Monday, April 08, 2024

The “Private” Mass from Its Origins to the Thirteenth Century — Guest Article by Canon Gilles Guitard, ICRSP

NLM is deeply grateful to the International Centre for Liturgical Studies (CIEL) for permission to publish a translation of an extremely important paper that was given by Canon Guitard at the XIIIth colloquium of the CIEL, Rome, January 25, 2024. The text will be definitively published in the proceedings, scheduled to appear in January 2025.

The “Private” Mass from Its Origins to the Thirteenth Century

Canon Gilles Guitard, ICRSP

Introduction and terminology

The “private” Mass is specific to the Latin Church; it is not present in the Eastern liturgies, and when it is, we note that it has appeared recently, on the occasion of renewed relations with the Roman Church.[1]

Let us make it clear from the outset that by “private” we mean Mass formally celebrated for its own sake, without taking into account the physical presence of servers or a group of the faithful. “The latter may or may not be present, either individually or as a group, but their presence is neither required nor indispensable to the celebration [...]. [The ‘missa privata’ is in this sense [i.e. formally speaking] a ‘missa solitaria’“ [2], even though it is often materially different. Indeed, while a solitary Mass is necessarily “private”, a “private” Mass is not always solitary.

It is also worth recalling here the ontologically public nature of the Mass. Indeed, as Pius XII taught, the “sacrifice [of the Eucharist], everywhere and always, necessarily and by its very nature, has a public and social role”. [3] This is why we use inverted commas for the adjective “private” to describe the Mass.

The adjective “private” therefore does not qualify the intrinsic nature of the Mass, but the way in which it is celebrated.

Having established this, it should be borne in mind that the expression “private Mass” has prevailed throughout the history of the Church, and that it corresponds to a tradition dating back several centuries. [4] We find it, for example, in the Cluniac Customs of Ulrich, abbot of Cluny, in the second half of the eleventh century. [5] Finally, it was used in the various editions of the Missale Romanum, from 1570 to 1960, with a fluctuating meaning: Sometimes “missa privata” (or “privatim celebrata”) refers to a low Mass, as opposed to a solemn or sung Mass [6] sometimes it refers to a Mass where no one would respond or serve, as opposed to a public Mass; [7] sometimes it refers to the Mass celebrated individually by priests attached to a collegiate church, as opposed to the main Mass of a community (the parish or conventual Mass). [8]

These last two cases are clearly those of a “private” Mass. The first, on the other hand, is at least that of a Mass “deprived of solemnity”, but there is no guarantee that it is purely “private”; for this, we would need to know the inner workings of the celebrant: only the context will help us to know this, or at least to assume it. This is often why it is so difficult for the historian of the liturgy to identify a “private” Mass in the multitude of ecclesiastical writings and disciplinary decrees at his disposal.

The best clue for him is the Mass “deprived of solemnity”, since this is most often — if not almost always — the ritual form of the “private” Mass. Once such a ceremony has been spotted, it is its context that will reveal whether it can be considered with certainty or with a certain probability to be a formally ‘private’ Mass.

Historically, the “private” Mass can be traced back without a shadow of a doubt to the 13th century. In the Franciscan missal Regula — published around 1230 and inherited almost word for word from the now extinct missal of Honorius III (1216-1227) — we find the following heading: “Sed si sunt plures sacerdotes in loco, secrete possunt cantare missam quam volunt”. [9] Then, in 1243, an ordo missæ was for the first time devoted solely to the materially “private” Mass: this was the Ordo “Indutus planeta”, written by the Franciscan general Aymon de Faversham. [10] This document marked a turning point in the history of the liturgy: for the first time, the Mass “deprived of solemnity” — which can be considered the most frequent ritual form of the “private” Mass — became the norm for the Eucharistic liturgy to the detriment of the solemn public liturgy, which then appeared to be the result of additions made to the basic model. This ceremonial was the direct ancestor of the Ritus servandus in celebratione Missæ of the 1570 missal.

Paradoxically, only a few years before the publication of the Regula missal, in 1226, Saint Francis of Assisi emphatically recommended to his brothers that, if several priests were in the same place, only one Mass should be celebrated per day, and that all should attend. [11] The “private” Mass was therefore clearly and firmly discouraged by the holy founder from his brother priests, in order to favour the bonds of charity.

