Hearing, saying, celebrating, presiding

Terminology is rarely neutral. There are a few pieces of Mass-related terminology about which I want to speak: Saying Mass, hearing Mass, celebrating Mass, and presiding at Mass.

The locution that one “hears Mass” was once quite popular; St. Mother Theodore Guerin’s journal records that she and her companions heard Mass at my home parish before proceeding to the Sisters of Providence’s new home St. Mary-of-the-Woods. 1 Yet it has been inappropriate and defunct since Pius X, and lapsed into desuetude with Vatican II, because the Pian and Conciliar insistences on “active participation” rendered it inappropriate to imply that a member of the congregation does or ought to passively experience the Mass. 2

There is nothing at all inappropriate in saying that a priest “says Mass,” because he in fact does so. That hasn’t changed. Some people don’t like that, though, which brings us to the other two words, which pertain to what the priest does.

Before Vatican II, the priest celebrated Mass. Since the aftermath of Vatican II, the priest, it has been insisted by the “new reformers,” is the presider at Mass. They will tell you that this is simply the more ancient title, and they of course are all about the kind of antiquarianism that was decried by Pius XII in Mediator Dei. Nothing to see here; nothing by which to feel threatened, right?

Well, that is the more ancient term, as St. Justin Martyr witnesses, for example. 3 But that’s not why they like it. What the new reformers wanted, I think, was to work a fundamental change in the way we understand the Mass. As with so many things, they failed to sell the council on their idea, and so, amid the postconciliar chaos, they asked themselves how they could push the Church in the “right” direction. And they hit on the idea of changing the way we talk about what the priest does: No longer would the priest be the celebrant—he was to be the presider. The linguistic shift is subtle but profound, because once you change the way people talk about what the priest is doing and let it soak in for a while, they start to think differently about what the priest is doing. He isn’t celebrating the Mass, he simply presides, and while a celebrant does, a presider merely plays one part in the doing. And so the subconscious, presumed locus of the Mass shifts to the congregation. 4

It’s a clever play, but shine a light onto it and it retreats. If a priest says Mass alone, he has attended a Mass, but if a group of laity stand in a hall, say the responses, and consume bread and wine, they have attended a bad dinner party. To be sure, it is better that there be a congregation, 5 so perhaps we could express the point like this: Sine congregatio, quidam absentem est, sed nihil deest, without the congregation, something is missing, but nothing is lacking. Our Dean, Father Joe Kern, passed on last spring, and a week or two before he died, I suppose that he was having a “good” day because he came to concelebrate daily Mass.  He said “I’d rather come here and celebrate Mass with you all than celebrate it alone in my room.” And it is better. But on those days when he didn’t feel up to leaving his room, he still validly celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. A private Mass may not be optimal, but it’s not invalid, just as eating alone may not be preferable, but it’s still food and it still nourishes. And if Mass is still validly and completely Mass when celebrated privately, the attempt to constrict the role of the priest cannot hold water. Sine congregatione, quidam absentem est, sed nihil deest.


  1. Journals and letters of Mother Theodore Guerin 59 (1937).
  2. Tra le sollecitudini, introduction (Pius X, 1903); Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 14 (2d Vat. Co. 1963)
  3. First Apology, ch. 65.
  4. Cf., e.g., 12 Louis Weil, A Theology of Worship 31 ff. (2002).
  5. Cf. Mt 18:20; CCC 1069.