QUAERITUR: After what point of lateness can I no longer receive Communion, fulfill obligation?

From a reader:

I remember my father telling me when I was young that if one arrived after the Gospel at Sunday Mass, one could not receive Communion and the Sunday obligation was not fulfilled. My question has to do with daily Mass. I travel 40 miles each way to work and try to attend a 6:30 Mass before work. I am definitely not a morning person and occasionally arrive right after the priest has read the Gospel. Am I allowed to receive Communion? When that does happen I stay a few minutes after Mass and read the Gospel passage in my Magnificat publication.

Reading texts from Mass on your own is praiseworthy, but it is not the same as participating in their reading during Mass.  One is a private act of devotion.  The other is a liturgical action.

There were different views about limits on lateness, or presence at Mass.  In one view, moral theologians thought that you had to be there at least for the reading of the Gospel onward.  A good view.  The Gospel is important.  In another view, you had to be there from offertory onward at least under the purification of the chalice after Communion.  (Let’s not focus too much on leaving Mass early and getting into a problem about fulfill one’s obligation.)  This is one reason why bells were rung at the unveiling of the chalice at the offertory: that was your demarcation point between being in or out, as it were.

Others will say that you have to be there from the first words of Mass to the very end.  A laudable approach, though a little inflexible.  Yes, there is the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of Sacrifice/Communion/etc.  There is the Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful.  But, however you divide up Mass, Mass is one.  It forms a unity.  So, we should be therefore the whole Mass, right?   To get around the inflexibility part, some of the same people who will say you have to be therefore every breath, will tell you with the next breath that you should go to Communion anyway, even if you were late.  I have me doubts about that.  I’ll get to that below, after I rant for a while longer.

I am inclined to use the old chalice veil to chalice veil idea, at least insofar as “obligation” is concerned.  We need to be as favorable towards people as we can when it comes to any obligations that are imposed on them.  The veil to veil approach seems reasonable and clear cut.

At the same time, when it comes to our involvement in liturgical worship I am not comfortable with the minimalist approach.

In one sense, it is enough the have the priest say the minimum amount of the form of the consecration over bread and wine and then consume it.  Sure, that is “valid”. It is “enough”.  But enough isn’t enough.   Sure, you can look at Mass from the point of view of being there for enough of it, and that is useful for being able to be clear or at ease about your obligations.  The law helps us relax.

The obligation thing and the Church’s law are important.  People should be able to rest easy about their obligations.  Take, for example, a penitent and his penance assigned in confession.  Some dreamy and pastorally sensitive priests who want to make confession spontaneous and chummy and nice will give as a penance – such a harsh word – something like “Think a nice thought someone today!” or “Do a good deed.”.  Sorry, but when I get out of the confessional I wanted a penance I can perform and then know that I have done it and not have to wonder even for a spit second whether I did it or not.

The same goes for Mass attendance and obligation.  Did you fulfill it?  Yes or no?  The demarcation lines and “minimum time there” approach have the benefit of answering that question, though they may leave some deeper questions about our role at Mass unresolved.

So, if you are late for Mass through no fault of your own, and there is no other way to fulfill your Sunday or Holy Day obligation, you have nevertheless done your best.  If you late through your own fault, that is another matter.

I am going to go with an old traditional way of seeing this: chalice veil to chalice veil.  Despite the indisputable importance of the Gospel and the rest of Mass, that’s where I will draw the line because when we have a restriction, we have to restrict our restrictions to the minimum.


Reception of Communion is not the mark of having fulfilled your Mass obligation.  You are still obliged to go to Sunday Mass even if you know you cannot receive Communion.  Communion is not the same as getting your parking ticket validated at the restaurant.  Communion is more complicated and more simple.

No one has a gun to your head saying that you must receive Communion at every Mass you go to, even when you are in the state of grace.  You can go… or not go.

Here is my simple answer to whether you can go to Communion.

If you are not sure you have been there at Mass “enough”, and you will have a sense of when that is, then don’t go to Communion.  Don’t make excuses for yourself and introduce doubts about whether you should have gone or not.  Don’t go and you won’t wonder about whether you have to go to confession about unworthy reception.  Keep it simple.  The next time, get to Mass on time and go without having to weigh the odds.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Fr. Basil says:

    Don’t forget, there was a time–and it wasn’t that long ago–when Communion was frequently distributed before or even after Mass.

    But it is more litugically and spiritually proper to receive Communion at the proper time DURING Mass.

