Mass in Time of Pandemic

What Is the Celebrant Supposed to Do?

The suspension of the public celebration of Mass in large parts of the country due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus has left many priests with a dilemma. How does one celebrate Mass according to the Novus ordo with no one present? For many, this will be a new experience. As such, it can be a very disorienting experience, especially since celebrants have come to expect the presence and participation of the faithful and the assistance of various ministers in every celebration of Mass. Naturally, the communitarian dimension of Mass demands such participation. However, Mass celebrated by the priest alone also has inestimable spiritual value. Because of the intrinsic value of the Mass itself, the Church strongly recommends that priests offer the Holy Sacrifice daily.1 The priest offers Mass on behalf of the whole Church and the whole Church benefits from the universal or general fruits which accrue to every celebration of Mass. The celebrant can fulfill the request of members of the faithful that he pray for specific intentions at Mass. When the priest does so, such persons will benefit from the sacrifice offered even if they are not present. Finally, the priest himself will benefit spiritually from the celebration of Mass, if he offers the Holy Sacrifice worthily, attentively, and devoutly.

The General Instruction indicates that in the case of Mass without the participation of anyone else at all the celebrant is to omit the greetings, instructions and the final blessing of Mass.2 There is no unanimity among commentators whether this applies indiscriminately to all such texts consistently. For example, the priest could logically omit, “Brothers and sisters let us acknowledge our sins.” The priest might also consistently omit the greetings and directions, such as “Let us pray,” and “The Lord be with you,” and “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” All of these examples make little sense if the priest is in fact speaking to no one. If these are omitted, then the corresponding gestures are omitted. On the other hand, one commentator has pointed out that traditionally all these forms of address and their accompanying gestures were usually included in the celebration of Mass without a server since every Mass is always an action of whole Body of Christ, Head and members.3

One might omit “Pray brethren” and its accompanying gesture. (Traditionally, even this invitation was always retained in the case when a priest celebrated alone.) In that case, the priest might remain facing the altar to say “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at my hands,” making the traditional change in the wording when celebrating Mass without the assistance of any of the faithful.

The celebrant should probably continue to include acclamations like “The Word of the Lord,” and “The Gospel of the Lord,” and “The Mystery of Faith,” although it does not make sense for him to answer himself. The celebrant would not include any prayers of the faithful since there are no faithful present to join in!

There is considerable debate whether the dialogues of the preface are omitted, along with their accompanying gestures, or whether the celebrant goes directly from the super oblata to the beginning of the preface, “It is truly right and just.” Such an omission, along with all the gestures associated with it, is consistent with the plain reading of paragraph 254 of the General Instruction. However, it does seem awkward for the preface to begin without the words which immediately preceded it, i.e. “It is right and just. It is truly right and just.” On the other hand, it seems clear the celebrant can omit the introduction to the Our Father, “At the Savior’s command,” since he is addressing no one. (Traditionally, this was always included whether or not anyone was present.) Since the celebrant alone is receiving Communion, he omits, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and proceeds directly to “Lord I am not worthy,” all the while facing the altar. Finally, he omits the final blessing and dismissal since no one else is present.4 However, might not the celebrant bless himself with the right hand, standing at the altar with the left hand resting on his chest, with the same formula used at Morning or Evening Prayer when praying these offices alone, “May the bless us, protect us from all evil, etc.”? Otherwise, Mass simply ends abruptly with the post-communion prayer and the signs of reverence, i.e. the kiss and the bow, to the altar.

At times such Masses offered by the priest alone may take place in the usual setting where there is not only an altar, but an ambo and a credence table, along with a presidential chair. In those settings, the actions of Mass are more easily accomplished according to the provisions of the Novus ordo. However, the greater challenge arises from the more limited settings in rectory chapels or at side altars where Mass is offered ad orientem at an altar which has neither a presidential chair nor an ambo. The credence table in such a circumstance is often no more than a small shelf at best.

A first step could be to obtain a more adequate credence table and place it immediately to the priest’s right when he is standing at the altar. Similarly, a wooden lectern could be placed immediately to the left of the altar on the opposite side. In that way, the celebrant will be able to fulfill the directions indicated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. For example, the General Instruction expects that “the readings should, insofar as possible, be proclaimed from the ambo or a lectern.”5 Likewise, regarding the items necessary for Mass, the General Instruction reads, “Before Mass, the necessary vessels are prepared . . . at the credence table.”6 When offering Mass with the assistance of a single server or with no one present, the use of a presidential chair is never required. Such a Mass can always begin at the altar itself rather than at the presidential chair,7 and the concluding rites of every Mass, regardless of the circumstances, can always take place at the altar.8

An even more challenging case arises, however, when the priest will offer Mass alone without an adequate credence table and without even a portable lectern. Perhaps these two items of liturgical furniture are not available. Perhaps there is no room to introduce them next to the altar. When the priest celebrates Mass according to the Novus ordo in such a location alone, without the assistance of even one member of the faithful, the traditional practice of the Roman rite can be helpful in establishing the adaptations to the General Instruction which are required by the circumstances.9 The following description attempts to account for the instances when an ambo and an adequate credence table are missing because of the exceptional circumstances attending the celebration of Mass during the current Coronovirus pandemic.

