Friday, July 21, 2017

Concelebration Controversies

Rumor has it that the Congregation for the Clergy may soon require (or at least strongly endorse) the practice of priests concelebrating Mass together in the Roman Colleges - presumably instead of celebrating daily Mass individually. This rumored document in the making, On Concelebration in the Colleges and Seminaries of Rome,” has stirred up some controversy - especially among those of a more "traditional" liturgical orientation, in particular those attached to individual private celebration of Mass in the "Extraordinary Form." Obviously, if one views 1570 as the apogee of the Roman liturgy and all subsequent changes as in effect deformations, then one will likely not care for concelebration. which did not exist at all in the 1570 Missal - except in the idiosyncratic case of newly ordained priests and newly consecrated bishops at the Mass of their ordination or consecration.

Like almost everything else in life, eucharistic concelebration is not without its problems. But, generally speaking, I am a fan of concelebration and whenever appropriate prefer it to any of the three obvious alternatives - individual private celebration without a congregation, assisting at Mass in choro habitu induto, or assisting at Mass more laico. But, before I get into my own personal preferences, it may help to recall come recent history.

While never actually required, the daily celebration of Mass has been an integral part of priestly spirituality for several centuries. Accordingly, the Code of Canon Law encourages priests "to celebrate frequently; indeed, daily celebration is recommended earnestly since, even if the faithful cannot be present, it is the act of Christ and the Church in which priests fulfill their principal function" (canon 904). It is this important idea that in the celebration of Mass a priest fulfills his "principal function" that is, I believe, at the heart of the issue.

Growing up in a parish staffed by a large number of priests (all members of a religious order), I was used to seeing priests celebrating individually at side altars during the week, often while the scheduled main Mass was going on at the main altar. As an altar boy, I was often expected to serve one of those side altar Masses. If a priest lacked a server, it was not uncommon for a grown man to come up and offer his services, making the responses and assisting at the altar. Robert F. Kennedy, commonly considered the most pious of the Kennedy brothers, was noted for doing this. Anyway, this was the taken-for-granted state of affairs up until the mid-late 60s. Even in monasteries and religious houses, where all the priests were expected to assist in choro at the daily Conventual Mass, the normal practice was for each priest to celebrate individually prior to the Conventual Mass. (I presume this is still the case in any communities exclusively or primarily organized around the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.)

Although most of us were, of course, completely unaware of it, the theology and pastoral possibilities of concelebration attracted interest and debate in the 20th century in the run-up to the conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical reforms. For most of us, however, concelebration appeared almost out of nowhere when Vatican II addressed it in Sacrosanctum Concilium, 57:

57. 1. Concelebration, whereby the unity of the priesthood is appropriately manifested, has remained in use to this day in the Church both in the east and in the west. For this reason it has seemed good to the Council to extend permission for concelebration to the following cases:

a) on the Thursday of the Lord's Supper, not only at the Mass of the Chrism, but also at the evening Mass.
b) at Masses during councils, bishops' conferences, and synods;
c) at the Mass for the blessing of an abbot.

2. Also, with permission of the ordinary, to whom it belongs to decide whether concelebration is opportune:
a) at conventual Mass, and at the principal Mass in churches when the needs of the faithful do not require that all priests available should celebrate individually;
b) at Masses celebrated at any kind of priests' meetings, whether the priests be secular clergy or religious.

1. The regulation, however, of the discipline of con-celebration in the diocese pertains to the bishop.

2. Nevertheless, each priest shall always retain his right to celebrate Mass individually, though not at the same time in the same church as a concelebrated Mass, nor on Thursday of the Lord's Supper.

58. A new rite for concelebration is to be drawn up and inserted into the Pontifical and into the Roman Missal.

Like so many other conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical changes, concelebration was probably originally envisioned as intended primarily for certain circumstances and occasions. And, again like so many conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical changes, the scope of those circumstances and occasions eventually expanded. 

