Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

On The Celebration Of Mass

by Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.


In this document written for the congregation of Ave Maria College in Naples, Florida, Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. explains some of the issues causing mass confusion among Catholic faithful, including: Mass ad orientum, celebrating Mass in Latin, Altar Servers, "Eucharistic Ministers", and reception of Holy Communion.

Publisher & Date

unknown, revised March 16, 2003


In the reform of the Sacred Liturgy called for by Vatican Council II, many options have been provided from which the celebrant of the Mass or, in some cases, the faithful may choose. Some of these options, including many corresponding to immemorial custom in the Church, are rarely chosen and have virtually disappeared from the ordinary celebration of Mass in parishes.

Over many years of celebrating the Holy Sacrifice, my own thinking and practice have evolved — some would say retrogressed — partly under the influence of two priest friends who are among the most respected liturgists of the 20th century: Fr. Louis Bouyer and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Those who attend the Masses I celebrate may be puzzled by some of what they encounter. From time to time I have tried to explain the reasons for one or other of the options I have chosen. But this is not an adequate way to answer people's questions, since only those who have attended every Mass have heard all the explanations. For that reason I have decided to describe and explain the reasons for some of the practices that are regularly or occasionally part of the Masses I celebrate.

I am only able to do this briefly here. But there is a general principle that I can affirm: Everything you encounter at the Chancellor's Mass is permitted by the Church's liturgical norms. Not only is no special permission required for any of the options I choose, but it is the case that not even a bishop could forbid them even if he so desired. (At least one has attempted this, only to be sternly rebuked by the Holy See.)

Ciborium At Chapel Entrance

Those who intend to receive Communion are asked to place a host in the ciborium as they enter the chapel. There was a practical reason for this at the beginning: the tabernacle in our adoration chapel was not large enough to hold many hosts; so this practice gives us exactly the number of hosts we need for each Mass.

But there is a more important reason. Of the very few changes in the Mass specifically mandated by Vatican Council II's "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" Sacrosanctum Concilium (there are nine: cf. SC § § 50-58), one (§ 55), begins as follows: "That more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest's communion, receive the Lord's body from the same sacrifice, is strongly recommended." I.e., the Church encourages the faithful to receive hosts consecrated at the Mass at which they are assisting.

Mass Ad Orientem (Facing East) Or Ad Apsidem (Facing The Apse)

This practice seems to cause the most bewilderment. Much needs to be said about it. I can only outline some salient points here.

1. Mass facing East was the norm from ancient times and even during and after Vatican Council II. There has never been authoritative liturgical legislation requiring any change. The Roman Missal (official liturgical book from which Mass is celebrated) not only permits it, the rubrics actually presuppose it, (e.g., the priest is told to "turn toward the people" at the Orate Fratres ("Pray, brethren . . .)

2. It has been the practice in the entire Church, East and West from time immemorial. Contrary to a prevailing misconception (even among liturgists) there is no evidence for celebration of Mass coram populo (facing the people) in the first nineteen centuries of the Church's history, with rare exceptions. (Cf. The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Cardinal Ratzinger, pp. 74-84.) The practice of reducing an altar to a table for a service facing the people began in the 16th century — with Martin Luther.

"Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history [see below], of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again" (Ratzinger, p. 75).

3. Vatican Council II said nothing about the direction of the celebrant during Mass. It presupposed Mass ad orientem.

4. Moving the altar closer to the nave, separating it from the reredos, and proclaiming the readings from the ambo — though none of these were mandated or even mentioned by Vatican II — are a welcome return to more ancient tradition and, I believe, in harmony with the intent of Sacrosanctum Concilium. However, Mass coram populo, while it is certainly permitted (I have celebrated Mass this way more than 10,000 times) and has become almost universal, in fact deprives the Mass of its traditional cosmic and eschatological symbolism.