Without the presence of even a single server or reader, and without the use of an ambo or a sufficient credence table, several modifications must take place to the usual manner of celebrating Mass. For example, the missal can be placed before Mass at the center of the altar, open to the proper page, parallel with the edge of the altar, since all of the opening rites can take place there.10 Prior to the beginning of Mass, the chalice, preferably veiled with the burse on top, can be placed on the far right side of the altar if the credence table or shelf is not large enough.11 The same is true for the other vessels needed for Mass. The priest approaches the altar, bows, kisses it as usual and begins the opening rites, omitting those dialogues or instructions normally addressed to the faithful. After the collect, the readings follow.

The readings for Mass are now generally found in a separate lectionary rather than in the missal itself. Therefore, if there is no ambo from which to proclaim the readings, it is perhaps best to revert to the practice of the solemn Mass in the extraordinary form of the Dominican Rite. In that case, the closed lectionary could be placed standing upright against the gradine of the altar on the far right-hand side of the altar, behind the chalice. After the collect, the celebrant moves to his right, take the lectionary into both hands, and holding it above the altar reads the first reading along with the psalm. On certain days, he would also read a second Scripture reading. The psalm can be read without any intervening antiphon since it is not sung.12 The Alleluia or other Gospel acclamation, if not sung, is omitted.13 The celebrant turns to his left to move to the opposite side of the altar, bowing in the center, carrying the closed lectionary upright in both hands. At the far left-hand side of the altar, he puts the lectionary down on the altar itself and opens it to the proper page. The celebrant turns to his right and returns to the center of the altar where he says, “Cleanse my heart and my lips” while bowing profoundly. He rises and turns to his left to return once again to the left side of the altar. With the lectionary resting on the altar, he reads the Gospel in the usual way, omitting the greeting, “The Lord be with you,” At the conclusion of the reading he says “The Gospel of the Lord” without answering himself. He then picks up the lectionary in both hands to kiss the book at the beginning of the pericope he just read, that is, at the cross printed on the page. He can then place the closed lectionary, standing upright, at the far left-hand side of the altar against the grandine, the same position found in the solemn celebration of the extraordinary form of the Dominican rite. Alternatively, all the readings could be read in the same position, at the left-hand side of the altar, as described above.

Returning to the center of the altar, the celebrant recites the Creed in the usual manner as required. He then moves the missal from the center of the altar to a position slightly to the left of the center of the altar, beyond the point where the edge of the corporal will eventually be. Then, he proceeds to the right-hand side of the altar. There, taking the chalice in the left hand at the node, with the right hand placed on top, he moves the chalice closer toward the center of the altar first. Standing at the center, he reaches with his right hand and takes the burse off the chalice, placing it flat in front of him. The opening of the burse faces to the right. With his left hand he holds open to top portion of the burse while he extracts the corporal with his right hand. With his right hand he places the empty burse to the left of the center of the altar against the gradine, standing it up in the open position. He then opens the corporal directly in front of him in the usual manner. Standing before the chalice, he removes the veil, folds it, and places away from the chalice on the right-hand side of the altar, toward the back of the altar. Returning to the center of the altar, he takes the pall off the chalice and place it to the right of the top portion of the corporal, against the gradine if there is one, or lying flat on the altar.

Alternately, if there is no burse, and the corporal is instead placed on top of the pall and under the chalice veil, the celebrant can simply remove the veil at the right-hand side of the altar, in the position where the chalice was placed at the beginning Mass. There he folds the veil while it lays flat on the altar, and leaves it at the right-hand side of the altar toward the back. He then moves the entire chalice closer to the center of the altar with both hands to begin to place the corporal and pall.

The celebrant then takes the paten from the chalice to begin the prayer of preparation. He holds it up with the thumb and index fingers of both hands above the corporal. The paten is raised slightly above the corporal, no more than the breadth of one’s hand. After the prayer, the places the paten on the center portion of the front of the corporal. Then, turning to his left, he takes the chalice in his left hand as he moves to the right edge of the altar. The cruets of water and wine may be on a shelf near the altar, or they may be place on the gradine at the right edge of the altar, (or even on the altar itself if necessary).14 He prepares the chalice in the usual way at the right-hand side of the altar. Once the chalice is prepared in the usual way, he moves the chalice closer to the corporal with his left hand. With the purificator draped over the index fingers of his joined hands, he returns to the center of the altar, and places the purificator along the edge of the corporal with his folded end toward the edge of the altar.

