Somebody asked me today about Votive Masses, a question that is rather significant and important from a pastoral perspective, and so I decided to publish my response on this blog also.
In our present Roman Missal, so pastorally sensitive and responsive in its structure and formulation, we are provided with many pastoral possibilities. Among these are special Masses, with their own prayers and readings--special because they are specific to particular cases of particular communities.
The Masses for Various Needs and Occasions are used to respond to special needs that arise in the life of a community like famine or war, or to pray for rain so vital to the life of an agricultural community, or in thanksgiving after the harvest for example. Then again there are times like ecumenical gatherings or a missioning when the Mass for Christian Unity or the Mass for the Evangelization of Peoples, respectively, may be more appropriate and relevant to the occasion.
Moreover, there are also times when the community itself, and not even circumstance, occasions a special need calling for a pastoral liturgical response. Rather, call it a pastoral opportunity when the liturgy would be able to express more particularly the deep sentiments of a specific people that are not at all alien to the sacred liturgy. In the Philippines for example, people have a very strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, expressed particularly in the approved custom of going to confession and attending Holy Mass on First Fridays, and the Mass of the Sacred Heart is then celebrated. There is also a basilica here dedicated to Jesus, honored as the cross-bearing Nazarene, that has permission to celebrate a special Mass of the Nazarene every Friday when people, including pilgrims from far places, flock to the shrine.
For such cases, Votive Masses are used, not only to satisfy the piety of the faithful but to allow their piety a suitable and legitimate liturgical expression. One beautiful example is the widespread custom of celebrating the Mass, including the Office, of Our Lady on Saturdays. Doing this allows the devotions to truly lead to and draw from the sacred liturgy as their summit and source. Not only do the people come to church to say their novenas and other pious prayers, they are also gathered around the table of the Lord where their prayer finds its fullest meaning and highest expression, fulfilling the intent of the Council:
But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them. (SC 13)
However, we should not forget that while liturgy belongs to that community, at the same time it also belongs to the universal Church where that community also belongs. There are special times like the Sacred Paschal Triduum and Solemnities that the universal Church deems most important, universally significant and indeed essential. These therefore take precedence and are given priority over any particular celebration. Advent (December 17-24, to be very specific) and Lent also are very special phases in the liturgical year when the celebration of the liturgy is particularly drawn up according to the peculiar nature and character of these periods. The prayers and readings are so chosen and arranged to bring out the full meaning and significance of these times of preparation and anticipation for the great feasts of Christmas and Easter. Therefore, the integrity and structure of the liturgy given for these seasons are to be respected and preserved intact as much as possible.
In general, the Votive Masses, as well as the Masses for Special Needs and Occasions, may be used during "ordinary" (ferial) days of Ordinary Time. Easter and the briefer season of Christmas also allow them on weekdays except those that are within the Octaves of both. Votive Masses may even replace obligatory memorials.
Great care should be taken, however, that the use of Votive Masses are not abused, when for example, it is used on all weekday Masses. The other resources of the Roman Missal, both the Sacramentary and the Lectionary, always remain a treasure that needs to be explored and opened up to be generously lavished upon the people of God, and these include the weekday Masses that are no less meaningful or less effective. Masses for Special Needs and Occasions are also to be used prudently. They are never to be used for purposes contrary to the very spirit of the liturgy, when for example the Mass for Peace and Justice is used as a part of the protest during political rallies that are largely divisive and alienating to some people.
When used properly, these pastoral resources not only make the liturgy more responsive to the needs of the faithful, it also makes liturgy more expressive of their prayer to God.
(By the way, Happy Feast to Saint Anthony of Padua who appears on the bottom-left corner of this image of Our Lady. May his zeal for the salvation of souls and love of Holy Scripture inspire us always and his prayers ascend on our behalf before the throne of Mercy in heaven.)