Friday, August 01, 2008

Personal lessons in the liturgy

While I most often offer the Mass with the people of God at a scheduled time during the week, I do from time to time offer a "private" Mass. Doing so gives me many opportunities for reflection and personal enrichment--I thought you might be edified if I shared some with you.

There are many who disapprove of this; however, this practice is so widespread, from retreat houses, to seminaries, to monasteries and religious houses, to the basilicae of Rome, that those who deem it illicit have quite a case to make. Canon Law says a priest may do so for a "just cause," and doing so on my day off seems to me a legitimate reason, as well as to provide for my own spiritual well being (see below). Also, we currently have three priests active in my two parishes, so there are some days I am not scheduled for Mass; on those occasions, sometimes I concelebrate, as I did today; other days, I offer a private Mass. (By private I mean not pubished; it may involve one or two people, or just the Holy Trinity and myself--but even that is not a "private" Mass, insofar as every Mass involves the entire Church in heaven, purgatory and on earth.)

Some might say, why not concelebrate every time? Well, several reasons--the main celebrant may prefer not to have a concelebrant, so I don't force myself on him; but the main reason is that when I offer a private Mass, I can exercise options that are not courteous to the faithful: I can offer Mass entirely in Latin privately, and I can refine my skills as a celebrant, and practice singing the prayers, without that being distracting to the prayer of God's people.

And, honestly, a priest has both a right and a need to ensure that his own encounter with the Sacrifice of the Mass is fully prayerful, and there are times when as celebrant at a Mass for the people, this is very hard. This is something perhaps not many priests admit, and perhaps not many of God's people understand or realize: but it can be a challenge for a priest to offer Mass prayerfully. I'm not complaining, but: with the servers often needing guidance, or there's something special happening at Mass, such as a blessing, or announcements, or such that the priest needs to remember...the point is, a lot of us find it very helpful to be able to offer Mass in a very quiet setting.

(Yes, I know what some will say; the laity want and need to be able to participate in Mass in a quiet setting--and I agree. All I can say is it will take time and effort to recover that, and I am doing what I can. Laity need to influence one another on this point. I recall one Holy Thursday, when near the end of the liturgy, I said quietly, "this liturgy ends in silence, and I ask that everyone observe total silence after liturgy for the sake of those trying to pray." We concluded the liturgy, the servers and I departed to the sacristy, and...the noise level began rising in church. I strictly instructed the servers to remain silent, and they did as well as they could; I was just about to walk out again and say something when, as I opened the door, I heard someone yell: "didn't you hear what father said--be quiet!" I retreated without saying a word--what could I add? P.S.: it helped--some.)

So, I do offer Mass privately. When I do, I usually do so all or mostly in Latin. Why do I do that? Well, the option of the vernacular was for the benefit of the people; the liturgy itself is originally in Latin, and I believe it's appropriate, and I would say further, pretty important, for a priest to be at home with the liturgy in Latin. I am blessed to have a little facility with Latin, but really, not that much. I become comfortable with it by using it, and this is the best way to use it. (And for those who say it's hard to pronounce: Latin is far easier to pronounce than English, once you get the hang of it; English is full of exceptions and tricks that follow no rules.) I believe that if someone asks me to use Latin in Mass, I ought to be as ready as I can be to grant that request; this is the best way to do that.

Also, I am planning next month to attend a workshop in the extraordinary form of the Mass--the so-called Tridentine Mass. As you recall, last summer the pope issued new norms greatly liberalizing its celebration and the faithful's access to it, and called for priests to "willingly accede" to requests for it. So, I believe I ought to be ready to do so; I had a parishioner ask me to use the old form for his funeral, whenever that comes.

So in addition to offering the Mass in Latin privately, I also do something else: I offer Mass ad orientem (literally, "toward the east," meaning spiritual east, i.e., toward the Lord who has risen and will return). That means I face the altar from the "outside," facing the crucifix, rather than facing the nave of the church which, on such occasions, is empty (when one or two assist me, they do so from the sanctuary). In the older form of the Mass, ad orientem is the norm, and as a celebrant, it's something I need to become accustomed to.

Now, this is controversial, but--as far as I can see in the norms for the current form of the Mass, there is nothing preventing the so-called "Novus Ordo" Mass being offered ad orientem--despite the fact that doing so facing the people has become all but universal. This seems clear from the very rubrics of the current form of the Mass, which you can see for yourself in any sacramentary--at four points, it tells the priest to "face the people" -- which would make no sense if it presupposes he's facing the people throughout; but it does make sense if it presupposes he is not facing the people at that point, or at least assumes he might be facing toward the Lord.