  2. Sieber says:

    Hmmmm…I think I’m missing something here. [Yes, perhaps.] The question was not about his Sunday Mass obligation, but whether or not he could receive communion at Mass during the week, if he arrived late. [The point of obligation is both in the question and is tied to the issue of of “how much of Mass ‘counts'”. Look at the question again.] He’s lucky to have Mass. Many arrive for Mass only to find Father was detained and a Deacon or lay person is conducting a Communion Service.

  3. amenamen says:

    The reader’s question was not about Sunday Mass, at which attendance is obligatory under pain of mortal sin, but about daily Mass. There is a distinction, because one who is late for daily Mass has not failed in a grave moral obligation, and is not in mortal sin. I think it is bad to be late for daily Mass; it is disruptive and impolite; it can become a bad habit, and it is certainly a bad way to prepare for Holy Communion. But the question of being late for a daily Mass is a little different from being late for Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation. While it is probably good advice to tell the tardy reader not to receive Communion, as a matter of self-discipline, it is not so clear that Church law or custom actually forbids reception under these circumstances.
    In the meantime, can we all pitch in to buy the reader a good alarm clock? Or maybe a pound of coffee?

  4. Fr. A.M. says:

    Yes, as Fr. Z says, there are various opinions on this matter. I was taught, for example – by an old Capuchin – that when you arrived AFTER the offertory of the Mass, then you were late. Must look up my old Moral Theology books… But I think that Fr. Z’s advice is very good advice.

    Concerning Holy Communion, I think that if one were late for Mass – however one defines it – then, as long as you are in a state of grace and fasted, and sincerely, and reasonably did your best to be on time for Mass, then you may receive. Obviously if you just step your foot in the door of the church when it is communion time, then that would not be ordinarily appropriate to communicate. One needs some time to prepare. Common sense in this matter is also required.

  5. PghCath says:

    I don’t receive the Eucharist at an OF Mass if I’m not in church at the start of the Penitential Rite. For me, it seems like a good point of demarcation so I don’t have to worry about whether or not I received worthily.

    I think many people believe they must be present for the Penitential Rite in order to receive because the Penitential Rite wipes away VENIAL sins. I don’t agree with that reasoning, for according to the Catechism, the Eucharist itself wipes away venial sins (CCC 1394). Still, one must choose some point for oneself. . .

  6. Prof. Basto says:

    I remember learning when I was preparing to receive First Communion that:

    1) If one arrives after the Gospel starts being read the Sunday obligation is not fulfilled;

    2) If one arrives after the Confiteor/penitential act, one cannot receive Communion at that Mass, even if one is otherwise ready to receive (state of grace, eucharistic fast), because the penitential rite at the beggining of Mass is part of one’s preparation not only to the participation in the liturgical action but also for a worthy reception of Holy Communion.

    I don’t remember learning rules about how early one could leave; I always assumed that it would not be before the dismissal.

  7. JKnott says:

    Thanks be to God we now have a TLM close by on Saturday at 9 A.M. and convienently at 10:30 A.M. on Sunday, But in my local NO parish at the Sunday 7:30 A.M. Mass , without exaggeration, about two thirds of the seats are empty up through to the Gospel, consistently. People keep streaming in and distracting those who are present. But, to be fair, the first part of the Mass moves so swiftly that the people who arrive “late” are only no more than five to sever minutes late.
    What Father said about the Mass being a whole unit is really evident here because the people who are late completely miss the penitential rite. Missing the penitential rite on a regular basis must distort the posture of humility. We are so blessed to have a Pope who is trying to key in on the Liturgy.

  8. Philangelus says:

    I was running errands one Saturday and ended up passing by my parish church at 9:15AM when I thought, “They’re receiving right now.” And I wanted to go in, but I thought, “That would be rude.”

    And I honestly felt as if I got scolded: that God is not a hostess, and going into the church to receive Communion and be with Jesus wasn’t the same thing as going into a friend’s house, pouring a cup of coffee, and then walking out again. I could *be* with Jesus. That I was framing the whole question wrong, that whole eating-and-running thing.

    Now as it turns out, they were actually ending the Mass by then and I couldn’t have received anyhow because it was already done. But it changed my perspective because it seems to me that yes, if you’re properly disposed to receive Communion, then even if you walk in the door as the priest begins to distribute Communion, you should receive it because Jesus wants to be with you. It’s not *ideal* by any stretch of the imagination. But Jesus isn’t Miss Manners.

    (This is not for a day when there’s an obligation to go to Mass, where I was taught that you had to be there at the offertory or else it didn’t count.)

