QUAERITUR: Priests obliged to say the daily Office but not daily Mass.

From a reader:

It is my understanding that those ordained to the priesthood are bound by canon law to pray the main hours of the Divine Office daily. I think by main hours, it is Matins, Lauds, Sext?, Vespers & Compline. However, how come there is no such stipulation for the celebration of Mass? Is there a reasonable answer for this???

I suspect the reasons for this are practical. At one point there was a strict rule against saying Mass alone. While it is ideal to have another person present this is not longer a hard and fast rule. Today, priests can say Mass without any human presence for a good reason, and a good reason can be simply that he wants to say Mass. Also, ideally priests should not say Mass in the state of mortal sin. It is not always easy or possible for a priest in some areas to find a confessor. In old manuals of moral theology authors suggested that a priest can say Mass but should seek a confessor within three days. This is a great deal easier in the age of automobiles, of course.

Moreover, I believe the old Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church obliged priests to say Mass a minimum of several times a year, not daily. Furthermore, in the new Code, as in the old, pastors with the care of souls in a parish were obliged either personally or by a proxy to make sure that on all Sundays and days of precept Mass was offered “pro populo”, for the intention of the people under his charge. There is also the case of the priest taking on the obligation of saying 30 Masses for a single intention for a deceased person on 30 consecutive days. He must say these Masses on these days without interruption.

Of course if a priest does not say Mass on a Sunday or day of precept, he is nevertheless obliged like every other Catholic under the obligation to hear Mass in order to fulfill the obligation.

The Office, on the other hand, is something that does not require the presence of another or that the priest be in the state of grace.

There is a strong moral obligation based on the priest’s state in life to say Mass daily, for the benefit of the living and the dead. However, there was and is no juridical obligation.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Joshua08 says:

    Actually, in the old law the obligation to offer Mass pro populo extended not only to Sundays and days of precept, but to the so-called suppressed festival days. If I remember my history right, over time Rome gave indults dispensing first from abstaining from labor on some days, and then removing the obligation to hear Mass on that day, but requiring that it be offered as on a day of precept (cf. AMANTISSIMI REDEMPTORIS by Pius IX). Pius X’s legislation (which suppressed days of precept later restored in the 1917 CIC) and the 1917 CIC kept the same rule

    So this would include days like Epiphany in the US, but also December 26th, December 28th, the Feast of St. Lawrence and any other day formerly of obligation.

  2. uptoncp says:

    Another practical point – a priest may, for various reasons such as illness or injury, be unable to get to an altar to say Mass, but he can still say the office.

  3. Phil_NL says:


    In case of need, mass can be said without an altar – there are pictures around of war-time Masses celebrated on the hood of a jeep.
    Also, illness or injury would presumably excuse the obligation; suppose a priest is in a coma from December 20th to january 7th – quod Deus advertat! – then he’d miss quite a few Masses that he’d be obliged to say, and unable to arrange a proxy. Yet I doubt anyone would hold it against this poor priest. There may be a grey area somewhere, but I believe that the general rule remains that inability excuses the obligation.

  4. uptoncp says:

    All very good points, Phil. But what I meant to say – perhaps I didn’t say it very well – was that there are situations when a priest could recite the office but not say Mass – while I can’t think of a situation where the reverse might apply – which might help explain or justify the difference in obligation.

  5. James Joseph says:

    How many souls may a priest include in his intention during the 30-day sequence?

    Could he start with recently-deceased-A, and then include B, C, and D, and so on overlapping and removing the soul from the intention once the thirty day mark has been reached for that particular intention? Or, must the intention be exclusive?

  6. Hidden One says:


    A priest, perhaps in a a war zone, may have had his breviary destroyed or lost, without losing or otherwise lacking what is needful for him to to say Mass. Unlikely, but possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s happened to somebody at some point.

  7. Gail F says:

    There was some point in the middle ages when cathedrals were full of side chapels to accommodate many priests offering daily mass — for hours on end. If there are lots of priests in one place, having them all say mass can be a practical problem in a different way!

  8. Actually, most large cathedrals and basilicas still have numerous side altars. One that comes to mind is the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, and priests often do offer private or small Masses at one of the side altars.

    But thinking about what Fr. Z reminded us, that a priest should be in a state of grace to offer Mass (because otherwise he commits another sin by receiving Holy Communion unworthily), I cannot help but think that we need to pray for priests. The devil is always looking for ways to compromise priests, and so many of them these days are serving alone in remote locations without the help of a brother priest to sustain them in times of temptation and hear their confessions when they fail.

  9. jesusthroughmary says:

    @Hidden One – Or, in the case of a very poor, remote area, perhaps the priest’s breviary was destroyed, lost, etc., and there is no money to replace it, but there is money to provide supplies for Mass. In any case, physical or moral impossibility is not held against the soul of the priest.

  10. leonugent2005 says:

    Father, I agree with you that it is unnecessary for me or any lay person to be present at a mass but it is always nice when I can attend.

  11. Joe in Canada says:

    St Ignatius of Loyola waited a year after his ordination to say his first Mass.

  12. JeffTL says:

    I recall that there is a custom in the East that certain iterations of the Jesus Prayer can substitute for the Office when necessary.

    I also have read that St. Peter’s in the Loop, the Franciscan church in the Chicago central business district, was built with a couple of chapels full of side altars principally for the daily Masses of visiting priests. With routine concelebration now being licit, these were ultimately converted for other uses.

  13. Sixupman says:

    The ex Jesuit Church in Manchester (UK) had a confessional set aside for clergy. What proportion of Jesuits even believe in Confession any more?

    I am glad to say that the said church, now Oratarian in philosophy, is big on Confession!

  14. leonugent2005 says:

    Today, priests can say Mass without any human presence …… this is an interesting choice of words because in a discussion I had a few weeks ago the person I was talking to poited out that this is nestorian. Nestorian in the sense that only the divine nature in Christ was operative.

  15. leonugent2005 says:

    I might add that loose interpretations of “for a good reason” are the very thing that causes so much grief in the church today….. for example something like “For a good reason extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may be used” or some thing like this. If the principle to apply is similar to “a good reason can be simply that he wants to say Mass” Then a pastor can rightly claim as a good reason that “he simply wants to use extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion” Perhaps you should consider why it was that At one point there was a strict rule against saying Mass alone.

  16. GeorgeTSLC says:

    There have been situations where priests have been imprisoned (usually by Communists) and everything taken away. In such cases, it’s a lot easier to score a little wine and unleavened bread than a breviary.

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