As the number of priests declines, their appearance in groups becomes eventful. When priests participate in a Mass at which they do not preside, they may concelebrate. A group of vested priests in the sanctuary can lend solemnity, but in some cases they bring distraction instead.
Concelebration became popular after Vatican Council II. Prior to that time, whenever a priest celebrated Mass, he presided, sometimes without anyone else. Churches contained several altars, usually along the side walls, so that multiple Masses could take place simultaneously. If the priest participated in another Mass, he wore a cassock and surplice but did not concelebrate. When Vatican II permitted concelebration, it reduced the need for private Masses and emphasized the communal gathering in which all present exercised some ministry. Centuries ago, concelebration originally gathered priests around their bishop. The annual Mass of Chrism at the cathedral still expresses that original idea of union. The oils blessed by the bishop pass on to the priests, who share them with the faithful throughout the year.
However, the concelebration of priests apart from the bishop is fairly new. Predictably, not all the bugs have been worked out. Some priests who already preside at several weekend Masses may find it tiresome to concelebrate at another; they may prefer to join the faithful in the assembly. Too many priests in the sanctuary can also offset the gender balance of the worshiping assembly. Although women frequently outnumber men in the pews, men can easily outnumber women in the sanctuary. Furthermore, although concelebration honors the liturgical role of priests, it blurs the role of the presider. For similar concerns, deacons do not serve at the altar in numbers when more than one attends Mass.
Consequently, in many circumstances concelebration still needs clarity. When thoughtfully planning a special event, worshipers ask their parish leaders politely if concelebration is expected, preferred, or ill-advised.
(This bulletin insert originally appeared in MODERN LITURGY, copyright (c) 1997, Resource Publications, Inc. It may not be reproduced without permission. Send permission requests to firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, MO, holds a doctorate in sacramental theology from Sant' Anselmo University.)