Jul 15, 2021

Rite Questions: Celebrating Mass Alone?

Q: How does a priest celebrate Mass with only one minister? Or even alone?

The following replies are from the March-April 2021 Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter and are reprinted here with the Committee’s permission.

A: Chapter Four of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) delineates different forms of celebrating Mass. The first two sections of the chapter discuss the most common ways Mass is celebrated: “Mass with the People” and “Concelebrated Mass,” both of which presume the presence of a community and a variety of ministers exercising their proper roles. The third section of the chapter, however, discusses the celebration of Mass when there is no congregation. Titled “Mass at Which Only One Minister Participates,” the section also makes reference to another form of celebrating Mass, namely, the celebration of Mass by a solitary priest, without the presence of a congregation or even a server. Whether celebrated with only one minister or by a solitary priest, both forms are sometimes colloquially referred to as “private Masses” (although that term is sometimes applied also to a Mass celebrated with a small group of the faithful). What follows is a brief background of these two forms of celebrating Mass and a review of current legislation concerning them.

Mass at Which Only One Minister Participates

In the first and second editions of the post-Conciliar Roman Missal—the former Sacramentary—the usual form of celebrating Mass is termed “Mass with a Congregation” (De Missa cum populo). The third edition keeps that same name, albeit with a new English translation (“Mass with the People”). The first and second editions of the Missal contrast this form with “Mass without a Congregation” (De Missa sine populo), while the third edition changes the title to “Mass at Which Only One Minister Participates” (De Missa, cuius unus tantum minister assistit). This background perhaps explains why certain rubrics of the Missal still maintain the distinction between Masses with the people and those without the people, as is seen in the rubrics for Thursday of Holy Week and before the Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions.

All three editions of the Missal contain an Order of Mass for celebrations at which one minister assists the priest. The first and second editions seem to reflect certain aspects of the 1962 Missale Romanum, such as the recitation of the Confiteor at the foot of the altar, and the reverence of the altar and recitation of the Entrance Antiphon following the Confiteor but before the Kyrie. Liturgical actions from the Entrance Antiphon through the Universal Prayer are to be carried out at the left side of the altar, before moving to the center of the altar for the remainder of the Mass. The third edition of the Missal, however, harmonizes more of these rubrics with the instructions for Masses with the people. The Order of Mass for each form is now more consistent, and references to the chair and the ambo, absent from previous editions, are incorporated into those of the third edition.

Masses with a single minister are permitted except in the following cases: when a concelebration is taking place in the same church or oratory, on Holy Thursday, and for the Mass of the Easter Vigil (see GIRM, 199, and Roman Missal, Thursday of Holy Week, 1). Otherwise, no special reason or necessity is required to justify this form of celebrating Mass.

The Order of Mass with the Participation of a Single Minister (OMPSM) is found in the Missal immediately after the chants for the Eucharistic Prayers and before the first Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation. Variations from what one sees in the regular Order of Mass include the following:

  • The Introductory Rites may occur at the chair or the altar (see GIRM, 256).
  • The Confiteor of the Penitential Act uses second person pronouns in the singular (see OMPSM, 3). (Curiously, the invitation before the Prayer over the Offerings uses the plural [see 18]).
  • There is no rubric regarding the Homily.
  • While the norm for the Universal Prayer in the regular Order is descriptive (“Then follows the Universal Prayer” [20]), in this case, the norm is permissive: “there may follow the Universal Prayer” (11; see GIRM, 264).
  • The corporal, purificator, and chalice may be placed on the altar at the usual time or at the beginning of Mass (see OMPSM, 12, and GIRM, 255).
  • While the regular Order says that the words at the solemn depositio of the bread and wine may be prayed “in a low voice” or “aloud,” here the rubric simply indicates “saying” before the two prayers (see OMPSM, 13 and 15).
  • If the minister is not to receive Holy Communion, the Priest omits the invitation, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and begins immediately with, “Lord, I am not worthy” (see OMPSM, 26, and GIRM, 268).
  • The Concluding Rites occur as usual, but the dismissal is omitted (see GIRM, 272).

Masses Celebrated Alone

The Missal attends to this form of Mass in a single paragraph of the GIRM: “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 instructions, and the blessing at the end of Mass are omitted” (254; see canon 906). It is important to note the genre of the norm: this is a prohibition that admits of exceptions. Celebrations of the Mass in this form are therefore extraordinary and should be avoided. Nevertheless, the Church’s law also strongly encourages priests to celebrate Mass daily (see canon 904), and should a priest be faced with the choice to celebrate Mass alone or not to celebrate Mass at all, the law recommends his celebration alone.

In various times and places there have been restrictions or even prohibitions against Masses celebrated alone. For example, in the early ninth century, Theodulf, bishop of Orléans, exhorted the priests of his diocese never to say Mass alone.[1] More recently, the 1949 Instruction Quam plurimum of the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments cites several cases in which Mass may be celebrated alone, e.g., during a pandemic, when otherwise a priest would have to abstain from the Eucharist for a lengthy period of time; or when necessary to consecrate a host to be used as viaticum; or if the server were to leave during the Mass.[2] Clearly, these are not everyday circumstances.

The first and second editions of the Roman Missal, as well as other law in force before the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, required a serious necessity (gravis necessitas) for a priest to celebrate Mass alone. Current law is less restrictive, requiring “a just and reasonable cause.” According to canonist John Huels, “Such a cause would be demonstrated whenever a member of the faithful is unavailable and when the priest is unable to participate in a communal celebration, e.g., as a result of illness, infirmity, or travel.” He adds, “A just and reasonable cause would not be the mere convenience of the priest or his preference for celebrating alone.”[3] As is the case for Masses with a single minister, it is also prohibited as noted above: when a concelebration is taking place in the same church or oratory, on Holy Thursday, and for the Mass of the Easter Vigil.

The Missal does not provide a special Order for Mass for use when a priest is by himself, and, as mentioned above, the GIRM says only that “the greetings, the instructions, and the blessing at the end of Mass are omitted” (254). Based on this laconic norm, a priest in these circumstances would use the Order of Mass with the Participation of a Single Minister, making the necessary adjustments.

—Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship

  1. Cf. “Kapitular VII” in Capitula episcoporum, vol. 1, ed. P. Bommer (MGH) (Hannover: Impensis Bibliopoli Hahniani, 1984), 129.
  2. Cf. sec. III, no. 2: Acta Apostolicæ Sedis 41 (1949), 493-511, at 507.
  3. “The Eucharistic Celebration (cc. 899-933)” in New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, ed. John P. Beal et al. (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), 1103.
The Editors