The question then must be posed: Was the “private” celebration of Mass something new that appeared in the 13th century? Could its appearance in communities of priests be the cause of the cooling of charity?

The aim of this paper is to show the deep roots of the “private” Mass in the Roman liturgical tradition. We believe that an overview of the history of its existence, and then of its ritual form, will suffice to show its organic development, as Alcuin Reid has been able to establish its criteria: slow, gradual growth, controlled — though not imposed — by authority. [12]

Evidence of its existence

As the Acts of the Apostles testifies, the Mass — then known as the “breaking of bread” — was celebrated from apostolic times onwards in private homes, which were the only places of public worship available at the time. It was celebrated on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) and sometimes even every day in Jerusalem, as the description of the life of the first Christians in that city seems to indicate (Acts 2:46).

It is clear, then, that for the first Christians, the Mass was more than a simple act of devotion: from the outset, it was considered to be the centre of all Christian life.

With this in mind, although scriptural evidence is lacking, it does not seem absurd to us to suppose that Saint Paul and the first missionaries who accompanied him celebrated the “breaking of bread” “in private” when they stayed for a while in places where the natives, not (yet) converted to the Christian faith, did not therefore attend the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice. [13]

Finally, on a more general level, we think it reasonable to agree with Jungmann that it is highly probable that there was a “private” celebration on weekdays from apostolic times onwards. [14] Although we lack explicit proof, there are no serious objections to this possibility.

The persecutions of the first centuries also favoured celebrations attended by a small group of the faithful. Various sources show us the existence of Masses celebrated for a small group, during the week and on Sundays, in secret places or even in prison. [15] The local community, because of the hardships imposed by persecution, was far from being present as a whole. However, even in these cases, the priest would say Mass, because he saw the whole Church in this small audience. [16] This did not mean — at least in most cases — that these were strictly “private” Masses, but it is nevertheless certain that this type of situation necessarily limited the external ceremonial of the celebrations, which were therefore often “deprived of solemnity”.

Subsequently, the religious peace introduced by the Edict of Milan in 313 gave Christians official places of worship, but it did not bring about the disappearance of these particular Masses for small groups of worshippers. On the contrary, they continued to multiply on the fringes of official assemblies, to such an extent that the authorities were forced to legislate on the subject: it was at the beginning of the 6th centurye that a ban was introduced on celebrations in private homes on feast days, outside official places of worship (extra parochias& [17], in villa [18]). This proves that these private Masses were growing in number, especially in Gaul. It should be noted that it was not the “private” Mass as such that was targeted by these disciplinary decrees, [19] but rather the fact that Christians were turning away from the official public services of the local Church, celebrated by the bishop or his delegates. [20]

The reliquary of St Augustine
Reasons for its existence

Why did private Masses persist despite the move from the domus ecclesiae to the basilica? In our opinion, mainly because of

1. Christians’ attachment to votive Masses [21]

Let us quote here — among many others — the anecdote recounted by Saint Augustine: one of his priests celebrated Mass in the house of a Roman officer whose servants and livestock were being subjected to demonic vexations, with the intention of asking for an end to these torments; at the end of this votive Mass, everything stopped [22]

2. …combined with the rise of the cultus of relics.

Inherited from ancient pagan funeral banquets, which were held near or even on tombs, the practice spread — at the time when Christians were granted freedom of worship — of building shrines over the tombs of martyrs (martyria). [23] From this point onwards, it is clear that “veneration of the shrine, relics and celebration of the memoria passionis domini form a single whole” [24] in the minds of Christians of this period. Numerous testimonies testify to the popularity of pilgrimages among the martyrias.

It is therefore not surprising to find in the Sacramentary of Verona numerous Mass forms intended to be celebrated in honour of the martyrs. [25] Some libelli (in the month of April, in section VIII) are even “without indication of names”; [26] the priest therefore had at his disposal this kind of “Common of Martyrs” before its time, applicable to any altar.

Under these conditions, the presence of pilgrims attending the celebration — while remaining a very important reason for celebrating Mass — may nevertheless remain secondary to the honour paid to the Lord through his martyrs. In the long term, therefore, the rise of the cult of relics will be a not inconsiderable cause of the appearance and development of the celebration of Mass “for its own sake”, i.e. the “private” Mass.

