QUAERITUR: Distance of a priest’s valid consecration

From a reader:

Dear Father – Like yourself I am not a fan of concelebration, but I would like to ask two questions. These questions came about in one of those after dinner discussions which come under the heading of “what if?”.

1. Thinking about large gatherings (e.g. Lourdes, open-air Masses, etc) is there any rule about how far away from the altar a priest can be before his actions become invalid?

2. If a priest is in the congregation (either in clerical dress or
“civvies”) and he said the correct words of the Eucharistic Prayer and did the correct actions, would that be valid concelebration? I suspect the answer is “no” but I would appreciate your words of wisdom!

As I have said many times, I think concelebration should be safe, legal and rare.  There are appropriate moments for it, such as when the local bishop celebrates the Chrism Mass or the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, an ordination to the priesthood, occasional gatherings with priests.

Is there a “rule” about how far a priest can be from the Host he is supposed to be consecrating? No.  Not that I know of.

I have pondered this from time to time.  It seems to me that the priest has to be morally present to the Host.  That is, he has to have some sort of moral contact with it.  I am not sure about this, but I suspect there is analogy to be found in the distance at which a priest can absolve sins (within range of the human voice… not by phone, etc.).  It seems to me that a priest’s words of consecration should be audible where the hosts are.  I don’t think he necessarily has to be able to see the hosts.  A priest validly consecrates hosts in a ciborium placed on the corporal when he or the deacon forget to remove the cover.

So, no, there is no rule.  But we play fast and loose with that which is most sacred to us when he have these enormous Masses.  I would have them ended.  Let priests attend in choir dress.  Let people make spiritual Communions.  But I digress.

To the second point, if a priest is in lay clothes in the congregation and he says the words of consecration without actually concelebrating in the proper way….  Valid?  Yes, I think so.  However, he violates about a zillion rubrics and he maybe even violates the stern canon forbidding a priest to consecrate outside of Mass.  Even though the priest is at Mass, he seems not actually to be celebrating the Mass or concelebrating the Mass.  The Church makes it clear how priests concelebrate: they put on vestments, they enter the sanctuary or stand in the proper place, etc.  Standing somewhere in the church amongst the laity in lay clothes and saying the words of consecration with the intent to consecrate skates on the edge of sacrilege.  It may even be as bad as the nefas that Canon Law uses in reference to consecrating apart from celebrating Mass.

Reasons #8677 and #8678 for Summorum Pontificum?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. skypilot777 says:

    This is pretty far outside what the question was about, but I think related.

    I recall from reading about St. Maximillian Kolbe that he would consecrate scraps of bread placed on a table near him without making any gestures that would alert the guards to what he was doing. Naturally this was done in extraordinary circumstances not normally treated of by rubrics.

  2. Fr AJ says:

    I usually see a brother priest or two at Mass while on retreat concelebrating in street clothes. I don’t get it, too lazy to put on vestments?

  3. JeffK says:

    I have a related question.

    At chapel, the chaplain at my son’s school–a very lovely man and a good orthodox Catholic of the St. Charles Borromeo Society (CL)–has a small box of unconsecrated hosts on the altar with him when he gets ready to say Mass.

    When Mass begins, he sees how many are in attendance and selects some to consecrate which he places directly before him. But the box containing the rest of the hosts–which he does not intend to consecrate and which he treats afterward as unconsecrated–remains on the altar, but to one side.

    ARE they unconsecrated? Or is he unwittingly consecrating those too? [NO! Not if the priest has intended NOT to consecrate them.]

  4. tonesing says:

    How about a battlefield general absolution? How far does it extend? [Who knows? Did you read the entry at the top?]

  5. APX says:

    My friend and I got into a similar discussion about this with regards to the Corpus Christi epistle (it contains “hoc est corpus meum”) and a priest filling in as subdeacon chanting the epistle, if, once he got to that part, sung the words of consecration with intent, he would consecrate the hosts in the ciborium and on the paten under the Chalice veil. But now I remember reading something that said either they “must be on the corporal” for a valid consecration, or they “ideally should be on the corporal” in that the priest can be certain his intent is directed at those hosts.

  6. acardnal says:

    skypilot777, if what you said above is true, let us hope St. Kolbe also had some wine present to consecrate at the same time otherwise no Mass occurred.

  7. tonesing says:

    Mea culpa! I did not click the link earlier Fascinating subject…

  8. dominic1955 says:

    Nothing would be consecrated by a priest acting as subdeacon chanting the Corpus Christi epistle because-

    1) That isn’t his intent by the nature of the action itself-i.e. he’s acting in the role of subdeacon.
    2) The “words of consecration” are in the form of a narrative, i.e. he’s chanting the epistle not acting in the priestly office properly saying Mass. Same would apply if he were reading the bible in a bakery-nothing happens.
    3) the corporal thing is for the accidentally dropped host, it doesn’t quite apply in this case directly

  9. Fr. Thomas Kocik says:

    “As I have said many times, I think concelebration should be safe, legal and rare. There are appropriate moments for it, such as when the local bishop celebrates the Chrism Mass or the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, an ordination to the priesthood, occasional gatherings with priests. […] Let priests attend in choir dress. […]”

    Amen! There are circumstances in which the mind of the Church (and her law) favors attendance “in choir” over concelebration…

    Moreover: “It is not fitting, except in rare and exceptional cases and with reasonable cause, for [priests] to participate at Mass, as regards to externals, in the manner of the lay faithful” (Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 128).

