Sitting at my desk one evening about ten years ago, I wrote excitedly in my journal about an overwhelming experience that morning.
“August 12th. The feast of Saint Clare. Thanks be to God, the greatest and best. This morning, by His unspeakable mercy, I was given the chance to attend a private old-rite Mass and receive the Lord: a gift worth more than all gifts. But without my having the slightest idea it would happen, He also granted me the privilege of serving this Mass, which was offered by the holy Abbot of Fontgombault. There is some sort of Benedictine retreat going on here at the Kartause for a week, with oblates from all over Europe in attendance, and three French abbots and many monks too, and there will be bishops visiting, etc. It’s all rather splendid. Yesterday I’d heard that a monk was going to say the old rite at 6:00, so I got up and came down for it, heading into the sacristy. I found out that the Abbot himself, taking precedence, was going to offer the day’s first Mass before other monks did, and, as I knew how to serve, he asked me if I would serve it. Laus Deo! It was the most peaceful Mass I have ever attended. The Abbot lingered over every phrase, and I honestly thought he was in an ecstasy during the Canon. I felt there were hundreds of souls and spirits in the chapel with us. I am speechless. Glory be to God.”That is the kind of thing you really can’t forget, but even better, it’s the kind of thing you really can’t plan, either. The lack of planning is part of the gift. It comes like a thief in the night. You know you don’t deserve it, and it comes to you anyway, because the Lord is so good to us sinners.
The daily offering
The reason I’m recounting this story isn’t to focus on the experience itself, but rather on what it helped me to see about one important facet of our Catholic tradition, in a lesson that mingled pain with joy. This monk’s offering of the holy sacrifice for his own sins and for the sins of the world embodied in its very prayerfulness, by its God-focused intensity, an irrefutable justification for the long-standing custom of private Masses1 offered by individual monks prior to their conventual Mass, or, for that matter, by any priest who has the possibility of celebrating a daily Mass. I envisioned in my mind’s eye all of these monks quietly beseeching the divine mercy all over the world: a small army of Abraham’s “just men,” placating divine wrath and winning grace for sinners.
As most readers of this journal will know, up until the liturgical rupture it was customary for each priest who lived in a monastery or other religious community both to celebrate his own private Mass each morning and to assist at a communal or conventual Mass. The rationale was obvious: the Mass is the foremost act of religion, devotion, prayer, adoration, thanksgiving, and praise that any ministerial priest can offer, since it is none other than the immolation of the High Priest Himself. As Venerable Pope Pius XII explained: “It cannot be overemphasized that the Eucharistic sacrifice of its very nature is the unbloody immolation of the divine Victim, which is made manifest in a mystical manner by the separation of the sacred species and by their oblation to the eternal Father.”2 Each and every Mass pours forth the fruits of the sacrifice of Calvary into the Church, for the inestimable benefit of all the faithful—for the release of souls in purgatory, for the honor of the saints in heaven, and for the perseverance of souls on earth—and ultimately for the salvation of the entire world.3 Therefore, objectively speaking, the more Masses celebrated, the better off the world is.
In the maelstrom of postconciliar changes, the private Mass fell under a shadow of suspicion, even contempt. With rare exceptions, individual monks no longer celebrate private Masses. If there are several priests living in one place with one publicly scheduled Mass, they will generally concelebrate it. Surely there is something amiss here. The profound sacramental theology we inherit from the Middle Ages and the Council of Trent teaches us that each Mass—or to be more specific, each enactment of the mystical oblation on the altar—is a renewal and application of the saving event of the Cross, and as such, wins further pardon and actual graces for the human race. How, then, can this shift towards the communal be justified? Would not a denial that each priest should celebrate his own Mass each day imply at some level a repudiation of this theology, and with it, a downplaying of the Mass as a true propitiatory sacrifice? I am not speaking of a formal repudiation, such as Luther’s or Calvin’s, whereby the Mass is denied to be a sacramental representation of the sacrifice of Calvary. I mean a repudiation of the truth that each and every Mass advances the salvation of the world. If the practice of individual Masses is abandoned, it appears that personnel in the Church have made a decision that affects, nay retards, the salvation of sinners. A monastery in which twelve monks daily offered hoc sacrificium laudis is responsible for pouring out the grace of Calvary twelve times upon this timebound and ever-needy world of ours. The one all-sufficient sacrifice with its intrinsically infinite merit was applied concretely to us, to the world of sinners, a dozen times.4