In practice, concelebration is now routine at big events such as when many priests concelebrate at the cathedral with their bishop (e.g., major diocesan celebrations, ordinations, funerals, etc,), also when the bishop comes to the parish (e.g., for confirmation or a visitation), .-  and also even without the bishop when several priests are present in a church for some special occasion (e.g., an anniversary or a funeral). For most working priests, this kind of ceremonial concelebration is often in addition to celebrating Mass individually with one's own congregation in one's parish, and has been made possible by another radical change - the extension of permission to celebrate Mass more than once on a single day.

Secondly, concelebration is now also routine "at Masses celebrated at any kind of priests' meetings, whether the priests be secular clergy or religious" - e.g., priests' retreats and convocations, occasions when typically priests are away from their parishes and which therefore do not usually involve more than one Mass on a single day. Personally, I probably find these my favorite occasions for concelebration, precisely because they represent a really spiritual experience of praying as a priest with my fellow priests.

A third common occasion is that referred to in 2 (a) above, conventual and community Masses, which would presumably include seminaries and houses of studies - the very sort of situation the rumored new directive would cover.

Other than the objection that there was no concelebration in 1570, common objections to the practice often focus on the appearance of chaos and disorder that - especially large-scale - concelebrations may sometimes present. It is true that sometimes priests may be poorly vested and appear sloppy and that the whole occasion can take on a somewhat disorderly appearance. However, that can also occur when there are just a few concelebrants and, indeed, can occur when there is only one celebrant. The solution to sloppiness and disorder - whether in attire or in behavior - is dressing and acting appropriately, which should be expected on all occasions anyway, concelebrated or not. (One way to address the sloppy attire problem is what many dioceses have done in having distinctive diocesan chasubles, which are required to be worn at all events at the cathedral and on other comparable occasions. See the photo above of a recent concelebration with three bishops and a multitude of priests at a funeral at the Knoxville Cathedral.)

But the most stringent objection seems to be on the part of those who are genuinely and sincerely attached to the individual celebration of Mass. Some of the arguments sometimes advanced for this seem somewhat strained. There is, for example, the view that the Church is somehow spiritually poorer when fewer separate Masses are celebrated, which seems to represent an excessively quantitative approach to something which is intrinsically of unquantifiably infinite value. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, the celebration of the Eucharist is of "objectively infinite value" (Sacramentum Caritatis, 80).

It is certainly the case that some priests truly treasure the spiritual experience of celebrating Mass by oneself. That sentiment is certainly a valid and legitimate one and is deserving of respect, as part of our Latin rite liturgical tradition and heritage. Both Vatican II and canon law preserve and respect the right of each individual priest to celebrate individually on all but a few occasions. That said, however, as long as that legal right is acknowledged and respected, I see nothing that forbids any Church institution or community from expressing preferential priority for concelebration, something which both Sacrosanctum Concilium and canon law implicitly allow by virtue of the fact that individual celebration is prohibited at the same time in the same church as a concelebrated Mass. That priority - and the preference it implies - is certainly in keeping with the primarily public and communal character of the liturgy, something contemporary clergy and laity alike may be more sensitized to and attracted to today than in some previous periods.

Back when (aside from ordinations) concelebration was still largely unknown in the Latin rite (except perhaps as a dream of some liturgical enthusiasts), Thomas Merton, who after all was well acquainted with individual private celebration of Mass on a regular basis, wrote in his Journal (February 11, 1950)“I feel as if my Communion were somehow less perfect when I cannot turn and give the Body of Christ to one of my brothers also.” 

Besides the Mass, the Church has also always had another concelebrated liturgy, which is nonetheless more often celebrated alone and in private - the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. Many priests recite their Office alone and in private because of the circumstances in which they find themselves, and they may indeed come to prefer that experience and derive spiritual benefit from it. But that does not alter the Church's long-standing preference for a fuller choral celebration and the very great benefits that derive from that tradition. As part of the 20th-century's intensified emphasis on the communal character of our liturgical worship, many priests have rediscovered the beauty and benefits of common prayer both through more frequent communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and more frequent concelebration of Mass. Both these developments have enriched the Church as a whole, as well as the spiritual lives of many priests individually.

And so it certainly seems reasonable that there should be some clearly stated preference for these experiences in seminaries and houses of studies.

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