The problem of grave liturgical abuses is so widespread that I regularly receive inquiries about what makes a Mass “invalid.” The technical answer is that nothing makes a Mass invalid. Validity is not per se a category that applies to the Mass as a whole. It is necessary to rephrase the question in order to give an accurate, meaningful answer. Typically, when people ask about the “validity” of a Mass, they wish to know one of two things: Did the Mass contain a valid consecration of the Eucharist? And would a particular Mass fulfill one’s Sunday obligation?
Some people are driven to scrupulous distraction by the fear that the Eucharist they receive during a Mass where liturgical abuses have occurred has not been validly consecrated. Fortunately, their fears are almost always without foundation.
Like baptism, the Eucharist is a sacrament very central to the Christian life. Consequently, God has arranged matters so that it is quite difficult for the Eucharist to be botched so badly that the consecration would not take place. The requirements for validity are very simple and can be dealt with under the headings of minister, intent, matter, and form.
The minister needed for a valid consecration is any man ordained as a bishop or priest. Deacons and laity are not valid celebrants, nor are those who have invalid episcopal or priestly holy orders. Since holy orders can be conferred only on baptized males, women who have undergone a putative ordination are not ordained and cannot confect the Eucharist.
Attempts to celebrate the Eucharist in a Catholic parish by individuals who are not valid celebrants are rare. One occasionally reads scandalous reports of women or laymen being asked to “co-consecrate” at Masses held at a gathering of dissidents. But even then, there is almost always at least one priest present and participating in the consecration. So long as there is at least one valid minister there—no matter how many invalid “co-celebrants” there are—the consecration happens.
In recent years, the faithful have been scandalized by ambiguous and at times inaccurate preaching on the Real Presence and transubstantiation. Cases of priests actually disbelieving in the Real Presence are rare. However, when confronted with ambiguous teaching, a question naturally arises in the minds of the faithful: “What if my priest doesn’t believe in transubstantiation? Does the consecration still take place?”
The answer is that it should. It is not necessary for the priest to have the specific intention that transubstantiation take place so long as he has the general intention to celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist, even if he has a very erroneous understanding of that sacrament.
People with scrupulous worries in this area might ponder this pastoral note: Jesus chose to institute in the Eucharist a sacrament whereby he is really, truly, bodily present. Yet this is not obvious to the senses. He chose to hide himself in this manner, which is why those without faith or with wavering faith are able to doubt the Real Presence. Yet he also made this the single most frequently given and received sacrament in the Christian life. He would scarcely, then, be likely to make his real presence contingent on the fluctuating inward faith life of the minister celebrating it.
Thus, for the Eucharist, but also for other sacraments, only the general intention to “do the thing that Christians do” is needed for validity: “Objectively considered, the intention of doing what the Church does suffices. The minister, therefore, does not need to intend what the Church intends, namely to produce the effects of the sacraments. . . . It suffices if he has the intention of performing the religious action as it is current among Christians” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 344). This is also the interpretation of Aquinas (ST III:64:9-10).
In order for a minister to lack valid intention, while outwardly performing the rites of the Mass and the Eucharistic prayer, he virtually would have to say to himself, “What I am doing is not the Eucharist. I’m only play-acting and fooling all of these people into thinking I’m performing a sacrament, when really I’m not.” Needless to say, a priest is almost never going to have such an intention.
The matter required for a valid celebration of the Eucharist consists of wheat bread and grape wine (CIC 924). In the Latin Rite of the Church, the bread must be unleavened for a licit celebration (926). In all rites of the Church, the wine must be mixed with a small quantity of water for a licit celebration. However, neither the presence of water nor the absence of leaven is needed for a valid celebration. In fact, most of the Eastern Rites use leavened bread for confecting the Eucharist.
Though in special circumstances bishops may grant individual priests permission to use low-gluten altar breads, bread made from flour that has had all gluten removed is considered invalid matter (Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 22, 1994). Similarly, in exceptional circumstances, ordinaries may permit the consecration of mustum, which is fresh juice from grapes or juice preserved by suspending its fermentation by freezing or other methods that do not alter its nature (ibid.).
The addition of any other ingredients to the wheat bread and grape wine render the celebration illicit. If the additions are of notable quantity, the matter has doubtful validity. If the additions are significant enough that, in the judgment of reasonable men, the matter no longer consists of wheat bread and grape wine, then the matter is invalid. It is gravely sinful for any priest to celebrate the Eucharist knowing that he is employing illicit or invalid matter.
These days, one does hear a significant number of reports of parishes using illicit recipes for altar breads. However, if the recipe is strange enough to be invalid matter, this will be detectable by the faithful. If what you receive at Communion does not have a texture or taste that reasonable men would count as unleavened or leavened wheat bread, it’s invalid.
In such cases, rare as they are, parishioners should always find out what recipe was used, should try to get the proper recipe—wheat and water only—used instead, and should follow up with their bishop if this is not done.
The form of this sacrament consists of the words of consecration. In Masses celebrated with the current missal, the only words that may be licitly used to consecrate the host are these: “Take this, all of you, and eat it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” In Masses for adults, the only words of consecration that may be used over the chalice are these: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the cup of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”
Although the use of any other words of consecration whatsoever is both gravely illicit and gravely sinful, it is not necessarily invalid. So long as the words used for consecration express the fact that ”This is my Body” and “This is . . . my Blood,” the consecration will be valid. The other words used further specify and elaborate the purposes of Christ’s sacrifice and of the sacrament, but they do not pertain to the basic reality of Christ’s real presence under the forms of bread and wine. Consequently, they are not necessary to bring about the Real Presence (see N. Halligan, The Sacraments and Their Celebration, 67).
The faithful thus have little cause to worry about the hosts they receive having been validly consecrated. While there may be many liturgical abuses in American parishes today, invalid consecrations are rare and are usually obvious when they occur. Parishioners should not be scrupulous about this matter. Neither should they be concerned about the impact of such rare events on their Sunday obligation.
Can a Mass be celebrated in so illicit a manner that it would not fulfill the Sunday obligation? The answer, under the current (1983) Code of Canon Law, will almost always be “no.” For practical purposes, the only Latin Rite Masses that would not fulfill one’s Sunday obligation would be those that make no pretense whatsoever of being based on the 2002 or 1962 missals or on other approved forms, such as the Dominican Rite or the Anglican Use.
Canon 1248, paragraph 1 states: “The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.”
The legislative history of this canon is informative. Originally, it included the word “legitimately,” stating that one’s Sunday obligation was fulfilled by “assistance at a Mass that is legitimately celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite.” In the drafting process for the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the word “legitimately” was dropped. The Holy See did not want the laity in a position of having to evaluate which Masses were legitimately celebrated and which were not (cf. Coriden, Green, and Heintschel, ed.s, The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, 854).
By showing up for Mass on Sunday (or the evening before), you are fulfilling your obligation. If the celebrant fails to fulfill his obligation of celebrating the Mass in a licit manner, that is his responsibility, not yours. You do not have to go to extra lengths, such as attending an additional Mass, because he is derelict in his duty.