Questions Answered – May 2022

A Priest’s Spiritual Obligations

Question: Could you comment on the strict obligation of the Divine Office for priests (under pain of mortal sin) but no similar obligation for the offering of daily Mass?

Answer: The answer to this question presupposes the difference between daily prayer and daily Mass. First it would be helpful to clarify the basis and the obligation for the Divine Office for priests. The present Code of Canon Law is very clear that clerics are obligated to the recital of what is now called the Liturgy of the Hours. “Clerics are obliged to recite the liturgy of the hours in accordance with ca. 276 2. 3; member of institutes of consecrated life and of societies of apostolic life are obliged in accordance with their constitutions.” (c. 1174) Though it is not a matter of obligation, a priest is encouraged to celebrate Mass every day.

Both of these fall under the rubric in the Code of Canon Law as pertaining to holiness of life. So the same canon states: “they [clerics] are to nourish their spiritual life from the two-fold table of Sacred Scripture and the Eucharist; priests are therefore earnestly invited to offer the sacrifice of the Eucharist daily and deacons are earnestly invited to participate daily in offering it.” (c. 276, 2, 2) The same canon goes on to discuss the annual retreat and the use of mental prayer and penance together with devotion to Our Lady and other means of sanctification.

The only one of these means to foster the consecrated life which is obligatory is the Liturgy of the Hours. Clerics have a strict duty to pray for the whole Church. Before the 1917 code, this was not a written law. Nevertheless, from “ancient tradition and immemorial custom” it was the manner in which clerics carried out the general duty to pray for the whole Church. Commentators on the 1983 Code state that this specification of obligation of daily prayer is canonically and juridically imposed.

Under the older Code, this obligation was interpreted by moralists and canonists so strictly that to omit a word voluntarily was a venial sin and a small hour was a mortal sin. Most commentators maintained that only the Pope could dispense this obligation, though some thought that for a limited period local bishops could do so. Though clerics are still to carry out this form of prayer faithfully, the present trend is to see it as a discipline for introducing a climate of prayer in the whole course of the day and not just trying to reduce it to a determined minimum binding under pain grave sin. The introduction to the revised Liturgy of the Hours makes this clear. It is certainly much more in the spirit of the monastic origin of this way of realizing the Psalmist’s symbolic presentation of the fullness of prayer when he says he praises God seven times a day.

The lack of strict obligation for the celebration of Mass is perhaps best explained by the fact that unlike the breviary which can be said alone, it is a communal act and ideally must involve at least one of the faithful in attendance. This was expressed in the former code by strictly interpreting the need for a server at every Mass. However, as Paul VI pointed out, this was more a matter of practicality than necessity. Those priests who are elderly have experienced that without the presence of the server one can often forget parts of the ritual or whether one has actually carried them out. It could also be that the celebrant needs to go to confession before celebrating, which might not be possible on a given day, and so he may abstain from saying Mass.

The present dispensation does require a just and reasonable cause to celebrate Mass without any of the faithful present. However, approved commentaries on the Code of Canon Law, like the one published by the University of Navarra, tell us that this can mean merely the devotion of the priest. This is because the Church values the celebration of the Mass over the requirement of having attendees, and, what is more, the whole Church and all the angels and saints are present when every Mass is celebrated.

Canonization and Earthly Influences

Question: Sometimes canonizations seem more about politics than spiritual matters. For example, why in light of the McCarrick report was John Paul II canonized so quickly (albeit with two miracles) and John XXIII only needed one. It seems too convenient for me and where does the Holy Spirit enter?

Answer: The history of canonization as a canonical process is very interesting and related to the whole problem of papal infallibility. The first pope to actually employ a process of canonization was Alexander III in 1173. Before this, popular devotion or local episcopal tribunals could decide to venerate someone as a saint, though the Roman Canon only lists apostles, martyrs, and the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph being added by John XXIII. It would seem that the reservation of the process to the Pope alone and applied to the universal Church first began with the process of Thomas Becket, though, since he was a martyr, the fact that he should have been venerated as a saint was not unusual. What was unusual was the way the declaration of sanctity and the spreading of his cult to the universal Church was the action of the supreme pastor.

The great innovation which sparked some resistance on the diocesan level was the pope’s canonization of the friars in religious orders, especially St. Peter of Verona, a Dominican martyred by the Waldensians, and St. Francis and St. Anthony of Padua. Miracles and holiness of life were always of considerable importance in demonstrating that the saint was indeed in heaven, but the actual investigation of the process could vary and some of it from time to time be dispensed with.

In an insightful new book, Certain Sainthood, the historian Don Prudlo points out that the canonization of St. Peter of Verona was and remains the fastest canonization in the history of the Church. It took eleven months. There were political reasons even then to speed up the process, as it fit very well into the papal opposition to the Waldensians. Even though this is the case, this did not call into question either his holiness of life or the miracles which resulted from his intercession. “So the canonization of the worthy Peter dovetailed perfectly with Innocent IV’s political purposes, positioning the Dominican first as anti-heretical and secondly as anti-imperial.” (Prudlo, Sainthood, 91). God’s designs are often carried out despite or apart from human intention and uses. There may be political situations which occasion ecclesiastical precedents. One cannot exclude the Holy Spirit from them.

When Thomas Aquinas took up the issue of canonization in Quodlibet IX, question 8, he addresses the certainty attached to canonization based on the criteria used to approve it. In one objection he deals with the fact that such an act of the Pope is not a result of divine revelation. The Canon Lawyers of the time held that the process was a matter of human testimony and so liable to error. St. Thomas does not deny the fallibility of human witnesses either regarding holiness of life or miracles. But he puts the issue on a whole other plane relating to divine faith and based on the charismatic grace attached to the office of Peter in the Church which does not allow the Pope to err in matters of the judgement of faith and morals which includes the pastoral fact of individual sanctity. For him the issue turns around the power of the pope. There are three reasons why the process cannot admit of error. Prudlo states them: “(1) he makes a thorough investigation into holiness of life, (2) this is confirmed by the testimony of miracles, and (3) the Holy Spirit leads him [the Pope] (for Thomas the clincher).” (Prudlo, Sainthood, 128)

So in other words, though there may be political considerations (many think that the canonization of John XXIII with only one miracle was a result of the desire of the pope to canonize the two popes on the same day) the pope is not bound to the process. These other considerations in no way compromise the saints’ being in heaven, but only limit at times the manner in which the process by which they are declared to be in heaven is carried out on earth. When John Paul II beatified Fra Angelico and the lack of miracles was broached, he replied that all his paintings were miracles. There can be human error in testimony of sanctity of life and even in the fact of miracles, but not in the charism connected to the Petrine office.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
Or please see the Ask a Question page to send it online.


  1. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    Dear Father Mullady, Again, thank you for your faithful service to Christ and his Church. Sincerely, Tom Showerman

  2. Avatar Harvey B says:

    On the question of St. John Paul II’s canonization, the questioner mentioned his handling of McCarrick. But it should be pointed out that canonization is a declaration of the person’s personal holiness (lack of sin) at the time of death, and NOT a declaration that every decision that person made was correct. Big difference!