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A question on Mass-start times that warrants attention

December 8, 2014

Recalling, in the wake of some recent discussions of Mass obligations, that I had promised some time ago to set out some materials for use in reasoning through another Mass attendance question, I offer some of that now.

This question concerns, What is the earliest a Mass on the ‘evening of the preceding day’ (c. 1248 § 1) can start and still satisfy one’s Sunday or holy day Mass attendance obligation? This question is not another aspect of the ‘two-for-one’ Mass idea or what texts and readings need to be used for Mass to satisfy an attendance obligation. It is simply, What is the earliest Mass may start on the day previous to an attendance-obligation day and still count toward one’s obligation for that next day?

Now, it is very common, at least in English-speaking North America, to answer that question with “Four PM”, meaning that, only a Mass beginning after 4 PM on the day preceding that for which one is obligated to attend satisfies one’s Mass attendance obligation. The reason for this near ‘universal’ response is “Dr. John Huels says so.” And indeed he does: “‘Evening’ should be understood as anytime from 4:00 pm onward. The legislator uses the word ‘evening’ (vesper) not ‘afternoon’ (post meridiem); in keeping with the proper meaning of the word (cf. c. 17) an afternoon Mass before 4:00 pm is not an evening Mass and does not satisfy the [attendance] obligation.” CLSA New Comm (2001) 1445.

When Huels talks liturgy, people listen. And they should. But what qualifies as a ‘universal’ response in canon law goes considerably beyond what English-speaking North America might hold (even if it is held for very good reasons). Consider these overseas canonical commentaries, three of which hold for a noon start-time and one of which holds for a 2:00 pm start time (my emphasis in each).

From Spain: [A]s far as the [understanding of the previous] day is concerned [c. 1248 § 1] expands the schedule to twelve on the eve of the feast day.” Exegetical Comm III/2 (2004): 1901.

From Great Britain and Ireland: What is the ‘evening of the previous day’? Despite the view of some commentators that this [phrase] should be interpreted beginning only at 1400 hours (2 pm) on that day, it is the firm view of this commentary that the evening of the previous day begins at midday (12 noon) on that day itself. GB&I Comm (1985) 702.

From Spain: En cuanto a la expressión ‘el día anterior por la tarde’, oficialmente se aclaró: ‘Expresamente se utiliza una fórmula general para evitar casuismos y ansiedades. Con todo certeza se cumple el precepto mediante la participación en cualquier Misa del sábado por la tarde’. Código edición comentada (1985) 594.

From Italy: La celebrazione, però, della domenica e delle solennità inizia dai vespri del giorno precedente … ossia, secondo una fondata interpretazione, ab hora secunda post meridiem.  Chiappetta II (2011): 522.

Plainly, these scholarly authorities hold for a start-time much earlier than is argued for by Huels. But, even if these overseas authors are not correct (and Huels has some good arguments besides Canon 17 on his side, though, frankly, so do the others), they constitute, I think, a large enough school of thought to allow for doubt of law considerations to enter this discussion in support of Catholics who hold any Mass attended beginning at 12:00 noon of the day previous as satisfying their next-day attendance obligation.

Bottom line, this very practical question (over which, unlike the two mentioned above, there is no serious dispute among experts) needs to be investigated more fully, and settled authoritatively.

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