Monday, April 15, 2024

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

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

Canon Gilles Guitard, ICRSP

(Part 1, providing the history of this topic from antiquity to the 13th century, may be found here.)

The Franciscans

Now, there were some who wanted to classify the “private” Mass itself as an abuse and who sought a return to the celebration of a single Mass per day in a given community of priests. This was particularly the case with the Friars Minor.

In the introduction we already noted that in 1226 Saint Francis prescribed that each house of friars should have only one Mass a day, celebrated by one of them and attended [i.e., not concelebrated] by any other priests in the community. It seems that the founder of Assisi wanted to avoid the lure of financial gain for his brothers [1], but we can also see in this choice the desire to emphasise the community aspect of the Mass, since we know the particular importance given to the bond of charity by the saint. Moreover, the rest of the letter mentioned in the introduction says the following: “If there were several priests in this place, let each priest, for the love of charity, be content to hear the celebration of the other” [2]. Celebrating “in private” was clearly considered by him to be a breach of this great virtue. The attendance of all the brothers, whether priests or not, at a single Mass at which they all took communion [3], was the best way of effectively maintaining the bond of charity between the brothers; and this was precisely the priority that the saint of Assisi had set himself. [4]

We know what happened next. The Order of Friars Minor nevertheless adopted in their missal the rubric cited in the introduction [5], inherited from the papal court, which explicitly legitimises “private” celebration. Thus, despite their founder’s encouragement to favour the community Mass, the Friars Minor were free to celebrate “in private” if they so wished. No doubt they did not make use of this possibility every day.

In any case, a balance was eventually found, since around 1240, the General of the Order, Aymon of Faversham, compiled the ordo missæ “Indutus planeta”, which is a highly detailed ceremonial of the “private” Mass and the conventual festive Mass. It seems that the itinerancy required for the mission, combined with the brothers’ life of evangelical poverty, contributed to reducing the liturgical display and the length of community ceremonies on the less solemn days of the year. This ceremonial book is in fact a vademecum for celebrating Masses (community or individual) “deprived of solemnity”.

In this way, the legitimacy of the “private” celebration was confirmed and its ritual process spread from Rome to the whole of Christendom.

To conclude this historical overview, it should be noted that, as is often the case, errors and abuses provide an opportunity for the Church to clarify its doctrine. In this case, their appearance was an opportunity to reaffirm the intrinsically communitarian character of every Eucharistic celebration, even “private” ones.

It should also be noted that these disciplinary clarifications, which were essential for correcting certain abusive practices, were only known within the Latin Church, suggesting that the Eastern Churches did not experience the evolution of the Mass “deprived of solemnity” towards the “private” Mass properly so called, as was the case in the West between the 4th and 6th centuries.

Then, after the Gregorian reform, the growing opposition in practice — especially in the monasteries — between public conventual Mass and “private” Mass provided an opportunity to finally establish the definitive legitimacy of the latter and its complementarity with the former.

15th-century German missal (source)

The ritual form

We present here the results of research carried out on three sources: the Ordo romanus XV [6], the Cluniac customs of the XI century [7] and the Ordo missæ “Indutus planeta” [8]. These sources form a rather happy sequence: they are spread out over time and they have had a major impact in time and space.

Here is the synopsis summarising the study of these sources, which shows us the evolution over time of the ritual of the “private” Mass. N.B. The first two stages predate the sources studied. They were conjectured on the basis of minor contemporary sources, which we came across when drawing up our first historical section.

Early centuries: from the origins to the end of the fourth century

For this period, we have conjectured that the “private” Mass was reduced to the pure sacrificium, according to the hypothesis formulated by M. Righetti. [9] Here are the elements that probably made up the “private” Mass:

- Preparation and offering of the oblata, probably accompanied by improvised prayers,
- Eucharistic anaphora,
- Communion for the priest and any assistants,
- Prayers of thanksgiving, probably improvised.

No liturgical book from this period has survived. It is likely that the celebrant — at least until the fourth century — did not use a written text to celebrate this Mass. The Eucharistic anaphora, like all the eminently sacred texts of this period, is probably known by memory.

From the end of the 4th century to the 7th century (the period of the first libelli and sacramentaries)

We continue with the initial hypothesis of a “private” celebration reduced to the pure sacrificium, which would evolve organically over the centuries and according to the region. [10] It would gradually be enriched by new elements, which were already present in the solemn public Mass but performed by other ministers (cantors, deacon, subdeacon). Since the celebrant was not accustomed to reciting them at public Mass, he began to do so at “private” Mass, with the intervention of the authorities. [11]

The celebrant is provided with a single book: a libellus or sacramentary.

