Q. Recently I visited my home parish in Ohio (Diocese of Toledo). I was there to attend the 8:30 a.m. Mass on Dec. 24. Before Mass, the regular priest announced that there would be a substitute priest for that Mass because of the limit of “three Masses a day.” (The regular priest was scheduled to do a different Mass that morning and then two Christmas Eve Masses later in the day.)
My question is this: Is this “three-Mass rule” a strict law of the Church or a guideline? (I had never heard of it before.) If it’s a law, could it be overturned in an emergency? For example, say a large parish with two priests had one get sick and no substitute could be found: Would a Mass (or two) have to be canceled? (Williamsburg, Virginia)
A. It may come as a surprise for some Catholics to learn that there is any limitation at all on the frequency with which a priest may celebrate Mass. The truth, however, is that for centuries the Church has regulated that number — primarily, to ensure that the Eucharist is celebrated with the dignity and devotion it deserves.
The current Code of Canon Law says that “if there is a shortage of priests, the local ordinary can allow priests to celebrate twice a day for a just cause, or if pastoral necessity requires it, even three times on Sundays and holy days of obligation” (No. 905.2).
In many dioceses, bishops have given their priests blanket permission to invoke this “twice on weekdays, three times on Sunday” option. The date to which you refer — Dec. 24, 2017 — was a Sunday, and so your local pastor was not “making up” a rule; the three-Mass limit was in place.
(Interestingly — for many Catholics do not know this — a priest is not strictly required to celebrate Mass every day. Canon 904 says simply that “priests are to celebrate frequently” — although the same Canon goes on to say that “daily celebration is recommended earnestly.”
For genuine pastoral emergencies, a bishop is empowered to grant a dispensation even beyond the “three-Mass limit” — such as the situation you raise where a sudden sickness and lack of a substitute might compromise the need of the faithful for the Eucharist.
Q. A recent letter in your column from an inmate in Jefferson City, Missouri, has been in my heart in such strong way that I had to write.
(Editor’s Note: That letter was from someone who had been in prison for 25 years and was seeking to have his sentence changed from life to the death penalty because of what he termed his “unbelievable suffering” and the fact that his heart was “hardened” and he could not discover any role that God might possibly have for him to play in prison.)
I, too, am an inmate; I have served 23 years of a 15 years-to-life sentence. I have been denied three times by the parole board because of the “nature of the crime” — which is a constant, unchanging fact, although I have changed positively from the very core of my being.
God comes to me often in the darkness and reminds me of His love. I trust Him and know that He has forgiven me, even though the system has not. Even in prison, He brings people into my life to encourage my spirit, so that I can live for Him and with the hope of pleasing Him somehow.
Mr. Jefferson City should ask to see a priest who can offer him some counseling and the help of the sacraments. The death penalty would mean that Satan won, the prison system won and God lost. It would be cheating the Lord out of the redemptive life He wants to give.
Let Mr. Jefferson City know that he is worth so much to God. He should help God by working with Him, not against Him. God loves this man and is on his side. (Marysville, Ohio)
A. I have chosen to run this letter not simply for the advice it offers to the prisoner in Missouri, but for a larger purpose: It shows that every person is worthy of redemption and capable of it. The Marysville inmate — obviously incarcerated for a serious crime — has evidently found a spiritual core deep within his soul.
I am reminded of what Pope Francis said in 2015 while visiting a prison in Philadelphia: “The Lord goes in search of us; to all of us He stretches out a helping hand. It is painful when we see prison systems that are not concerned to care for the wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities.”
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.