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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