Private Masses–Bleah!

A PrayTell discussion from last week got bogged down in the permissibility of so-called private Masses. Rita Ferrone offered a dose of sanity:

These discussions tire me, honestly.

We have such a priest shortage that communities all over the world are going without Eucharist. And we’re nattering on about the necessity of private Masses.

I don’t have a problem with good Catholic clergy cultivating a deep interior life in prayer and the liturgy. A priest on vacation for a few days. A priest on a day off in some situations.

When celebrated consistently, Masses without a congregation are wrong. They are wrong not because Roman Catholic liturgy is way too clerical. They are wrong not because we have some reactionary swing to community or congregationalism. They are wrong because the need is great and the workers are few.

Any priest in good standing is obliged by a sense of service, and by the resources put into his formation and training, to render service when and where needed. Religious superiors outside of cloistered life have an obligation. Bishops making personnel decisions have an obligation. Priests themselves have an obligation.

It’s not that GIRM 254 has this or that loophole, or sets the bar too high or too low. It’s just the wrong discussion. Period.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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5 Responses to Private Masses–Bleah!

  1. Liam says:

    Let me preface this by clarifying that I did not intervene in that thread on this point to promote private Masses but to correct an (unfortunately typical) ham-fisted declaration by a regular commentator.

    Rita’s reaction, however, confuses two issues: a ban on private Masses would not produce a redistribution of clergy to improve the situation she rightly deplores.

    The open *factual* question is does permission for private Masses typically operate to frustrate the unfilled desire of the faithful for celebrations of the Mass? It’s not clear to me that it’s much of a real issue, insofar that I am not aware of parish priests deliberately avoiding the latter in favor of the former. The problem for priests who are *not* assigned to parishes is: (i) they need to have local faculties (not a big problem, but it’s a thresshold issue), and (ii) how would the faithful feel if visiting priests just starting showing up to displace their regular clergy at celebrations of the Mass? Or are we talking “I suddenly have a free day, and I want to have Parish X allow me to offer a public Mass at N time?” How many faithful would show up anyway? Et cet.

    It’s not difficult for me to imagine just and reasonable reasons why a priest might – in addition to his public celebrations of the Mass – offer a private Mass for a specific intention (either requested or invited on his own part as a pastoral gesture). I know you have cavils about Mass intentions that are not intended by those to who the gesture is directed, but lots of PIPs don’t share those cavils, and I am not inclined to get overly rationalist about it – trying eradicate that centuries old bit of Catholic software, as it were, is not a *necessary* part of the conciliar reforms, and my sense is that its pastoral costs are not worth the benefits.

    Now, I am firmly in the post conciliar camp that has moved away from valorizing the quantity-of-Masses approach to celebrations of the Mass. That said, I don’t push the logic of that to floor; that’s just to mirror the misjudgement of those who pushed the opposing logic to the floor.

  2. Todd says:

    Fair points.

    Clipping back private Masses would not ensure proper distribution. However, proper distribution would tilt the celebration of the sacraments more toward those in need, which is what Rita was getting at. The discussion needs to start with service. Not indulgence.

    I was in a parish once where the parishioners rejected the idea of a priest coming on the pastor’s day off. Even though we got good guys rotating through–other inner city, social-gospel pastors–the thinking was to promote lay leadership and preaching. However, we weren’t impoverished, even when the lay homilies were cringe-worthy. The community had Mass the other six days a week. I’m thinking about the 200-family community that shares a priest with 5 other parishes and gets Sunday Mass twice a month.

    I also think Rita’s main point and the implications are well-taken. Priests should be assigned to facilitate sacramental grace. Lay people can and should be assigned to administrative duties. Priests on sabbatical shouldn’t disappear. In fact, when the Jesuit author Thomas Green was on sabbatical in my parish thirty years ago, he was a welcome 2nd priest in what was then a growing community, and a good scholarly influence on our social-gospel pastor. So there are possibilities of enriching both local clergy and a parish.

    Now if you were offering me Father Z or some such “independent” celebrity, sure: thumbs down. If I had the idea we were getting a well-discerned temp, I’d give the guy the benefit of the doubt. If a warm body with barely a pulse, well who wants that? In any profession?

    • Liam says:

      Actually, I have *huge* issues with freelancer lone ranger priests who pretty much get to choose the extent to which they have any pastoral obligations. Oh, baby, I could really tear into a rant on that score.

      I saw your comment over on the original thread, and I would have a problem with the behavior of the local priest you summarized. (One reason I prefer clerics to wear clerics when feasible is to discourage that “off duty to the public” mentality that feeds that kind of behavior as well.)

      The situation I see is: the priest has been consoling the grieving or suffering, and they either ask that he say a Mass for their intention or it’s just a good pastoral gesture on his part to offer to do it. I’ve seen this, and the change in affect that such an offer can make in people in that situation. The priest isn’t looking for a stipend, but the people aren’t in a position to actually attend the Mass even if he could try to say it in their presence the next day – just too much for them to deal with; and the most important thing is for him to be able do say he will do it in the next day or week, without having to wedge the intention into the intentions of his parish, et cet. In that event, to cavil over the issue of the private Mass is to become a (well-meaning, of course) progressive rubricist.

      As always, my concern is that we not become what we complain of – and to recognize how easily we can do so with the best of intentions.

  3. FrMichael says:

    I looked at the thread at Pray Tell and couldn’t figure out what motivated Ms. Ferrone to hijack it. Is there any documented case in the US where a parish priest does not celebrate a parochial daily Mass but only a private Mass instead? I hear an angel dancing on the head of a pin somewhere nearby…

    The issues of private Masses and the just distribution of parish priests are independent discussions: they have nothing to do with each other. In fact, every diocese is a kingdom to itself when it comes to priests: one diocese may have a sufficient number while a neighboring diocese is scrambling to cover parishes. Inter-diocesan sharing of priests: now that would be an interesting discussion worth having!

    In any case, I have served in parishes with one, two, and three assigned priests. Obviously one-priest parishes don’t lend themselves to private Masses, but priests at multiple-priest parishes have ample opportunity for private Masses without any of the lay faithful being deprived of daily Mass. I personally have experienced the situation Liam’s refers to above in the comment immediately above this one: private Masses for the Dead are more common than one might think, especially when the deceased is the only practicing Catholic in his/her family.

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