Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: We know that the Sunday Mass is very important. We know too that the Saturday evening Mass is the Sunday Mass. But what are the criteria to know exactly that it is the Mass of Sunday? It is the hour? It is the readings? Many Catholics who go to a marriage on a Saturday afternoon don’t go to the Mass on Sunday. They think they have already gone to Mass. What does the Church say exactly about the Saturday evening Mass? — J.G., Arras, France
A: The norms permitting the celebration of Sunday Mass on a Saturday evening are not overly detailed and thus different practices and notions have arisen around the world.
Even though this practice is relatively recent with respect to the Sunday Mass, the Church had long maintained the custom of beginning the celebration of important feasts the evening before, with first vespers. This was inspired by the concept of a day in the ancient world which divided our 24 hours into four nocturnal vigils and four daylight hours, the day commencing at first vigil.
For this reason the Gospels mention the haste required to bury Our Lord on Good Friday before the Sabbath began on what, for us, would still be Friday evening.
While this concept offers a certain justification for the norm permitting the celebration of Sunday Mass on Saturday, the modern Church in fact mixes both ancient and modern chronometry and has not simply adopted tout court the ancient measure of the day.
For this reason, although it is permissible to anticipate Sunday Mass, contrary to what some might think, there is no obligation to do so; it is still possible to celebrate the Mass of the day or a ritual Mass on Saturday evening.
For example, if a religious community habitually celebrates its daily Mass at 7 p.m., there is no reason why it would have to celebrate Sunday Mass twice.
Likewise it is theoretically possible for a couple to be wed on a Saturday evening using the nuptial Mass, provided that they did not coincide with regular Mass timetables.
I say “theoretically” because pastorally it is usually advisable to celebrate the nuptial Mass at this hour according to the norms for a wedding celebrated on a Sunday. As our reader points out, even regular Mass goers are likely to presume that a Saturday evening Mass is sufficient to fulfill their Sunday precept and the distinctions between different Mass formulas are likely to be lost on them.
Therefore, except in those cases when the majority of guests are well-formed and committed Catholics, it is better to assure as far as possible that they attend a celebration valid for Sunday, even though this can mean that on some occasions certain aspects of the regular nuptial Mass may not be celebrated.
The general law does not specify the precise time after which Sunday Mass is possible. However, 5 p.m. is the common rule in the Diocese of Rome and in many other places. Any time much earlier is hard to conceive as being Saturday evening in any meaningful sense of the term.
Because of this, a Saturday afternoon wedding would be a different case. Most practicing Catholics would not presume that a noon or 1 p.m. wedding would be valid for Sunday Mass. Since 3 or 4 p.m. are rather awkward hours for organizing a wedding and its attendant festive aftermath, celebrations at this hour are less common, at least in Europe.
A 4 p.m. wedding, however, is probably sufficiently on the borderline as to be celebrated as a Sunday Mass.
If there is real danger of anyone mistaking an earlier Mass as valid for Sunday, then care should be taken so that guests know in advance that the Mass will not cover their Sunday obligation.
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Follow-up: Saturday Mass for Sunday [11-4-2008]
We received numerous e-mails from readers on the topic of Saturday evening celebrations of Sunday Mass. Although I responded from a pastoral rather than a canonical stance (see Oct. 21 column), several correspondents offered valuable canonical pointers that serve to complement and in part correct some of my assertions.
Several readers pointed out that most canonists, based on Pope Pius XII’s apostolic constitution “Christus Dominus” and the Code of Canon Law, No. 1248.1, which speaks of Saturday evening (“vespere”) Mass, say that 4 p.m., and not 5 p.m. as I affirmed, is the recognized time after which Sunday Masses may be celebrated.
This canon also states that Catholics may fulfill their Sunday and holy-day obligations by assisting at any Catholic Mass after this time. Therefore, if a Catholic were to attend a wedding at this time, even if the ceremony lacked the elements proper to a Sunday Mass, he or she would be fulfilling the Sunday precept.
This would also be the case if a holy day of obligation fell on a Saturday or Monday. A Catholic who assisted at morning and evening Mass on either Saturday or Sunday would fulfill both holy-day precepts, even if the Mass formulas were of the same day. It would always be required to go to Mass twice though, so there is no “killing two birds with one stone,” as the saying goes.
To be clear, I am merely stating the minimum legal requirements and am not recommending this as a practice, which I believe would often be pastorally and spiritually detrimental to the faithful.
Therefore a pastor should do all that he can to assure that a Saturday evening wedding has all the elements of Sunday Mass as well as inculcate the faithful to fulfill their calling to glorify God and celebrate the fullness of the liturgical year.
Finally, due to an oversight of mine, in an earlier follow-up regarding the celebration of the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus on Jan. 3, I failed to offer the simplest and most obvious solution to finding the texts: that is, the use of the already approved texts from the votive Mass of the Holy Name. These texts are already found in the missal and basically correspond to those of the feast day.
On this matter a reader informed me of the existence of a 2004 supplement to the Sacramentary that can be looked up at: www.catholicbookpublishing.com/