Standing at the center of the altar, the celebrant takes the chalice with his right hand and draws it over the corporal. Holding it at the node with his right hand and with his left hand at the base, he says the prayer of preparation. He holds the chalice slightly above the corporal, at the height of the breadth of his hand. After the prayer, he places the chalice down on the center portion of the back of the corporal. With hands joined, he bows to pray “With humble spirit and contrite heart,” placing his index and third fingers of both hands above the altar, and the ends of his fourth and fifth fingers of both hands touching the edge of the altar. Standing erect, he returns to the right side of the altar to wash his hands. Before Mass, water can be poured in advance into a dish or bowl for this purpose. He dries his hands on the towel hanging down the side of the credence table or gradine of the altar (or even the altar itself if necessary)15 under the same dish or bowl. With hands joined, he returns to the center of the altar where he remains until the purification of the vessels after communion.

After having received communion under both kinds, the celebrant purifies the paten over the chalice with the purificator16 or with the thumb of his right hand, according to the traditional practice. If he wishes to purify the chalice with wine first, he places the chalice at the top, right edge of the corporal and walks to the right side of the altar with hands joined to retrieve the cruet of wine. Returning to the center, he pours wine into the chalice. He might hold the node of the chalice with the left hand while doing this. He then returns the cruet to the right side of the altar before returning once again to the center of the altar to consume the ablution of wine. Traditionally, the celebrant held the paten under his chin while doing so. Then holding the cup of the chalice in both hands, (and with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands over the mouth of the chalice if he purified the paten with his thumb) he goes to the right side of the altar. He puts the chalice down and pours into the chalice a small amount of wine and then a greater amount of water, or simply water. He might hold the node of the chalice with his left hand while pouring with his right. Holding the chalice in both hands in the same manner as before, he returns to the center of the altar to purify his fingers in the ablution and then dry his fingers on the purificator. He then consumes the ablution, holding the purificator under his chin. He wipes the chalice, then placing it to the right of the corporal. Then he wipes the paten and places it on the chalice over the purificator. With his right hand, he places the pall on top, and finally folds the corporal and places it in the burse. (Alternately, he places the pall on top of the chalice, folds the corporal, and then places the corporal on top of the pall.) Standing before the chalice, the celebrant then veils it (and places the burse on top), moving the chalice with his right hand on top and his left hand on the node to the far right side of the altar or to the credence table where it was originally placed before the beginning of Mass.

The celebrant returns to the altar and places the missal in the center of the altar for the post communion prayer. Omitting the final blessing and dismissal, he closes the missal and kisses the altar. He turns to his right, descends from the altar and bows before departing from the sanctuary.

Even under these very restricted conditions, Mass still deserves to be offered with as much dignity and care as possible. Faced with a world-wide pandemic, the Church faces unprecedented challenges. For priests, the celebration of the Eucharist, even when alone, must continue to be the source and summit of their daily life. Naturally, they desire to be able to offer Mass as soon as possible with the people entrusted to their care. However, until this is possible once again, the adaptations described above, drawing from the traditional practice of the Roman rite wherever applicable, can make it possible for all priests to continue to offer Mass according to the provisions of the Novus Ordo worthily, attentively, and devoutly. No doubt many blessings will come to them, to the world, and to their parishioners by such acts of worship.

  1. CIC 904
  2. GIRM 254
  3. Peter Elliot, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 198, note 5.
  4. GIRM 254, 272
  5. GIRM 260
  6. GIRM 255
  7. GIRM 256
  8. GIRM 165
  9. GIRM 42
  10. GIRM 256
  11. GIRM 255
  12. GIRM 61
  13. GIRM 63
  14. GIRM 255
  15. GIRM 255
  16. GIRM 279
Fr. Marc B. Caron About Fr. Marc B. Caron

Msgr. Marc B. Caron, S.T.L. is Professor of Liturgy at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts. He is a priest of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, having served there as a pastor, as director of the Office for Worship, and as chancellor. He received his licentiate degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois. At St. John’s, he also serves as Director of Liturgy and as a formation advisor. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.


  1. I can only say I think of our first Masses ever said, or when Christ broke bread with His disciples, I see no books, no ambo, no formality, or ritual. A meeting, a meal, among friend wherein Christ is shared! Perhaps at times like this we will think about our origins and how beautiful they are.
    Perhaps it’s a time to revert to them because of their beauty and simplicity.
    I just imagine many would want to join something so sincere and unpretentious.
    Praise be God, now and forever!

  2. Avatar Bruce Chadbourne says:

    Thank you for explaining in such detail the necessary steps of the ritual of Roman Catholic Mass (the positioning of hands, the spoken phrases, etc.). I am a Christian of a different tradition. We too are experiencing the challenges of “cyber worship” and the absence of the Communion sacrament that Jesus commanded us to observe often.
    Your description leaves me curious as to the origins and the spiritual symbolism of each precise action. Are these all found in the GISM?

  3. Avatar Bob Marlowe says:

    I have found Fr. Larry Richard’s 7 am Mass at St. Joseph’s in Erie, PA to be very good. He speaks
    directly and devoutly to his viewers and IMHO gives a homily to which I look forward.
    Thank You Fr. Caron for addressing our current problem of being unable to attend the Liturgy.


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