Can a priest offer Mass “privately”?

Me set up for daily Mass on a recent vacation, in the house I stayed in.

No Mass is truly private, in at least two senses:

  1. The Mass belongs to the Church and is celebrated only with her authorization;
  2. The angels and saints are present at every Mass, as well as whatever other faithful may be in attendance.

That said, May a priest offer a Mass with no one else in attendance — that is, “privately”?

The Code of Canon Law encourages priests to offer Mass daily — indeed, instructs us to offer Mass “frequently”. Yet, the only priests who have a duty (from Canon Law) to offer Mass at any time are pastors, who must offer Mass “for the people” on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and likewise bishops of dioceses (not bishops who are retired or in other positions), who also must offer Mass for their people on Sundays and Holy Days. All other priests could presumably just attend a Mass on Sunday and have fulfilled the obligation that binds all Catholics.

Nonetheless, we priests are encouraged to offer Mass frequently — even daily, when possible. Canon 904 says, “Remembering always that in the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice the work of redemption is exercised continually, priests are to celebrate frequently; indeed, daily celebration is recommended earnestly since, even if the faithful cannot be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church in which priests fulfill their principal function.”

Our “principal function”! Yes — offering Mass and the other sacraments. Not pushing paper. Not sitting in meetings. Not designing capital campaigns. Not eating out. Not blogging or facebooking! Offering Mass! (And the other sacraments.)

So this canon already recognizes the possibility of Mass without any other members of the faithful present — a Mass celebrated “privately”, so to speak. But Canon 906 further clarifies this matter: “Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful.” Here we see that the ideal is not a “private” Mass. However, it is permitted for a “just and reasonable cause”. In canonical language, this is the lowest bar there is. Some quip that a “just cause” means “just cuz”! In practical terms, there are any number of possibilities:

  1. It could be the priest’s day off and he is not scheduled for a public Mass;
  2. He might be on vacation (see photo of me, above) and be celebrating in his hotel room or AirBnB or similar;
  3. He might not have a parish assignment at present, being assigned to further studies or a chancery position or something; etc., and so forth.

The clause, “just and reasonable cause”, then, removes most every obstacle from a priest’s celebrating Mass daily. Apart from cases of sickness (e.g., being laid-up in bed) or being prevented by travel or other impossibility, for most priests, the only other thing that might prevent him from being able to celebrate Mass every single day would be if he should have the misfortune to fall into mortal sin — in which case he should not celebrate until he has gotten to confession (canon 916). The faithful should likewise never receive Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin.

Many priests today think that, if there is not some parish or other scheduled Mass they can at least concelebrate, they should not offer Mass. Some priests were taught that private Mass was not permitted. That could not be further from the truth. The Church desires that all priests renew the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary daily, if possible, so that in our world where sin abounds so greatly, grace may abound all the more (Rom 5:20).

I always warn people not to take a vacation from God when they go on vacation (e.g., by missing Mass or otherwise missing normal prayer times). For us priests, also, this is important: we should make plans to offer Mass daily during our vacations, insofar as possible, lest we lose sight of what our priestly vocation entails – lest we deprive the world (and ourselves) of graces that we so desperately need. Yes – in a church with faithful in attendance, if possible. But, if not – even privately, on some altar only seen by God or even on a table in our hotel room!

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Sufficient Confession Times

A priest-friend of mine has remarked that every priest should take his weekly confession time (in minutes), multiply by 52 weeks, then divide by the number of individual parishioners over the age of reason. The result is how many minutes each parishioner gets for confession each year. The answer in many parishes may be surprising and/or pathetic.

One of the precepts of the Church is that we should confess our mortal sins at least once a year, during the Easter season (part of our “Easter duty” — though, traditionally, the season of Lent is included in the time that we might fulfill this duty). This precept is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2042, and in the Code of Canon Law, canon 989. But confession once a year (whether we have mortal sins or not) is really a bare minimum — and do we really want to be “bare minimum Catholics” with the Lord? What would it look like if we were to take that approach consistently through life and, as a result, be unprepared for death (because we died before yearly confession time)? And how will our judgment go if – by some happy provision – we were to die in the state of grace (in spite of our overall lack of generosity with God), yet had offered God basically the bare minimum throughout our life up to death? To do the bare minimum is to aim low and very greatly risk missing the mark.

