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One Priest, one Altar, one Church, one Eucharist
A photo in a recent edition of a Catholic paper prompted a reader to contact me to ask under what circumstances several priests are permitted to celebrate together at the one Mass and if was there an upper limit on the number who could do this at any Mass.
The photo showed around a dozen clergy seated on the sanctuary and 50 more in the front rows of the church. In the back rows were a couple of dozen lay people. Such a situation is most unusual, but having more than one priest celebrating a Mass not so.
The saying of Mass by more than one priest where all consecrate the same bread and wine is called “concelebration”. The Second Vatican Council reintroduced the practice to the Roman Catholic Church. It eliminated the curious situation – 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 before the Council, but only in the Ordination Mass. Vatican II extended the practice to the Chrism Mass, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Masses during councils and synods, and to Masses in religious houses and at any kind of meeting of priests.
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 last 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.
Ignatius of Antioch said 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?
Some theologians and liturgists have suggested that concelebration be confined to those occasions when the bishop presides. Others have argued that the number of concelebrants should usually be capped.
The issue does need further reflection focusing on the complex links between the one Christ, one sacrifice, one cross, one body and blood, one priest, one altar, one Church, one Eucharist.