This morning I was shocked to see this headline at the National Catholic Register (the good one):
Four times I have visited Rome, three as a priest; and of course you always want to visit St. Peter's Basilica. Most of the time, it is crowded, although the sacristans and security personnel and other standers-arounders do try to keep things reverent. Some measure of modest clothing is expected, and if things become too noisy, someone can be heard intoning, "silencio!" There is a dedicated chapel for the Holy Eucharist that is very well protected from gawkers, but if you indicate you wish to pray, a heavy curtain is pulled aside and you will find a quiet, restful place despite the milling about in the colossal nave. Sadly, more recent security needs (I am recalling from my last two trip, 3-4 and 8 years ago) have made simply entering the Basilica tremendously onerous because if terribly long lines.
On the other hand, for those prepared to rise early, you can have a wonderful experience of the Basilica -- that is, of offering and perhaps attending Mass on one of the many side altars in the church, either on the main level, or the lower level. There was no great difficulty arranging to be given some side altar -- that is, if you weren't picky -- on any given day; and you reported to the sacristy, where lots of other priests were preparing for Mass, and then a young altar server would escort you to your designated altar. As I recall, the priest carried the chalice -- veiled -- and the server carried the water and wine. You asked for a Missal and lectionary in one of several languages; English was one that was available; and someone brought that along as well. (This system prevails in Washington, D.C., at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, although there's no altar server; you and any travel companions have to manage all the set up and clean up yourself.) And there, at the altar, a priest alone or with other priests, or with a group of laypeople, could offer a quiet Mass. And as you were led to "your" altar, you could see lots of priests, with or without groups, all along the walls at other altars, and a low mutter of prayer surrounded you.
It's not exactly clear from the article whether this ban on "private Masses" applies only to those offered by a solitary priest, without anyone else, or also to those who wish to bring a group along. I'm against both changes, but the latter would be truly shocking.
Why make this change? Covid can hardly be the reason: how does a priest offering Mass all by himself threaten public health -- as opposed to...wait for it: "concelebration"?
I have my suspicions, but since I know little, I will not ascribe motives. I will simply offer several possibilities:
- Is it because of security? This Basilica is one of the most visible and visited Christian sites in the world, and keeping things calm and safe must be a tremendous headache, all before we add the fact that the Successor of Saint Peter and the College of Cardinals frequent this church more than any other. I can imagine someone trying to trim down the coming and going...Except, they aren't saying these priests can't visit; can't come to Mass; rather, they are shunting them from these quiet, early hours to later, more crowded times. Hmm, hard to see how that helps secure the basilica, but perhaps I am missing something?
- Is it because of budget cuts? Is it because there's just too much coming and going? As I mentioned, St. Peter's gets a LOT of traffic, and I can sympathize with some in the Holy See saying, "look, we're not stopping people from visiting, but things are out of hand. And, we're running big deficits" (which is true). Could be, but I'm a little skeptical.
- Is it because of someone's liturgical notions? There is a very loud, pseudo-scholarly argument that a priest offering Mass "all by himself" is bad and should be given very little tolerance: the so-called "private Mass." That a priest ought always to offer Mass with others; hence concelebration ought to be favored over a priest offering Mass "privately." And the article suggests this indeed may be a reason for the change, if not the reason. This is why I'm frustrated the article doesn't clarify whether this ban applies to a group of priests, or to a priest accompanying a group of laity -- but my hunch is that the latter two situations are still allowed, and that will support this thesis.
It is not true that a priest is not allowed, or "not supposed to" offer Mass privately. Check me out: Canon Law says he may do so for a "just" cause, which in church-law language is not a tremendously high bar. What might these just causes be? He's sick. He's on a day of rest. He's traveling. He's visiting a place of pilgrimage. Or, how about: there's a pandemic, and public authorities and ecclesial authorities have barred celebrations of the Mass with the people? Sounds cray-cray, but...it could happen!
What is behind this anti-"private Mass" mindset is a legitimate insight: that the Mass, the sacraments, and all the sacred actions of the Body of Christ are for God's People, and so having the Mass, and celebrating the sacraments, praying the Divine Office, and any other blessings and rituals of the Church, are public and should welcome the participation of the faithful. So, it's often that people want me to bless things: it seems better, doesn't it, that they be present when I bless them; and even if those particular people can't be there, doesn't it seem fitting that someone else be present? Sure!
But what has happened in recent decades is that someone latches onto such admirable insights, which can be found in various documents issuing from (or after) the Second Vatican Council (ooh, you just knew this was going to come up, didn't you?), and then makes that insight a kind of liturgical North Star around which everything must be organized.