We should go to confession on a regular basis, even if all we have are venial sins. Those who confess regularly make true spiritual progress. They receive special graces to help them reach the state of perfection even in this life, before the Lord calls them to eternal life. After all, Jesus told us in the gospel, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Yet, do our parish confession schedules really help? Let’s take, for example, a parish that offers confessions from 4 to 4:50 on Saturdays and additionally has a Lenten Penance service with five priests there for 1.5 hours. Let’s further assume that about 2,500 souls above the age of reason attend that parish. So that’s 50 minutes per week times 52 weeks, plus 90 minutes times 5 priests for the extra penance service. Then, divided by 2,500 people. The outcome is 1.22 minutes per person for the year. Not even the most experienced frequent penitent can blurt out his or her sins that fast, recite his or her act of contrition, and receive advice, penance, and absolution in such a time – never mind someone who might go far less frequently!

The reality is that most of our parishes do not take the sacrament seriously, at least as far as the schedule that they offer goes. It doesn’t matter how good the priest is as a priest and as a confessor, if, at the end of the day, he does not schedule enough time for all his parishioners to go regularly. (I count myself in this critique — we do have confessions six days a week in my parish, but we could certainly increase our offering.)

Fathers, how can we preach better use of this sacrament, if we do not offer it? I know well what it’s like to “sit in the box” with no one coming. And yes, while some claim that if we but schedule it “they will come”, I know also that does not always happen. In some places it really is an uphill battle. I’ve also read many fine spiritual treatises that offer a spirituality to the priest who finds himself alone “in the box”. Armed with his breviary and mental prayer, he can still accomplish a lot for the Church, even if the overall traffic that day is light. So in any case… do we offer a schedule that is serious and shows that we are taking the sacrament that we preach seriously?

(Another factor to consider in the above calculation is whether it is reasonable for the majority of parishioners to come from 4 to 4:50pm on a Saturday — or whatever the weekly time might be, where that is all that is offered.)

Life today is overly complex and priests are too busy. I myself have far too much to do for one priest and regularly have to decide between tasks; I also have to live with my decisions and wonder if I decided well and if the Lord will forgive me for what I chose to set aside “for later”. It’s not easy. But there is a certainly priestly priority of things; we all risk losing sight of what is most important: the things that only a priest can do, namely, the celebration of the sacraments.

I liken this to the issue of Holy Day of Obligation schedules. Some priests, seeing that perhaps a certain Holy Day is poorly attended, offers a Mass schedule that might even be less than what is routinely offered to meet the Sunday obligation — or with Masses at inconvenient times. But for the five (generally speaking) Holy Days of Obligation, why wouldn’t we offer at least the same number of Masses as we have for Sundays? In fact, we may need to offer more, given that many people have to work on those days anyhow. In my parish, we have a Saturday anticipated Mass and two Sunday morning Masses; but as of last year I started offering both a Vigil/anticipated Mass for most Holy Days as well as three Masses on the actual Holy Day — in sum, one more Mass than we offer for Sundays.

There is a humorous meme that I have seen on social media, to the effect that no one on his judgment day thinks to himself, “I wish I had spent more time on Facebook”. I doubt there will be many priests on judgment day who think, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time offering confessions”. The above simple calculation can help us start to set the right priorities. May our Lord help us, then, to carry them out.

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Is it OK to pray what’s on the St. Benedict Medal?

A question that I have gotten on a few recent occasions, including following the homily I preached this past Sunday about exorcisms (PDF download), is: Is it OK to say the prayer that is on the medal of St. Benedict?

Because of its length (and possibly to avoid having people actually pray it themselves, though I only speculate on that point), it is abbreviated on a traditional medal — just the first letter of each word (in Latin) is given. Spelled out, one of the prayers is: “Vade retro Satana! Nunquam suade mihi vana! Sunt mala quae libas. Ipse venena bibas!” (Get behind me, Satan! Never tempt me with your vanities! What you offer is evil. Drink the poison yourself!)

The concern that people have — and this goes back to my homily — is that, if recited by the person wearing the medal, he or she would be speaking directly to the Evil One. And that is not a good idea.

It is important to remember that the Medal of St. Benedict is a sacramental which itself is blessed using a prayer of exorcism. (See here for another post about who may do this blessing/exorcism.) As a sacramental, the medal is endowed with spiritual power by the Church to accomplish that which the Church intends by it.

Therefore, I would say that the prayer on the medal is not for us to say, since it is not prudent to speak to the devil or his demons. Rather, the Church, as it were, says the prayer on our behalf – since it is on the medal she endowed with special powers for our spiritual protection. The medal itself is the prayer, if you will. This is why it is so important to have a St. Benedict Medal properly blessed and exorcised by a priest who uses the correct formula. Many have spoken from experience of the power this medal has, when used with faith and trust in God and not superstitiously.