Priest extending arms after the consecration (Carmelite Rite)
Let’s examine a scenario more closely, to see if mystical theology and common sense can shake hands. Say you have eleven of these monks celebrating Mass at separate side altars each morning, followed later by the conventual Mass that the twelfth monk offers. You have twelve re-presentations of the Sacrifice of Calvary taking place. It is as if the veil separating earth from heaven was pierced twelve times to let the dew of grace fall through, that it might soak into the soil of our souls. Since the Eucharist as a sacrifice is propitiatory, it accomplishes what it represents: each time the Mass is offered, the fruits of the redemption are extended to souls throughout the world. As Pope Leo XIII stated: “Christ has willed that the whole power of His death, alike for expiation and impetration, should abide in the Eucharist, which is no mere empty commemoration thereof, but a true and wonderful though bloodless and mystical renewal of it.”5
Now, let’s say those twelve monks decide to stop celebrating their individual Masses and come together around the altar for one Mass — a single Mass, a single sacramental sacrifice. Certainly there may be several Mass intentions; each priest can bring his own intention and even accept a stipend for it. Nevertheless, when it comes to the immolation of the holy Victim, this Victim is made really present only once, and so the salvific offering of that Victim is made present only once. Extrapolate over the course of the year. At a more traditional monastery of twelve ordained monks, if we count not only the private Missae recitatae (recited or low Masses) but also the community Missae cantatae (chanted or high Masses), what do we find? The living symbols of the Lord’s Passion, the full dynamism of that mystery, will have been made present upon the altar about 4,800 times each year within the walls of their most fortunate church. At a monastery where the twelve scrapped their personal Masses for concelebrated ones, the number drops drastically, to, let’s say, 400 Masses a year. We are looking at a colossal difference in sacramental mediation, priestly intercession, the irruption into the world of the Precious Blood that washes away our sins. I don’t know about you, but it strikes me that several thousand applications of the saving Passion of Christ to a world drowning in sin and suffocating with guilt is a much better prospect for the salvation of men and societies than a few hundred. But that’s just the beginning; I limited myself to one small community of monks. Imagine the difference if we multiplied these figures for all Catholic priests across the face of the earth! By the singular privilege of their ordination and its sacred character, each of them is able to offer every day the one saving Sacrifice of Calvary, but so many, in the past forty years, have chosen instead to limit themselves to a single Mass celebrated en masse.6
The problem with concelebration
If one denies that the number has any significance, is he not on the way to denying the truth of secondary causality, the truth of the historicity or temporality of grace, the truth of the ministerial priesthood, the truth that God cares for creatures—He cares so much for them that it makes a difference to him whether there are still one or two or five just men in a city of criminals? In the Catholic theology of the Mass, each priest, as alter Christus acting in persona Christi, renews the one sacrifice of Calvary, in such a way that both sides of the mystery are safeguarded: (1) there is no other and no further sacrifice than that of Christ, which in itself and with nothing else supposed suffices for the salvation of the whole of creation; and (2) there are ordained priests conformed to and participating in the unique office of the High Priest, such that there are temporally distinct makings-present or presencings of Calvary, pouring the grace and merit of the High Priest into the hearts of men here and now. If you get rid of (2), you are a classical Protestant; if you get rid of (1), you are a liberal Protestant. If you retain both and see them as mutually reinforcing, you are a Catholic. To separate one from the other destroys the sacramental economy and the truth of the Incarnation no less than if one were to separate the natures and persons in Christ, as Nestorius did.7
The abandonment of private Masses in favor of conventual Masses, the sidelining of one-priest celebration in favor of many-priest concelebration, implicitly undermines the latter truth, namely, that there are temporally distinct presencings of Calvary which are in themselves really and truly channels of grace for the world. This confirms from yet another angle that the direction of the liturgical reform, as Michael Davies and others have long maintained, has an essentially classical Protestant trajectory.
