Do Priests Have to Say Mass Every Day?

 Q1: My husband and I watched a movie about medieval knights recently, and in it there were some monks who all went to their chapel in the middle of the night to pray and sing together. Is that still done in the Church anywhere today? — Alicia

Q2: We have a retired priest living in our parish rectory with the pastor. There’s one Mass scheduled per day during the week. They take turns saying it. I asked the parish secretary what time the other priest says Mass, if he doesn’t say the scheduled one. She looked surprised and said that they don’t say Mass unless it’s on the schedule. Can that be right? Aren’t priests required to say Mass every day?  — Julie

A: At first glance, these questions may not appear to be related in any way. Yet they both refer to duties and obligations incumbent upon Catholic clergy, and so it is appropriate to look at them together.

The monks in the movie that Alicia mentions were undoubtedly praying the Liturgy of the Hours (also referred to traditionally as praying the Office). From time immemorial, clergy have prayed a series of established prayers at set times throughout the day and night. Some of the prayers change daily, while others are fixed and said every single day. Note that in this way it is rather like the Mass, which has some parts that are always unchanging, while others vary depending on the liturgical season and the day of the year. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is still done today, for as canon 1173 notes, the Church in this way praises God without ceasing, in fulfillment of the priestly office of Christ. The Liturgy of the Hours is considered the public prayer of the Church (cf. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, 90).

Many readers may be at least vaguely familiar with the names for some of these Hours, such as Matins, Lauds, and Vespers.  They are called “Hours,” not because these prayers necessarily last for one full hour, but because they are prescribed to be said at set hours of each day (c. 1175). In monasteries, as far as possible these prayers are indeed said at the specified times — which requires the monks to wake up during the night and enter the church to pray the night Hours in common. The penance involved in such a daily practice, especially in the cold of winter, should be obvious to all!

All priests, and all deacons who are studying to become priests, are required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day (c. 276.2 n. 3). This can be time-consuming; so permanent deacons, who ordinarily have families and secular jobs during the work-week, may in certain countries be required to say daily only a part of it. Additionally, members of religious communities, whether they are clerics or not, are likewise obliged to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, although their own particular law may allow for some variations (c. 1174.1). This means that all sisters, cloistered nuns, and brothers are also required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, regardless of whether they live enclosed in monasteries like the one in Alicia’s movie, or engage in teaching, nursing, or other apostolates out in the secular world.

As members of the clergy, our parish priests are all bound by this obligation. Their very busy schedules may not seem to leave them much time to pray in private, but they are nevertheless required to pray their Office daily. While they do not have to rise in the middle of the night, so as to pray each Hour at exactly the right time, they are expected to pray the entire Liturgy of the Hours during the course of each day (with some exceptions that allow for the fulfillment of their regular parish duties). Probably most of us at some point have seen parish priests sitting in church reading from their big, thick, black-bound prayerbook; this book (called a Breviary) contains the Liturgy of the Hours. Busy priests can frequently be seen praying from their Breviary while sitting in the confessional, waiting for penitents; in the parish office, in between appointments; or even while waiting in the doctor’s office or at a bus-stop. In fact, any spare moment of their day can be — and often is — snatched by our parish clergy to pray a part of the Liturgy of the Hours!

Obviously, unexpected events arise that may make a priest unable to complete all the Hours by the end of the day. Illness, or the need to rush to the bedside of a dying parishioner, may leave Father without enough time to finish his Breviary on a given day. But apart from these truly unplanned, unforeseen events, the obligation to pray the daily Office still holds for every Catholic priest. Rest assured that the Holy Father himself, who surely is busier than even the busiest pastor, does not fail to pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily!

So it’s clear that our priests are required by law to pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily-but are they obliged to say Mass every day as well? On the face of it, that would certainly seem logical! Let’s now look at the canon law pertaining to Julie’s question.

Canon 904 states that since, in the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the work of redemption is continually being carried out, priests are to celebrate it frequently. In fact, the canon adds that daily celebration of the Mass is earnestly recommended — but it specifically avoids requiring priests to say Mass every day.

In other words, the code obliges priests to pray their Breviary every day, but does not oblige them to say daily Mass. What is going on here?

The primary reason for this is not legal, but theological. A priest should, if he can, avoid celebrating Mass if he is in a state of grave sin. Until he has the opportunity to make a sacramental confession, such a priest may very well wish not to say Mass, if possible. This avoidance would thus stem not from a lack of devotion, but on the contrary, from a consciousness of personal guilt and a respect for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. While he might wish to go to confession immediately, a missionary priest, or one who is assigned to a very rural area, may find it difficult to find another priest to hear his confession right away.

If the code required every priest to say Mass daily, a priest in such a situation would find himself in a moral dilemma. He could either obey the law and offer Mass in a state of grave sin; or he could violate the law out of deference to the Eucharist. In such a situation, canon law would then be in direct conflict with sound sacramental theology. Obviously this is untenable — which is why the code refrains from imposing the absolute obligation of saying daily Mass on every priest across the board.

All of which is not to suggest, of course, that the priests at Julie’s parish must be in a state of grave sin on the days when they do not celebrate Mass! But without knowing the specific facts of their individual situations, it is at least safe to say that they are not violating the law.

In fact, if there are frequent funerals and/or weddings at Julie’s parish, the priest who does not say the scheduled daily Mass is probably saying a funeral or wedding Mass on at least some days of the week. Perhaps he’s also saying Mass sometimes at the local Catholic elementary school, the hospital, or even at another parish that is short-staffed.

Or it’s possible that he may be saying Mass privately, without the parish secretary even being aware of it. Canon 906 notes that a priest should not celebrate Mass without the participation of at least one other person; but it also makes an exception if the priest has a good and reasonable cause for offering the Mass alone. If a parish priest is not scheduled to say a particular Mass at his parish at a publicized time, he may very well end up saying his Mass with no one else present, if he says it at an hour when nobody else happens to be in the church. The mere fact that no one else is present does not prevent a priest from offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

As we have seen on so many occasions in this space before, canon law is in complete synch with Catholic theology. Everyone, including somebody in a state of grave sin, is welcome to pray, and in fact should do so. This is why the Church has no qualms about requiring all her clergy to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every single day. But unless it is absolutely necessary for the good of the souls entrusted to his care, a priest offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass daily without previously confessing all serious sins is quite another matter. What may at first appear to be a laxity in the law is actually in complete accord with our Catholic faith.

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