When we are tempted, we should ask God, the Blessed Mother, and the other saints to deliver us from the evil that threatens. Perhaps during that quick moment of prayer we might touch the medal that we are wearing to recall that extra layer of help we have assumed. In any case, we should never address the evil directly ourselves.

Incidentally, the Monastery of St. Benedict (Monastere San-Benoit) in La Garde-Freinet, France produces very fine medals of St. Benedict at reasonable prices, and it does not take forever for them to get to the US by the shipping method they use. Take a look at this page (or click the photo above) to see what they currently offer.

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Appeal for Vocations Promotion Support

UPDATE: Thank you to all who so quickly bought the items on the list! I will put benefactor labels in them, asking those who use them to pray for those who donated. I am humbled by such a generous and swift response. Thanks!

An effective way to promote vocations to the priesthood is by teaching young men to pray the Church’s prayer — The Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. And a good place to start with that is not with the four-volume complete set, but an abridged version called Christian Prayer.

Some of you have already very generously purchased eight copies of this book from my “vocations wish list“. I would like to get about 20 more copies of this book so that I have enough for a project that I am working on.

These will all be given to young men, who will also be taught how to use them. Only good can come of this — right? Either they will use them and reach greater clarity (through this and other means) concerning their possible vocation, or perhaps they will drift off but will give them away to someone else who will use them. Some of them might go on to get married, but also pray the Church’s prayer as part of their spiritual discipline. There are lots of possibilities, and they overall seem good.

HERE IS MY AMAZON VOCATIONS WISH LIST – please consider helping me get the additional books needed for this effort. If you order through this list it should give you the option of having it shipped directly to me at my parish. There is also a possibility of ordering an Ordo on the list, which makes it easier for beginners to find their place as they pray. Thank you for your support!

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The Seal of Confession

Non ut homo, sed ut Deus — Not as a man, but as God

The Apostolic Penitentiary – the office of the Holy See that handles matters relating to the internal forum – recently issued a “note” on the Seal of Confession. This was ostensibly done because of recent grave decisions of courts and legislatures in various parts of the world, including right here in the United States (in California, but not only in recent years), to enact or attempt to impose laws that threaten the privileged status the Sacrament of Confession has always enjoyed even in civil jurisprudence.

Such new “laws” cannot alter the law of God or dispense anyone from it; therefore, it is necessary that the Church’s pastors remind and be reminded of this fact. The Seal of Confession is an absolute secret and no human power can change that.

The document was issued in Italian; presumably it will be translated into English and other languages, but who knows when that will happen. I do not have time to translate the whole thing, but I do wish to share today one brief passage that I think is very important concerning the Seal of Confession (my translation, leaving in some of the funny uses of quotation marks in the original, follows):

The priest indeed comes to know the sins of the penitent “non ut homo, sed ut Deus — not as a man, but as God”,* to such an extent that he simply “does not know” that which was said to him in the confessional, because he did not hear it as a man but, truly, in the name of God.  The confessor could therefore even “swear”, without any detriment to his own conscience, to “not knowing” that which he knows only as a minister of God. By its particular nature, the sacramental seal even goes so far as to bind the confessor “interiorly”, such that he is prohibited from recalling a confession voluntarily and he is bound to suppress all involuntary memories of the same.

* See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Suppl., 11, 1, ad 2.

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Prayer to the Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph

This morning, while I was finally responding to some ancient correspondence from a dear religious sister friend, I came across a holy card that she had sent me, that I had forgotten about. It has a prayer to the Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph on it. This is a good prayer:

St. Joseph, you accepted your mission from God: to be the husband of Mary and the foster-father and guardian of Jesus. In the home at Nazareth and in your most chaste heart, there was no place for sin. Help us to imitate that purity of heart and act with resolve like you, when God calls. May the power of grace transform us to accept the reign of Christ in our own hearts. Inspire in us a strong devotion to your most chaste heart. In doing so, you promise to safeguard us in this life and console and defend us at the moment of death. St. Joseph, we trust in your intercession. You wait silently, always at hand and pleased to assist those who dedicate themselves to you. And at the end of our lives, may we enjoy and share your most privileged intimacy with Our Lady and the Blessed Trinity in heaven. Amen.

* * *

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Midsummer: St. John’s Eve

Last night was the Vigil of the Solemnity of St. John the Baptist – St. John’s Eve. A traditional and lovely Catholic tradition for the occasion is to have a bonfire – and to have a priest bless it. Here is the prayer:

O Lord God, almighty Father, unfailing light and source of all light: sanctify + this new fire, and grant that, after the darkness of this life, we may come unsullied to you who are light eternal. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The history of this tradition is quite interesting — read some more HERE.

