Within certain traditional Catholic circles, the practice of priests concelebrating Mass is looked upon with some suspicion. I tend to sympathize, since it is duly noted that the practice of multiple priests celebrating a single Mass is not a regular part of the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition. However, while one may object to certain practical applications of the rite of concelebration, it is quite certain that the theory or idea of concelebration cannot be rejected. Simply put, it is entirely possible for multiple priests to consecrate one and the same host at a single Mass.
Various abuses of the practice of concelebration have led some priests to adopt a truly disgusting and despicable phraseology regarding concelebration – they tell us that concelebration should be “safe, legal, and rare.” This, of course, is comparing the practice of concelebration to the murder of children through abortion (the phrase “safe, legal, and rare” being the cry of pro-abortion advocates). Rather than adopting such a ghastly catch-phrase, we will attempt to elucidate the ratio of concelebration. This will show why the practice is both valid and, at the same time, ought to be reserved to the most solemn of occasions.
St. Thomas Aquinas: Whether several priests can consecrate one and the same host?
Question 82, article 2 of the tertia pars of the Summa Theologica considers this question. In addition to the sed contra and the respondeo, St. Thomas proffers three objections together with replies. The sed contra, as is often the case in liturgically-related matters, is quite simple: “It is the custom of some Chruches for priests newly ordained to co-celebrate with the bishop ordaining them.” Let the custom of the Church stand, there is no more room for debate.
The body of the article is more interesting, and more theologically profound. Rather than entering into a metaphysical discussion of the causes of the sacrament, St. Thomas appeals to the Scriptures. The Common Doctor compares priestly ordination to the Last Supper, since it was at that time that Christ ordained the apostles as his priests. The Angel of the Schools tells us: “As stated above (Article 1), when a priest is ordained he is placed on a level with those who received consecrating power from our Lord at the Supper. And therefore, according to the custom of some Churches, as the apostles supped when Christ supped, so the newly ordained co-celebrate with the ordaining bishop.”
St. Thomas’ point is again very simple, but it is most profound. Just as the apostles concelebrated with Christ at the first Eucharist, the Last Supper; so too, it is possible for the newly ordained priest to concelebrate with his bishop at the Mass of his ordination. The reasoning can be extended: If the first Mass was concelebrated (by Christ, together with his apostles), then any Mass can in principle be concelebrated. Therefore, several priests can consecrate one and the same host.
Response to objections
First, we note that the consecration is not repeated over the same host by the fact that multiple priests say the words; as Pope Innocent III states (De Sacr. Alt. Myst. Iv), “the intention of all should be directed to the same instant of consecration.” (ST III, q.82, a.2)
Second, it is maintained that, although baptism cannot be concelebrated, the Eucharist is different. Since, while every baptism was instituted in a manner in which a single individual was minister, the first Eucharist was concelebrated. (ST III, q.82, a.2, ad 1)
Thirdly, we affirm that, although one priest alone suffices for the consecration, the addition of several others is not superfluous. Indeed, the individual priest does not act under his own power, but by the power of Christ the Priest. Hence, “since many are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28); consequently it does not matter whether this sacrament be consecrated by one or by many.” (ST III, q.82, a.2, ad 2)
Finally, we affirm that the multiplicity of priests need not detract from the unity of this sacrament, since the many priests are one priest in Christ. Thus, especially when concelebrating with a bishop, the unity of the Church is signified by the act of concelebration. (ST III, q.82, a.2, ad 3)
Perhaps concelebration should be restricted to solemn feasts
For all his defense of the theory of concelebration, St. Thomas does not advocate the practice, since it was (at that time) contrary to the rite of the Church. The Second Vatican Council, however, extended the practice of concelebration; and, according to the latest GIRM, it is even quite encouraged.
Still, we must notice that concelebration harkens back to the first Eucharist which Christ celebrated with his apostles in the upper room. It is founded upon a most solemn occasion. Thus, we may well wonder whether regular concelebration is appropriate – especially on non-solemn occasions and in “low” Masses.
Indeed, just as the Commemoration of the Lord’s Passion occurs only once each year, so too the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is a singular event. Considering that concelebration is a quasi re-presentation of the Last Supper, one might conclude that the practice of multiple priests concelebrating a single Mass ought to be restricted to two occasions: The Mass of priestly ordination, and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (or perhaps, the Chrism Mass, which has taken on the characteristic of the unity of the priesthood which was established at the Last Supper).