Priests attending Mass

My husband’s best friend from childhood is a priest in our diocese. I have always wondered, do priests, when they’re visiting a church (like, with their families or if they’re on vacation), attend Mass like we do? Or, are they always expected to celebrate mass if they come to a church, even if it’s not “their” church?

Priests are expected to participate in every Mass as priests, even when travelling.

Does that mean they go to the celebrant and inform him that he is a priest? Or that they attend wearing their collar?

My understanding is that, since the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was put into effect, priests have to have specific permission from the local ordinary to act in a priestly capacity on a non-emergency basis. I was told that this was always true on paper, but that the hospitable informality about the matter that was sometimes in effect has had to be dropped. So while it is ideal (from Church documents, that is) that priests participate at Mass in a priestly capacity when possible, there is that additional hurdle to clear now. For public liturgies, the "t"s must be crossed, and no exceptions.

I would imagine that each diocese normally has a policy for how the bishop handles this issue, and that a priest has a duty to take the trouble to find out the local ordinary’s policy and to follow it when visiting. It would also be according to collegiality to respect the wishes of the presider at any particular Mass, as well. It would not be kosher to come in and read the chapter and verse of Church documents to the main celebrant in order to overrule his wishes. In other words, the local ordinary has the responsibility to make his policies according to the Church’s rules, while the visiting priest acts so as to suit the local ordinary and the pastor or main celebrant of the church where the Mass is being offered, and not to suit himself or his own view on things.

Yes, on both counts (the priest should be wearing a collar anyway. I don’t get pharisaic about this, but if a priest is going to Mass, common sense says he should wear his collar). If he’s not known to the priest saying the Mass, he should present a letter from his own bishop (a celebret). Sometimes it’s sufficient to simply have an existing parishioner “vouch” for the visiting priest.

For a while, many bishops stopped issuing celebrets as a matter of routine (we used to get new ones every calendar year, but that stopped for a while and they were done only on request), but I’ve noticed a trend lately that more bishops are bringing back the practice. It’s usually just a simple wallet sized card with the priest’s name and the bishop’s signature and seal, but I’ve seen some new ones with that look like photo IDs.

A priest who is in good standing, and who can present a letter from his bishop (dated no more than a year ago) can’t be refused to concelebrate, unless the host priest has some reasonable doubt as to the priest’s legitimacy.

Can. 903 A priest is to be permitted to celebrate even if the rector of the church does not know him, provided that either he presents a letter of introduction from his ordinary or superior, issued at least within the year, or it can be judged prudently that he is not impeded from celebrating.

You make a good point that the “ts” must be crossed; That includes canon law above all else (except Divine Law), and that trumps any local policy (which must conform to canon law) and anyone’s personal opinion. Yes, dioceses do have policies on visiting priests, but those policies always conform to canon law, including canon 903, of which every bishop is certainly aware.

A visiting priest, who can show that he is indeed a priest in good standing, has a right to exercise his priestly ministry and to concelebrate. Common courtesy, of course, also plays a role here. For example I can’t simply walk into a church 3 minutes before Sunday Mass starts, present a celebet and demand to concelebrate–even though that would be within canon law, it would be rude, and so it’s not done that way. A courtesy phone call ahead of time, or some other means of introduction is always in order. Likewise, there are always special circumstances (like a papal liturgy, to give an extreme) when other procedures have to be followed, but those are unusual and not really what we’re talking about here.

Please understand that when you begin by saying “I would imagine that…” and then go on to present what you think should be the policy for priests joining in the sanctuary, that can cause a lot of confusion.

And, no, there’s nothing in the Charter for the Protection of Children which prevents visiting priests in good standing from being present in the sanctuary and concelebrating.

When traveling with Father Ian, we often arrived about half an hour before Mass was to begin, and I don’t remember him ever not concelebrating.

Thank you, that makes it clear:
a) there are rules in canon law about this
b) the individual bishops have policies in their own dioceses, which need to be in compliance with canon law, that the visiting priest ought to take the trouble to make himself aware of and
c) in the end, what ought to happen is not only a matter of what a priest has a right to do, but what is courteous with regards to his treatment of his brother priests

What, if any, participation at Mass in his capacity as a priest does priestly duty on various levels require of a priest on vacation? Does it matter if he is in diocese or out, or who is his bishop? Whether he is religious or secular? In what way does it matter?

And, no, there’s nothing in the Charter for the Protection of Children which prevents visiting priests in good standing from being present in the sanctuary and concelebrating.

Excepting, of course, that he remembers to have something with him that shows that he is in fact in good standing, should he not be somewhere where he is already known.

