Older churches still include side chapels and altars in various locations throughout the building, mute witnesses to a time when private masses were celebrated by multiple priests. Most parishes don't have the luxury of multiple priests these days. But the question remains: was there ever a time in church history when a priest was obliged to offer a daily mass, and is it true today?
The 1985 Code of Canon Law provides us with current normative church practice in such matters. Canon is Greek for "rule", but the rules it supplies don't generally pertain to faith and morals and therefore are subject to change. For example, since the 11th century, priests have been restricted in the number of masses they can celebrate daily. This is to limit the number of mass stipends a priest might collect, curtailing certain abuses. Today a priest may accept only one stipend per day and is not permitted to celebrate more than one Eucharist daily (Can. 905) —except under conditions elaborated elsewhere in the law (as with a nuptial mass). On Sundays and holy days a priest may celebrate twice or more if a shortage of priests makes it necessary. I've been in a lot of parishes where one priest and three-plus weekend masses is standard practice.
In Canon 904, priests are "earnestly" urged to celebrate mass frequently, even daily. But this is a "recommendation," and there is no mandate to do so. Also, Canon 906 states that"Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful." Those private side altars where Father might "say his mass" are no longer deemed normative.
It's interesting to note that the 1917 Code of Canon Law offered strikingly different recommendations: that a priest say mass only "several times a year," although he was still obliged to attend mass on Sundays and holy days like every other member of the faithful. This practice reflected a time when vocations to the priesthood crowded the field of presiders. These varying prescriptions indicate that, historically, the obligation to celebrate mass has been determined more by the needs of the community than a perceived mandate for the priest himself.
Books: Surprised by Canon Law - Pete Vere, Michael Trueman (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2005. Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry of the Catholic Church - Kenan Osborne (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003)
Scripture: Hebrews 9:1-28
Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.
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