Kipling wrote a couple of fascinating short stories about a Masonic lodge during WWI. One exchange is revealing:

    The Brother (a big-boned clergyman) that I found myself next to at table told me the custom was “a fond thing vainly invented” on the strength of some old legend. He laid down that Masonry should be regarded as an “intellectual abstraction.” An Officer of Engineers disagreed with him, and told us how in Flanders, a year before, some ten or twelve Brethren held Lodge in what was left of a Church. Save for the Emblems of Mortality and plenty of rough ashlars, there was no furniture.

    “I warrant you weren’t a bit the worse for that,” said the clergyman. “The idea should be enough without trappings.”

    “But it wasn’t,” said the other. “We took a lot of trouble to make our regalia out of camouflage-stuff that we’d pinched, and we manufactured our jewels from old metal. I’ve got the set now. It kept us happy for weeks.”

    Obviously NOT Catholic . . . but revealing just the same.

  31. TJerome says:

    My memory may be failing me, but I seem to recall that in the Novus Ordo there is actually an Ordo for Missa Sine Populo. I don’t know if it was subsequently suppressed, but I do remember seeing it years ago. Can anyone shed any light on this? This alternate Ordo would certainly support the proposition that the priest can celebrate alone.

  32. TJerome: It is as you say…however, there is the “presence” of a server or another member of the faithful to make the responses.
    It’s in the Sacramentary;
    if a priest is alone, without a server, it is a different matter. But it is not forbidden, at all.

  33. Fr. A.M. says:

    What if a priest in a religious community wants to say a daily Mass ‘Usus Antiquior’ and then attend OR concelebrate at the Conventual Mass ? As far as I’m aware, there is no problem, if he wants to fulfil the request of Pope Benedict XVI in ‘Summorum Pontificum’ and the accompanying letter to the bishops. Concelebrating does not prevent him from saying Mass alone, with or without a server. ad Deum Patrem… omnis honor et gloria.

  34. robtbrown says:

    Fr. A.M.,

    Before concelebration was pushed by Rome, it was common that a priest celebrate his own mass, then assist later at the community mass. What tends to happen now is that if a priest does not concelebrate, he simply stays away from the community mass. It’s an example of a strategy producing the opposite intended effect: Concelebration was supposed to build community–in fact, it undermined it.

  35. Fr.A.M. and robtbrown: From personal experience, I can tell you that the “pressure”, even in some “orthodox” communities of religious and seminaries, is very great to concelebrate.
    I offered Mass privately in the situations described, even if I did concelebrate (with a Bishop, for a special occasion, etc.) unless I was the main celebrant of the Mass.

  36. And, I might add: constantly concelebrating, without offering Mass as the principal celebrant, or privately, can be a detriment to a priest’s identity, to his ability to actually celebrate the Mass (when you constantly concelebrate, you are an “observer”, so to speak, although you speak the words of consecration);
    a very fine and respected priest founding a very reputable religious community has said so, himself.

  37. robtbrown says:

    nazareth,

    I know about the pressure to concelebrate. Sometimes it’s subtle. Other times young priests in religious orders know that not concelebrating can eliminate any possibility of further study.

    One of my profs in Rome, a well known German moralist who was also the spiritual director where I lived, said that Rome was very important for a priest because of the possibility of saying mass alone. Still, I knew priests who wouldn’t say mass unless they could find a partner for concelebration.

  38. Han, thank you for your observation. I was aware that I was slightly off the specific discussion but Father Z’s reference to concentration camps reminded me of these Masses and I thought it worthwhile to post my comment.

  39. M. K. says:

    “What tends to happen now is that if a priest does not concelebrate, he simply stays away from the community mass. It’s an example of a strategy producing the opposite intended effect: Concelebration was supposed to build community—in fact, it undermined it.”

    “I know about the pressure to concelebrate. Sometimes it’s subtle. Other times young priests in religious orders know that not concelebrating can eliminate any possibility of further study.”

    From these and other comments, I get the impression that there is some variation among religious communities on the matter of concelebration. I belong to a religious order in which concelebrated Masses in community are quite rare – special events like jubilee Masses or ordinations will be concelebrated as a rule, but a regular daily community Mass will not be. Masses in commmunity usually have one celebrant, with other priests attending in the congregation (many of whom would take the view that one should at least *attend* Mass each day but need not actually *celebrate* Mass on a daily basis). In contrast to the experience that robtbrown notes in the second quoted comment, a priest in my community would be making waves if he insisted on concelebrating at the community Mass.

    I have encountered a good number of priests in the order who actually do celebrate a private Mass each day; in most cases (echoing what robtbrown says in the first quoted comment) the ones who do usually don’t attend the community Mass, though I have known some who do so at least occasionally for fellowship’s sake.