Arriving Late to Mass
Date: July 4, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: How late can a person be to Mass for it to count? Does it count if they arrive just for Communion? -- T.F., Westminster, Colorado
A: Like most priests, I am loath to give a straight answer to this question because, in a way, it is a catch-22 question for which there is no right answer.
It is true that before the Second Vatican Council some moral theology manuals placed arrival before the offertory as the dividing line in deciding whether one fulfilled the Sunday obligation of assistance at Mass. These opinions reflected the liturgical situation and canonical thought of the times in which the first parts of the Mass were frequently referred to using expressions such as "pre-Mass" or "Mass of the catechumens."
Likewise, the obligation to assist at Mass was frequently couched in strictly juridical terms, which naturally led to questions as to the legal extent of the obligation.
But after the liturgical reform, with its emphasis on the overall unity of the Mass, modern theologians shy away from such exactitude, and I believe that the opinion that the offertory is a cut-off point is no longer valid.
Mass begins with the entrance procession and ends after the final dismissal, and we should be there from beginning to end. Each part of the Mass relates and complements the others in a single act of worship, even though some parts, such as the consecration, are essential while others are merely important.
To say that there is a particular moment before or after which we are either "out" or "safe," so to speak, is to give the wrong message and hint that, in the long run, some parts of the Mass are really not all that important. It may also give some less fervent souls a yardstick for habitually arriving in a tardy manner.
Arriving on time is not just a question of obligation but of love and respect for Our Lord, who has gathered us together to share his gifts, and who has some grace to communicate to us in each part of the Mass.
It is also a sign of respect for the community with whom we worship and who deserves our presence and the contribution of our prayers in each moment. The liturgy is essentially the worship of Christ's body, the Church. Each assembly is called upon to represent and manifest the whole body, but this can hardly happen if it forms itself in drips and drabs after the celebration has begun.
Thus, people who arrive late to Mass have to honestly ask themselves, Why? If they arrive late because of some justified reason or unforeseen event, such as blocked traffic due to an accident, they have acted in good conscience and are not strictly obliged to assist at a later Mass (although they would do well to do so if they arrive very late and it is possible for them).
Likewise, for many elderly people, even getting to the church is an odyssey, and one must not burden their consciences by counting the minutes.
If people arrive late due to culpable negligence, and especially if they do so habitually, then they need to seriously reflect on their attitudes, amend their ways, and, if necessary, seek the sacrament of reconciliation. Depending on how late they arrive they should prefer to honor the Lord's Day by attending some other Mass, or, if this is not possible, at least remain in the Church after Mass is over and dedicate some time to prayer and reflection on the readings of the day.
Although I prefer not to hazard giving a precise cutoff moment, certainly someone who arrives after the consecration has not attended Mass and should not receive Communion.
With this I do not suggest that the consecration is a cutoff point; rather, that missing the consecration is practically equivalent to missing Mass and not just arriving late. The reason for refraining from Communion at this stage is out of respect for the Eucharist. That sacrament should be received after a proper spiritual preparation according to the mind of the Church.
Even when Communion is received outside of Mass, the Church has specific rites with a concrete structure that foresees a greeting; penitential rite; Liturgy of the Word; on some occasions a homily and prayers of the faithful; Communion rite with the Our Father; sign of peace; "This is the Lamb of God ..." and its response "Lord, I am not worthy ..."; Communion; concluding prayer; and final blessing.
Although there are some abbreviations for when Communion is distributed to numerous sick people, in principle, those who wish to partake of Communion should attend the entire rite.
If this is the case for Communion outside of Mass, the same principles should be observed within Mass itself. Thus, arriving just in time to receive Communion is not a valid option.
I would also say that those who find themselves arriving very late through no fault of their own, and with no possibility of attending a later Mass, could wait till Mass is over and ask the priest to administer Communion outside of Mass according to the approved rites.
If there is any particular difficulty with individuals or a specific group of parishioners habitually arriving late for Mass, or even arriving before Communion, it falls to the pastor to find the best way to teach them regarding the importance and beauty of participating in the entire Mass as a worshiping community.
In this, there is no standard solution but patient and gentle insistence adapted to the pastoral reality of each place.
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