Q. Do a certain number of people need to be present for a Mass to be considered valid?
A. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, which perpetuates Christ’s saving work throughout the ages. Through His saving work, Christ entrusts himself to His spouse, the Church, and the Mass is the means by which we, as members of the Church, unite ourselves to Him.
The Second Vatican Council called the Mass “the source and summit of the life of the Church” (LG 11). In the Eucharistic celebration, the faithful is united to God and united with one another.
At the Last Supper, Jesus used sacrificial language, which foreshadows His imminent death. He told His Apostles, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” and after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood.”
In saying these words within the context of the Jewish Passover with His Apostles, Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper as the New Passover. He left them a memorial of His death and resurrection and they were to celebrate it until His return. And so, as Our Lord institutes the Eucharist, He also institutes the priesthood.
At his ordination, a priest receives a sacred character on his soul, which configures him more perfectly to Christ, allowing him to act in the person of Christ. Because priests are given this sacred character, they are consecrated to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to administer the sacraments.
Since the Eucharist is the celebration of Christ’s spousal love for His Church, it is meant to have the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful. The faithful accomplish this by giving of themselves at Mass, and allowing themselves to be transformed by the power of the sacred mysteries. However, because of the character on his soul, a priest may celebrate Mass validly, even if no one else is present. The reality of Christ’s saving work is made present, even if there is no congregation.
Mass is celebrated by following the Roman Missal, which is the book that contains the prescribed prayers for the celebration of Mass. At the beginning of the Roman Missal is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). The GIRM gives instruction for how the Mass is to be celebrated and about the roles that a priests, deacons and other ministers may perform.
The GIRM states, “Mass should not be celebrated without a minister, or at least one of the faithful, except for a just and reasonable cause” (GIRM 254). A reasonable cause might be that a priest is on vacation, or some other circumstance where there would not be a member of the faithful who is present.
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