At the beginning of the VII century, the course of the “private” Mass could look like this:

  • Kyrie [12], concluded by the Collect. [13].
  • Offertory:
    • “Oremus,
    • offering of oblata,
    • prayer super oblata. [14]
  • Eucharistic anaphora:
    • Dialogue and preface, [15]
    • Sanctus,
    • Roman canon, [16]
    • Pater.
  • Communion rites.
  • Final prayer.

From the end of the 8th century (according to the Ordo romanus XV and the Paduensis Gregorian Sacramentary)

We are thus leaving the realm of the probable and the hypothetical to enter into considerations that are virtually certain. With the help of the Ordo Romanus XV, we can give the following details of the course of the “private” Mass: [17] 

  • Introit (composed of an antiphon and verses from the psalms, concluded by Gloria Patri).
  • The Kyrie consists of nine invocations.
  • The Gloria in excelsis Deo (for certain days).
  • The Collect is preceded by a greeting (probably “Dominus vobiscum”).
  • Epistle and Gospel (if portable missal or lectionary available)
  • The sacrificium is unchanged, except for the following:
    • the Roman canon is certainly the one we know (from Te igitur to Per ipsum), and is recited in a low voice,
    • the Pater is certainly followed by the embolism Libera nos.
  • Communion rites now certainly include:
    • the Pax domini,
    • commingling,
    • apologies (private priestly prayers),
    • Communion antiphon with psalm verses concluded by Gloria Patri
  • Conclusion unchanged, with the oration Ad complendum, and possibly an additional oration Super populum.

From the XI century (according to Cluniac monastic customs)

It is clear from the customary documents analysed that the “private” Mass underwent considerable ritual enrichment between the 8th and 11th centuries, at least in the monasteries dependent on Cluny.

The only book used at the altar was the missal, which occupied two places during the Mass: on the right at the beginning and end, and on the left from the epistle to the ablutions.

A lay brother serves Mass.

The volume of the voice is modest, even secretive for certain parts.

Here is an outline of the elements of the celebration revealed by these traditional practitioners [18]

  • Washing of hands and preparation of the oblata (placing the host on the paten and pouring the wine and water into the chalice) before Mass, in the sacristy.
  • Preparation of the altar on arrival.
  • Vesting at the altar.
  • Confiteor of the priest, then of the server, at the foot of the altar steps.
  • Finger washing and brief prayer after going to the altar.
  • Introït, Kyrie, no Gloria.
  • “Dominus vobiscum” and Collect (there may be several Collects).
  • Epistle, then Gospel (introduced by “Sequentia...”).
  • Credo (for Sundays and feast days).
  • Offertory:
    • “Dominus vobiscum”,
    • placement of the corporal on the altar,
    • then oblata, brought by the server,
    • washing of hands, then joining the first two fingers of each hand,
    • In spiritu humilitatis prayer,
    • exhortation to pray Orate pro me,
    • “Oremus” and secret (in a low voice), with the conclusion Per omnia in an elevated voice.
  • Preface introduced by the dialogue, followed by the Sanctus.
  • Roman canon, concluded by the Per Ipsum doxology (during which the celebrant makes signs of the cross with the host on the chalice, then raises the host slightly).
  • Communion rites:
    • Pater to “Et ne nos inducas in tentationem”, the server replies “Sed libera nos a malo”, the celebrant “Amen” (in a low voice),
    • Libera nos embolism, with fraction during the doxology,
    • Pax Domini (with signs of the cross made with the host over the chalice),
    • commingling,
    • Agnus Dei,
    • kiss of peace to the minister [19],
    • communion of the priest, then of the server, with the host,
    • communion of the priest, then of the server, with the precious blood[20]
    • ablutions: purification of the mouth, fingers and chalice,
    • corporal folding,
    • communion antiphon,
    • “Dominus vobiscum” and then the post-communion.
  • Concluding rituals:
    • “Ite missa est” (or “Benedicamus Domino”)
    • Placeat prayer,
    • verse Animæ omnium Fidelium (if there was a collect pro defunctis).

To this must be added all the gestural details, of which there are many throughout the text (signs of the cross, bows, kissing the altar and the book, position of the speaker, fingers joined), but which we cannot mention here. Both the manner in which they are to be performed and the moment at which they are to be performed are indicated. The overriding concern seems to be to leave nothing to chance or to the free execution of the celebrant.

In the 13th century (according to the ordo missæ “Indutus planeta”)

The regulars [i.e., the religious bound by rule] were still at work, but this time they were inspired by the ceremonial of the papal court. The fruit of their labours would be used by all priests, regular and secular, sedentary (like monks and canons) and itinerant (like the Friars Minor).