The Holy Father, before being elected pope, wrote repeatedly about the importance of this question, and the subject is much talked about by those with expertise in this area: perhaps the Church needs to reconsider the decision to have the priest face the people across the altar. Most believe this was called for by Vatican II; on the contrary, Vatican II said not a word about it, but rather, this originated in a subsequent document attempting to carry it out; and even then, as I say, the norms do not seem to preclude ad orientem, even if it has become all but universal for Roman Catholics.

Some will ask, "Father, why don't you celebrate Mass publicly ad orientem?"

My answer is that I believe a lot more discussion and catechesis is needed on this subject, and as it is, I've raised many other liturgical issues for my two parishes--as are the bishops and the pope -- and it's only fair to let people reflect and absorb those. Even the smallest changes in a parish Mass or church are noticed and need explaining; something like this would be a significant shift, and the people are entitled to know why the priest is doing it, and to have something like that happen in a positive and not a negative way. It's neither courteous nor practical to force it or pulls surprises. I would point out that even the Holy Father has not chosen to do so in his public liturgies, with one exception I know of; and he seems very deliberate in taking a different tack on the liturgy, and I am following his lead closely. In any case, I see no problem doing so privately, indeed, it's practical as I said.

Some of my own reactions to all this:

> The more I offer Mass in Latin, the more natural it feels. This is no surprise; it's the same with any language. And while Latin has a privileged place in the Roman Rite, it's not magical; but for me, connecting with the liturgy in Latin feels a lot more intimate, since the liturgy has been in Latin since very early in the Church. Of course I prefer English for many reasons: I speak and think in English! But by repeatedly offering Mass in Latin, that is less and less a barrier.

> The Latin prayers have unique cadence and beauty that cannot but be lost in translation. Again, this is the same for any language.

> In offering Mass "by myself"--and facing the Lord--I am far less concerned with being heard, whether I enunciate the words for clarity, and any need to give emphasis to words or phrases--all of which is important when proclaiming a text. The result is that I am, well...simply praying! (This may seem odd, but--I really think a lot of the faithful need to reflect on this question: how important is it to you that your priest prays the Mass? Because they may assume it always happens or is easy; and they have a right to know it is often harder than they may assume.)

> In offering the Mass "by myself," I never feel a need to rush. Inevitably, I am mindful of the clock at a public liturgy, and that induces a certain amount of haste, which becomes habitual. When alone, I can reinforce better habits of unhurried prayer. That doesn't mean Mass has to take significantly longer. But when the priest lacks calm in his leadership, it can't be good for anyone else. I find, on these occasions, I can reflect as much as I want to on the actions I'm performing, down to every detail, without self-consciousness or concern that others are distracted in their prayers--and in so doing, I gain small insights about the meaning of what I'm doing.

> In offering Mass toward the Lord, there is a greater intimacy with the Lord. I am looking up at the same crucifix you are; were you present with me, our eyes would focus on the crucifix at the same moment. When offering Mass facing the people, I am unable to do that--which is why I've placed a small crucifix on the altar, facing the priest, at both parishes. If having the crucifix as a focal point during Mass is important to the laity, why any less so the priest? When I lift up the Body and Blood, I see the host and the cup, held before the crucifix--perfect linkage! The laity see that at every Mass; is it reasonable to hold that the priest has no need of such reinforcement?

It is such a shame that there are battle lines over so many of these issues; and people "on both sides" as it were are guilty of contributing to this. Frequently these liturgical controversies are treated as "liberal/progressive v. traditional/conservative," and that's true in many cases, but not always. People who object to incense, or Latin, or "too much" attention to the ritual are often not doing so for any adherence to "liberal" thinking: I can tell you it is equally likely for a "conservative" to say, "Father, Mass takes too long (so cut out that "extra stuff")" as a "liberal."

The ad orientem posture, if we get past this usual dichotomy, and past personal preferences, invites reflections that don't fit the usual categories--i.e., doesn't the priest facing the same way as the people express well the Vatican II notion of a "pilgrim people"? Doesn't it emphasize what the priest and people have in common--i.e., doesn't it support and even, if you reflect on it, enhance, the Vatican II emphasis on the priesthood of the entire faithful, united with the unique, ordained priesthood of the celebrant? On the other hand, doesn't the facing the people mode call for more of an emphasis on the priest as alter Christus--which isn't a bad thing, of course, but isn't that, "pre Vatican II" idea?

Others said it before me, but--I really think the next decade or two will see a waning of some of this dichotomy, because many of those who form sides do so because they remember the "old ways" either with great affection or negativity, or they feel that the changes that came after the Council belong especially to their experience, and they take any shift away ("backward") rather personally. And guess what? As someone born in 1962, I came of age in the Church after all that--I have no strong feelings about the old form of the Mass, and rethinking or reworking how we implement Vatican II doesn't shake me up, because I didn't "live" it (I was making my first communion when the "new Mass" came into force--it's all I knew).