One of the consequences of this was the proliferation of secondary places of worship: sanctuaries, oratories and even — probably from the time of Pope Symmachus (†514) and attested to in increasing numbers during the VIth century — secondary altars built in churches. [27]

Low Mass at Prinknash Abbey

Exponential growth

Taking advantage of these favourable conditions, as well as the increase in the number of priests with no specific pastoral responsibilities, [28] the “private” Mass enjoyed considerable growth between the 7th and 11th centuries, particularly under the impetus of the Carolingian reform and in monastic circles. Ecclesiastical documents bear witness to this in great numbers.

The Ordo romanus XV, in particular, provides clear and irrefutable proof of the existence of the “private” Mass. This liturgical book of a purely ceremonial nature, which was compiled in monastic circles between 750 and 775 [29] and addressed to all ecclesiastics — both regular and secular [30] — refers in particular to the different types of celebration, among which it explicitly mentions that of the solitary Mass (which is undoubtedly a “private” Mass. [31]) There can be no doubt, therefore, that this type of celebration was — as early as the third quarter of the eighth century — sufficiently well known and widespread in Frankish lands for it to be officially mentioned.

The consequences of this boom are clear to see. These include the exponential growth in the number of secondary altars in abbey and collegiate churches, and the gradual formation of the plenary missal.

Let us consider for a moment the appearance of this type of missal in the ninth centurye and its gradual development, which culminated in the replacement of the sacramentary in its favour during the twelfth century. [32] The celebration of “private” Mass appeared well before the plenary missal; it was then probably celebrated with the sacramentary alone. Then gradually came the obligation on the celebrant, initiated according to our sources by the Ordo romanus XV, not to omit the recitation of the parts performed at solemn Masses by the singers and sacred ministers. The celebrant is therefore no longer obliged to celebrate with the sacramentary alone, but also with a lectionary and an antiphonary. This is why it became urgent — for the twin reasons of ritual integrity and practical convenience — to design a Euchological book containing all these parts of the Mass; this was the plenary missal. [33] Conversely, as we shall see below, the development of liturgical books had an impact on the development of the ritual form of the “private” Mass.

In addition, the growth of “private” celebration made it necessary for the hierarchy to correct certain abuses, which never fail to occur when a phenomenon spreads. In addition to the restrictions still imposed on domestic Masses, we should mention the case of multiple daily celebrations and solitary Masses.

1. In some places as early as the 8th century, we find decrees recommending that priests celebrate only one Mass per day; [34] this is hardly surprising, given that the number of daily celebrations by a single priest was as high as twenty or thirty in some cases. It was not until Alexander II (†1073) that there was a universal prescription on this point: binating was forbidden, with the exception of the pastoral need for a Mass pro defunctis. [35]

2. As for solitary Mass, it was prohibited from the ninth century [36] in explicit terms; the reason given by the legislator was that the social nature of the Mass should be manifested externally by the presence of at least one assistant who responded and took communion. If the practice of solitary Mass was subsequently conceded on an occasional basis to certain monks or hermits, it was — it would seem — by special indult. [37] It should nevertheless be added that Saint Peter Damian (†1072), in his famous opuscule Dominus vobiscum, [38] was at pains to justify this practice of solitary Mass theologically. Here is the doctor’s main argument. The priest is a part of the body that is the Church; [39] and the office of a single member of the body involves and concerns the whole body (as the analogy with the human body, which is an organic whole, shows); [40] and moreover, the Church is both simple in a multiplicity of members (through the unity of faith) and whole in each of its members (through the bond of charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit). [41] Consequently, the words of the priest at Mass (the priestly greetings, and possibly the responses) are said in the name of the whole Church; [42] as a result, the priest, if he is alone, can provide the plural greetings and the corresponding responses. [43] Moreover,” adds Pierre Damien, “if this were not so, there is no reason why the priest could also say, when he is alone, the plural passages of the Divine Office, such as: ‘Venite, exsultemus Domino’, ‘Venite adoremus’, ‘Oremus’, ‘Benedicamus Domino’. [44]

It should be noted that, although abuses were reprimanded by the hierarchy, “private” celebration itself was not banned at any time or in any region of Christianity. On the contrary, it appears officially in the monastic constitutions of the eleventh century as a monk’s daily practice. [45]

(To be concluded next week.)