Churches have traditionally been constructed facing the rising sun. The sun is, of course, a cosmic symbol of the light, energy, and grace that come to us through the Son from the Father. The sun is the cosmic sign of the Risen Christ, Light of the World. Facing east we are turned in expectation toward the Lord who is to come (eschatology) and we show that we are part of an act that goes beyond the church and community where we are celebrating, to the whole world (cosmos). In churches not facing geographical east, the Cross and Tabernacle become "liturgical east". (Incidentally, the rubrics require that the celebrant of Mass face the crucifix during the eucharistic prayer. This has led, when not to simple disregard of liturgical law, to the anomaly of two crucifixes in the sanctuary — one facing the people and another small one on the altar facing the priest — or even the grotesquerie of a Cross with a Corpus on both sides!)

5. The drama of salvation history is powerfully symbolized in the renewed liturgy when it is celebrated ad orientem. The priest faces the people as he calls them to prayer. Then he turns to lead them in the common plea for mercy (Kyrie eleison). He prays on behalf of the people as he continues to face the Lord. He turns toward the people to proclaim the Word and instruct them. After receiving their gifts, he turns again to the Lord to offer the gifts to God, first as bread and wine, then after the consecration as the Body and Blood of Christ. He then turns to the people to distribute the Risen Christ in forms of bread and wine at the eucharistic banquet.

While there is some positive symbolism to be recognized in Mass coram populo, there is also a very negative symbolism. "The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself" (Ratzinger, p. 80).

6. Pope John Paul II regularly celebrates Mass ad orientem in his private chapel.

Singing Parts Of The Mass In Latin

Even when Mass is celebrated in English, I customarily intone a Gregorian chant setting for the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. I also intone in Latin the introduction to the Preface (Dominus vobiscum, Sursum Corda, etc.) and the Great Amen (Per ipsum . . . )

Though most people don't realize it, this is one of the few things explicitly encouraged by Vatican Council II: " . . . steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them" (SC, § 54). Gregorian chant is even more strongly encouraged: "The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services" (SC, § 116).

These parts of the Mass are easy to learn. Singing them unites Catholics not only in time (with all the generations who have sung these chants, stretching back through the centuries) but also in space (even today, in many parts of the world — particularly in Rome — Catholics sing these chants). Singing these chants in Latin expresses in a twofold way the sacral character to the Mass: the music itself is sacred (= set apart), intended and in fact almost exclusively used for sacred purposes; Latin is not only an ancient language, but because of its history in the Church, bespeaks the sacred.

Celebrating Mass In Latin

It may come as a surprise to many, but no permission is needed for this. In fact, the use of Latin cannot be prohibited. It is still the language of the Roman Catholic Church and always suitable for Holy Mass.

Some of the reasons are given in the preceding section. My practice (which I am convinced was the intention of the council fathers of Vatican II) is to sing or say in English the parts of the Mass that change from day to day (e.g. orations, preface) and to sing or say in Latin the parts that remain the same (the "Ordinary" of the Mass). This is easily learned, especially when the same Eucharistic Prayer (see below) and options are used in every Mass.

Another reason, hopefully to disappear soon, is that the English translation of the central prayer of the Mass is a travesty that I have had to endure for my entire priestly life. (I was ordained in 1972. The present translation became normative in 1969.) A brief example: Of the first 15 Latin words of the most sacred prayer of the Mass, the venerable Roman Canon, 7 are not even translated at all. "Most merciful" is left out, as is "our Lord" and "humbly"; "we beg and beseech" becomes "we ask". There is nothing heterodox in the translation. But what expresses God's majesty or our lowliness is systematically left untranslated.

Altar Servers And Lectors

This is a delicate subject and I can't begin to do justice to it here. In bare outline: The Mass is essentially nuptial; Christ the Bridegroom is embracing his Bride the Church and the two become one flesh. The priest is acting not only, as they say, in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), but in persona Christi Capitis et Sponsi (in the person of Christ the Head and Bridegroom). The sanctuary, which by liturgical law is to be clearly separated from the nave (which is one of the functions of the kneelers in our chapel that serve as an altar rail), is the place of the Bridegroom (and "groomsmen"). The nave is the place of the Bride, the Church.