Saint Thomas Aquinas was not unaware of the custom of concelebration used on rare occasions. An article of the Summa asks “Whether many priests can consecrate one and the same host?”8 As an argument in the affirmative he brings forward a fact: “according to the custom of certain [local] churches, priests, when they are newly ordained, concelebrate with the bishop who ordained them.”9 The body of the article mentions the same custom, comparing it to the Apostles supping together with Christ at the Last Supper, and notes that when there are many priests, all direct their several intentions to one and the same instant of consecration, so that they share but one intention. Replying to an objection, Saint Thomas goes so far as to say: “Since a priest consecrates only in the person of Christ, and the many are one in Christ, for this reason it makes no difference whether this sacrament is consecrated by one or by many, except that it is necessary to observe the rite of the Church.”10 In other words, concelebration involves many priests acting as one because they have a single intention to consecrate the Eucharist. There is, then, only one sacrifice taking place when many speak the words of consecration. But precisely for this reason, the Angelic Doctor sustains the common sense view mentioned above, for as he writes elsewhere in the Summa: “In many Masses, the offering of the sacrifice is multiplied, and therefore the effect of the sacrifice and of the sacrament is also multiplied.”11 So the next time someone says “There’s nothing the matter with concelebration,” you might counter: “Sure, it’s not morally wrong, but it robs the Church and the world of so many other Masses that could have been celebrated individually by those priests, and so it deprives us of many effects that might have been obtained.”
The Popes weigh in
Is this a view sustained by the papal Magisterium? Although understandably Pope Paul VI is no hero among lovers of liturgical tradition, we should not be especially surprised to find him upholding the custom of private Masses:
We should also mention “the public and social nature of every Mass,” a conclusion which clearly follows from the doctrine we have been discussing. For even though a priest should offer Mass in private, that Mass is not something private; it is an act of Christ and of the Church. In offering this Sacrifice, the Church learns to offer herself as a sacrifice for all. Moreover, for the salvation of the entire world she applies the single, boundless, redemptive power of the Sacrifice of the Cross. For every Mass is offered not for the salvation of ourselves alone, but also for that of the whole world. Hence, although the very nature of the action renders most appropriate the active participation of many of the faithful in the celebration of the Mass, nevertheless, that Mass is to be fully approved which, in conformity with the prescriptions and lawful traditions of the Church, a priest for a sufficient reason offers in private, that is, in the presence of no one except his server. From such a Mass an abundant treasure of special salutary graces enriches the celebrant, the faithful, the whole Church, and the entire world—graces which are not imparted in the same abundance by the mere reception of Holy Communion.12This passage is from Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei, promulgated in 1965, after the promulgation of the star-crossed Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium.13 In it we see reproduced with utter fidelity the doctrine of Pope Pius XII, who treated of the subject at some length in his majestic encyclical Mediator Dei of 1947. Two paragraphs in particular come to mind:
Some in fact disapprove altogether of those Masses which are offered privately and without any congregation, on the ground that they are a departure from the ancient way of offering the sacrifice; moreover, there are some who assert that priests cannot offer Mass at different altars at the same time, because, by doing so, they separate the community of the faithful and imperil its unity; while some go so far as to hold that the people must confirm and ratify the sacrifice if it is to have its proper force and value.
They are mistaken in appealing in this matter to the social character of the Eucharistic sacrifice, for as often as a priest repeats what the divine Redeemer did at the Last Supper, the sacrifice is really completed. Moreover, this sacrifice, necessarily and of its very nature, has always and everywhere the character of a public and social act, inasmuch as he who offers it acts in the name of Christ and of the faithful, whose Head is the divine Redeemer, and he offers it to God for the holy Catholic Church, and for the living and the dead. This is undoubtedly so, whether the faithful are present—as we desire and commend them to be in great numbers and with devotion—or are not present, since it is in no wise required that the people ratify what the sacred minister has done.14
It would be comparatively easy to assemble reams of testimonies from Tradition and tight theological argumentation in defense of what the Popes are teaching here. That being said, there is something more that we must not forget. When it comes to mysteries beyond the reach of reason, the truth is as much a matter of that mysterious center of the person we call the “heart” as it is of the mind—a matter of whether our spiritual instincts are right, our intuitions sound, and our inmost feelings harmonious with reality. Modernism, though it claims to be from and for our feelings, exudes the lifeless chill of rationalism and freezes whatever it touches. In contrast, the dogmas and practices of traditional Catholicism, though they have at their disposal armies of ironclad scholastic proofs, breathe and sing and sigh like the living presence they mediate to us in flesh and blood.
A stream of sacrifice poured up
With this in mind, let me return, in the end, to the beginning. In one of Robert Hugh Benson’s finest novels, The King’s Achievement (1904), there is a passage that deeply resonated with me when I first read it a few years ago, as it called back to mind the short but precious time I spent with the monks of Le Barroux as well as that early morning Mass with the Abbot of Fontgombault.15 At this point in Benson’s tale, the character Christopher Torridon, a young monk at Lewes Priory, is reflecting on the daily monastic routine’s all-encompassing goal: “the uttering of praises to Him who had made and was sustaining and would receive again all things to Himself.”