Hopefully, someday, I’ll have to make the rounds on June 23 to bless multiple fires for my parishioners. For now — just one!

This is one of the many beautiful Catholic traditions that make life interesting and sanctify the cycle of seasons. We need to recover a sense of liturgical living that extends beyond Sunday Mass. This is also a great way to evangelize the neighborhood — who doesn’t like to go roast hot dogs and marshmallows? What if the priest happened to show up and say a prayer!? So many of our Catholic traditions and devotions are wonderful means for drawing others to the faith.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

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Corpus Christi 2019

Quantum potes, tantum aude

Happy Feast Day!

Sion, lift thy voice and sing;
Praise thy Savior and thy King;
Praise with hymns thy Shepherd true.

Strive thy best to praise Him well,
Yet doth He all praise excel;
None can ever reach His due.

— From the Sequence for today’s feast, Lauda Sion by St. Thomas Aquinas

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Teaching How to Receive on the Tongue

One thing I’ve encountered in various places is that there are people who wish to start receiving communion on the tongue (maybe when they made their first communion they were only given the option of receiving in the hand), but they are nervous about doing so. For many it’s almost like their second First Holy Communion: Will I do it right? Will I stick my tongue out too far? Etc.

Then there are those cases where parents may want to practice a bit with their children. This could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps Junior or Juniorina is a bit klutzy and mom and dad just want to be sure. Maybe the parish religious education program is pretty pro-communion-in-the-hand and doesn’t really teach about receiving on the tongue. Or, maybe the child already made his or her first communion but the family now wishes to change how they all go to communion.

Whatever the case may be, a little home-practice is sometimes a good thing.

I have suggested to many people that they get Necco® wafers and use those for practice purposes. I grew up with Neccos and know how wonderful they are, particularly the chocolate ones. They can be difficult to find, however. Also, there is the fact that they are a fair amount thicker than a host and do not dissolve easily; they are rather crunchy and need to be chewed. As good as they taste, they might not be the best material for practicing communion on the tongue.

Today I recalled another solution I once found.

Most Mexican stores sell a product called “obleas” (oh-BLAY-uhs). These are wheat flour wafers that have coloring added. They are only slightly larger than a typical communion host and have a similar consistency and taste. Here’s a photo of a pack I got at our local Latino mega-mart, Mi Pueblo:

The Spanish word “oblea” means “wafer”. It’s not the brand name.

In some places these are called, simply, “hostias” (hosts). In fact, I remember seeing in Mexico that a lot of convents that made hosts for Mass sold the “scraps” (cutouts remaining after they made the hosts, and also the “rejects” — misshapen hosts or whatever) in bags on the street. People enjoy them as snacks and might put cajeta (caramel made with goat’s milk) on them. I also saw these colored versions in Mexico.

Well, go to your local Mexican tienda and see if you can find these. I’ve also seen them sold loose in a bag instead of lined up in rows like in this pack. Here is another photo:

With a similar texture and taste as a Mass-host, these make for good practice. With color added, they also remind (especially children) that this is only a test.

For locals, I found these in the back-left of Mi Pueblo in one of the aisles where they have piñatas hanging from the ceiling. Mi Pueblo is a really fun store, by the way. Not only can you get these practice-host-snack things there, but you can pick up a rosary or brown scapular in the checkout line, buy an Our Lady of Guadalupe statue, or get just about any religious candle you could want. Oh — and they sell large tubs of lard! Here are just a few more photos — the whole store is eminently photographable and a really fun place to visit:

So I hope this idea is of use for families with children getting ready for first communion or for others who wish to start receiving on the tongue. A little practice can increase ease and confidence and ensure that communion is a prayerful experience of being fed by the Lord via the consecrated hands of His priest.

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For the Priest’s Parents

A friend of mine pointed out a votive Mass to me today that I had not seen before, which he found in his Extraordinary Form Missal. It is the Mass for the priest’s deceased parents.

(Thankfully, my parents are living. But I know many priests whose parents have already gone to God. What a grace for a priest to be able to offer Mass for his parents!)

A screenshot of the Extraordinary Form prayers is above. Now, my initial reaction upon hearing of this Mass was: bummer, another Mass that I bet did not make it into the Ordinary Form Missal. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that not only was it in the section of Masses for the Dead, but it was translated verbatim from the Extraordinary Form – not the least bit of tinkering (unlike so many of the other prayers that “made it”)!

So priests may offer this Mass in either form of the Roman liturgy for their deceased parents. Here is a screen shot of the Novus Ordo prayers — which, for those who do not know Latin, faithfully translate the text that is above:

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace! Amen.