The priest acts in the person of Christ the Son, who is the Icon and Word of the Father. The relation of the Father to Creation (as that of Christ to the Church, which is its fulfillment in the order of Redemption) is nuptial or spousal. The priest also offers Christ's Sacrifice to the Father. While men are neither holier, superior, nor more worthy than women, women cannot participate symbolically in the work of Christ in the same way men can. This is, at least in part, the theological foundation for the Church's unbroken tradition over almost two millennia of permitting only men or boys to serve at the altar or proclaim God's Word.

There are also practical consequences to having female servers. Many vocations to the priesthood have their origin or deepening in service at the altar. More women mean fewer men as servers. Men generally frequent church less than women anyway, so the incentive of service at the altar helps counterbalance what has been called the "feminization" of the Church. Moreover, near the age of adolescence, altar girls inhibit altar boys from participating.

I am less insistent on only men being lectors. (I'm not sure why. Perhaps because the Liturgy of the Word is the didactic part of the Mass, while the Liturgy of the Eucharist is the sacrificial part.) But I prefer it and mean no offense to women in doing so. The Blessed Mother never read Scripture in the synagogue.

When it was first permitted to the non-ordained to proclaim the readings, liturgical law prescribed that it should be from a place outside the sanctuary. (This was for both women and men.) I'm not aware of any place where the law was kept. This is probably partly due to the inconvenience, and also to the practical disappearance of the distinction between the sanctuary and the nave.

Long Homilies

This practice is neither mandated nor prohibited by the Vatican Council or anyone else. But it's happening. Part of the blame I attempt to attribute to God's Word, which is so rich. Part is due to the fact that for 25 years I have been giving homilies to the same people, but on texts that have been repeated in the liturgy many times over those years. Homilies became progressively shorter (I claim) as I failed to have new insights on the same passages. With a new congregation, I'm able to draw on many years of previous homilies. (Fortunately, I only remember a minute part of them.)

The Roman Canon

You may have remarked that I always use the "Roman Canon" (Eucharistic Prayer I). There are many reasons for this, more than I can give here.

Until the second half of the 20th century, there was never a tradition of multiple options for the canon. Vatican II did not call for this innovation, nor did it even mention it. (It did say, in SC § 23: " . . . there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing." I have never heard a convincing explanation of how the introduction of new canons does not violate this conciliar prohibition.)

After long experience and reflection, I am convinced that; 1) stability is much more important than variety in this central prayer of the Mass; 2) the Roman Canon is superior to all the others in every respect (except brevity, which is why I think the 2nd Eucharistic Prayer has become dominant in daily Masses).

The Roman Canon unites us with all Roman Catholics — all the saints and all the sinners — from at least the 6th century until 1969. It has been virtually unchanged over that period. It is the only canon that mentions angels, women (Felicity, Perpetua, etc.), great historical prototypes (Abel, Abraham, Melchisedech) that remind us concretely of the saga of salvation history; that alludes to the heavenly liturgy in the book of Revelation (the 24 apostles and saints echoing the 24 elders). It has prayers of unsurpassed beauty, power, and antiquity.

"Eucharistic Ministers"

I place this section title in quotation marks because the official title is "Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist". They are intended to be "extraordinary", i.e. not the normal practice. The present practice in many parishes is an abuse. It is so clearly an abuse that — what is really "extraordinary" — the heads of more than 8 Roman dicasteries (curial offices) issued a decree calling for an end to the abuse. The decree has been largely ignored.

The liturgical norm is that only ordained ministers (bishop, priest, deacon) are "ordinary" ministers of the Eucharist. If none of these are available, then a lay person officially installed as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist may assist. One of the very important roles they have in parishes is to assist the priests and deacons in taking Communion to the homebound.

We may from time to time have need for these extraordinary ministers, although we are hopeful that the Lord will bless us with many priests and deacons to help at Ave Maria.

An important consideration: Most of us are in need of more time for private prayer and contemplation. We also recognize the need to prepare ourselves to receive the Lord in Holy Communion and to commune gratefully with him in our hearts after we have received. An extended time of silence or prayerful song before and after Communion is a wonderful opportunity for this. It is hard to know where the balance lies, but we should not too easily seek more "efficiency" at Communion time through the multiplication of extraordinary ministers.

