ASK FATHER: Does a priest need a dispensation to say Mass “ad orientem”?

From a reader…


Hello Father. I recently asked my Pastor if he would ever celebrate the Ordinary Form of the Mass ad orientem. He replied that a dispensation is required from our Bishop. I’ve never heard such a thing. Could this be true? Thanks very much.

No, that is not true.

A “dispensation” implies that there is a law.   A diocesan bishop cannot establish a law in contradiction to the Church’s universal laws.  Holy Mass can be celebrated ad orientem at the choice of the priest.  No permissions are need according to the law.  As a matter of fact, the rubrics in the Missal, read properly, assume that the priest is celebrating ad orientem: the indicate when he turns to face the people.

Indeed, the Congregation for Divine Worship ruled on this question in 2000.  HERE

Some bishops have – wrongly – made reference to GIRM 299 in their attempts to snuff out or prevent ad orientem worship.  Rather, surely some underlings of the bishops have done that, since no bishop would be so foolish as to ignore the CDWs ruling.  Nor would they be unaware of the mistranslation of the Latin of GIRM 299 which distorts the meaning of the paragraph.

Sometimes you will see letters of bishops – no doubt penned by underlings – which seem to forbid ad orientem worship for all manner of reasons such as a chimeric “unity” (supremely ironic given the variety of practices and unchecked abuses going on all around them).  They may even openly say, “Don’t say Mass ad orientem without my permission”, which doesn’t have any juridical basis at all.  However, a careful reading of such letters reveals that they do not establish any policy or legislate anything.  They convey the bishop’s wish.  Sometimes that wish is couched in fancy language, but that’s what it winds up being: “I don’t like it.  I don’t want it.  But I can’t make a law against it.  So, here’s an ominous legal-sounding letter with subtle threats.”

So, priests are free to celebrate ad orientem.

However, given the fact that a bishop can crucify a priest in a thousand unpleasant ways, many priests aren’t going to opt for ad orientem even though they would be open to it or want to do it.   Their rights mean little to nothing in the face of power turned against them.

This is the sad reality.

Hence, in your dealings with this priest, be a little compassionate.  Depending on your diocese, it could be that he, personally, would like to accommodate you, but in the background he has concerns with “downtown”, as it were.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Sonshine135 says:

    I rather think that many Bishops also appeal to GIRM 387:

    The Diocesan Bishop, who is to be regarded as the High Priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful in some sense derives and upon whom it depends, must promote, regulate, and be vigilant over the liturgical life in his diocese.

    The idea that the Bishop can “regulate” the liturgical life in his diocese seems to have a broad interpretation. Some specific areas are mentioned in the same article: (regulating concelebration, the norms for serving the Priest at the altar, the distribution of Holy Communion, and the ordering of churches), but even I, a typically strict interpreter, can’t interpret that these are the only things the Bishop can regulate. It is no wonder that such confusion exists, especially if the Bishop is not well versed in Canon Law.

    I think in this day and age, and maybe every age for that matter, a good Priest listens to his Bishop and chooses any battlefields wisely.

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  3. Henry Edwards says:

    But what all this doesn’t answer is the question … Why would any bishop want to prevent ad orientem celebration by his priests? I’ve never heard a convincing answer why. Except that perhaps with many bishops it’s all about money, fearing that donations may decline if Mass is celebrated in a “confusing” way–ad orientem, in Latin or Roman vestments, with propers instead of ditties, etc.

  4. Imrahil says:

    Though it must be said in fairness to the priests involved,

    if the bishop does say “do not do X, except perhaps with my express permission”, then whether or not the bishop is in his right to say so, and whether or not a priest is in conscience obliged to obedience when he isn’t (he probably isn’t), then the priest has no other choice than not doing X except without the bishop’s express permission.

    I do not mean that to include when not doing X would be a sinful omission. But with all the problems and inadequance of versus populum, to celebrate in this manner is not an actual sin (under present law); and for anything that stops just ever so short of “I need to not burden my conscience with this sin”, one doesn’t mess with one’s bishop as a priest. At least, so I guess.

  5. Blaise says:

    I recall you have previously said that a parish priest has the authority to say how a curate should do things liturgically (within limits obviously). Would that include a requirement that Mass be said versus populism? If so does the same apply to a Bishop in his Cathedral even if not elsewhere?
    That would be more a positive instruction on what to do rather than a proscription of what not to do, I think.

    [Allow me to revise and extend. Take note that the assistant priest, the associate, the “curate”, etc. has just about only one “right” in his life as a curate: Christian burial.]

  6. BH says:

    Our Pastor says the Mass in English, and was saying the solemn Sunday Mass each week (and all holy days) ad orientem. A few months ago he reverted to only ad populum. I found out last week that the reason he stopped was that our Bishop let the priests know that he does not like it and does not want them doing it that way. Father, I believe your comic at the top of this post says it all – but sometimes logic doesn’t win the day. Does anyone have practical advice on how to speak to the Bishop about this topic?

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