QUAERITUR: Is a priest forbidden to be in the congregation?

Under another entry I posted an email from a priest about his experience of being in the congregation during the celebration of Mass according to the Novus Ordo, the Ordinary Form.  HERE

This raised, again in email, questions from priests about the propriety, or liceity, of priests participating at Mass in the congregation, in the manner of the lay faithful.

There is a paragraph in the Congregation for Divine Worship’s document Redemptionis Sacramentum which deals with this.

[128.] Holy Mass and other liturgical celebrations, which are acts of Christ and of the people of God hierarchically constituted, are ordered in such a way that the sacred ministers and the lay faithful manifestly take part in them each according to his own condition. It is preferable therefore that “Priests who are present at a Eucharistic Celebration, unless excused for a good reason, should as a rule exercise the office proper to their Order and thus take part as concelebrants, wearing the sacred vestments. Otherwise, they wear their proper choir dress or a surplice over a cassock.” It is not fitting, except in rare and exceptional cases and with reasonable cause, for them to participate at Mass, as regards to externals, in the manner of the lay faithful.

First, this says “not fitting” not “not licit”.

Second, a reasonable cause can be that a) the priest is not in the state of grace, b) he already said Mass that day c) he forgot his cassock, d) he got there late, e) etc.

So, as a general and important rule, priests should not be in the congregation unless they have a reasonable cause to be.

The flip side of the coin is that lay people should not be in the sanctuary unless they have a reasonable cause to be, a role to fulfill that requires their presence.

We must avoid the “laicization” of priests and the clericalization of the laity.

St. Augustine of Hippo taught that Christ speaks in every word of the psalms.  Sometimes Christ speaks at the Head, sometimes as the Body, sometimes as Head and Body together, Christus Totus.   This is a useful paradigm for understand our liturgical roles and also for the design of a church building.

The priest stands in persona Christi as the Head of the Body, the Church.  When the priest speaks on his own, Christ the Head is speaking.  The laity have their role as the Body.  When they respond, Christ the Body responds.  At times priest and people speak together.

The sanctuary is where the Head is found.  The nave is where the Body is found.   There is a meeting point where Communion is distributed and received.  The presence of a Communion rail helps to underscore this theological point: it brings special attention to that place where the Head and Body are in closest union.

But I digress….

In general, priests should not be in the congregation, particularly if they are in clerical clothing.  Sometimes it happens and, when it does, the world doesn’t crumble.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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32 Responses to QUAERITUR: Is a priest forbidden to be in the congregation?

  1. OrthodoxLinguist says:

    Fr. Z,

    Would the priest, even if he were in the congregation, still have to notify the parish priest and, if in a different diocese, the diocesan bishop?

    If he did want to help with the distribution of communion, or even concelebrate Mass, if no notification is required, is there some sort of priestly identification that priests are required to carry with them when they travel?

    Thanks for the informative blog!

    In Christ,
    Fr. John

    This strays from the topic. But, no, a priest can attend Mass without alerting anyone. Sheesh. If he is going to have a liturgical role, he should work it out with the parish priest according to commonsense and canon law.

  2. Philangelus says:

    How does this work with your recommendation that concelebration be “safe, legal, and rare”?

    What part being being “in choir” is hard to pick out?

  3. iPadre says:

    In the late 80′s one priest told me and a bunch of seminarians that he even concelebrated from the pews dress in lay clothes. What a bunch of 70′s nonsense, and lack of priestly identity. GAH! BLECH!

  4. In addition to what our genial host has offered by way of explanation, consider the following:

    > A priest takes a friend or family member to Mass, and the other person needs assistance.
    > A priest enters the church not expecting Mass, but instead merely to visit, or to go to confession. He either arrives after Mass begins, or else he is in the line for confession as Mass begins.
    > A pastor wants to observe what’s going on when he doesn’t offer Mass.
    > A priest who is scheduled to offer the next Mass arrives early.
    > The priest has a debility that causes him not to want to be in the sanctuary. (I know a deacon in this situation.)

    While there is the option of attending Mass “in choir” as Father Z mentioned, quite a lot of priests would be utterly baffled, and not a little put out, by a request to attend Mass in that fashion. If a priest does not wish to concelebrate, and the priest-celebrant isn’t able to accommodate being in choir, then what?

