Mass Without a Congregation: A Sign of Unity or Division?

Mass Without a Congregation: A Sign of Unity or Division?

Michael Gilchrist

MASS WITHOUT A CONGREGATION: A Sign of Unity or Division?
by Fr Marian Szablewski CR

(Unum, Cracow, 2004, 234pp, $24.95. Available from AD Books)

Mass Without a Congregation is the doctoral dissertation of Polish priest, Dr Marian Szablewski CR, now available in an English translation. It contains a wealth of fascinating research on the origins of the liturgy and its historical developments through to Vatican II and beyond.

Father Szablewski was ordained in 1965 in Cracow, and was awarded a Doctorate in the Theology of Liturgy in 1976. He was appointed Rector of the Major Seminary of the Resurrection Fathers in Cracow where he was involved in the work of its Liturgical Institute. Later he moved to Australia where he has served as parish priest in a number of parishes in Adelaide and Melbourne.

While his book will be of most relevance to liturgical specialists, it will also be of interest to a wider non-specialist readership. Despite its technical approach - including extensive documentary analysis - the book is by no means dry reading.


The author states as the purpose of his study, "to present, both in its historical and theological aspects, the emergence, significance and development of Mass without a Congregation, known until Vatican Council II as Private Mass (Missa privata)".

The book concentrates particularly on the period between the sixth and sixteenth centuries, noting the first documentary evidence of Private Masses in the sixth century and the extension of the practice with the growth in monastic life up to and during the Middle Ages. This included the use of side altars in churches.

Fr Szablewski writes: "By the seventh century [monastic priests] began to simply celebrate Private Masses daily. They usually celebrated them at the side altars, in a low voice and regardless of the presence of a congregation or religious community. They were not motivated by pastoral, but by personal and very private reasons. These Masses were celebrated ... because [the monks] were overcome with anxiety over their own salvation, which was a characteristic trait of monks living in the German-Celtic world. They regarded these Masses as the most effective means for their personal sanctity and a guarantee of salvation."

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers expressed opposition to any Mass without a congregation, preferring to stress the communal character of Christian worship. Luther drew on Scripture to justify this opposition: "The closer and more similar a Mass is to the first Mass which Christ celebrated at the Last Supper, the more Christian it is."

In turn, the Council of Trent defended the existing practice which would continue up to the time of Vatican II.

With the reform of the Roman Missal following Vatican II, a new rite was introduced called Mass without a Congregation, replacing that of Private Mass. Even before Vatican II, the 1960 Codex Rubricarum had contained the following statement: "The most sacred Sacrifice of the Mass celebrated according to the rites and regulations is an act of public worship offered to God in the name of Christ and the Church. Therefore, the term Private Mass should be avoided."

Public worship

This disapproval arose from the Church's growing awareness "that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the pre-eminent act of public worship, always enacted in the name of Christ and of the Church." There was hence a need for a new expression, free of the ambiguities inherent in such a term as Private Mass.

Today the Church expects that in a Mass without a congregation there should be besides the priest at least one other person to make the Mass responses. In normal circumstances, the priest should try to find a congregation, however small, or else concelebrate in another parish.

The likelihood of a priest being unable to find anyone to be present at his Mass celebration or to participate in another priest's celebration is very remote - as "on the Missions or in an isolated place where the priest is alone". The Church does allow for this unlikely eventuality, but stresses the need for a congregation.

This is a very informative, balanced study, accessible to specialist and non-specialist readers alike.

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