§ 41. Is the Celebration of Low or Private Masses Permitted ?
224. To explain correctly the terms "private" and "public'' Mass, due regard must be had to the sense in which a Mass is called a private one. "It seems to accord best with ecclesiastical terminology," says Schmid in his "Liturgy," Vol. I., "to call that Mass a public one which is said for a public cause, and which the faithful are earnestly invited to attend. Every Mass not having these qualifications is a private one." Consequently the parochial Mass, the conventual Mass, and Masses said on public occasions are public Masses; whereas a Mass which is said for a private intention, and at which the congregation is at liberty to assist or not, is a private Mass. Mahrzohl, in his "Liturgy," Vol. II., says, "Low or private Masses are such as are said on an altar in a church or chapel without solemnity and chant, with the assistance of only one or two attendants." Hence a Mass said publicly in church and attended by a larger or smaller number of persons, is nevertheless a private Mass. Regarded in this view, public Masses are at the same time solemn ones; they are celebrated with solemnity, for instance with chant, organ accompaniment, a greater number of lighted candles, more attendants, etc. These Masses are usually termed "High Masses," and if celebrated with deacon and sub-deacon, "Solemn High Masses."
225. Private Masses have been and still are regarded by many with disfavor, but only from misconception. For the essence of Mass consists in the offering of bread and wine, its consecration or changing into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and communion, or its reception by the minister of the Sacrifice. Hence the offertory, the consecration and communion are the essential parts of Holy Mass. All this is found in the private Mass; hence it is a true Sacrifice, in which the sacrifice of the cross is re-enacted in an unbloody manner; consequently this Mass is not only permitted, but most beneficial and salutary.
226. True, in early times public Masses were the rule when circumstances permitted their celebration; but there is evidence that private Masses were said even then. Tertullian and St. Cyprian mention occasions when only a few persons assisted at Mass; for instance in prisons. St. Eusebius and St. Gregory of Tours also relate that Masses were said in private houses and in prisons. Constantine the Great had a private oratory in his palace, and had even a portable altar constructed which he took along with him to the camp, so that Mass might be celebrated for him. (Euseb. Vita Const. Lib. iv.)—Sozomenes relates of St. Gregory Nazianzen, that he often celebrated the holy mysteries in a private oratory.—St. Paulinus, bishop of Nola, in his last illness had an altar erected in front of his bed and celebrated Mass on it shortly before his death.—St. Gregory the Great writes of bishop Cassius, that he celebrated Mass every day in an oratory, because he could not go to the church on account of illness.—To St. John, bishop of Syracuse, he wrote that he should.not forbid Mass to be said in the house of Venantius Patricius.—Once, when St. John the Almoner perceived that the people left the church after the gospel, he turned to them arid said, "It is for your sake that I come to church. For myself I might celebrate the Holy Sacrifice at home."
227. It is clear from this testimony, that private Masses date back to the earliest ages of the Church. Hence the Council of Trent declares: "The holy Synod desires that the faithful present should receive holy communion not only spiritually but sacramentally in every Mass, in order to share more abundantly in this Most Holy Sacrifice; yet, if this is not always possible, it does not condemn those private Masses in which the priest alone communicates, but approves of and commends them, because they also must be regarded as public Masses for the reason that the faithful communicate spiritually, and because they are celebrated by the public minister of the Church." (Sess. 22, 5.) And in its canons the holy Synod declares: "If anybody asserts that the Masses in which the priest alone communicates sacramentally are illicit and therefore to be abolished, let him be anathema."
228. In this is shown the maternal solicitude of the Church for her children. Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the sacraments for mankind, that by their faithful reception men might share in the graces of redemption. A sacrament validly administered attains the end for which it was instituted by Christ, if the person receiving it on his part places no obstacle. The administration of these divine means of salvation was entrusted to the Church. Hence she has made the rite of administering the sacraments in a solemn and appropriate manner the object of her most tender solicitude. Though originating in the institution of Christ, the present form of this rite is an offspring of the Church; and with holy rigor she insists that her ministers preserve it in its purity. But she also has due regard for circumstances, and herein she proves herself a tender mother. Although she commands the observance of her discipline under pain of mortal sin, she excuses from this observance in case of impossibility.
229. How beautiful and expressive for instance is the rite of baptism ! Yet in case of necessity the baptism of blood or of desire is a valid substitute for the sacramental baptism of water; and the Church recognizes the validity of private baptism if rightly administered. But if such persons survive, the former are bound to receive the sacramental baptism of water; for the latter the Church ordains that the omitted ceremonies be supplied in church as soon as possible. In danger of death, when a priest is not obtainable to give absolution, perfect contrition with the firm purpose to confess our sins as soon as possible, will cleanse us from sin; should we survive the danger, we must confess our sins to obtain their forgiveness. The same applies to the other sacraments: when circumstances prevent the observance of the whole rite, the Church is so indulgent that she even exhorts the % faithful to content themselves with what is essential to attain eternal bliss. The rich fruits of these sacred rites, however, are obtained only by those for whom they are performed.