In a Gospel reading recently, we heard the Lord refer to the wise scribe of the kingdom who brings forth "both old and new." That's a good way to approach these issues, don't you think?


Adele said...

Hi Fr.

Thanks so much for adding me to your blogroll. I just added your blog too. Wonderful blog you have here.

God bless you,
Adele and Doug at Journey to Therese.

Darwin said...

This struck me as a really interesting and moving post, somehow. I always enjoy your priest's-eye-view posts, but this one seems very much to the heart of the matter.

Anonymous said...

I echo the statements of darwin.


Joe of St. Thérèse said...

Thank you Father for this post...

I've always thought that it was difficult for a priest to offer Mass versus populum since by default of their position, and not by any intention that they notice the things going on aroud them.

To me it's very important that a priest prays the Mass and pays attention to the rubrics as this helps me the simple lay person who notices the details which are the very actions of Christ as Liturgy is centered around the Trinitarian Mystery.

It's a bit of a chore for me to assist at an English NO Mass, since I am familiar with the Latin and the beauty of the Latin Prayers is not expouded upon in the translations.

Thank you Father again for this.

Joe of St. Thérèse

Joe Oliveri said...

I think the Church needs more priests like Fr. Martin.

Wonderful post, Father.

Tony said...

Fr. Fox,

When you do a private Mass, do you have to give yourself a homily?

Father Martin Fox said...


A homily is not required except on Sundays and holy days of obligation.

When I'm on retreat, and I offer Mass alone on Sunday, I don't give a homily.

Mephibosheth said...

I also agree with Darwin, informative and inspirational as always.

A little off-topic, but inspired by your thoughts about private masses...I struggle with requesting mass intentions, because in my parish (the largest in the diocese), every daily and Sunday mass is "booked" with TWO mass intentions (is that licit?) for weeks at a time. In order to request intentions in a timely manner, particularly for anniversaries of deaths, etc, I would have to go to another parish. I asked a local Franciscan friar (no friary around, he's just on loan to our diocese) about mass intentions, and he said he would on a very limited basis (I made clear I was making a suitable offering), but he doesn't want to become a "mass factory" as he has own work to do.

I suppose part of my hangup is that I'd like to attend the particular masses with intentions I've requested, and I know that's not "required" for the spiritual benefit of those involved. I guess I should be grateful some priest somewhere can offer the Sacrifice of the Mass for my intentions, but it's frustrating.

Any thoughts, Father?


Father Martin Fox said...


This is a subject a lot of people care about, and it's confusing. Many priests get it wrong, let's see if I get it right!

About multiple intentions for a Mass: my understanding is that what church law says is, only one offering or Mass stipend can be accepted for a Mass intention.

Here's the thing: if someone gives a stipend, with a requested intention, one may think s/he has exclusive claims on that Mass -- people will say, "that's my/our Mass." People are very accustomed to this. It could be that when we had more priests and more Masses, there was no issue.

So, as far as I know, there can be multiple intentions, but only one offering can be accepted. After all, there are many intentions mentioned at each and every Mass, both in the prayers of the faithful, as well as in the Eucharistic Prayer as well.

As far as I know, the priest himself can have more than one intention.

I certainly appreciate you wanting to attend Mass that has a particular intention attached to it. But of course, many others have the same desire, and your pastor is, I suppose, trying to respond to everyone fairly. I have the same problem here, and it's more of a problem in bigger parishes.

All I can recommend is that you reflect on the power of the Mass and the desire of the High Priest who offers the Mass to the Father--do you believe He wishes to include you in His Mass? What do you suppose he asks of you in that regard?

Does this help?

Mephibosheth said...

Father, thanks for your clarification of canon law, and above all your emphasis on our great High Priest. I know I can unite my prayers with the Sacrifice of the Mass anytime, even if I'm not there physically to receive communion.

One further practical hindrance is that the only daily mass at my parish is at 9am (with the exception of an additional Wednesday-night mass). Needless to say, the morning mass is largely attended only by home-school families and retirees. (Oh, they add an additional one at 6:45am in Lent and Advent.) So, when I do get to daily mass, it is typically at another parish. We're in a smallish city with 4 parishes, and there is a strong sense of Catholic identity. People often go to Sunday mass at their parish in the 'burbs, and daily mass at another parish closer to work (and because the downtown parishes have a more convenient schedule).

Thanks again,


Simon Platt said...

Dear Frank,

you might like to have a poor priest overseas offer mass for your intention, for example through Aid to the Church in Need (

Simon Platt said...

Dear Father,

I like to speak of "assisting at" mass, but I certainly don't think of it as "assisting the priest". That rather sounds like "helping".

I think Latin is very important, for the reasons you give but also because it reinforces our communion with the church in other places and times.

Please carry on following Peter's example!