By Sam Keyes
It took me some time to understand the idea of daily Mass. I knew, back in my time as a Catholic-minded Anglican, that the idea was to have daily Mass. But I also wondered if it might actually be important, in a parochial context, to start with the daily office. Even in the big Anglo-Catholic shrine churches in the cities, daily Mass was, and likely remains, poorly attended, despite the real eucharistic piety of the congregations. And I confess that I myself never felt very drawn, as a layman, to daily Mass.
Some of this was, no doubt, an awareness of history. Anglicans have, with some exceptions, usually gravitated more toward the patristic era than the late medieval era, and it simply is true that daily Mass is a later development that may have even struck some of the Fathers as strange. Still, my lack of attraction to daily Mass wasn’t a theological or liturgical principle so much as a experiential fact. As an Episcopal priest, the closest I ever came to celebrating Mass daily was in my time as chaplain at a boarding school, where we had a daily “evening chapel” of Evening Prayer combined with the Eucharist. But then, of course, if no one else showed up, I would not have gone past the offertory.
My first real insight into daily Mass came, quite honestly, after I was already a Roman Catholic and in formation for the priesthood. I had always found the modern practice of concelebration a bit puzzling (still do, but that’s a subject for another time!), but I had also never realized that Catholic priests were expected (if not strictly required) to say Mass every day. So all of a sudden modern concelebration made at least a little more sense: sometimes a priest wants to say Mass but doesn’t have an opportunity to do so alone or elsewhere, so he joins in with a brother priest’s Mass.
In the Code of Canon Law, priests of the Latin Church are asked not to celebrate the Eucharist “without the participation of at least some members of the faithful” except for a just and reasonable cause (Canon 906). Yet Canon 904 says quite clearly, “Remembering always that in the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice the work of redemption is exercised continually, priests are 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.”
In other words, the need to be a priest and offer Mass daily is itself a just and reasonable cause to celebrate Mass alone. One should not, of course, intentionally avoid people. I think Canon 906 is meant to guard against priests who choose private Mass even when there are faithful who would like to attend. But as a priest strung between two parishes and a university, it is a great gift that Holy Church expects and indeed encourages me to celebrate Mass privately even if I cannot do so with a congregation.
This is still a new experience for me, but it’s one that I’m coming to appreciate. On Thursdays, during the current quarter, there’s not a need for me to say Mass elsewhere, so I tend to offer it at home. My eight-year-old son serves with me, my wife is congregation, my toddler rolls around the floor in the background. At least sometimes. But sometimes too, I’m just alone. It is, in various ways, a jarring experience, but a good one. As priests, even when we try to insist that Mass isn’t about us, we’re always on display. We consciously have to cultivate that balance between personal presence and sacerdotal invisibility. But when you’re alone, it’s really just you, God, and the company of heaven. And that is frightening and wonderful and amazing.
Above all, the solitary Mass is, or at least can be, a deeply emotional experience, because the prayers are more raw, more direct; when you say them alone you know, in a more intuitive way, that you’re not saying them for a human “audience,” you’re not worried about whether the congregation can hear and understand them, and so you find yourself aware of them in a new way, a powerful way. I am so grateful for this. My experience of saying Mass alone increases my piety and faith in the Eucharist elsewhere, because it’s a chance to recenter myself in that personal encounter with Jesus that I want for all of the faithful under my charge.
Let me close with this simple prayer, sometimes said at the end of the Divine Praises, that I first heard in my time at the (Episcopal) Church of the Advent in Boston:
May the heart of Jesus, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, loved, and adored, with grateful affection, in all the altars and tabernacles of the world, now and even to the end of time. Amen.
Thank you for writing this! I found it on a Lutheran Facebook page that I still see once in a while. Having recently “swum the Tiber” and joined the Ordinate church Mount Calvary in Baltimore, I especially enjoyed the reactions to the article!