The Kiss of Peace

This is a traditional gesture, though its genesis, development and permutations are an obscure part of liturgical history. In more ancient liturgies it took place as the gifts were being brought to the altar, echoing the biblical injunction to reconcile with one's brother on the way to the judge.

In the middle ages a "pax brede" (instrumentum pacis, or osculatorium) was used; a board which the priest and other ministers kissed and which was then passed to the congregation. Later, and up to the present day, a formal gesture of embrace was exchanged among the ministers at the altar in certain forms of the Roman Rite.

The kiss of peace was included in the Novus Ordo Missae of 1969, but only as an option and not as a requirement. For the priest to leave the sanctuary and offer the kiss of peace to the faithful was always a liturgical abuse. The invitation is: Offerte vobis pacem ([You] offer one another [a sign of] peace). This rubric was clear in the previous version of the General Instruction for the Roman Missal, but has been made even more clear in the latest version. (The U.S. bishops asked for and received an exception for "special occasions", such as a wedding or funeral, where the priest "may offer the sign of peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary".)

Over the years my reservations about the appropriateness of this gesture at this place in the Mass, have increased. It may simply be that I'm growing older, but I don't think so. I think the introduction of something which is in origin and practice a secular custom — a very good and human one to be sure — at the moment before the most sacred act a person can make — receiving the "Bridegroom of my soul" into one's heart — has been one of many changes that have led to disrespect for the Blessed Sacrament and a loss of the sense of awe before the Eucharistic Lord.

The Missionaries of Charity have, in my opinion, the best solution. The secular greeting in India is a silent bow to the other person with one's hands folded. It is a beautiful gesture, and one, which does not disturb the sacred silence that precedes Holy Communion.

Perhaps I protest too much. The kiss of peace is certainly permitted and it is widespread.

Holy Communion

The faithful are permitted to receive Communion in the hand or on the tongue, standing or kneeling. There is much confusion on this because the U.S. bishops recently issued a document stating that standing is to be the norm in the U.S. This has caused consternation among many faithful and in Rome at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. That congregation has made it very clear that the faithful have the right to receive Communion in any of the approved ways, including kneeling and that they are not being disobedient in exercising that right

In a letter of July 2nd, 2002 from the Congregation to a U.S. bishop, subsequently published in the official public record of the Congregation, Notitiae, the Prefect stated: "The Congregation in fact is concerned at the number of similar complaints that it has received in recent months from various places, and considers any refusal of Holy Communion to a member of the faithful on the basis of his or her kneeling posture to be a grave violation of one of the most basic rights of the Christian faithful, namely that of being assisted by their Pastors by means of the Sacraments (Codex Iuris Canonici, canon 213)

After the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sought and received "recognition" (a canonical term) to make standing for Holy Communion the norm throughout the U.S., some bishops attempted to impose this and alleged that those who did not follow this norm were being disobedient to the Holy Father himself. The Congregation for Divine Worship forcefully rejected this interpretation by writing:

"As the authority by virtue of whose recognitio the norm in question has attained the force of law, this Dicastery is competent to specify the manner in which the norm is to be understood for the sake of a proper application . . . "

" . . . while this Congregation gave the recognitio to the norm desired by the Bishops' Conference of your country that people stand for Holy Communion, this was done on the condition that communicants who choose to kneel are not to be denied Holy Communion on these grounds. Indeed, the faithful should not be imposed upon nor accused of disobedience and of acting illicitly when they kneel to receive Holy Communion" (emphasis added).

Our chapel is set up so that communicants may either stand or kneel. I respect your right to receive in the way you choose. All should respect the choices of others. The custom is to come up the main aisle and either stand to receive at the front of the line, or go to one of the kneelers and receive kneeling. Some people go to the kneelers and stand. That is acceptable. "In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity." (If you'd like the original Latin: in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.)

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