ROME, 14 NOV. 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I was recently speaking with some of my brother priests about the
celebration of a private Mass when there is no server and no
congregation, just the priest. There seemed to be no uniformity on how
it is to be done, and the only thing we could find in the General
Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) is a few lines found in No. 254.
It says, "Mass should not be celebrated without a minister or at least
one of the faithful, except for a just and reasonable cause. In this
case, the greetings, the introductory or explanatory remarks, and the
blessing at the end of the Mass are omitted." I know this question
really is of no interest to most people, but I think many priests (at
least the ones I have talked to) would like some guidance on this topic.
D.C., Sioux Falls, South Dakota
A: Our correspondent also laid out a scheme of what he believed should
be omitted in this case. I will use the scheme although modifying some
Although this might appear to be a rather obscure point, nothing in
liturgy is so obscure that liturgists cannot find points to disagree on
and this is no exception. Therefore some of what I say is just my
personal opinion based on what I believe to be an adequate
interpretation of the law.
The most difficult aspect to interpret regards what is encompassed under
the Latin term "Monitionis." The English translation of this term as
"introductory or explanatory remarks" may give rise to a very broad
Other languages have generally preferred to keep the technical term
"monitions," which may be more restrictive. Either way, neither the
original Latin rubric nor the translations are really that helpful in
resolving our query. As far as I know there is no official
interpretation from the Holy See.
Before entering into detail I wish to mention that some priests believe
that this form of Mass with no faithful present is now forbidden. This
is not the case. Indeed, present canon law, by requiring a just cause
for celebrating alone, and no longer a grave cause as did the 1917 code,
has actually made it easier to celebrate such a Mass even though it
should always be seen as an exception and to be avoided whenever
All the same, many priests have on some occasion been faced with the
choice of celebrating alone, or not celebrating. Both canon law and the
law of grace recommend celebrating Mass as the better thing to do.
The basic model to be followed would be the rite of Mass with only one
minister present, omitting whatever would be directed toward this
minister as well as the gestures of turning toward the minister for
Therefore when a priest celebrates alone he does the following:
After kissing the altar he recites the entrance antiphon and makes the
sign of the cross.
He omits the greeting at the beginning of Mass ("Dominus vobiscum") and
the invitation at the beginning the penitential rite ("Fratres,
agnoscamus ..."). The rest of the penitential rite is as normal.
He recites the invitation to the orations ("Oremus"), for these are not
just invitations directed to the people but invitations in which he
himself is included. The same criterion is obeyed for the introduction
to the Our Father which is not omitted.
He includes the introduction to the readings and Gospel ("Lectio sancti
...") but does omit the greeting of the people at the Gospel ("Dominus
vobiscum"). He includes the conclusion to the readings and Gospel
("Verbum Domini"). These are also for his benefit and not just greetings
to the people.
At the presentation of gifts he recites the prayers offering the bread
and wine but omits the response "Blessed be God ...." He also omits the
"Pray Brethren" ("Orate, fratres") along with the response "May the Lord
Unlike the other "Dominus vobiscum," I believe that the one which forms
part of the initial protocol of the preface dialogue should always be
said. The norms are clear that the Eucharistic Prayer must always be
said integrally and that it retains its plural form even when the priest
is alone. As this dialogue is inseparable from the Eucharistic Prayer it
should always be recited.
In support of this interpretation of the particular character of this
"Dominus vobiscum" is the fact that even when Mass was generally
celebrated toward the east, the rubrics did not ask the priest to turn
toward the people at this moment as happened in almost every other case,
but rather to look at the altar cross.
Although the Eucharistic Prayer must be said in its entirety, the
memorial acclamation ("Mysterium fidei") does not form part of the
prayer. Therefore both introduction and acclamation are omitted. This
rubric is explicitly stated in some orders for concelebration when only
priests are present at the Mass.
The giving of the peace ("Pax Domini sit semper ...") is omitted.
The moment of showing the host is easily confused. In fact we have two
prayers which are placed one beside the other.
Here, the norm of No. 268 of the GIRM is followed: "If, however, the
minister does not receive Communion, [or there is no minister] the
priest, after genuflecting, takes the host and, facing the altar, says
quietly the 'Domine, non sum dignus' (Lord, I am not worthy) and the
'Corpus Christi custodiat' (May the Body of Christ bring) and then
receives the Body of Christ. Then he takes the chalice and says quietly,
'Sanguis Christi custodiat' (May the Blood of Christ bring), and then
consumes the Blood of Christ."
After holy Communion the priest recites the Communion antiphon before
purifying the sacred vessels.
After a period of silent thanksgiving the priest says "Let us pray" and
recites the prayer after Communion.
Both the final blessing and the "Ite missa est" are omitted. Mass ends
with the "Through Christ our Lord. Amen" of the closing prayer, followed
by kissing the altar and either a bow toward the altar or a genuflection
toward the tabernacle, as the case may be, before withdrawing.
These gestures are considered as sufficient forms of conclusion. There
is no need to add other gestures not foreseen in the ritual such as
making the sign of the cross.
Of course, this in no way excludes the recommendation that, immediately
after Mass, the priest dedicates some moments to personal thanksgiving
for the grace and privilege of having celebrated the Holy Sacrifice.
* * *
Follow-up: When Celebrating Mass Alone [11-28-2006]
to our comments on a priest celebrating alone (see Nov. 14), one
Australian correspondent asked: "You mentioned that when celebrating
alone the priest should go up and kiss the altar before reciting the
Entrance Antiphon, etc.