Monastic private Masses


[1] This presentation is a summary of the author’s own licentiate thesis, presented at the University of the Holy Cross in 2019, the title of which was: La “célébration privée” de la messe dans le rit romain: des origines au XIIIe siècle.

[2] C. Vogel (1980) Une mutation cultuelle inexpliquée : le passage de l’eucharistie communautaire à la messe privée : “ Revue des Sciences Religieuses “54, 234.

[3] Pius XII (20 November 1947) Encyclical Letter Mediator Dei: “Documentation Catholique” 45, 222. Here is the complete passage: “This sacrifice [the Eucharistic sacrifice], everywhere and always, in a necessary way and by its very nature, has a public and social role, since the one who immolates it acts in the name of Christ and of Christians, of whom the divine Redeemer is the head, offering it to God for the holy Catholic Church, for the living and for the dead (Missale Rom., Canon Missae)”. And also: “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is an act of public worship, rendered to God in the name of Christ and of the Church, whatever the place and manner of celebration. The expression ‘private Mass’ should therefore be avoided” (Sacred Congregation of Rites (3 September 1958) Instruction De Musica Sacra 2: DC 55, 1429).

[4] Cf. V. Raffa (2003) Liturgia eucaristica. Mistagogia della Messa: dalla storia e dalla teologia alla pastorale pratica, CLV-Edizioni liturgiche, Roma, 872.

[5] Cf. Udalricus Cluniacensis Antiquiores Consuetudines Cluniacensis Monasterii 2, 30: PL 149, 719A.

[6] Cf. M. Sodi — A.M. Triacca [edr] (1998) Missale Romanum, Editio Princeps (1570), Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano, 8*. 33*.

[7] See Ibid. 23*. 25*. 29*.

[8] Cf. Ibid. 8*. 34*. This type of ‘private’ Mass is directly opposed to sacramental concelebration, which is still unknown in the Tridentine Missale Romanum.

[9] M. Przeczewski [edr] (2003) Missale Franciscanum Regulæ (Codicis VI.G.38 Bibliothecæ Nationalis Neapolinensis), Libreria Editrice Vaticiana, Città del Vaticano, 37.

[10] Its full name is Ordo agendorum et dicendorum a sacerdote in missa privata et feriali iuxta consuetudinem ecclesie romane.

[11] Cf. Francis of Assisi, Epistola toti ordini missa una cum oratione: omnipotens, æterne, 30-31: Th. Desbonnets [edr] (1981) Ecrits, (SCh 285), Cerf-Editions franciscaines, Paris 2003, 250-251. We read: “ut in locis, in quibus fratres morantur, una tantum missa celebretur in die secundum formam sanctae Ecclesiae. Si vero plures in loco fuerint sacerdotes, sit per amorem caritatis alter contentus auditu celebrationis alterius sacerdotis.” Quoted in: G. Derville (2011) La concélébration eucharistique. Du symbole à la réalité, Wilson & Lafleur Ltée, Montréal, 15, note 38.

[12] Cf. A. Reid (2004) The Organic Development of the Liturgy. The Principles of Liturgical Reform and Their Relation to the Twentieth-century Liturgical Movement Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2005, 307-308.

[13] Cf. S.J.P. Van Dijk — J.H. Walker (1960) The Origins of the Modern Roman Liturgy. The Liturgy of the Papal Court and the Franciscan Order in the Thirteenth Century, The Newman Press, Westminster MD & Darton-Longman-Todd, London,45, note 2. The following cases are also cited: Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey; Paul, Timothy and Silas in Thessalonica; Paul alone in Athens (cf. Acts 13-14 and Acts 17). The same thesis is expounded by Righetti (M. Righetti (1966) Manuale di Storia Liturgica, III: La Messa. Commento storico-liturgico alla luce del concilio Vaticano II, Ancora, Milano 2005, 148).