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The World-Famous Passion Play in Oberammergau

In August of 2020 I am leading a 10-day trip through Central Europe to, among other things, see the world-famous Passion Play in Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany.

The Passion Play has taken place there since the early 17th century, when locals vowed to God to put on the production if he would deliver them from the plague. It has taken place every ten years since. Read more HERE.

For many — as I would expect it would be for myself — this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Beyond seeing the Passion Play, we’ll also be going to other points in Bavaria and Austria, as well as to Prague. A beautiful part of the world with a rich Catholic history.

Joe Long from ProRome is organizing this trip. I led a pilgrimage to Rome a little over a year ago that was organized by him, and he did a wonderful job. He does great leading a truly Catholic pilgrimage! Read more about Joe and his lovely wife, Rachel, HERE.


The registration deadline is approaching — August 30!

Consider joining us for this excellent spiritual opportunity!

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The Ornamentation of Albs

This past Sunday at one of the Masses I wore the alb (white robe worn under the priestly vestments, over street clothes) pictured in the photo above, with red “IHS” embroidery around the bottom. I was a bit surprised by the number of people who asked me about it after Mass! Perhaps it’s because the decoration on it was so bold, whereas other albs have embroidery in white or gray — and so not as noticeable. But people wondered if there was any special meaning connected with it.

The word “alb” means “white” and so that is ordinarily the color that such garments should be. As the garment that covers over the priest’s street clothes, and so helps him “put on Christ” — the Christ in whose person he acts in the sacred liturgy (in persona Christi) — it makes sense that it should be white. There are off-white variants, but I think a pure white is most appropriate.

With regard to the further ornamentation or decoration of the alb, there are really no rules at present; all we have are historical precedents to go by. These generally fall into four categories:

  1. Lace decorations;
  2. Woven decorations;
  3. Embroidered decorations;
  4. Appareled decorations.

A lace decoration can be seen in the following photo of another alb I have; the bottom 12″ or so of both the sleeves and the lower hem are comprised of lace (with a religious design, although that’s not strictly necessary) instead of a solid fabric:

The color of the cassock that the priest is wearing underneath shows through the lace in these cases, or it is permitted for a red backing to be sewn in. This red backing for non-prelates was sort of “tolerated”, not enthusiastically approved (I have the references to various decrees for those who are interested — use the contact form), but in any case they did catch on in some places. So red or black behind the lace.

Sometimes, of course, instead of having a hem of lace, there might be an insert instead — on the bottom, on the sleeves, or both. There are also various types that are lace or a decorated sheer fabric from the waist down. Some people find these styles very distasteful. Some are also very insecure about them.

A woven decoration usually is of the pulled-thread variety. Several rows of threads might be pulled out of the weft of the fabric, and the warp threads that remain might then be bunched together in decorative designs, possibly with further embroidered accents. Here is an example of this type of decoration, made popular especially during the papacy of St. John Paul II by his MC (incidentally, these are often also an example of an off-white base color):

An embroidered decoration is precisely like that pictured in the photo at the top of this post. It may take any number of forms and be in any number of colors.

Finally, there are albs that are “appareled“. This means that a strip of cloth that complements the other vestments the priest is wearing is attached to the bottom, as well as other parts (the amice — or what is worn around the neck — and sometimes also the sleeves). This illustration shows some examples of albs that have apparels attached to them:

Notice the rectangle of decorated fabric at the bottom in each case — and on at least two cases that are visible (2nd and 3rd from the left), also on the sleeves. All the cases show the apparel decoration around the neck — a sort of decorative collar — as well.

Appareled albs are far less common nowadays. The most common types are the lace, woven, or embroidered varieties mentioned above. Or, plain white with no decoration, which many prefer (and which I often wear also).

Most all of these decorations are purely aesthetic. The idea being, these garments honor God and are meant to veil the individual identity of the priest; we should offer our best and most beautiful to the Lord. This offering is most fittingly made with a clean conscience by someone who is actively pursuing holiness, lest it be merely a matter of aesthetics.

In some cases decorations might display the rank of the priest wearing them, through a certain color or other insignia that might be proper to his rank. But this is fairly uncommon nowadays.

The fact that so many asked me about these details this past week suggests to me that people are concerned with the particulars of worship — not only the broader strokes but the finer particulars that we include in our offering to God, the source of all beauty and holiness. These particulars depart fairly radically from what we wear “on the street”, because what we do at the altar is anything but ordinary; only by entering into the ritual formality and solemnity of our Rite do we fittingly call to mind and, indeed, take an active part in the sacred drama.

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