ASK FATHER: Masses outdoors or not in a church

Portable altars by St. Joseph’s Apprentice are wonderful.  They are great gifts to priests.

From a reader…


According to Canon 932 s1: The eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place unless in a particular case necessity requires otherwise; in such a case the celebration must be done in a decent place.

What constitutes “necessity” in this case? Would planning an “outdoor Mass” in the summer for a picnic qualify as “necessity”?

GUEST RESPONSE: Fr. Tim Ferguson

Our interlocutor correctly cites the Code of Canon Law, Mass may be celebrated outside of a sacred space in cases of necessity. The Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, in paragraph 108, helpfully clarifies, “The diocesan Bishop shall be the judge for his diocese concerning this necessity, on a case-by-case basis.”

This instruction, thereby, abolishes the ambiguity wherein the priest who celebrates is the one who determines that necessity, at least for public celebrations of the Holy Mass.

Celebrating the Holy Mass outdoors for cases of necessity – for example, with a group who are camping in a remote area, or on the instance of a pilgrimage where no church building would sufficiently – would still be a possibility, but the diocesan Bishop should be consulted. Celebrating Mass outdoors, because it’s a nice day and we want to sing that cool fourth verse of “Gather Us In” about not being in dark and confining buildings… that would seem to be right out.

A priest offering the Holy Sacrifice hidden by a hedgerow, or in a dining room with the shades drawn in a place and at a time where the practice of Catholicism is banned, would still be licit.


And then there are the “mega Masses”, like those held in the piazza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica (aka a parking lot).


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    To me this sounds pretty crazy. Essentially this is saying if a priest ever wants to say Holy Mass outside of a church- e.g. in his hotel room, in a parish hall, in his bedroom, in his presbytery- anywhere that is not a sacred building, i.e. a church or shrine, he needs to phone the bishop of that area every single time to get permission.

    Perhaps I am misreading this, but that’s what it sounds like and that sounds like an invalid law to me, invalid because it is clearly contrary to reason, and furthermore contrary to many longstanding traditions and local customs- like the stations masses in Ireland where a priest would offer Holy Mass at each house in the village.

  2. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    My suspicion is that those mega-Masses in St. Peter’s parking lot are held with the approval of the diocesan bishop. :)

  3. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Fr. Ferguson raises an interesting point. If His Holiness wanted to visit (say) the Diocese of Black Duck, where the bishop, the most excellent John Cardinal Zuhlsdorf, reigned, and if the same Cardinal was trying to recapture our Catholic identity, and therefore had issued a pastoral letter to his priests and faithful expressly forbidding the celebration of Mass in a local auditorium……. would the Holy Father need the permission of this cardinal, or — assuming he didn’t get it — would he simply visit the neighboring diocese where Bishop Pete was more in line with the signs of the times?

  4. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Does a priest participating in a small group pilgrimage (say 5-10 people) require approval of local bishop(s) to say Mass outside on the Way of St. James from southern France to St. James cathedral in Spain? I imagine that would be crossing several dioceses.

    Is it a “public Mass” if celebrated with a small group of travelers all from the priests home diocese rather than the diocese of the pilgrimage geography?

    Could the priest hear confessions along the way from his co-pilgrims or would he need approval from local bishops for that too?

  5. Philmont237 says:

    What is a priest wants to do a special family Mass at his parents’ house or a similar situation?

  6. Fr_Andrew says:

    It was common, back when people actually cared about rubrics and liturgical law, that missionaries were given faculties for deviations from the standard rubrics to facilitate their work. One such is the Formula Facultatum Decennalium which in faculty no. 5, permits the saying on a portable altar (a privilege for non-missionaries) and in the open air or at sea provided that a fitting a decent place is found.

    So, while it is certainly the mind of the Church that Mass not be said outside of a church unless there is some reasonably serious cause, it is not outside of the realm of possibilities, and the Church did grant faculties historically for this.

  7. APX says:

    Portable altars by St. Joseph’s Apprentice are wonderful. They are great gifts to priests.
    Yes, and they even make one specifically designed for priests who go out hiking and need something extra portable and lightweight that can be carried on one’s back.

  8. Imrahil says:

    Dear Chris Garton-Zavesky,

    in what does not conflict with Divine Law, the Pope can do everything; as he has the full jurisdictional primacy which can be used wherever in the Church and immediately. He does not need permission from the diocesan bishop.

    If the Pope does anything which does not conflict with Divine but does conflict with positive Ecclesial law, then it would be understood as himself giving to himself a silent dispensation. But this perfectly legal, if somewhat “nonchalant” (what do you call it) thing is not even the case here:

    The diocesan bishop can make allowance for that, for just reasons. But what the diocesan bishop is able to, a fortiori the Pope is able to – wherever in the Church.

  9. Fr. Kelly says:

    The question of using a movable altar is different from that of Mass outside of a church.
    For Holy Mass can be and, in many churches, is regularly said on a movable altar placed in the sanctuary in front of the older fixed altar containing the tabernacle. I admit that wreckovations over the years have in many places removed the older altars. However, the table altars when they were first being brought in, were usually placed as movable altars, and so were merely blessed, not consecrated. Over the years, this practice has changed, and I don’t often hear much discussion of the distinction lately except in the context of Liturgical Commission or Church Architecture meetings or the like.

    The smaller portable altars that are meant to be traveled with (like the ones from St. Joseph’s Apprentice that Fr. Z features in this post) are clearly meant for celebrations of Mass outside of a church.

    But, if you have a church with the high altar still intact and a table altar placed in front of it that was placed sometime before the mid 1980s, there is a good chance that it is actually a movable altar. ( And it might not be a bad idea to arrange the removing of it with of course, all appropriate catechesis and preparation of the faithful beforehand.)

  10. William says:

    So the annual “Mass on the Grass” I once saw at a small Baptist college’s smaller Catholic center probably is out, too.

  11. Giuseppe says:

    I wish papal installation and funerals were held inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
    They could put up video screens for those who want to watch in St. Peter’s square.

    Dear Chris Garton-Zavesky,
    John Cardinal Zuhlsdorf of the Diocese of Black Duck would certainly grant permission for the Bishop of Rome to celebrate Mass in an auditorium. But the wily Cardinal Z would have engineered it such that the altar was affixed against a wall, creating a liturgical east.
    Brick by brick,

  12. To echo something our genial host often says about concelebration, I would say that Mass away from a sacred place should be legal, safe and rare. There are legitimate circumstances for it: visiting retirement centers and nursing homes, for example, or when a priest is traveling. I have an altar in my rectory, and I recently asked — and received — permission to offer Mass there on my day of rest. And when I travel, it is often inconvenient to try to arrange to have Mass in a parish nearby. Either I plan to concelebrate at the parish Mass, or else I ask the priest to arrange for me to use the church at a different time.

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