"This surprised me, because on the occasions when I have celebrated
alone I have followed the rubrics of the Order of Mass Without a
Congregation, in the Sacramentary, which states that the priest does not
go up and kiss the altar until after the penitential rite. I was always
interested in this difference from the Order of Mass With a Congregation
because it was a remaining continuation of the practice in the former
rite, and it seemed to make sense spiritually, too. Not that Mass is
about my personal piety, of course.
"Looking up the rubrics in the latest Latin Missale Romanum I found that
they do indeed specify, in what is now called the 'Ordo Missae, cuius
unus tantum minister participat,' that one should go straight up and
kiss the altar before reciting the Antiphon and making the sign of the
"However, unless I were celebrating Mass in Latin, I would be using the
English-language Sacramentary, and naturally following the rubrics in
it, which specify kissing the altar after the penitential rite.
"This prompted me to look at the prescriptions of the General
Instruction of the Roman Missal 3, which indeed specifies the newer
practice of kissing the altar before the penitential rite. But GIRM 3
has not yet been promulgated in Australia, so I would hardly be expected
to follow its prescriptions in this matter, even if I had been aware of
"So now I'm in a dilemma: Which rubrics should I follow: the new ones
when celebrating in Latin and the old ones when celebrating in English?
Or the new ones always, even though they are not yet in force in
There are two points to be addressed. The first is that, effectively, in
the new Latin Missal the movements and gestures of "Mass at which only
one minister assists" have removed most of the distinctions between this
form of Mass and a Mass with a congregation.
Apart from the different moment of kissing the altar, the rubrics
stipulated that the priest remain at the left-hand side of the altar for
the readings and move to the center for the presentation of gifts. He
now celebrates all the rites at the center of the altar although with
the option of using the ambo for the readings.
The logic behind these changes is that the model or paradigmatic form of
Mass is a Mass with a congregation, and only those things change which
in some way acknowledge the non-presence of the congregation.
When the new missal was presented, it was suggested that the differences
found between both forms of celebrating in earlier editions of the
reformed rite was perhaps due to an oversight.
The second point has to do with what rubrics should be followed. The new
GIRM, having been approved by the Pope, does not require the
promulgation of a bishops' conference to gain legal force. The bishops
do not approve the text but rather its official translation for the
particular country as well as any adaptations they may wish to submit to
the Holy See.
At the same time, the changes do not usually become obligatory until
after the Holy See approves the translation and the conference
promulgates the new text.
Therefore, at the moment we could say that, in Australia, the norms
contained in the Latin text of the new GIRM may be applied to a
vernacular Mass but are not yet obligatory and either the old or the new
rubrics may be followed. In the United States, however, and in any other
country that has already promulgated an official translation, the new
rubrics must be followed.
Other readers made the point that Mass is never really alone. As one
priest from Chicago wrote: "Some priests would essentially agree that
without at least one minister present, certain greetings, gestures and
movement would be unnecessary, even illogical since no one would be
present to respond.
"However, why not proceed with the Rite of Mass with One Minister
Present in its entirety? After all:
"1) We are never truly alone when we celebrate Mass because the Church
Triumphant and Suffering are always present, and are actively
participating and answering;
"2) To eliminate them would be to overemphasize the 'functionistic'
presence of the Church Militant as a 'necessity'' and thus inadvertently
justify why [some] priests don't celebrate Mass daily;
"3) Keeping everything intact would be simpler than having to memorize
what must be eliminated; unity of rubrics would be less complicating."
As the priest said, everything would be much simpler if we could always
follow the rite as if a minister were present.
All the same, apart from the obvious matter of fidelity to Church norms,
we would observe that insofar as the Mass is a ritual it is a human act
performed on earth and as such, the ritual or external elements should
reasonably respond to the concrete situation in which the celebration is
It is certainly true that the Church's other members are also attending
the celebration. But the ritual acknowledges this presence in other
ways, for example through the Sanctus, by asking for their intercession
and by interceding for those who have died.
There may also be some advantages with following this rubric. The fact
that a priest has to remember to make these changes when no assembly is
present may actually benefit his celebration of Mass by helping him
concentrate and avoid a routine and mechanistic celebration.
Likewise, it may actually intensify his awareness of the presence of the
Church triumphant and suffering as well as the Mass' role as
intercessory prayer for all, and not just for those physically present.
Noting the difference when celebrating alone may also benefit his way of
celebrating for a congregation, since he may be less likely to take the
assembly for granted and will value its role as a sign and manifestation
of the Church.
In making these clarifications to the rubrics it is not my wish to offer
any encouragement to the practice of solitary celebration, which has
historically always been considered a liturgical anomaly.
Even though the present rubrics make it easier than before to be able to
celebrate such a Mass, it would be liturgically and theologically
incorrect, and perhaps even spiritually unhealthy, for a priest to
prefer such a celebration if the possibility of celebrating with a
server or for the faithful were available to him.
A slightly different case would be the priest whose only alternative to
celebrating alone is to concelebrate. Some priests, while not objecting
to concelebration as such, find that daily concelebration over a
prolonged period is detrimental to their fervor.
Some find, for example, that being unable to recite the prayers
according to their own natural rhythm, as well as being impeded from
being able to choose a particular Mass formula or Eucharistic Prayer,
over time leads them to be less attentive to the celebration.
This can occur especially in priestly residences where the daily
celebration has little external solemnity. Since concelebration is never
obligatory, a priest may sometimes legitimately opt to celebrate alone
providing that there is no possibility of celebrating with at least one