The gestural prescriptions for the celebrant found in the Cluniac customs are largely to be found in this ordo missæ, with a few additions that we will describe below. It should also be noted that these prescriptions are now codified by the Indutus, to make them clearer, more universal and more permanent.

Let us see, then, in the order of execution, the elements of the Indutus that change in relation to the Cluniac rite:

  • Codification of gestures that are repeated several times during the Mass:
    • two types of inclination (deep and medium),
    • a kiss from the altar,
    • how to join hands,
    • how to hold them apart and elevated (the modest and measured attitude of the speaker was already described in the course of the Cluniac Mass),
    • how to bless the host and chalice together,
    • very little indication of voice volume.
  • No washbasin at the beginning of Mass.
  • No genuflection on arriving at or leaving the altar. In fact, there is no prescribed genuflection during the entire Mass. [Custom, of course, may have dictated such.]
  • Bow to the altar (in the middle) before moving away from it, during Mass, but not at the beginning or end.
  • Recitation of the proper pieces between the epistle and the Gospel (gradual, tract, alleluia).
  • The missal was moved to the left later: for the gospel and not for the epistle.
  • The chalice is prepared during the Mass (the wine is poured into it before the offertory, the water — after it has been blessed — during the offertory).
  • The offertory has more prayers:
    • the offertory antiphon after the initial “Oremus”,
    • a different one for each of the two oblations (Suscipe sancte Pater and Offerimus tibi),
    • another for the blessing and infusion of the water in the chalice (Deus qui humane),
    • an epiclesis prayer (Veni sanctificator),
    • one in honour of the Holy Trinity (Suscipe sancta trinitas).
  • The position of the host on the corporal in relation to the chalice is planned: the chalice is on the right, the host on the left.
  • Elevation of the host after consecration.
  • The joining of the fingers begins later (after the consecration of the chalice).
  • Beginning of reverence (bowing) before the holy species.
  • The chalice is uncovered/covered more frequently, which is more convenient thanks to the second corporal (folded), which serves only this purpose.
  • Bow while reciting the Agnus Dei.
  • Prayers in preparation for the kiss of peace and communion.
  • More precise mode of communion:
    • prayers, taking the paten and the chalice,
    • he prepares himself with Domine non sum dignus,
    • he signs himself with the paten or chalice before taking communion with the body and blood,
    • he communes with the body through language.
  • Only the celebrant receives communion.
  • Two ablutions only (the first for the chalice and mouth, the second for the fingers).
  • Washbasin after ablutions.
  • Final blessing.


At the end of this study, we can establish that the Mass celebrated “in private” could date back to the first centuries of the Church, even if we have no irrefutable evidence at our disposal dating from before the eighth century. Its existence in the VI century is highly probable; it is of the order of very suitable to very likely for the first centuries. It was practised above all by sedentary priests living in communities (monks and canons) and by hermits, as well as by itinerant missionary priests. A certain development took place in the monasteries, at the time of the Carolingian reform, in particular when the foundations of Masses celebrated for the souls of the deceased appeared.

The ritual form of the “private” Mass has evolved over time and according to circumstances.

a) Over time, we have seen that its content has expanded. As the priest was the only liturgist, he did not provide the elements that were the responsibility of the ministers of the solemn Mass. This is why it was most likely reduced to pure sacrificium in the early days. It then gradually acquired the elements of the public Mass, from the 6th century onwards, and eventually became aligned with the latter. This was already the case, apart from a few elements, at the end of the XI century in the monasteries of the Cluniac order in France and the Empire.

Another development over time can be observed in the customs of these places: the considerable progress in the precision required of the celebrant in the sequence of gestures and words. So much so that by the end of the 11th century, in Cluny, the ritual of the “private” Mass — which was much more detailed than that of the solemn conventual Mass in terms of the celebrant’s gestures and attitudes — began to supplant it in its normative prerogative. This trend was confirmed in the ordo missæ “Indutus planeta”, in which the “private” Mass is clearly presented as the norm for all celebrations, even solemn ones. This ordo is the direct ancestor of the Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae of the 1570 missal, which clearly presents the “private” Mass as the basis on which the actions prescribed for the deacon and subdeacon of the solemn Mass are grafted from time to time.

b) We can also deduce from our study that the form of the “private” Mass may have varied according to circumstances.

A sedentary priest living in a community (particularly a monk), because he has little time to celebrate (he may have to celebrate several Masses a day) and also attends the conventual Mass, may be content with a more restrained ritual form, beginning directly at the start of the offertory. [21]

On the other hand, an itinerant priest, who may not have a server and who does not attend conventual Mass, will more naturally follow a more complete ritual.