[14] “Since, at the outset, public celebrations bringing the community together were planned only on Sundays and feast days, it could easily follow that, on the intervening days, the bishop or the priest himself would offer a sacrifice in his own name, prompted by a desire for personal thanksgiving and prayer” (J.A. Jungmann, Missarum Sollemnia, 1952). (J.A. Jungmann (1952) Missarum Sollemnia. Genetic Explanation of the Roman Mass. Tome premier, Traduction revue et mise à jour d’après la 3e édition allemande, Aubier-éditions Montaigne, Paris 1956, 266-267).

[15] Saint Augustine attests that Christians celebrated Mass in prison during the persecutions (cf. Augustinus Breviculus collationis cum donatistis III, 17, 33: PL 43, 644).

[16] For example, Tertullian mentions the case of Sunday celebrations in times of persecution. When asked how this should be done, he replies that if it is not possible to gather the community together during the day, there is still the possibility of celebrating at night, and that if it is not possible to gather all the brothers together, the Eucharist should be celebrated, even if only three people are present; the Church is then represented by them (“sit tibi et in tribus Ecclesia”). Tertullian concludes by saying that it is better for the priest not to see his faithful at times than to compromise them: “melius est turbas tuas aliquando non videas, quam addicas” (Tertullianus De fuga in persecutione XIV: PL 2, 120).

[17] Canon 21 of the Council of Adge (506) : Mansi 8, 328.

[18] Canon 25 of the Council of Orleans (511) : MGH Conc. I, 8.

[19] Especially as these domestic masses, although “deprived of solemnity”, were not necessarily “private”.

[20] Cf. C. Vogel (1980) Une mutation cultuelle inexpliquée : le passage de l’eucharistie communautaire à la messe privée : RSR 54, 235. The subsequent history of canon law shows that the authorities have always urged the faithful to attend cathedral or parish masses on Sundays.

[21] From the Latin “votum: wish”, these Masses are celebrated to obtain spiritual or temporal goods, public or private. There are many examples of this, and they often take place in the very place where the special grace is requested: for example, in the home of the sick person whose recovery is hoped for, or at the grave of the deceased for whom eternal rest is requested.

[22] Cf. Augustinus De Civitate Dei XXII, 8, 6: PL 41, 764.

[23] Cf. A.A. Häussling (1965) Ursprünge der Privatmesse: “Stimmen der Zeit” 176, 24. We do not always agree with this author’s theological conclusions, but let us simply quote his historical observation. Already in the time of Saint Cyprian of Carthage (†258), Christians celebrated the torments of the martyrs and their anniversary feasts, i.e. the anniversary of their martyrdom, with sacrifices (cf. Cyprianus Carthaginensis Epistola XXXIV, 3: PL 4, 323A).

[24] A.A. Häussling Ursprünge 24.

[25] Cf. C. Vogel (1966) Introduction aux sources de l’histoire du culte chrétien au Moyen-Age, Centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo, Spoleto, 40-42. It should be remembered here that the Verona Sacramentary, as a collection, is commonly dated to the VIe century (cf. C. Vogel Introduction 33), but that certain formularies may date from the middle of the Ve century (cf. C. Vogel Introduction 39).

[26] Cf. C. Vogel Introduction 40.

[27] See O. Nussbaum (1961) Kloster, Priestermönch und Privatmesse, Peter Hanstein Verlag GmbH, Bonn, 186 and J. Braun (1924) Der christliche Altar in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung, I: Arten, Bestandtelle, Altargrab, Weihe, Symbolik, Alte Meister Guenther Koch & Co, München, 369. The original custom, which still exists in the East, was to build only one altar per church (cf. J. Braun Arten 373).

[28] At the synod held in Rome in 610, Pope Boniface IV declared himself in favour of the priestly ordination of monks (Cf. Mansi 10, 504-505). Until then, the disciples of Saint Benedict had been content with their status as monks. More often than not, there were only a tiny number of priests in each monastery — or even just one — who celebrated Mass for the community (Cf. P. Delatte Commentaire sur la Règle de saint Benoît, Solesmes 1985, 484 (on chapter 62 of the Rule of Saint Benedict: “Des prêtres du monastère”). Between the eighthe and tenthe centuries, the proportion of monk-priests to non-priest monks increased significantly in the monasteries of France and Germany, rising from an average of 26% around the year 800 to an average of 55% a century and a half later (see the statistics provided by Nussbaum (Kloster 78-80)).

