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The term “concelebration” refers to the simultaneous saying of Mass by more than one priest where all consecrate the same bread and wine.
The Second Vatican Council reintroduced the practice of concelebration to the Roman Catholic Church fifty years ago. Some people might remember the curious sight – once common in seminaries and religious houses – of ten or more private Masses being celebrated simultaneously at rows of side altars. Concelebration did exist in the Roman liturgy in the centuries before the Council, but only in the Mass of ordination.
The Second Vatican Council extended the practice of concelebration to the Chrism Mass, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Masses during councils, bishops conferences, and synods, and, with the permission of the diocesan bishop, to Masses in religious houses and churches, and Masses celebrated at any kind of meeting of priests (SC 57).
Concelebration is sometimes criticised as an unnecessary clericalisation of the Church’s liturgy. Unfortunately it has been seen too exclusively as a response to the pastoral problem of multiple ‘private’ Masses. Consequently other dimensions of concelebration have been impoverished.
The 1965 decree Ecclesiae Semper, which implemented the rite of concelebration, placed it into the context of the unity of the sacrifice, the priesthood, and the Church. Many Masses are celebrated, but they represent the one, single sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Many priests celebrate Mass, but they all act in the person of Christ, the one High Priest. Masses are celebrated in many places but it is always the one Church, the one body of Christ, which is manifested.
This third dimension is especially emphasised when the presider is the bishop, for he is a strong sign of the unity of the local Church and of the communion of local Churches around the world. An episcopal presider also emphasises the unity of consecration and ministry that the bishop shares with his priests.
Ignatius of Antioch described the form of concelebration at the end of the first century:
“Be careful to take part in but a single Eucharist, for there is but a single flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, a single chalice in which we are united with his blood, and a single altar, just as there is a single bishop with his college of priests and his deacons, his companions in service.”
This is still the norm against which decisions are made about whether there should be concelebration (for it is not automatic), and about the form it should take.
There are some thorny issues associated with concelebration: How is it different for a priest to preside at Eucharist, concelebrate, or participate with the other baptised? What does it mean for a priest to celebrate a ‘private’ Mass with only a server present?
There is a feeling among theologians and liturgists that we might do well to consider limits on concelebration. Some have suggested that it be confined to those occasions when the bishop presides. Others have suggested that in religious communities it should not be a daily occurrence. Still others have argued that the number of concelebrants should usually be capped.
Further reflection on the underlying theology of concelebration would include insight into the priesthood but it must extend to explore the complex links between the one Christ, one sacrifice, one cross, one body and blood, one priest, one altar, one Church, one Eucharist.