A true organic development

In retrospect, it seems logical that the ritual of the “private” Mass should necessarily have become closer to that of the solemn Mass over time, in order to show outwardly that it was identical in nature to the solemn Mass. We have just emphasised that this is precisely what happened.

However, our analysis also shows that this rapprochement was not without its difficulties. For example, it seems that the more the “private” Mass ritually resembled the public Mass, the more it distracted the faithful from the latter. There were certainly other reasons for the decline in interest in the solemn public Mass between the 10th and 13th centuries, but competition from the “private” Mass was certainly one of them. A certain balance was found, notably by allowing monk-priests the option of not taking communion at conventual Mass[22]. Apart from this question of communion, the priest was entirely free to celebrate “privately” or not. Clearly, there was never any obligation to celebrate it, nor, conversely, any lasting and general prohibition. The rare prohibitions related to the abusive use made of the “private” Mass (solitary Masses, domestic Masses, multiple daily celebrations or others) and not to the principle itself; the judgment of Saint Francis, which did not last, was advice rather than an obligation.

We can therefore reasonably affirm that this ritual development took place organically: slowly, progressively, with interventions by the authorities — both in terms of the conditions to be met in order to celebrate “in private” and the ritual form to be followed — which remained discreet and limited to cases of manifest abuse[23]. Consequently, the “private” Mass is indeed traditional in the Roman Church.

A morning in Fontgombault, like the one Card. Ratzinger would have seen

Replies to objections

Allow us to respond to a legitimate objection to “private” celebrations.

Many rightly point out the risk of losing the communal dimension of the Eucharistic sacrifice by attending or celebrating “private” Mass. This is the case of Vogel, who points out that in the past the fermentum made it possible not to isolate one Mass from another. [24] This rite manifested outwardly the unity of all celebrations with that of the pope and, through it, with the paschal mystery that it makes present. Each Mass is therefore linked to Christ’s redemptive action, performed “once and for all” [25], and is thus united with all the other Masses. Moreover, this rite of fermentum also shows that the Mass is not a simple ascetic exercise or private devotion [26]: the Mass is not an action of the celebrant and the assistants, but is truly the action of Christ and the Church.

It seems to us that the rubrics, which have developed considerably and reached such a degree of precision that nothing seems to have been left to chance, providentially play the role that the fermentum once played. They ensure that all the Masses are united by the observance of common rules. They also show the communion of the priest with his hierarchy, by asking him to obey the rules emanating from it. Finally, by obeying, the priest imitates the example of the Son, the High Priest, who did not come to do his own will, but that of his Father.

After recalling that “priestly spirituality is intrinsically Eucharistic”, Benedict XVI, in the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum caritatis, recommends that priests “celebrate Mass daily, even without the participation of the faithful” [27]. He added:
This recommendation corresponds first and foremost to the objectively infinite value of each Eucharistic celebration; it then draws from it a reason for particular spiritual effectiveness, because, if it is lived attentively and with faith, the Mass is formative in the deepest sense of the term, in that it promotes conformation to Christ and strengthens the priest in his vocation. [28]
I’ll leave the last word to Benedict XVI. When he was still Cardinal Ratzinger and visiting Notre-Dame de Fontgombault Abbey in 2001 for the Liturgical Days, he confided something to Dom Antoine Forgeot, the Abbot. During his stay, the cardinal had been able to celebrate the conventual Mass alone, which all the monks — including priests — had attended. At dawn on the morning of his departure, the Father Abbot invited him to walk through the abbey church one last time before returning to his car. This was precisely the moment when nine monk-priests were offering the holy sacrifice, as they did every morning, at the same time, “in private”, each on his own altar. The cardinal admired this timeless spectacle in silence for a few moments; then, as he left the car, he whispered in his host’s ear: “Now that’s the Catholic Church!” [29]


[1] Cf. S.J.P. Van Dijk — J.H. Walker The Origins 51-52. We were unable to investigate this question further.

[2] Quoted in: G. Derville (2011) La concélébration eucharistique. Du symbole à la réalité Wilson & Lafleur Ltée, Montréal, 15.

[3] It is clear that for a brother priest, the “private” celebration can be compatible — with a little organisation — with attending community Mass. On the other hand, it prevents him from taking Communion. The same can be said for the non-priest brother who serves “private” Mass. Cf. in particular: R. Grégoire (1967-1968) La communion des moines-prêtres à la messe d’après les coutumiers monastiques médiévaux: “Sacris Erudiri” 18, 524-549, and more particularly the first point of the conclusion on page 547.