Actually, a priest who is simply visiting does not need to check with diocese policy. That would just not be practical. A priest who is visiting on a regular basis, or who is moving to another diocese (say a retired priest, or one taking classes at a university, etc.) would have to consult the diocese, but a simple visit doesn’t rise to that level–that’s because the priest is not engaged in ecclesiastical ministry as such. Canon law already makes provision for this sort of thing.

Yes, the priest does have to be courteous. That goes without saying. But that also applies both ways. The host priest has just as much of an obligation to welcome a visiting priest and allow him to take his rightful place in the sanctuary. For a priest to be refused the opportunity to exercise his priestly ministry at Mass is an egregious insult–not only to the person of the priest, but also to Christ Whom he represents. There is a very high standard involved in denying a priest that opportunity, and it only happens when the priest himself is guilty of having done something to cause this.

I’d like to offer some thoughts on your last questions, but they’re too vague. If you can re-phrase them, or be more specific I’ll try.

A priest has an obligation to always exercise his priestly ministry whenever he’s at Mass–vacation or not doesn’t matter. He doesn’t necessarily have to take any particular role (for example preaching). He can simply be present in the sanctuary and participate in the Mass. He does have an obligation to assist with distributing Communion if the host priest needs help.

OK, here is a specific I know of. A priest attends the wedding of a relative who already has six priests concelebrating at the nuptial Mass. The church and wedding are not that large, so that no more than four ordinary ministers of the Eucharist are to be used. Is it OK for the priest to not be present in the sanctuary? If he’s not present up there, should he have an alb and stole on, should he be dressed at least in clerical street clothes, or something else, or does it matter? This is a case where everyone present knows he’s ordained, but would that even matter, either? Or is this kind of like being at the Vatican, where priests may attend in clerical street clothes because there are clearly plenty of ordinary ministers?

So concelebrating per se, including the Eucharistic Prayer, isn’t necessary?

And, how does it work if you are traveling through say rural Ukraine, and the local priest doesn’t speak English?

This also brings up another issue, does the obligation apply equally if you are at a mass of a rite other than your own?

Finally, is there an obligation to exercise priestly ministry at any liturgies other than mass?

As a priest, he should be in the sanctuary. He has both an obligation to be there, and a right. That’s not the same thing as saying that he’s necessarily doing anything “wrong” by not being there either. It isn’t outright wrong, but it is improper. The point is that from the moment he was ordained a priest, his proper “location” at a Mass is in the sanctuary. Sometimes necessity dictates that concelebrants can’t be in the sanctuary (such as the Chrism Mass if all the priests can’t fit in there) and if that’s the case, they concelebrate from the pews. Vestments is another issue. Every priest concelebrating should wear both the stole and the chasuble over the stole. Only if there are not enough vestments can a concelebrant wear an alb-stole w/o chasuble. Alternately, he could be in the sanctuary in cassock and surplice. But he shouldn’t wear just street clothes, even if they are clerical ones.

Weddings are planned well in advance and there’s plenty of lead time to make sure that there will be enough chairs for all the priests, and plenty of opportunity to tell them “bring an alb” or “bring an alb and chasuble.” This is a fairly routine thing for priests to do so we all know that if we’re invited to a wedding or something similar we need to plan accordingly (like pack an alb that fits). Likewise, if the couple is inviting other priests, it’s not very likely that they will forget to mention this to the host priest.

What happens at the Vatican is not so much the fact that there are “enough” priests available, but that there’s not enough space to accomodate all the priests and the fact that there are security concerns as well. The Vatican also has other issues to think about such as properly identifying priests. If someone impersonates a priest as a visitor at a local parish that’s bad enough, but if it were to happen at the Vatican it would be cause for public scandal on a worldwide scale. Just imagine people posting photos of some imposter standing at the altar of St. Peters and you’ll see what I mean. It could also get pretty chaotic at the Vatican if priests from all over the world were able to walk-up and simply join the celebrant. Imagine just 15 priests at one time and each one speaking a different language–none of them speaking Italian. It would be (ahem…) undignified.

Interesting. What about deacons?

This question has been raised before. According to Redemptionis Sacramentum:

128.] Holy Mass and other liturgical celebrations, which are acts of Christ and of the people of God hierarchically constituted, are ordered in such a way that the sacred ministers and the lay faithful manifestly take part in them each according to his own condition. It is preferable therefore that “Priests who are present at a Eucharistic Celebration, unless excused for a good reason, should as a rule exercise the office proper to their Order and thus take part as concelebrants, wearing the sacred vestments. Otherwise, they wear their proper choir dress or a surplice over a cassock”.218 It is not fitting, except in rare and exceptional cases and with reasonable cause, for them to participate at Mass, as regards to externals, in the manner of the lay faithful.

