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Why doesn’t Pope Francis celebrate Mass?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 25, 2024

Today dozens of media outlets are reporting that Pope Francis did not deliver a homily at Palm Sunday Mass. That’s true, but no particularly remarkable. Many priests choose to skip the homily on Palm Sunday, after the lengthy reading of the Passion.

What is remarkable is that the Pope did not celebrate the Mass. Still more remarkable, Pope Francis has not been the principal celebrant at a public Mass for several months.

Since about this time last year, the Pope has “presided” at the Vatican’s major liturgical celebrations. That is, he sits to the side, while another prelate, at the altar, actually celebrates the Mass. The Pope may deliver a homily, impart his blessing to the congregation, and offer some remarks after the conclusion of the Mass. But he is not the celebrant, nor even a concelebrant.

Non-Catholics might not notice the distinction. After all the Pope is at the front of the Vatican basilica (or St. Peter’s Square), wearing liturgical vestments, and if he is wearing a cope rather than a chasuble, very few reporters will comment on the difference. If he preaches, someone unfamiliar with Catholic worship assumes that the Pope is the key figure in the Eucharistic liturgy. (One wire-service report on the Palm Sunday Mass said that the Pope “said the prayers” of the Mass: an awkward formulation as well as an inaccurate one.)

There are good reasons why Pope Francis is no longer standing at the altar to celebrate Mass. His health is slipping, his knees are painful, he travels around the Vatican in a wheelchair, he needs assistance to move even a few steps. Yet he still has enough strength and stamina to preach, to hold two public audiences every week, and to schedule dozens of meetings and private audiences every week. Until recently, at most of these meetings he would speak, sometimes at length, often standing. (During the past month he has more frequently asked an aide to read his prepared remarks.) He remains strong enough and ambitious enough to plan international travel, with a visit to Belgium “certain” for this year and voyages to Polynesia and Argentina reportedly under active discussion.

In his newly published autobiography Pope Francis says that he has no physical problems serious enough to impede his ministry. Isn’t the public celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy a central part of that ministry— the priestly ministry of the Pontifex Maximus? If the Pope is healthy enough to carry out the other aspects of his work, isn’t he able to lead the celebration of the Eucharist, the source and summit of Catholic spiritual life?

Yes, the Pope’s medical problems would probably require some concessions: a stool, perhaps, or a walker, or some other assistance with his movements around the altar. But any Catholic old enough to recall the last days of Pope John Paul II recalls how that saintly Pontiff, tormented and crippled by disease, still found the strength to celebrate the Mass, even when he could barely move or speak. Because to him, nothing was more important.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Mar. 29, 2024 10:54 AM ET USA

    As Bergoglio said, on another occasion, “I had nothing to do with it!” Perhaps that’s his attitude here as well…

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Mar. 26, 2024 5:26 AM ET USA

    Maybe the Holy Mass is secondary for him to manipulating worldly affairs. . . maybe he sees himself more as a politician than a Catholic. . . maybe.

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 25, 2024 8:33 PM ET USA

    Thank you for bringing this up. If the pope indeed quit offering the Mass, this is very serious crisis in the Catholic Church. This could be equivalent to his resignation from office.

  • Posted by: Cinciradiopriest - Mar. 25, 2024 3:49 PM ET USA

    I have noticed this myself for a long time. We don't even hear of him celebrating daily Mass anymore. Your last sentence highlighted the fact that Pope John Paul and even Pope Benedict made it a point to offer the sacrifice. They drew their lives and their holiness from the Mass.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Mar. 25, 2024 3:21 PM ET USA