    And here’s a final question. Suppose a priest simply wants to pray; not offer Mass at the moment, but perhaps pray his breviary or Rosary. A retired priest, in my former parish, would sit in the choir loft during almost every Mass he didn’t offer, and he’d pray his prayers. Should he have stayed in the rectory?

  5. cheerios in my pocket says:

    Dear Fr. Z,
    Church Teaching is so beautiful and pure. Thank you for sharing for it does stir the soul (even when you digress). I’m 56 and recall during the ’60s and I think even into the ’70s when we had 4 priests that one would celebrate, and that one or two would come near the time for Communion (at the altar rail) and would assist with the distribution of communion dressed in one of the 2 ways you mention (I, honestly, do not know what those are or the difference between the 2…shame on me–still so much to learn.) They would leave before prayers began, again.

    Thanks, again and again, Fr. Z!

  6. Sixupman says:

    The Oratory which I attend often has clergy in the congregation of Sunday Vespers and TLM, other, apparently, for Confession.

  7. When on vacation or visiting family, I regularly “attend” Mass. While I understand the prescriptions laid out by the universal Church in this regard (thank you for informing me about them, I was unaware of them, as I also was taught in the seminary that there is “one” presider and concelebration from the pews in street clothes is just fine), I find “attending” Mass to be very instructive about what’s being inflicted upon the members of many worshipping congregations. I’m not being critical, just observing much of what’s not happening when it comes to “Lift up your hearts.” Doing so helps me to be more self-critical of what I may be inflicting upon the worshipping congregation!

    That said, one unintended impact of the Dallas Charter has been to make it all but impossible to do anything but “attend” Mass anywhere but in one’s diocese where a priest possesses faculties.
    [Good point. And the strictures probably violate canon law.]

    After jumping hoops so many times for weddings and funerals—each separate instance requires a separate approbation—it’s getting to the point that offering to celebrate Mass outside of one’s diocese requires a minimum of two hours just to get a letter sent from one chancery to another chancery and (hopefully) to the local parish in time to celebrate the Mass. The universal Church’s rules haven’t caught up with this impact of the Dallas Charter in the USA.
    [There is another way to look at it, of course. Perhaps the Dallas Charter needs to be more in conformity with the Church's universal law.]

  8. Robert of Rome says:

    In regard to Fr Z’s gloss on the above comment, “There is another way to look at it, of course. Perhaps the Dallas Charter needs to be more in conformity with the Church’s universal law.”

    Yeah, Riiiiiiight! That’s gonna happen!

  9. VexillaRegis says:

    What is the Dallas Charter?

  10. Apart from all the “tree” type observations, the “forest” observation is that priestly ordination imparts an indelible character on a man, and that man must always remember that he has been forever changed. Once ordained, his presence in the congregation is the exception, not the rule.

  11. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “It is not fitting, except in rare and exceptional cases and with reasonable cause, for them to participate at Mass, as regards to externals, in the manner of the lay faithful.”

    This is the kind of language that, when used in LAW, drives thinking people nuts. Since when does “reasonable” have anything to do with “rare”? If a priest has three occasions (or eleven, or whatever) wherein he has “reasonable” cause to sit in the pews, may he only so act once, so that it’s “rare”?

  12. Philangelus says:

    Father Z, what do you mean by “in choir”? I figure you’re not talking about singing, but you’re talking about the priest vesting and being up in the sancturay and then…what?

    So yes, I’m here to learn and no, I do not understand.

  13. Phil_NL says:

    Dr Peters,

    Not to mention the considerable leeway in what ‘rare’ could mean. Once a year? Once a week? Would it matter if there would be 5 potential occasions or 500 [so would rare be judged relative to the possibilities, or absolutely, as in by the total number of times it actually happens?]
    Also, ‘reasonable cause’ doesn’t seem to be a very high threshold, which would frequently be met, while ‘exceptional’ and ‘rare’ suggest the opposite.

    Let’s say I’m glad I’m working in a different field.