[4] This way of doing things was also in force for cardinals during conclaves until 1922: a single Mass celebrated by just one, at which all attended and received communion, without being able to celebrate “in private”, let alone concelebrate sacramentally as we understand it today.

[5] “Si sunt plures sacerdotes in loco secrete possunt cantare missam quam volunt.

[6] Ordo romanus XV, 121-156: M. Andrieu Les Ordines III, 120-125. We have added the Paduensis Gregorian Sacramentary: A. Catella — F. dell’Oro — A. Martini Liber Sacramentorum Paduensis 375-383.

[7] We studied four customs: the Cluniac customs of Bernard (Bernardus Ordo Cluniacensis 72: M. Herrgott Vetus disciplina monastica 263-265), the Cluniac customs of Ulrich (Udalricus Cluniacensis Antiquiores Consuetudines Cluniacensis Monasterii II, 30: PL 149, 724A-725A), the customs of Hirsau (Wilhelmus Constitutiones Hirsaugienses I, 86: PL 150, 1015C-1020C) and the customs of Farfa (Odilo Abbas Liber tramitis aevi II, 24: Corpus Consuetudinum Monasticarum 10, 232-233).

[8] It can be consulted here: S.J.P. Van Dijk [edr] (1963) Sources of the Modern Roman Liturgy. The Ordinals by Haymo of Faversham and related documents (1243-1307), II: Texts, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1-14.

[9] Cf. M. Righetti La Messa 148-149. The hypothesis is based first and foremost on common sense: deprived of the assistance of the faithful and the presence of several ministers, the celebrant — from the moment the existence of Masses “deprived of solemnity” is admitted — reproduces in these celebrations the essentials of the rite of the Mass (which he usually celebrates in public), but suppresses the parts that are properly communal (such as the psalmodic chants, the readings and the homily). Righetti bases this hypothesis on a passage by Tertullian in which he evokes the alternative between offering the (Eucharistic) sacrifice and serving the Word of God: “aut sacrificium offertur, aut Dei verbum administratur” (Tertullianus De cultu fœminarum II, 11: PL 1, 1329B), one excluding the other, and vice versa. Let us acknowledge that this written proof is far from incontestable, but that it nevertheless enjoys a certain degree of probability.

[10] We can identify five main regions in which the Roman liturgy developed from around 375 AD: Africa, Gaul, Spain, Italy (outside Rome) and Rome (cf. C. Vogel Introduction 20-30).

[11] This is the case for the Sanctus, the recitation of which is explicitly requested at “private” Mass (since it is recited at public Masses) by a canon of the Second Council of Vaison (529).

[12] The Kyrie consists of the simple invocations “Kyrie eleison” and “Christe eleison”. It is both a penitential rite, preparing the priest inwardly for the sacrifice that is to follow, and a prayer of intercession. Indeed, it is the probable descendent of the Deprecatio gelasiana, which was itself a prayer of intercession, and its concluding oration (the collect) is precisely the descendent of the oration concluding the Deprecatio gelasiana.

[13] The formula for the Collect is given in the libellus or sacramentary.

[14] The formula for the oration super oblata is given in the libellus or sacramentary.

[15] The formula for the preface is given in the libellus or sacramentary.

[16] We know that at least the central part of the Roman canon was already in force in the Roman rite at the time of Ambrose of Milan. He quoted entire passages from it in his De sacramentis in 390 (cf. Ambrose of Milan Des Sacrements: Botte, B. [edr] (1961) (SCh 25 bis), Cerf, Paris, 114-116).

[17] Additional elements from the previous stage are marked in bold.

[18] Additional elements from the previous stage are marked in bold.

[19] The kiss of peace does not take place at Masses for the dead.

[20] The celebrant alone receives communion at Masses for the deceased.

[21] This seems to have been the case in Rome, for the solemn Mass on Holy Thursday, in the seventh century.

[22] It was precisely the communion of all priests at the same conventual Mass that Saint Francis of Assisi wanted to restore to honour.

[23] Cf. the criteria for the organic development of the liturgy put forward by A. Reid and mentioned in the introduction.

[24] Cf. C. Vogel Une mutation 246.

[25] Hb 9, 12.

[26] C. Vogel seems to contrast the individual opus bonum dimension of the Mass with its dimension as a community act (cf. C. Vogel Une mutation 247-248). Yet the two are complementary and not opposed.

[27] Benedict XVI Sacramentum Caritatis 80.

[28] Id. 80.

[29] Dom Antoine Forgeot, mb, confirmed these facts on oath in a handwritten letter dated 14/02/2014 addressed to the author.

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