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St. Peter's Basilica in the VaticanShutterstock

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March 17, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — A document on the official paper of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State has been pinned to the door of the sacristy of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, forbidding the “individual celebration” of Mass in the ordinary form: that is, the celebration of Mass by a priest on his own, or with just an altar server. Instead, priests are directed to a timetable of “concelebrated” Masses, at which more than one priest takes part in celebrating a single Mass.

For the extraordinary form, which cannot be concelebrated, provision is made for four slots for its celebration, in one chapel in the crypt.

It seems to be a mystery why the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s diplomatic service, should be involved in this, and no less strange that it should apparently contradict the right of priests to celebrate individually enshrined in canon law (can. 902), and the presumption, also in canon law, that priests in good standing be allowed by the rector of any church to celebrate Mass if an altar is free (can. 903).

The fact that priests from all over the world, and those living and working in Rome, have been able up to now to celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s in the early morning, and that visitors can see them stream out of the great sacristy to a myriad of little altars around the upper basilica, and to a whole lot more in the crypt, has been a real joy: an illustration of the Church’s unity in diversity, and of the ceaseless prayer offered to God by His Spouse, the Church.

The explanation given by the document itself is that the new practice will promote “an atmosphere of recollection and liturgical decorum.” What this appears to mean is that someone in a position of authority wants to coerce priests into concelebrating on ideological grounds.

The concelebration of Mass as we know it today was introduced into the Latin Rite by the Second Vatican Council (Sacrosantum Concilium 57), though not for this kind of case. It has been claimed that it is an ancient practice, but this is controversial; there is certainly no precedent before the 1960s of priests being allowed to celebrate with each other, as opposed to with the Pope or a bishop. Already by 1967, however, this is being presented as the preferred option “whenever pastoral needs or other reasonable motives do not prevent it” (Instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium). From then on, a priest who doesn’t have a public Mass to say and wants to celebrate on his own, rather than tag along at a concelebrated Mass, has been under suspicion for old-fashioned attitudes.

There are, however, a great many reasons why a priest might prefer to say his own Mass. He might, for reasons of devotion, want to use different liturgical options, like saying a Votive Mass, or to celebrate Mass at a slightly different time. He might, above all, simply find private Masses spiritually beneficial, since it enables him to focus on God, and not the congregation, for a change. It is for reasons such as these that can. 902 tries to protect priests from being herded together in concelebrations against their will.

Individual celebrations will seem objectionable, however, to those who think that Mass is pointless without a congregation, because they reject the idea that it has objective value, as distinct from the value of the subjective response of the congregation to the show put on for them by a priest, perhaps assisted (as the document suggests) by lectors and cantors.

Against such an attitude, the 1967 document quoted earlier finds it necessary to remind us that “no Mass, indeed no liturgical action, is a purely private action, but rather a celebration of the Church as a society composed of different orders and ministries …” Such reminders have continued to be made in the decades since. In 2007 Pope Benedict wrote (in Sacramentum Caritatis 80) that the celebration of Mass even without the faithful “fosters the priest’s configuration to Christ and strengthens him in his vocation,” reminding us of “the objectively infinite value of every celebration”.

It seems that there is an ideological conflict taking place in the Vatican, and that the many priests who used to celebrate early morning Masses in St. Peter’s are its victims. Other victims will be the dedicated altar servers (members of the Vatican’s junior seminary), and visitors.

It is a terrible tragedy that officials of the Holy See should see it as their job to restrict the celebration of Masses, and cut priests off from a source of spiritual solace. It is no consolation to reflect that what is happening in St. Peter’s happened long ago in many religious communities and cathedrals around the world, whose side altars stand empty and unused, excepts perhaps as places to store cleaning materials or stacked chairs.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.