Tag Archives: GIRM

Private and Public Catholic Mass?

I’ve struggled with the idea that Catholic worship is ever a private affair of the priest. A conversation with a friend has sparked this post. Our Catholic liturgical life bears the burden of always being a public event. We believe that holy Mass is an act of the whole Church hence, the regulations say, that a priest ought not to offer Mass “except for a just and reasonable cause” (GIRM 254). Even when we make the serious claim that the Communion of Saints and Angels are the only ones in attendance the Church Triumphate is present. Mass, the Divine Office and the sacraments are by nature public. So, it is inconceivable that the we could hold to such ideas that hold as ‘normal’ that there is a private Wedding ceremony, a private baptism, or a private funeral. Mass, the Divine Office and the sacraments are exercises of Christ’s work in the world and the Church’s ministry.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says, “Mass should not be celebrated without a minister or at least one of the faithful, except for a just and reasonable cause. In this case, the greetings, the introductory or explanatory remarks, and the blessing at the end of the Mass are omitted” (254).

There is a constant metaphysical sense of our Catholic worship. Thinking with the Church there are times when a priest, without a congregation and without a server (to represent the faithful) may offer Mass by himself. The Church teaches that every effort ought to be made to have a server make the responses and to keep the priest honest in following the rubrics, but there may be times when the priests needs to offer Mass only in the presence of the Angels and Saints. Remember, we do not hold that a priest owns the Mass for himself. Yet, we are also taught that a priest does not need a lay person for the proper celebration of the Mass. Traveling causes these tensions, or there is a need to offer Mass for a particular intention that needs immediate Divine assistance, e.g., the sick and dying, a special circumstance in society or church. A priest in a nursing home may offer Mass without a congregation. Bishops with a rare day free of public ceremonials may offer Mass privately from time to time. Jesuits, many monks and hermits frequently offer Mass in alone. All this seems to be contextualized by the Code of Canon Law that says, “This is true with respect to the liturgies celebrated by religious communities” (678,1). Ultimately, it is held by the Catholic Church that it is both licit and valid for a priest to offer Mass alone.

Still, what does it mean to have a public and private Mass in Church? What does the Church tell us?

With priests whose ministry is restricted, some are permitted to offer Mass privately, that is alone.  Since it is the Diocesan Ordinary that regulates the celebration of Mass and sacraments, the bishop ought to state clearly that Father so-and-so is only able to offer a “private Mass at which no member of the faithful is present.” The regulation ought not leave neither the priest nor the faithful wondering what the intent of the Ordinary is on such matters.

Private has two layers of meaning: 1) alone, and 2) with a small group in a non-public oratory like a chapel in a house of nuns, or a side chapel in a church.

Clearly, we define as a “private” a celebration of not having to be done behind locked doors. Rather there is no public service announcement in social media.

What we mean as “public” ought to be defined as a celebration of the sacred Liturgy that’s made known to the faithful so that they can freely participate. Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004) states that the “public exercise of divine worship” is that which “the faithful are accustomed to frequent” (23).

In Presbyterorum Ordinis, the Second Vatican Council teaches:

In the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in which priests fulfill their greatest task, the work of our redemption is being constantly carried on; and hence the daily celebration of Mass is strongly urged, since even if there cannot be present a number of the faithful, it is still an act of Christ and of the Church (13).

“It is necessary to recall the irreplaceable value that the daily celebration of the Holy Mass has for the priest, be it in the presence of other faithful or not” (49).

Whatever the case, there is an intrinsic value of offering the sacrifice of the Mass. Priest, whatever the form, ought to pray a thoughtful and rubrically responsible in offering Mass.

The Catholic use of incense

Catholics in many places these days dislike the use of incense. Most often it is a knee-jerk reaction to smell or other perceived “toxins” in the air. In fact, there are no toxins released. At the sight of a cold thurible loud coughing and carrying-on ensues. All the noise is, I suppose, is a passive aggressive way of telling the priest to put the thurible away. But laity (and some clergy) may be unaware of the reasons we use in incense in the worship of God.

I do not doubt for a second that some people have breathing issues. Asthma, COPD, lung cancer, etc are a regular diagnosis for some people. I have a friend who gives me the evil eye when she sees the smoke coming down the aisle. In one parish I heard someone saying that the use of incense there is only used for funerals. And I know that priests and servers have yet to find reasonable solutions in using incense. One safe way not to get into fighting match is to remove the smoking thurible from the sanctuary after it is used and bring it back when it is next needed.

Why is it that Catholics use incense?

The history of using incense in worship is long. Some scholars point to the ancient world of the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians,  to ward off demons. At least this is one theory. The Israelites burned incense in Temple rituals, with their offerings of oil, grain, fruits and wine (Numbers 7:13-17). We also read in Torah that Moses erected an altar for the burning of incense at the entrance to the meeting tent where the Ark of the Covenant dwelled (Exodus 30:1-10).

Psalm 141 sings: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!”

The minor prophet Malachi tells his people

From the farthest east to the farthest west, my name is honored among the nations and everywhere a sacrifice of incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering too, since my name is honored among the nations (1:11).

In the Book of Revelation, John writes that incense is used in the heavenly worship before the throne of God:

Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God’s holy ones. From the angel’s hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God’s people.

Hence, aromatic smoke signifies our prayers, which rise to heaven and to the ear of God. I happen to use different scents for different occasions: Mass at Christmas is not the same as at Easter or a funeral Mass or a Benediction rite.

Liturgical historians tells us that the Church’s use of incense had very clear points in history that incense was introduced and for what reasons; often it began when the bishop offered Mass and later use was extended to Mass offered by the priest. The Catholic use of incense is governed by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). The particular times when incense may be used during the Mass:

  • at the entrance procession;
  • at the beginning of Mass, to incense the altar;
  • at the procession and proclamation of the Gospel;
  • at the offertory, to incense the offerings, altar, priest and people;
  • at the elevation of the sacred Host and chalice of Precious Blood at the time of consecration.

If used at at the entrance procession and then at the preparation of the altar, the priest is directed to incense the Crucifix and/or the Paschal Candle (during Eastertide). At the Mass of Christian Burial, the priest incenses the casket as a sign of blessing, purification, prayer rising to God and of honoring the deceased. This final point, honoring the deceased, reinforces Catholic teaching that the person has certain dignity.

And if the Lauds and Vespers is prayed in a solemn manner, incense is used at the singing of the Benedictus and Magnificat. One last time you will smell incense used is at the Rite of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

The gesture of incensing is a venerable and stable tradition of religion; it is a gesture that is not arbitrary. Moreover, it is a profound symbol and it ought neither to be ejected from the Liturgy nor from our experience of prayer. Often I would lite a small amount of incense for my personal prayer in my room because it helped me pray.  It aids the sensuality of worship of the Triune God; incense engages the powerful sense of smell which ought to trigger in us a greater experience of wonder and awe; it aids one’s sense of solemnity in worship.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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