From a reader…
I hope your’e doing well and that you’re able to answer my question.
Is a private mass simply any mass not listed in a parish’s bulletin/website?
On one side, I hear/read that a Missa Sin Populo or “private mass” is a mass
with no people in attendance or in the congregation, save an altar server.
Others say that traditionally, the term “private mass” meant any mass not
publicized or announced in a church bulletin/website. I’m part of a lay
faithful group trying to bring the TLM to our diocese and would like to
invite people to go to the priest’s private masses, but I wasn’t sure if
doing so would then change it from a private to a public mass. Please
forgive my use of such clumsy terms; I know that essentially any mass
offered by a priest is public. I hope my point comes across, nonetheless.
GUEST PRIEST RESPONSE
I suppose the writer meant “sine populo” though I could speculate that a Missa Sin Populo would be a Mass for people named Sin, like the late, lamented Filipino Cardinal.
As you say, the terms “private Mass” and “public Mass” are not precise. At every Mass that is offered, the Church is present, and therefore, the Holy Mass is always a public matter. Article 2 of the great motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, notes that a priest may use either Missal (the Extraordinary Form or the Ordinary Form) in offering a Holy Mass “sine populo,” and Article 4 adds that the Christian faithful who freely ask may be admitted to such a Mass. This would make such a celebration, technically speaking, a Mass without people with people. Or a Mass with people without people. Or with people, a Mass without people. You get the point.
When I was in my freewheeling days as a college seminarian, there was a rule in our “Guidelines for Community Living” that stated that “No parties may be held in individual rooms. However, spontaneous gatherings are permitted.” Certain members of the seminary would occasional post notices on the bulletin board to the effect that “A spontaneous gathering will be held in room 210 at 8:00 p.m. this coming Friday.”
We can play with language and find ourselves ending up in some interesting places. It seems to me that the clear intention of the Holy Father with this motu proprio is to make celebrations of the Holy Mass using the 1962 Missal a normal part of the life of the Church. I think it can be a helpful rule of thumb to make the distinction between public Masses being those widely advertised on a parish sign, bulletin, website; and private Masses being those not advertised, even if they are well known.
Otherwise, I suppose one could end up putting something in the bulletin stating, “People are invited to a Mass Without People offered on Tuesday at 7:30 a.m.”