  9. Mom2301 says:

    This seems to happen to me a lot with weekday mass. Our daily mass is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. I arrive after dropping three kids off at three different schools right at 8:30, most of the time I arrive right during the reading of the gospel. Even after I get there several more people show up. Maybe if Father wore his chasubel for weekday mass it would take him longer to get dressed and he wouldn’t be halfway through mass before it is scheduled to begin. It is really making me not want to go to weekday mass anymore.

  10. AnAmericanMother says:

    I asked our pastor when you had to be present at the latest to fulfill your Sunday obligation — the offertory or the Gospel? He gave me that sly sideways Irish look that precedes an apparently serious pronouncement, and said, “So long as you’re here for the collection . . . . “

  11. avecrux says:

    Mom 2301 – please don’t be disheartened! I too drop off three children and then take my other 3 to 7am Mass after a 40 minute commute in the morning. Thanks be to God most of the time I am on time, but all it takes is a child with a missing shoe in the morning and I am arriving at the Gospel. it is the Holy Sacrifice. NEVER stop going daily! Let us support one another in prayer.

  12. MissOH says:

    Avecrux, I will join in the prayers for and with Mom 2301 and all of us moms. I am not a morning person either and the only daily mass I can attend is at 6:30am (one of which requires me to cross railroad tracks of a commuter line so I never know when one will stop traffic). I used to be able to go then come home to get the youngest ready, but this year if I am to go to mass I have to get her ready to go as well. There are too many times I have not been in my seat when Father’s rings the bell (sigh), but my pre-Lenten preparation is going to be to work on working on my morning routine.

  13. eucharisted says:

    In his Easter Sunday homily, St. John Chrysostom says “Let all pious men and all lovers of God rejoice in the splendor of this feast; let the wise servants blissfully enter into the joy of their Lord; let those who have borne the burden of Lent now receive their pay, and those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late; for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him who comes on the eleventh hour as well as to him who has toiled since the first: yes, He has pity on the last and He serves the first; He rewards the one and praises the effort.”

    What is the eleventh hour of the Mas? How late is late enough?

  14. eucharisted says:

    the Mass*

    Sorry for the misspell

  15. RichardT says:

    Hmm; I was told “offertory to priest’s communion” was the minimum for Sunday obligation. Since everyone else’s definition seems to be longer, perhaps I have failed a lot of obligations.

  16. RichardT: Yes, what you say seems to be the very bare-bones.

  17. RichardT says:

    To link back to the question, cutting it that short is for normal Sundays when I’m not intending to receive communion.

    I think I would feel wrong receiving communion unless I had been there at the start, or been delayed by something truly unexpected.

  18. RichardT says:

    Ah good, thank you Father. I know it’s not ideal, but good to know it isn’t actually invalid.

  19. FrPaul says:

    This is a great topic and typical of Fr. Z’s blog, great information. There is one problem: in most parishes people would have to be taught what a chalice veil is. Most places do not use a chalice veil. Instead, the chalice sits off to the side on a table. The rubrics indicate that the chalice should be veiled. Also, a bell at the time the chalice veil is removed would be helpful but that is not included in the OF of the Holy Mass. It would of course also be helpful if people paid attention. All of this reminds of the “Dear Abby” entries concerning how far a young lady could “go” on a date before she
    “went too far.”

  20. Fr. Paul: And there is also the whole theological symbolism of veiling and being unveiled.

  21. Young Canadian RC Male says:

    Fr. Z. Since lay people are banned from the concelebration topic, I am posting here. It’s just a question. Where did you get that awesome pic of the priests side by side with classic cassock and surplice servers doing the EF masses?

  22. APX says:

    I am definitely not a morning person and occasionally arrive right after the priest has read the Gospel

    First, I applaud you for actually making daily Mass such a priority that you’re willing to go at such an early time. However, I’m just wondering if you’ve tried to train yourself to become a morning person? If you a) go to bed a little earlier, and b) wake up a little earlier each day your body will naturally become accustomed to waking up earlier. Within a week or so you’ll be getting to Mass on time. Every year you adjust to the start and end of daylight savings time, which is an entire hour. Adjusting to arrive at Mass on time rather than at the end of the Gospel is what? 10-20 minutes to adjust to?

    (This is not for a day when there’s an obligation to go to Mass, where I was taught that you had to be there at the offertory or else it didn’t count.)

    I don’t ever recall being taught anything like that. Is it written down somewhere? I’ve been living under the assumption that if you’re going to Church, you’re going to make sure you get there on time, unless some unforseen circumstance. To this day, I cannot, for the life of me, get myself to walk into Church later than 5 minutes (and even that’s rare).

