As a follow-up to the article detailing how often a priest may offer Mass, some may ask if a priest can offer Mass even if a server is not present to offer the responses. While priests are not obligated under the pain of sin to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass daily, most faithful priests do. By doing so with faith and reverence, they give greater honor and worship to God through this most august Sacrifice.
But it may happen that a priest is going to offer Mass and there is no one present to offer the Mass responses. This is known as the “Missa Solitaria,” where Mass is said alone. This is not necessarily the same as a “private Mass.”
Father J.B. O’Connell in The Celebration of Mass, published by Bruce Publishing in 1964, gives the following directive which pertains to the 1962 Missal:
“Only in case of real necessity may a priest say Mass when there is no one who can and may serve or who can at least reply, e.g.: (a) to consecrate a Host to give Viaticum, (b) to say Mass on a Sunday or holyday of obligation so that others — or even he himself — may fulfill the duty of assisting at Mass … If only an untrained server be, on occasion, available, he should be used, since he will be capable, at least, of carrying out some of the chief ceremonies, e.g., handing the cruets, transferring the Missal, ringing the bell.”
Likewise, Canon 906 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which parallels Canon 813 of the 1917 Code, states: “A priest may not celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice without the participation of at least one of the faithful, unless there is a good and reasonable cause for doing so.” However, Canon Law strongly recommends priests offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass daily. Thus, some have posited that this is such a “reasonable cause” to warrant the offering of Mass without a server. No decision has come from the relevant authorities on whether this is indeed sufficient cause.
Father Thomas Rausch, in an article for “Pray Tell”, outlines some of the history leading up to these rubrics:
“In the twelfth century Alexander III made the prohibition of celebrating Mass without the presence of some member of the faithful a matter of Church law. Some statutes from the thirteenth century required the presence of one cleric for private Mass…Reinold Theisen points out that the first draft of Trent’s decree on the Mass urged that private Masses not be celebrated without at least two persons present, and that the commission cited the abuse of celebrating without a minister. The final decree of the Council did not address these issues. But the Missal of Pius V repeats the requirement that a cleric or someone else be present to serve.
“The 1917 Code of Canon Law specifically prohibited celebrating without a (male) server: ‘Sacerdos Missam ne celebret sine ministro qui eidem inserviat et respondeat.’ According to a number of commentaries, celebrating without a server was a mortal sin. Pre-Vatican II Roman directives repeat the requirement of a server.”
This practice underwent some changes and clarifications under Pope Pius XII, as Father Rausch further relates:
“In 1949, the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments responded to requests for the faculty to celebrate Mass without a server, in its instruction Quam plurimum. According to the Congregation, authoritative authors recognized only the following exceptions: when necessary to give Viaticum to a sick person; to satisfy the precept of hearing Mass for the people; in time of pestilence, when a priest would otherwise have to abstain from celebrating for a considerable time; and when the server leaves the altar during the Mass.
“The congregation pointed out that outside these cases, permission for Mass without a server was given only by apostolic indult, especially in mission lands. And it noted that Pius XII had ordered the addition to the indults of the phrase ‘provided that some member of the faithful assist at the Sacrifice.’ Thus, Pius XII wanted it made clear that even if there was no server, some member of the faithful had to be present.
“It was only in 1966, after the Second Vatican Council, that exceptions to the rule against solitary celebrations began to appear. Following the 31st General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Jesuit priests outside mission regions received permission to celebrate Mass in casu necessitatis without the presence of a server. The faculty was given primarily for private chapels in Jesuit houses to which the faithful were not ordinarily admitted. It thus allowed solitary celebrations of the Eucharist.”
Hence, the offering of Holy Mass without a server is not a traditional practice. But this does not mean that an entire congregation – or even one congregant – must be in attendance. The offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with only a server is permissible and is what we see commonly in monastic and seminary settings when priests will rise early in the morning to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, each accompanied by one server. This is a beautiful sight; and as Dr. Peter Kwasniewski has written, the loss of such private Masses has led to a loss of graces for our world.
May Women Say the Mass Responses?
The role of an altar server is traditionally and rightfully reserved for men alone. Even after their introduction into the Novus Ordo in the 1990s, women may not serve at the altar for any Tridentine Mass as the rubrics governing the Tridentine Mass forbid such a practice. This was explicitly confirmed by the Vatican.
However, this is not the same as a woman sitting in the front pew offering some of the Mass responses out loud who neither dresses in any clerical garb nor approaches the altar to perform any duties of a server. This practice is allowed explicitly by the 1917 Code, and a few weeks ago I saw it occur for the first time at a Low Mass in a rural Arizona chapel. The 1917 Code states:
Canon 813, § 2. “The Mass server should not be a woman, unless no man can be found and there is a good reason, and then on this understanding that the woman responds from a distance and does in no way approach the altar.”
At Traditional Masses without a server, we recommend that the faithful first approach the priest outside of Mass to request permission to say the responses aloud. This shows due respect and acceptance of right authority. The priest in turn should designate who would actually say the responses out loud. He knows his faithful and would most likely select someone whose pronunciation of Latin is acceptable and who responds with the proper speed and decorum.
Editor’s Note: For example, as a practical matter, Fr. Michael Rodriguez always recommends that these responses be said by one man near the front pew. This protocol harmonizes most with the theology of the liturgy and the spirit of Canon Law. When many voices respond it can become a cacophony of unsynchronized syllables which distract and may even inhibit prayer. It is only when there are no men present – a rare instance indeed – that Father would consider one woman saying the responses.
Without “good and reasonable cause” a priest may not offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass without a server. But servers do not need to be children. Even adult men may serve at the altar and hence, more Catholic men should make it a point to learn how to serve at the altar. Men, ask your priest to teach you how to serve the Traditional Mass. It is never too late or too hard to learn.
 According to the English translation from Ignatius Press (2001), Canon 813 of the unimpeachable 1917 Code reads:
§ 1. A priest should not celebrate Mass without a minister who assists him and responds.
§ 2. The minister serving at Mass should not be a woman unless, in the absence of a man, for a
just cause, it is so arranged that the woman respond from afar and by no means approach the altar.
 Many vocations have been awakened and nourished at the service of the altar. Therefore, we recommend that priority for serving Mass always be given to unmarried men who have the potential of being called by God to the priesthood.