They [the monks] rose at midnight for the night-office, that the sleeping world might not be wholly dumb to God; went to rest again; rose once more with the world, and set about a yet sublimer worship. A stream of sacrifice poured up to the Throne through the mellow summer morning, or the cold winter darkness and gloom, from altar after altar in the great church. Christopher remembered pleasantly a morning soon after the beginning of his novitiate when he had been in the church as a set of priests came in and began Mass simultaneously. The mystical fancy suggested itself as the hum of voices began that he was in a garden, warm and bright with grace, and that bees about him were making honey—that fragrant sweetness of which it had been said long ago that God should eat—and as the tinkle of the Elevation sounded out here and there, it seemed to him as a signal that the mysterious confection was done, and that every altar sprang into perfume from those silver vessels set with jewel and crystal.16Now, I know there are lots of scholarly studies and popular pamphlets (especially from the 1960s and 1970s) questioning or rejecting private Masses and defending concelebration. Earlier still, Karl Rahner had sown seeds of doubt with his characteristically dense and subtle speculations. The shelves of seminary libraries groan with such materials. After slogging through page after page of effete archaeologism and voodoo sociology, however, what I always want to know is this: Why is it so hard for these people to see what Christopher Torridon (that is, Robert Hugh Benson), and generations of simple believers over the centuries have seen? It consoles me to know that every day, every year that passes, slowly but surely, the Eternal High Priest is drawing the hearts of His ministers back to the altar of God, for the service of which they were ordained; that He is calling them to “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. As our Holy Father said in his homily for Midnight Mass this past Christmas: “The Liturgy is the first priority. Everything else comes later.”+
- Editor's Note: Given the confusion surrounding this topic, it is important to define the term "private Mass." Joseph Jungmann's seminal work on the liturgy has this to say about the subject: "From these Masses said in private homes, or on an estate or at a graveside where at least a group of people, however small, attends the sservice, we must carefully distinguish the private Mass strictly so called. This we understand as a Mass celebrated for its own sake, with no thought of anyone participating, a Mass where only the prescribed server is in attendance, or even where no one is present, as was once the case in the so-called Missa solitaria. These are Masses -- contrasted to the conventual Mass and the parochial Mass -- which are most generally referred to in medieval documents as missae privatae or speciales or peculiares (J. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite [Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1986], I:215). [back]
- Pius XII, Mediator Dei (1947), n. 115; cf. nn. 68-70. [back]
- Ibid., nn. 71-75. [back]
- Note that if there are twelve Priests in the community, one of them would not celebrate a private Mass that day in order to be the Priest who offers the conventual Mass in the midst of his brethren. No Priest celebrates twice a day (bination) unless pastoral need requires it, which would not be the case in such a community. [back]
- Leo XIII, Mirae Caritatis (1902), n. 18. [back]
- Some have objected that this kind of language "quantifies" grace. It does not. Rather, we must guard against "transcendentalizing" grace so that it ceases to be connected to space and time. [back]
- Nestorianism is "one of the great heresies of the fifth century, which broke the personal unity of Christ by positing in him two subjects [i.e., persons], one Divine and one human" (Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology [Milwaukee: Bruce, 1951], 199). In reality there is only one Person in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who assumed human nature when "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." [back]
- Summa theologiae III, q. 82, a. 2. [back]
- Ibid., sed contra. [back]
- Ibid., ad. 2. [back]
- Summa theologiae III, q. 79, ad 3: "In pluribus vero Missis multiplicatur sacrificii oblatio, et ideo multiplicatur effectus sacrificii et sacramenti." In this context St. Thomas is explaining why receiving many hosts at the same Mass does not increase the effect of the sacrament, whereas many Masses does redound to greater good. [back]
- Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei (1965), n. 17. [back]
- In fact, the Pope is quoting from that constitution in the first sentence of the excerpt, which echoes a similar phrase from Pius XII. [back]
- Mediator Dei, nn. 95-96. [back]
- My experience with the monks at Le Barroux is recounted in my article "Contemplation of Unchanging Truth," The Latin Mass vol. 17, n. 5 (Advent/Christmas 2008). [back]
- Robert Hugh Benson, The King's Achievement, ed. with a foreword by Francis X. Connolly (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1957), 86. [back]