  14. I’m puzzled by Motley Monk’s report of difficulties offering Mass outside his diocese.

    In my case, I get a letter of suitability from the chancellor and take it with me. I’m supposed to present it; usually I offer it without being asked, because a lot of priests are embarrassed to ask, even though they are supposed to, so I try to save them that. Many are surprised when I offer it, give it a cursory glance, and hand it back.

    I haven’t found any difficulties presenting myself as a concelebrant; I don’t usually ask to celebrate Mass on my own in other parishes, because I don’t want to complicate things for the pastor and his staff–so I don’t know what response I would get. But the offer is often made.

  15. Fr AJ says:

    iPadre, when I’m on retreat each year I usually see at least one priest concelebrating in street clothes. Is it too much to ask to put on an alb and stole?

  16. Dr. Peters is right– that whole line he quotes is completely lawless. “Not fitting” is not legal language (as opposed, say, to “not allowed” or “not permitted” or “forbidden”). “Reasonable” is quite open to interpretation, especially right after “rare.” Good law is black and white; having served on juries, I did notice pretty quickly that lawyers and judges like straight “yes or no” answers.

  17. Sword40 says:

    Dr. Peters has expressed what I think. The wording from almost all of Vat II documents is generally vary “loosy, goosy”. Interpret it anyway that suits you. Leaves a person with a lot of leeway.

  18. Singing Mum says:

    I don’t see why lay faithful need to speculate or worry themselves about reasons a priest is praying near them, and not concelebrating.
    Perhaps because I am blessed to have old friends who are or have become ordained, I feel a certain burden in this area. In recent times there exists a scrutinizing attitude concerning priests that strikes me as suspicious, controlling, and downright nosy. It is an (old and current) effort of the enemy to sow division between lay faithful and their clergy- divide and conquer. We have our own roles, and at the same time exist in the same body.
    So why should anyone make a peep about priests praying in a church during Mass? The more sincere people praying, the better, right?

    And I agree with Dr. Peters about fuzzy wording and law. Reading Church documents written before say 1950 and those after say 1970… the difference is striking.

  19. Will D. says:

    Philangelus raises a good question.

    Priests [...] should as a rule exercise the office proper to their Order and thus take part as concelebrants, wearing the sacred vestments. Otherwise, they wear their proper choir dress or a surplice over a cassock.

    It seems to strongly emphasize concelebration over participating in choir.

  20. DetJohn says:

    Is the rule the same when a Roman Priest is visiting a Catholic Coptic liturgy? Is it optional?

  21. BLB Oregon says:

    The priest who wrote the piece said specifically: “I purposely did not vest because I did not know what was in store, and I have a poor poker face when it comes to silly liturgy.” IOW, he was concerned that his presence would distract from an already-far-too-distracting liturgy. His thinking was that the only thing worse than having to sit through an awful baccalaureate Mass is having to watch a hapless visiting priest be dragged in obvious pain through an awful baccalaureate Mass. I can’t say that I disagree with him. It does not redress the bad to get yourself a place of participation that will probably make it worse. Certainly the occasion of a relative’s graduation isn’t going to come up often enough to make it your business to wade in and stir things up enough to change them.

    I did not have trouble with the wording. If it had said only “reasonable”, then the floodgates are open. If it said only “rare” or “exceptional”, it would mean that any reason would be an OK reason, as long as it is not too often. As it is, it implies that the thing may happen with a good reason, as long as it does not become a regular practice. You have to figure that while this might be an OK practice when something unforeseen arises, if the “unforeseen” happens on more than a regular basis, the directive implies the need to get into the habit of looking a little farther down the road, so a different solution can be found.

    The other possibility these days, of course, is that most bishops have had to get stricter about which priests from out of the diocese are given permission to publicly represent themselves as priests within the diocese. There have to be background checks and whatnot, because it only takes one case of a priest who is in hot water in his own diocese getting into the newspaper two dioceses over the next week. While this might be a problem for some particular priest on a regular basis, if he travels a lot, it is rare and exceptional in terms of how likely it is that any particular Mass will have a priest there in among the laity.