  10. JeffK says:


    Re Battlefield Absolutions etc: Not to tread on Fr Z’s territory, but in emergency situations my laypersons’s sens is that it’s safe to do the best you can and trust God. Ecclesia supplet, the Church will make up for defects, as they say.

    God has His ways of doing things and He IS particular about them. But at the same time, He loves us. He is not playing games with our salvation. There aren’t any trick questions in heaven.

  11. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    This point, that there is no rule, occasions a wider: what Fr. Z did, expressly or otherwise, is rely on the “common and constant opinions of learned persons” in stating the ‘rule’ here; it’s much more common that moderns think, that this is how the Church handles unusual fact patterns.

    ps: the line about “… concelebration should be safe, legal and rare.” is a scream!

  12. James Joseph says:

    Two words might give us a hint wear a priest plants his feet when he keeps the Sabbath.

    Mar Tsaba.

  13. MAJ Tony says:

    Reminds me of an old saw in the Army: What’s the maximum effective range of an excuse?

    Also reminds me of a prior service enlisted turned ROTC cadet at an ROTC drill meet, when asked by the inspection judge as to the max effective range of his old Springfield drill rifle (M1903A3 with a plugged barrel). “As far as I can throw it, Drill Sergeant!”

    My point? Good Soldiers (Marines, Sailors, Airmen, Coasties, etc.) know “what ‘right’ looks like” and don’t have these problems, because they live to standards they know. Sounds like the effect of “the Spirit of Vatican II” was to throw away the standards, despite the fact that Verum Concilium Vaticanum Secundum actually left standards, albeit in many instances more lax or more flexible. Which begs the question: why is it so difficult for the spiritual leadership of the Ecclesia Militans in the trenches to hold to a standard? It’s almost like the 1970s “hollow Army” and it’s taken 3 Popes to slowly bring back the standards. Maybe we need something analogous to an NTC (National Training Center – Ft. Irwin, CA) and 29 Palms (aka “the Stumps” for all you old Marines out there) for Priests and Bishops.

  14. Bob B. says:

    I remember being told in Vietnam that, if a someone was in imminent danger of dying and a priest was not close, to prompt them to make a confession, if they could. You have to remember that this was when many Catholics still went to Confession and we believed it was important to receive Extreme Unction.

  15. Can we begin to answer the posted question by starting with what we know for sure is true? – a priest has to be physically present [can’t do it thru t.v. or a telephone] and the priest must intend to consecrate the bread and the wine [nothing is consecrated that he doesn’t intend to consecrate]. From that can we venture to say that the priest must be close enough to see what he consecrates?
    I do wonder sometimes if some priests ever think to conditionally consecrate what is already in the Tabernacle? [not re-consecrate, which is impossible, but conditionally – in rare circumstances]

    Since I am not clergy, perhaps I can be more blunt than a careful clergyman:

    Concelebration has always struck me as illogical, forgive me and correct me if I am wrong here. Since the Species is consecrated at the moment the breath of the last words leave the mouth of the priest, and it is pretty impossible for this action to be at the same time as all the other priests, the priest who finishes the phrase first, is the one who consecrates. So what is the purpose of all those priests saying words over already consecrated Species? And isn’t it better to say many Masses rather than a bunch of priests all saying only one Mass?

    The Latin Riters offer one intention per Mass, while the Byzantines allow many intentions in the same Mass [after all isn’t each Holy Sacrifice of infinite value?]. Both styles promote offering as many worthy Masses as possible. This is why side altars and/or little chapels have existed in small churches and the biggest cathedrals.
    I just can’t get my head around a bunch of priests saying only one Mass together.

  16. Oops, yes, ‘audible’ range makes more sense that visible range, following what Fr Z said above about not always seeing what’s under a cover.
    Drat, I speed-read too much and missed that good point.

  17. jhayes says:

    At the Pope’s Christmas Masses and other feasts in St. Peter’s, the many priests who distribute Communion stand in groups below and to both sides of the altar during the consecration, each holding a ciborium. Since the Pope intends to consecrate all those hosts, I assume it doesn’t really matter whether he can see each individual ciborium or that priest may not be able to hear him except over the sound system. Intention is all, I would think, as long as the celebrant and the hosts are in the same space (no consecrating hosts at St John Lateran by telephone at the same time)

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