[29] M. Andrieu (1951) Les Ordines Romani du Haut Moyen-Age. III: Les textes (suite) (Ordines XIV-XXXIV), Spicilegium Sacrum Lovaniense, Louvain, 18-20.

[30] Cf. C. Vogel Introduction 143.

[31] In n. 121 : “Hoc tamen sciendum est [...] in cenubiis, sive in civitatibus, [...] aut ubicumque sacerdus missas celebraverit, sive dominicis seu cottidianis diebus, vel in aliis solemnitatibus tam sanctorum quam et reliquorum martirum, sive cum clero puplice, vel etiam cum duabus aut unum ministrum, vel etiam si singolorum sacrificium Deo obtulerit, observare debit [...]” (Ordo romanus XV, 121 : M. Andrieu Les Ordines III, 120). And in n. 123: “Et sic incurvati contra altare ad orientem adornant, dicentes Kyriaeleison prolexe unusquisque chorus per novem vicibus. Si autem singolus fuerit sacerdos, novem tantum vicibus inclinatus adornando dicit Kyriaeleison” (Ordo romanus XV, 123: M. Andrieu Les Ordines III, 121). The bold characters are our own.

[32] Cf. C. Vogel Introduction 87-88.

[33] Of the four most popular theories to explain the birth of the plenary missal, Dom Folsom sets out the one we have just described (C. Folsom (1998) I libri liturgici romani : A.J. Chupungco [edr] (1998) Scientia liturgica. Manuale di liturgia. I: Introduzione alla liturgia, Piemme, Casale Monferrato, 285)

[34] Thus Egbert, Bishop of York: “Et sufficit sacerdoti unam missam in una die celebrare, quia Christus semel passus est, et totum mundum redemit; in Levitico quoque scriptum est non debere Aaron ingredi assidue interius in sancta” (Egbertus Eboracensis Archiepiscopus Excerptiones e dictis et canonibus sanctorum patrum concinnatae, et ad ecclesiasticae politiae institutionem conducentes 54: PL 89, 386B).

[35] Cf. Decretum Gratiani III, 1, 53: A.L. Richter — A. Friedberg. [edr] (1955) Corpus Iuris Canonici, I : Decretum magistri gratiani, Akademische Druck-U. Verlagsanstalt, Graz, 1308.

[36] In particular with Théodulfe d’Orléans (†821) and the canons of the Council of Mainz (813) and Paris (829).

[37] Cf. J. Bona (1671) De la liturgie, ou Traité sur le saint sacrifice de la messe (tome premier), Louis Vivès, Paris 1874, 154; Sacra Congregatio de Disciplina Sacramentorum (1949) Instructio Quam plurimum III, 1-2: AAS 41, 506-507. We also know the famous case of Saint Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) who, when he lived as a hermit in the Saharan desert, did not celebrate Mass — until he had received the long-awaited indult from Rome — on the (many) days when he was alone.

[38] Cf. Petrus Damianus Liber qui appellatur Dominus vobiscum ad Leonem eremitam: PL 145, 231B-252B. Others followed him, including Odon de Cambrai (†1113) and Etienne de Baugé, bishop of Autun (†1136).

[39] Cf. Petrus Damianus Dominus vobiscum 10: PL 145, 238D-239A.

[40] Cf. Petrus Damianus Dominus vobiscum 9: PL 145, 238C-238D.

[41] Cf. Petrus Damianus Dominus vobiscum 5: PL 145, 235A-235C.

[42] Cf. Petrus Damianus Dominus vobiscum 10: PL 145, 239A-240A.

[43] Cf. Petrus Damianus Dominus vobiscum 13: PL 145, 241D-242C.

[44] Cf. Petrus Damianus Dominus vobiscum 7: PL 145, 236C-237C.

[45] In this respect, it is interesting to consult the Cluniac monastic customs, and in particular the analysis made by Dom Tirot in this article: P. Tirot (1981) Un Ordo Missæ monastique : Cluny, Cîteaux, La Chartreuse : EphL 95, 44-120.220-251.

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