    Maybe the Church needs each country’s conference of bishops to set up a real-time database that can be consulted when the staff at the chancery office are not there to confirm that the priest has no complaints or restrictions against him. State medical boards do it; it would not be that hard, and the need to be able to do it is real.

  22. Fr. W says:

    I was told that in the old days, at the Chrism Mass and other gatherings of priests with their bishop, it was customary for the priests to attend Mass. Am I mistaken?

    Are the new norms therefore an innovation?

  23. BLB Oregon says:

    What I really wish is that each bishop (since most can hardly attend incognito) could be flies on the wall at typical Masses in each of the parishes in their diocese. The one who really needs to be impressed about what kinds of changes are needed is the supreme liturgist of the diocese, after all.

  24. Potato2 says:

    BLB, That is what video camera’s are for!

    I can see it now: All of us fed up with all the liturgical liberties being taken, setting up a tripod and video camera and sending them to the Bishop.

    Maybe if we did that 2 things would happen.
    1) Some priests might become more observant.
    2) The Bishops might actually see that there is a hunger in some areas for the liturgy to be done correctly.

    It is just a little fantasy of mine. :)

  25. Imrahil says:

    We know what reasonable means and what exceptional means. I guess we can safely ignore the “rare”, as long as we can justify the exceptions as exceptions.

    That said, according to my opinion there should be incognito supervision of Masses and sermons by diocesan officials (at least to some degree). They might be priests; but not to destroy the effect, they ought to sit in the pews… and, perhaps, even wear civil clothes.

  26. robtbrown says:

    Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “It is not fitting, except in rare and exceptional cases and with reasonable cause, for them to participate at Mass, as regards to externals, in the manner of the lay faithful.”

    This is the kind of language that, when used in LAW, drives thinking people nuts.

    The civil lawyers I knew who were in Rome to study the CIC were almost all frustrated. Sometimes it read like a Code of Law, other times like a list of practices.

  27. As a religious brother, whenever I would go to mass somewhere I wasn’t known, I would go to say hi to the priest in the sacristy beforehand. In my community we where clerical dress from first profession so I figured it was a proper courtesy.

    I will be ordained a transitional deacon at the end of the month; please pray for me. I have tried to get to an Anglican form Catholic mass to understand that form but there are none in Italy. As a deacon or even a young priest, I hope to go to one. If it’s my first time and I’m trying to learn the form (plus permissions), I figure that fulfills the “exceptional case” and “reasonable cause”.

  28. acardnal says:

    Bro. Schneider, I think it is admirable that you want to experience the Anglican Form of Catholic Mass. I implore you to learn and celebrate the TLM/EF, too! Thank you for responding to God’s call to the priesthood.

  29. Unwilling says:

    In the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, Norms, N. 7 we read – Episcopi eparchiales vel [alii]… ius habent: … indulgentia plenaria… etiamsi Missae adsistant tantum.
    What does “adsistant” mean in this context?

  30. I like the idea of the video camera– it solves all of the difficulties while allowing those who need to see what is going on to do so. When things get really stomach-churning and they have seen enough, the fast-forward button would be available. It smacks of Big Brother, but we are in fact talking about a public situation, where one should not have any unrealistic expectation of total privacy anyway.

  31. Robtbrown says:

    The civil lawyers I knew who were in Rome to study the CIC were almost all frustrated. Sometimes it read like a Code of Law, other times like a list of practices.

    I’m not adverse to the notion that Canon Law could be better written; however, keep in mind the final canon: the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls.

    This sort of reminds me of discussions about the parish being run like a business. Perfectly good idea; the parish should be run like a business–except when it shouldn’t.

  32. robtbrown says:

    Fr Martin Fox says

    Robtbrown says:

    The civil lawyers I knew who were in Rome to study the CIC were almost all frustrated. Sometimes it read like a Code of Law, other times like a list of practices.

    I’m not adverse to the notion that Canon Law could be better written; however, keep in mind the final canon: the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls.

    Salus Animarum doesn’t contradict the notion of a code of law.

    In 1983 a priest friend called to tell me the new CIC was about to be promulgated. He added that it was well known the code isn’t very good, but they needed to get some code out there.

    A big problem is that there was a lot of ambiguous theology that the Code had to implement.