This can become a kind of mania. Because there is a passage somewhere in Vatican II-related documents about preferring the faithful receiving the Eucharist from the Sacrifice offered in their presence, you have priests who think it's a sin -- and contrary to law -- to distribute the Eucharist from the tabernacle (in fact this practice is neither sinful nor contra lege); I know one such priest who would count out an exact number of hosts for each Mass, and then if he overcounted, he would -- in front of the faithful -- cram the remaining hosts into his mouth, rather than open the tabernacle and repose them there.
So, of course it's generally preferable for a priest to offer Holy Mass with others. But back to some of the reasons a priest might offer Mass "privately." A priest is traveling, and he makes a trip around an area where there are many beautiful churches containing relics or shrines he longs to visit. His visits will spread throughout the day, naturally. He may not speak the local language; do you really think he should concelebrate in a language he knows nothing of? (Good luck persuading anyone to use Latin!) The local parish may be tremendously accommodating; but such a visit may also be disruptive. And -- to say out loud what we all know -- the observance of liturgical norms in this particular place may be rather...relaxed.
And for that matter, for whatever reason, the visiting priest's arrival doesn't coincide with any scheduled Mass. What then? Shall he then ask the sacristan to ring up a gaggle of the faithful so that there is not inflicted on the Body of Christ, the horror of a (shudder!) "private" Mass? It doesn't happen often in a rural parish, but occasionally, I will have a priest call, or even knock on my door, asking: do you mind if I offer Mass today? And if I know -- or can establish -- that this is a priest in good standing, and there's no great difficulty, of course I let him do so. There are priests I know who will stop in periodically, so I just give them the keys, because they know where everything is and I trust them to take care of things.
Now, if you've paid attention, you've noticed me repeatedly put "private" in quotes in reference to Mass; because while there's a valid point here, that a priest is offering Mass in a less-public way than is customary, nevertheless, it remains the case that no Mass is ever actually private. No priest is ever offering Holy Mass "alone." There are always members of the Body of Christ present at all Masses -- right? And every Mass, offered anywhere, is always benefiting the entire Body of Christ. So can we just stop getting fussy about a priest who now and then wants to offer Mass very quietly, while he's on vacation, or on his day of rest?
"But what about concelebration?" I am not as much a foe of concelebration as some priests I know and respect, but they have a point that needs to heard: concelebrating Mass is not the same as being the celebrant of Mass, as can be seen very clearly if you take a good, hard look. And, whatever its antecedents in other branches of the Catholic Church, or in the far past of the Latin Rite, it remains true that in our Roman branch, if it existed prior to 1970 at all, it has been gone for a very, very, very long time. Such a change isn't a minor thing, and it isn't at all clear it's an entirely good change. There is something very good about a central focus at Mass -- so liturgists tell us! -- such that it's best to have but one altar; and to have but one chalice, and to have but one paten filled with bread to be consecrated. So what about having one celebrant in persona Christi capitis, as opposed to a liturgical seven-headed hydra?
Now, I think IF the concelebration is done just right...
Meaning, the added priests are vested really well, and don't mill about and get in each other's way, or act all chummy like they are at a party, but instead each and every one knows what he is supposed to do; and if they are all facing the same way -- as each other and everyone else, rather than facing the faithful and each other as if across a buffet table -- and the overall liturgy is itself conducted with dignity and decorum...
Or, if the added priest is but one, or maybe two -- as opposed to a busload...
And this happens only occasionally...
Well then, that sort of concelebration can be edifying.
But we all know that's not what happens, no matter how good the intentions of all concerned.
The reactions of the faithful -- who don't waste their time becoming learned in the arcanities of liturgists -- tell the tale. When concelebration happens, their descriptions don't reflect the expectation of one, ONE celebrant. No, the ever-observant faithful speak frankly of multiple celebrants. They know what they see. The following statement is simply true: without invalidating the Mass, or being illicit, the regular inclusion of concelebrants changes the Mass for all concerned in some significant ways. Are these changes good or bad? Wouldn't that be important to know?
So, back to St. Peter's Basilica. I don't know what's going on. I don't like this news, but it may end up being less of a change than it seems in practice -- i.e., there may soon appear more and more "exceptions" or else, a priest may be allowed to offer Mass as long as someone else is there to chaperone him. And in any case, I am extremely confident that this new restriction will not spread very successfully. You can be in a church a mile or two from the Vatican geographically, but experientially, you might as well be 10,000 miles away. Il papa may be pope down there, but ecce? Il sacristano!
Update: Father Z is on it...