Thursday, 17 March 2011

When is a Mass invalid?

For many years now we have only ever attended the Extraordinary Form of Mass. When our children were small we were English Mass Catholics with an intensely traditional outlook. When we moved to Wales we found that the Novus Ordo Mass, as it then was called, was quite different from what we had been used to. There was little reverence, the laity milled around on the sanctuary at various odd occasions during the Mass, children were invited up to sit on the priest's lap while he gave his sermon and much more besides.
After a great deal of soul searching we left never to return. From that day on we only ever went to a Latin Mass and it has held our children (for the most part) in good stead.
Whereas the children of our contemporaries have all with one exception, left the faith (along with their parents).

Part of our rationale was that there was an issue at the time, of a large percentage of British priests who reportedly did not believe in transubstantiation. Now, if what I read today is true there are Bishops and other members of the hierarchy who also now hold to this lack of belief. If the priest does not believe then each and every Mass that he celebrates must surely be invalid? That was our basis for change. There was never a shadow of doubt that a priest who celebrated the Latin Mass did not believe that the bread and wine changed to the body and blood of Our Lord at the Consecration. And that, I believe, holds true today.

If I am correct in my analysis, this does make attending an Ordinary Form Mass something of a lottery. How are you to know whether the priest believes or not?
Well, I tend to observe the outward signs; if the Mass is celebrated reverently and if all liturgical requirements are observed, I am certain that the Mass is valid.
If, however, some or all of the following indicators are in place, my estimate would be that the priest does not believe in transubstantiation and, therefore, the Mass is invalid:-

1. Ceramic chalices and vessels
2. Ordinary bread or wine that does not conform to specification
3. Garish and inappropriate vestments
4. Liturgical aberrations such as lay men and women joining the priest at the Consecration and taking an active role, EMHCs removing or returning the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle
5. Inappropriate music or hymns/songs

                                  Photo: BBC
                      A definite no on two counts, earthenware chalice and unleavened bread

Now I stress that these are only indicators of possible invalidity, their use by a priest might render the Mass illicit but not invalid provided that belief existed.
A priest being in a state of mortal sin does not invalidate the Mass per se although it may well be a reason for changing parishes if this is a continual state eg a priest living openly in a relationship with a woman.

Here are the Church's conditions for a Mass to be valid:

1. INTENT: The priest must have the belief as cited by The Council of Trent -

Council of Trent, Seventh Session March 3rd, 1547: Canon 11: " If anyone says that in ministers, when they effect and confer the sacraments, there is not required at least the intention of doing what the Church does, [Eugene IV in the decr. cited.] let him be anathema."

2. VALID ORDINATION : The priest must be validly ordained

3. THE INTEGRITY OF THE MATTER : This refers to the specific make up of the bread and the wine eg the bread must be unleavened and made from wheat

So what happens if a Mass is invalid? Does that mean that transubstantiation has not taken place?

I believe that to be the case but I am sure that someone out there will have a good point to make.


  1. Richard - we live in such worrying times. God help us all. Quite literally.

  2. Novus Ordo priest with a child on his lap during his homily would do well to reflect on W.C.Filds' dictum: " Never perform/ act with children or animals."

  3. My husband is a canon lawyer and a professor of both canon law and liturgy. I will show him your post and ask him about some of the questions you raise. It is very important to know the difference between illicit and invalid. There are intricacies that are not commonly known that would invalidate. Conversely, sometimes we will witness a Mass that we think would certainly be invalid, but it technically was a valid Mass, although extremely illicit. A pastor once described the difference between the two. Invalid is when Jesus is not there. Illicit is when Jesus is there, but He's not happy about it. :)

  4. Okay. I was able to ask my husband about this and there are some things he was able to clarify.

    1) When we speak about the Mass, we do not speak in terms of validity or invalidity. The Mass is the ceremony that is wrapped around the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Mass can be illicit to varying degrees, but it is not able to be classified as invalid.

    2) The Eucharist is a Sacrament, so the conditions for any sacrament would apply for validity. The conditions are as follows: proper form (for the Eucharist, the words This is my Body/ This is my Blood); proper matter (unleavened bread and wine as specified by Church regulations); the intention to perform the act as the Church intends (not necessarily belief – so a priest who has lost his faith in the true presence CAN still perform a valid consecration); and the proper person (an ordained priest).

    I love having an expert at arm’s does make me a little lazy sometimes. It’s much easier to ask him than to look it up myself. :) Hope this helps!

  5. Unleavened bread is not required for validity. Leavened bread is used by some of the oriental rites of the Catholic Church, and a priest of the Latin Rite could use this bread if no other was available, e.g. when celebrating in a place where there are no Catholic churches of the Latin Rite.

  6. Yep. My husband corrected me on that one too, Fr PF. Thank you. The bread is required to be wheat, however.

  7. Credo Catholic - I am extremely nervous about mixing it with a canon lawyer. However, if a non ordained person acted as a priest at Mass, that Mass would surely not be illicit but invalid.

    Fr PF & CC - I totally agree and should have made clear that, in emergency any bread or wine would be valid.

  8. This post to me as if it were dancing around the heresy called Donatism which said that sacraments confected by apostate priests were invalid.

    Yes, licit and valid are two different things.

  9. I am glad I checked back. As to your question, canonically, the classification for a SACRAMENT is either valid or invalid, so it is not accurate to speak about the liturgy as being valid or invalid, just as one could NOT say that a sacrament itself is licit or illicit. Pertaining to the Eucharist, it's either Christ, or it's not. There are no greater or lesser degrees of being Christ. Pertaining to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, one is either forgiven or not. Pertaining to the Sacrament of Baptism, one is either baptized in Christ or not. One is either married or not. One is either ordained or not...etc. The ceremony itself can have a whole host of problems that vary in degrees of liceity, from the tiniest mistake to the most elaborate catastophy, but the sacramental validity is its own issue. Hope this helps.

  10. I am never going to write anything anymore about canon law without running it by my husband again. Regarding liceity for a sacrament, apparently there ARE elements which would make the sacrament licit or illicit, such as leavened bread being used in the Latin rite. This does not make it "less" Jesus, but Church law was not followed. A sacrament has elements that would affect validity AND ALSO elements that would affect liceity. However, the Mass is the liturgical rite and not the sacrament itself.

    Regarding your question, if a non-ordained person attempts to say Mass, it is a simulation and not a liturgy, which, by definition requires the proper person to perform it. In this sense, it would be "invalid," however, outside of it "not happening," the Church does not speak of the Mass as being invalid or not in strictly canonical terms.

    Ugh. I am just learning and the distinctions still confuse me, even when I think I have them down. My previous comment was partly true. The mistakes I have corrected here with his approval. Surely this will be more helpful than any of my previous posts. I take full responsiblity for any of the confusion I have perpetuated.

  11. Just another key point in remembering that the intention of the priest must be "to do as the Church does," not the doctrine of transubstantiation is that the Church accepts the Orthodox Eucharist as valid, and the Orthodox reject the Scholastic definition of transubstantiation.