  23. There are a couple of issues getting confused, I think: the law requires all the faithful to attend a Catholic rite on the precept (Sundays and Holy Days of obligation) or on the evening before the precept. There is also a principle of legal interpretation, according to which a law is to be understood to require the least, unless the law itself (or competent authority where pertinent) explicitly says otherwise. Therefore, in the absence of other specifications, the law requires only that the faithful be in a church (and even here, there is leeway, viz., the great outdoor Masses in St Peter’s Square) while a Catholic rite is underway.

    So much for what the law requires vis a vis attendance.

    Communion is another matter.

    The law says any member of the faithful who is properly disposed – this is the key – may receive the sacrament at the appropriate times. Mass seems to me to be an appropriate time.

    Now, waht the law requires, or permits, is one kind of issue: what sincere devotion, piety, and even basic human decency would ask of us, is another story, entirely.

    Try to get to Mass on time. Confess regularly and frequently, Don’t make a fuss. Don’t fret if the kids make a little noise – yours or someone else’s, but don’t encourage them, either (and please, for the love of God, no video games!) .

    Just sayin’.

  24. From the second reading in the Officeof Readings on the feast of St Anthony the Abbot , 17 January, (taken from the Life of St Anthony by St Athanasius):
    ‘ . . . and as he (Anthony) was going to the church, as was his custom , turning over in his mind the way that the apostle had left everything to follow the Saviour . . . With these things in his mind, he went into the church. It happened that the gospel was then being read . . . ‘

    The gospel that day led St Anthony, and the Church, in a whole new direction.

  25. brandonkropp says:

    I was told by a reputable priest that as long as you are prepared (ie. have examined yourself for mortal sins and made an act of contrition ) then you may receive on weekdays.
    Common sense reveals that you would not want to make this a habit. I think God wants us to receive as much as possible as our primary means of coping with all of the impure stimuli and sin that constantly bombards our senses.

  26. worm says:

    I must admit I have been caught off guard by the discussion about receiving Communion. While I personally don’t think I would ever go to a Mass when I knew I would be very late (except possibly to fulfill an obligation), I have never heard that it is sinful to receive Communion in this case. I was wondering if anyone had a pointer to a document that states that this is not permitted. And while it makes sense to me that it should at least be discouraged, I also don’t remember ever seeing any document stating this. Again, any pointers would be appreciated.

  27. Philangelus says:

    Mom0231, I have to drop kids off at preschool at 8:55AM. The church is literally three minutes from the school. There are times I drop off my kid, pull out of the parking lot without even needing to wait for a break in traffic, and arrive at daily Mass to find we’re already past the homily. At 9:02AM.

    For me, that’s going to have to be the norm for the next three years. If God has issues with that, maybe God could put it on the priest’s heart to start the 9:00 Mass at 9:00. :-b

  28. EWTN Rocks says:

    Fr. Paul: Thanks for the chuckle re. Dear Abby reference! I really like Fr. Z’s suggestion re. the chalice veil but as you suggest, I do not think they use chalice veils at my church (but maybe I’m not paying attention)!

  29. kat says:

    Before I got to move closer to the school, (we would drive 45 minutes to get there ), there were times I was able to arrive by 7:35or 7:40. The (EF) weekday Mass begins at 7:15. If I knew the kids were going to be cooperative and get us to school early enough (line-up is at 7:50), I would not eat breakfast, prepare for Communion, and go into church in time to receive. Father knew I could not make it to daily Mass at that time very frequently (the children’s daily school Mass is at 11 AM), and said it was fine to come in just for Communion. (I would stay after Mass was over to make a proper thanksgiving.)

    Thankfully now that we live only 10 minutes away, I can make it to the 11 AM school Mass for the whole Mass. God is so good to have given us this grace!

  30. Several assignments ago, I was troubled with a dear lady (not a parishioner; I didn’t know her name) who would arrive at the consecration of the chalice (how she timed it perfectly every day I’ll never know), receive Communion, light a candle in front of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and be out the door before the last parishioner had received Communion. Only God knows why she did it, but I always told myself that she did it because she had to care for the sick.

  31. RichardT says:

    Philangelus mentioned 9:00 Masses which are aleady past the homily at 9:02AM.

    Reminds me of morning Masses at my old school; 13 minutes from start to finish, so that we were all out before the school bell rang. One priest would get it down to 8 minutes. And that was NO.

