Can a Bishop Forbid a Priest to Say Mass?

Q: Some women in our diocese have started a prayer-group, and somehow they got on the wrong side of the bishop, who has told them privately to tone it down. Among other things, they wanted a priest who’s not from our diocese, who has a reputation for being a mystic of some sort, to visit and say a special private Mass for their group in the parish where most of them belong. But the bishop found out and intervened, saying (or so I’m told) that the priest was forbidden to say that Mass. Here’s my question: can’t an ordained priest always say Mass if he wants to? How can a bishop say that a priest cannot say Mass, especially since it would have been a private Mass anyway?  -Ed

A: Ed’s question highlights an important distinction that must be made, between the sacramental power of an ordained cleric to bring about a spiritual effect (in this case, to celebrate a valid Mass), and the authority of a diocesan bishop to regulate worship and the administration of the sacraments in his diocese.  He also raises a good question about public versus private Masses. Let’s take a look at each of these issues in turn.

The last question is the simpler to address. We Catholics all understand that sometimes a priest says a public, scheduled Mass, with a congregation composed of anybody who chooses to attend; and sometimes a priest says what is commonly referred to as a “private Mass,” either by himself, or for a family or a particular group. But this distinction actually has no basis in either theology or canon law, for the Eucharistic celebration is by its very nature a public act of worship by the Church. Liturgical actions, by definition, are not private affairs-even if only a few people are in fact present. This is the reasoning behind canon 906, which states that a priest is actually not supposed to celebrate Mass without at least one other person being present, unless there is a good reason for doing so. Frequently there is a good reason — imagine, for example, a priest who has to catch a plane at 7 AM and wants to say his Mass before leaving, so early that nobody else will be awake. But this sort of situation is hardly the norm!

Technically, therefore, it makes no difference if the mystic-priest wants to enter the diocese and say a widely publicized Mass with a huge congregation, or an unannounced Mass with a few people from a prayer-group.  So if the bishop can prohibit such a priest from saying Mass in a very public setting, like a Sunday Mass in a large parish, he is equally able to prohibit him from saying Mass for a small group. So the next question is, can the bishop do that?

Ed correctly indicates in his question that once a man has been ordained a priest, he and he alone has the power to validly celebrate the Eucharist, consecrating the bread and wine which become, by the priest’s action, the Body and Blood of Christ (c. 900.1). This is a sacramental power which can never be taken away from him by anyone! As was discussed in the November 12, 2009 column, ordination brings with it an ontological change in the person, which cannot be undone — a priest forever remains a priest. In the same column, however, we also saw that priests can, under certain circumstances, be allowed to leave the clerical state and live in the world as laymen again. In such cases, the laicized priest always retains the ability to say a valid Mass — but he is not permitted by Church authorities to do so. Similarly, we saw in the October 18, 2007 column that if a priest who has been suspended, and thereby prohibited from celebrating Mass, were to do so anyway, it would be a valid Mass! But in either case, since his superiors had forbade him to say Mass at all, it would be illicit, or illegal.

Now it’s true that the priest whom Ed describes does not seem to fit either of these categories, as he has neither been laicized nor suspended. If he truly is a bona fide mystic, he may actually be an extremely holy man! Regardless, he wants to enter another diocese and celebrate Mass there. And while we do not know all the details, the diocesan bishop is concerned about the activities of the prayer-group which invited the priest to come. Perhaps they are promoting some theological ideas which are of questionable orthodoxy; or maybe they are engaging in devotional activities which in some way are imprudent and/or disrupting general harmony among the faithful-there are any number of possible problems. The actual reason for the bishop’s concern doesn’t really matter.  If in his judgment the group is engaging in dubious devotional practices or other activities that have caused concern, he has every right to intervene pastorally, for the spiritual good of the people entrusted to his care (cf. c. 383.1), to try to “tone it down,” as Ed put it.

Here’s an important point to keep in mind: when Bishop X says that Father Y may not say Mass in Bishop X’s diocese, the bishop is not suggesting in any way that Father is losing his ability, as an ordained priest, to validly offer the Eucharistic sacrifice. The bishop knows full well that this would be impossible! Rather, he is banning that particular priest from holding a liturgical celebration in his territory, and at which the Catholic faithful of the bishop’s diocese would be present. If the priest were to disobey and offer the Mass there anyway, it would of course be a valid Mass; but it would certainly be illicit. That priest would be acting in blatant disregard of the diocesan bishop’s authority and responsibility to oversee the spiritual welfare of his flock — a serious charge indeed!

Note also that when a bishop issues such a directive, it is ordinarily made not only to the priest himself, but is openly addressed to the faithful of the diocese as well. The people must also realize that if they fail to follow the bishop’s order and attend such a forbidden Mass in their diocese, they are committing a direct act of disobedience. It’s entirely possible that a Catholic may not like his bishop, and/or may personally be convinced that the bishop’s decision in such a case shows incomplete understanding of the real situation-and that may be true! But this does not give a Catholic the right to second-guess his bishop and do as he pleases. This is a very “protestant” mentality that unfortunately has become all too common in some Catholic circles here in the U.S.

Some years ago, the then-Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, forbade the African Archbishop Milingo from holding “healing Masses” in the Milan Archdiocese. It attracted quite a lot of attention at the time because in this case, one bishop was issuing a command to another bishop, something that under normal circumstances is simply not done! In this situation, however, Archbishop Martini was exercising his authority within the territory of his archdiocese, which he had not only the right, but the responsibility to do. He was concerned about what was really happening during the “healing ceremonies” which accompanied Archbishop Milingo’s Masses, and rightly wanted to protect the Catholics under his care from an event of questionable spiritual orthodoxy. Time has vindicated Archbishop Martini, as Archbishop Milingo was subsequently excommunicated by the Vatican for his bizarre and decidedly un-Catholic statements and actions-and he remains under excommunication to this day.

Granted, it might happen someday that the mystic-priest whom Ed mentions is publicly acknowledged by the Church to be an authentic model of Christian spirituality. But that will not alter the fact that the diocesan bishop has the right to decide that it is better for the faithful of the diocese to steer clear of him today. That priest will always have the ability to celebrate Mass; he just can’t celebrate it in this particular diocese.

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