I hope this helps.

Eucharistic prayer: In concelebration, the EP “should” be distributed among the priests according to the text. If there are a lot of priests, not everyone would do a part aloud. However all the concelebrants would take part in the actual Words of Institution. If the priest is joining the celebrant in at least those words, then he’s concelebrating. But at the same time, it’s not at all unusual, especially when there are several priests, for priests to concelebrate but do nothing other than join in the words; of course, we all make the sign of the cross over ourselves and everything else we do at Mass. What I mean is that a concelebrant does not necessarily need to take some vocal part like preaching or proclaiming the gospel (sans deacon).

If a priest is travelling in a country where he doesn’t know the language he should still do the same thing. This is where the celebret becomes important. He should still be in the sanctuary. When it comes time for the EP, he should whisper the words in his own language. As far as communicating with the local priest, common sense would tell us that there has to be someone who can interpret since the priest had to have some help in at least finding the place. It’s not very likely that he’ll be in a situation where no one can translate and no one has mentioned to the host priest beforehand that this is going to happen. I’ve had many non-English-speaking priests as visitors over the years, but they don’t just drop out of the sky. Someone brings him.

Even if a priest is at a Mass in a rite other than his own, he still should be in the sanctuary. That’s where he belongs no matter what rite. This one can get very complicated. I just did a lot of typing about this one and realized I was about to go way off-topic, so I deleted it. The specifics here belong in another thread. Suffice to say that whatever the Catholic rite, every priest still has the obligation and right to be in the sanctuary. Every priest wears the vestments of his own liturgical tradition (and again, adding more to that would take us off topic for this thread).

As to the last question, that depends on the circumstances. A priest who’s present at something other than Mass should still introduce himself to the host priest. The visitor might (just for example) proclaim the Gospel if it’s a baptism, or do the litany of the saints, or something like that. Same idea for wake services or burials. Or even do nothing, but just stand there wearing a cassock/surplice or alb. If it turns out that (by some coincidence) there is an outright need for another priest, then by all means he should volunteer to help; especially if there’s a need he has an obligation to offer to help. More than once I’ve been visiting another parish while confessions are happening and I’ve volunteered to help hear them–this is just common courtesy. Other times, it might be appropriate to do nothing in particular. If I’m visiting another parish and they’re having Exposition/Benediction, I might just be kneeling in the pews with everyone else. It all depends on the circumstances.

That’s a good question. I’ve often wonderred myself why the Church seems to leave that one somewhat open. In Benedictgal’s quote from RS, for example, it seems just plain odd that nothing was said about deacons, but it mentioned only priests.

The same principles apply though (to an extent). Take this sentence:
Holy Mass and other liturgical celebrations, which are acts of Christ and of the people of God hierarchically constituted, are ordered in such a way that the sacred ministers and the lay faithful manifestly take part in them each according to his own condition.

Since that sentence is the principle behind RS 128, as I see it, it would apply no less to deacons than to priests.

Deacons likewise, by virtue of their ordination, do have a right to be in the sanctuary and take their proper place at Mass. Deacons also have the same obligation with regard to presenting a celebret or some other means of establishing their legitimacy. However, and I’ll caution that this is only my opinion, I think that the outright obligation for deacons to be in the sanctuary is less so than for priests. It’s not fitting for a priest to refrain from being in the sanctuary without a good reason. I think that deacons are more likely to have a “good reason.” Sitting with their own families might be such a reason. However (and this is where opinion ends) deacons still have an obligation to exercise their ministry whenever there’s a need. So a deacon who knows that a priest needs help distributing Communion has an obligation to present himself and volunteer to help. If a visiting deacon sees that there are already 3 deacons present for Mass, he might refrain from volunteering if he prefers. Same thing for a parish that has more than one deacon and they have some kind of rotating schedule or something similar.

Unlike priests though, I can see situations where it might not necessarily be “the right thing” to have too many deacons in the sanctuary. If a diocese has a conference and there are 200 priests there, they should all concelebrate at the Mass. But if there’s a deacons conference and 200 deacons are present at Mass, I don’t think it would be necessary for all of them to be vested for it–but I’m only saying that it wouldn’t be necessary. I do think it would be proper. If they all wore dalmatics, so much the better. If 100 deacons are present for something like the Chrism Mass or an ordination I think they all should be vested, even though they might not all fit into the sanctuary.

Part of this has to do with the differences between the deacons’ and priests’ roles at Mass. Since all of the priests concelebrate, they all have a role. But there are only so many deacons parts in the Mass, and unlike the priests who say the words of consecration together, there are no parts which are done by several deacons at the same time.

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