  32. dominic1955 says:

    Seems that the old reckoning for Sunday obligation is the most reasonable. Offertory to (at least priest’s) Communion. Spoken in this way, it gets rid of the issue of the use of the chalice veil and bells (if one is going to a NO where these things do not get used). This is the essential part of the Mass as the Mass. Bare minimum, not to be actually done on a regular basis but it is good to have a definite limit.

    Also, since people used to receive Communion at times other than Mass, one could certainly receive Communion even if they missed the Offertory at a daily Mass. Obviously, we should try very hard not to be ridiculously late, and even better, early but one should not fret over hairsplitting in this area if they stick to the commonsense old reckonings.

  33. Charles E Flynn says:

    Today, for the first time in my life, I had to turn around at mass and say to a mother, “Would you please turn that thing off.” (It was not a question.) The offending object, a piece of electro-crud operated by a child who talked non-stop during mass, was a video game. The mother was in the process of offering to change the cartridge, to provide entertainment variety during mass, when I decided that I would not endure a consecration marred by noises that sounded like “You’ve got mail!” alerts.

  34. kat says:

    Charles E Flynn:

    That really stinks. What IS the matter with parents these days? I can’t take it…They may as well not bother to come, or take their kids; they already have decided what is important.

    Ever hear of BOOKS? String/knot Rosaries that don’t make noise if dropped against a pew? I’m just sayin’…

  35. Jayna says:

    “Sorry, but when I get out of the confessional I wanted a penance I can perform and then know that I have done it and not have to wonder even for a spit second whether I did it or not.”

    Thank you! It was so refreshing the last time I went to my new parish for confession and was told to say three Our Fathers. Boom, done, dusted. I knew where I stood where my penance was concerned. A priest in my previous parish had a habit of giving me prayer intentions but no guidance as to the prayers themselves. It’s all well and good when you ask someone to pray for you, but I don’t find it to be effective penance.

  36. jflare says:

    I agree!
    I recall going to confession once, my penance was to pray for world peace. If I’d thought more quickly–and hadn’t been so startled–I might’ve asked him for something a tad more specific. I don’t think I’d told him, but I’d been through three tours of military duty, had deployed to Iraq, and was now back in the ‘States on a fourth tour….
    While I understood his intent well enough, a prayer for world peace struck me as being about as efficacious as..oh, a prayer I might offer to be promoted straight to General. Or winning Publisher’s Clearing House….
    I prayed for a few minutes as well as I could, but I think a few Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s would’ve made more sense.

  37. Rich says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z. After hearing many varied and colored responses to this question throughout the years, your answer is the best I have read or seen. The chalice-to-chalice approach was something I had heard of before but still seemed a bit obscure to me as I had never heard it properly explained.

  38. Jenny says:

    I have to laugh! :) APX must be a morning person! I’ve found fighting my biological clock much harder than just going to bed a bit earlier. I agree it works in theory, but it is very hard to go to bed just as you are feeling as energized as you have felt all day. And a daylight saving time adjustment is weeks of trauma. I think I am a European trapped in an American work-a-day body. :)

  39. PghCath says:

    dominic1955 noted:

    Also, since people used to receive Communion at times other than Mass, one could certainly receive Communion even if they missed the Offertory at a daily Mass.

    Could you or someone else elaborate? I’m aware of post Vatican II “communion services” and the Viaticum, but it sounds like you’re talking about a regular pre Vatican II practice of receiving outside of Mass.

  40. SK Bill says:

    Legalism drives me nuts. I understand that the original asker was not asking “How little can I get away with?” but some people do ask that question in that way.

    It takes no effort, just a little planning, to show up before Mass starts. (And yes, I have raised children.) Just. show. up. before. Mass. starts.

    I believe the original asker’s father was making the point that, if you arrive late at Mass on Sunday when you could have arrived on time, you have not fulfilled your Sunday obligation, and if there is no other opportunity to attend Mass that day, you are no longer in a state of grace and cannot receive Our Lord in communion. (If you are late through no fault of your own and there is no other opportunity to attend, I guess the wise thing to do would be to forgo communion — and make an act of spiritual communion — but maybe that’s something Fr. Z could address.)

    On a weekday, if you have fulfilled your Sunday and holy day obligation and are otherwise properly disposed (including your mental disposition, proper intention, respectful demeanor, etc.) , it has always been my understanding that you can receive communion even if you just walked into the church and were the last communicant. I agree that it’s rude to do so if you do this every day, as a regular practice, but that’s a different issue. But maybe I’m wrong about this; I trust Fr. Z to know. And I am a frequent communicant during the week (daily when my schedule allows it), but I also: Show. up. before. Mass. starts. That way, there’s no legalism, no worrying.

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