230. The same holds good with relation to Holy Mass. Solemn High Mass represents the most meritorious form of divine worship; the beautiful ceremonies duly observed in a spirit of faith procure for the faithful the most abundant measure of the fruits of this Sacrifice in virtue of .its own divine efficacy. (Suarez, Disput. 79. viii. 5.) In solemn High Mass we possess the full treasury of divine grace. The accidentals of this treasury may be removed; its essence will still remain. The more perfect the observance of the incidental solemnity of Mass, the more fruit will accrue to the soul. But circumstances often prevent the faithful from having the Holy Sacrifice offered in its most solemn form; so that, if this form were an indispensable condition of Mass, its celebration would often be impeded.
231. Hence Schmid, in his "Liturgy," vol. I., says: "The attendance at the daily celebration of the Sacrifice, to many Christians the beginning of their day's work, would in this case have to be omitted. Many a scattered congregation without a house of worship would be deprived of the happiness of assisting at the holy mysteries in a private house; those members of the parish who for some reason or other cannot assist at High Mass, would be deprived of the opportunity of offering themselves as a living holocaust to the Lord during the celebration of the august Sacrifice of the New Law; many a Sunday and holy-day would not be observed. As to the application of Mass, as now customary, let those inclined to criticism on this point remember that every person feels more or less affection for some particular friend; hence the permission of the Church to have Mass celebrated for individuals is but a natural recognition of this irrepressible sentiment. The difference of solemnity in the form of Mass originates in circumstances: how could everything necessary for a solemn High Mass be observed every day?" For this reason the Church permits low or private Masses, in order that none of the faithful may be prevented from sharing in the fruit of this sublime Sacrifice. High Mass is not to be slighted or regarded as superfluous because by force of circumstances low or private Masses have become the rule; for the spiritual gain increases in proportion to the solemnity.
232. Since private Masses are said by a public minister of the Church not for himself alone, but for all the faithful belonging to the Church, every true member of Christ's mystical body has a share in every such Mass. A greater share of the blessings of the holy Sacrifice is gained by him, who spiritually includes himself in Mass whenever he cannot assist at it in person. A still greater share is granted to him who causes Mass to be said for a special intention, either for himself or for others; for he that gives an alms for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice is without doubt preferred, on account of this good work, to those who do not give an alms. The solemnity of the form of Mass is graded correspondingly to the amount of the psalms; the degree of spiritual profit is graded according to the solemnity of the form; for God promised to reward every good work. A still greater measure of spiritual profit is accorded to him who assists devoutly at the Holy Sacrifice and makes the acts of spiritual communion. The manifold treasures of Holy Mass are still more abundantly showered on him who assists at it with due preparation and devotion, and receives communion sacramentally, doing moreover what is in his power to cause Holy Mass to be celebrated in its most perfect and solemn form. This shall be demonstrated more explicitly in the following paragraph, Nevertheless this measure of spiritual benefit or fruit must always remain limited, in order that "the Holy Sacrifice of Mass," so the learned Sporer remarks, "may continue to be celebrated according to the intention of our Divine Savior with ever increasing zeal and devotion."
233. Although the fruits of Holy Mass are limited to a certain number and measure, as is also the case with regard to the sacrifice of the cross, the Sacrifice of the Mass is nevertheless of infinite value in the sight of God. It is priceless and of infinite value because Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God and Splendor of the Father, offers in it His own Body and Blood. Remembering that our Divine Savior gave us the consoling assurance, "Amen, amen I say to you: if you ask the Father anything in my name, He will give it you" (John xvi. 23.), our courage must be enlivened to the highest degree, when we hold in our hands Jesus Himself, His beloved Son, while praying in, through and with Him. If we reflect that our brethren and sisters in the purifying flames of Purgatory belong to the great community of those who are one family with us in Christ, namely the holy Catholic Church; and that Christ, who once offered Himself on the cross in a bloody manner for the salvation of all mankind, daily renews this Sacrifice in an unbloody manner on our altars:—then it will not be difficult for us to believe that this august mystery everywhere exercises its atoning power, whether celebrated in the marble halls of St. Peter's in Rome amid the splendor of gorgeous vestments, brilliant illumination, a profusion of flowers and of master-pieces of Christian art, or in the poor hut erected by the newly-converted savage in the wild forest of a distant land—a place of worship which by its raw material and rude construction gives evidence of his want of means and lack of ideas, but which at the same time demonstrates the fact that Catholics are not tenacious of exterior forms, but intimately wedded to the essence; that it is not exterior beauty, but interior worth that attracts them. This sentiment it is that produces a salutary effect for our spiritual and temporal welfare, provided we offer ourselves to God with contrite and humble hearts, together with all our possessions and whatever is dear to us. And for this reason the Church not only permits, but heartily endorses and commends low or private Masses.