Meaning of Concelebration

When Pope Paul VI and more than 20 bishops concelebrated the opening Mass of the Second Vatican Council’s third session, two points were made clear.

The pope and all the other bishops together make up a body, called a “college,” with a common responsibility to serve, teach and make holy the universal Church. And the liturgical reform decreed in December 1963, by the council is well under way.

According to the 1963 Constitution on the Liturgy, the Church’s real nature is perfectly manifested when the whole body assembles at the altar: the bishop surrounded by his priests, ministers and all the faithful taking part in the celebration of the Eucharist. On the occasion of the first Mass of the council’s third session (Sept. 14), it was the chief bishop, the pope, surrounded by the other bishops who make up the apostolic college, by the priests and other members of the clergy, and by a huge crowd of the faithful all taking their full part.

This form of Mass, with a chief celebrant presiding and with other concelebrating bishops (or priests), is a concrete symbol of what the ecumenical council will proclaim in its doctrinal pronouncement on the Church, expected in the next few weeks. Central to this is the council’s teaching on the “collegiality” of bishops: all the bishops as a body or college succeed the band of apostles, as the chief one among them, the pope, succeeds the chief apostle, Peter.

This doctrine, agreed upon by four-fifths of the bishops at the 1963 session, strongly supported by Pope Paul in his opening address, and voted for overwhelmingly by council Fathers at the meetings of Sept. 22 and 23, is reflected on the diocesan level in the collaboration of the priests with the bishop, on the parish level in the collaboration of assistant priests with the pastor and, finally, in the common action of all the Church’s members, lay and clerical.

In the Mass concelebrated in St. Peter’s basilica the community nature of the Church was a little obscured by the almost inevitable grandeur of the occasion. The altar was practically hidden from view by the concelebrating bishops gathered around it, there was a multiplicity of prayers said in common by the concelebrants, the reception of Communion and other rites were complex in appearance, and only a handful of the laity received Communion.

But none of this can obscure the powerful teaching effect of concelebration, showing the order of bishops united to the priests and other clergy, united to all the people, in the Church’s life of prayer and work. It was a sign of the unity of the priesthood, but above all a sign of the unity of the Church. All attention was focused on the celebration of the “same Eucharist, the single prayer, at one altar.” Clergy and faithful sang the sacred chants and refrains to psalms. The role of the chief celebrant, in this case Pope Paul, and of the other celebrants, in this case other bishops, was made clear: to preside over and serve the whole Church.

Last January, the Pope set up a new commission to revise the Church’s liturgy in accordance with the council’s commands. In the spring, the commission announced that a new rite of concelebration was being prepared. Next Holy Thursday it should become a common parish experience. And, wherever there is an abundance of priests, the practice of celebrating Masses individually and privately should gradually give way to the single community Mass concelebrated as a sign of unity.

The Mass in St. Peter’s also gave indications of revisions which, when officially decreed, will affect all Masses celebrated publicly, not merely concelebrations. These include, for example, the service of God’s word (from the Epistle through the Creed) with the celebrating priest seated away from the altar and listening to the readings along with the people; the few invocations of a litany after the Creed; the “prayer of the people” for the needs of the Church and of all mankind; the simple ending of Mass with the dismissal and blessing.

If there had been any doubt about liturgical — and other — renewal in the Church, it was dispelled by the concelebrated Mass. Concrete reforms are under way. Their purpose is a fuller, sounder proclamation of doctrine and the spiritual renewal of the Church’s members.

Father Frederick R. McManus

Father McManus is a priest of the Boston archdiocese who is president of the National Liturgical Conference, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, an official consultor for the ecumenical council, and a member of the U.S. bishops’ press panel in Rome.

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