Question: Can the Mass be compressed? I attended one recently that lasted fifteen minutes at most. Could it have been a valid Mass? How long should Mass last?
Answer: The possibility of "compressing" the Mass must be considered both in terms of sacramental validity, and in terms of the desirability of shortening the official daily public worship of God by His Church.
All of the Sacraments can be defined in terms of an essential matter and form.
"Matter" refers to the outward manifestation of the Sacrament; bread and wine which become the Body and Blood of Christ in the case of the Mass, water in the case of Baptism, the confession of sins in the case of Penance, Oil of the Sick in Extreme Unction, and so on. Without the appropriate matter no Sacrament is confected. The holiest priest in Christendom cannot offer Mass without bread and wine.
"Form" refers to the words uttered by the minister of the Sacrament in order to more clearly define what is taking place. The form indicates to all concerned that, for example, an anointing with oil is performed as Extreme Unction rather than as Confirmation, or that the laying of hands on the head of a man is intended to make him a priest rather than a deacon or a bishop.
For the sake of completeness, it should also be said that each Sacrament requires the appropriate minister and intention. The minister must usually be a priest, although anyone can baptize, and the bridal couple minister marriage to one another. At a minimum, the minister must intend to "do what the Church does," when administering the Sacrament. The atheist physician, for example, validly baptizes when he baptizes a dying child at the request of a Christian mother, for he is doing what her Church intends -- even if he places no belief whatsoever in it himself.
In the case of the "compressed Mass" posited by our questioner, we will assume, for the moment, that it was celebrated by a proper minister with a valid intention; an ordained priest intending to do what our Lord did by offering the Sacrifice of the Cross in its unbloody Eucharistic mode. We will further assume that this priest, in doing what Christ did, uttering His words over true wheaten bread and wine made from grapes.
Because the Mass is a renewal of the Sacrifice as well as a Sacrament, we will assume, for the sake of this article, that the bread and wine were offered to God in sacrifice, and that the consecrated Body and Blood were consumed by the priest.
At most, all of these things; offertory, consecration, and communion, would take three or four minutes. At least in theory, that would be the minimum length of time necessary for the celebration of Mass. The remaining ceremonies, as important as they are, have been added by the Church to enhance the value of Her peoples' worship -- but they are not essential to the validity of the Mass.
Suffice it to say, however, that no priest or bishop has the authority to do away with the ceremonies prescribed by the Church. Catholic history boasts of many Masses celebrated on battle grounds and even in prison camps, wherein the faithful did their heroic best to offer Mass properly. Even if the vestments were makeshift and the prayers were recited from memory, they did their very best under the circumstances. [See, for example, Walter J. Cizek, SJ, With God in Russia (Garden City: Image, 1966).]
One might understand a "compressed" Mass being offered in a concentration camp, or perhaps in order to consecrate Holy Communion for those who might die without receiving It otherwise. But modern Catholics seem to see "compelling necessity" in everything they do (witness the abundance of "extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers," Saturday-night Sunday Masses, and general absolution. But there is simply no excuse for a fifteen minute Mass under anything resembling civilized conditions.
It is true that the Sacraments are acts of Jesus Christ, and validly celebrated they produce the graces which He intends, even in a minimal form. But it should never be forgotten that the Mass is the public worship of God by His Church. What kind of worship are we offering if rush through it in a few minutes, so as to have more time to spend on the golf course, or in front of the TV, or to sleep late on Sunday morning. "Thou shalt have no strange gods before Me"; not golf, not TV, and not sleeping in.
The Mass prayers are a tremendous source of personal devotion. The priest who eliminates or rushes through them deprives his people of the spiritual reflection they would gain by hearing or reading these prayers with meditation and devotion. He deprives them, as well, of the knowledge to be gained by hearing the scriptures read at a normal speed. He deprives them of that "feeling of holiness" that we get from assisting at Mass offered with solemnity and deliberation. He diminishes the possibility of his congregation participating in the Mass by reciting or singing the parts assigned to them.
There is, of course, no exact length of time for the "ideal" Mass. Masses are longer of shorter based on the texts appointed to be read, the number who receive Holy Communion, and the length of the sermon if one is given. All else being equal, it will take longer if the Mass is sung, particularly with a deacon and subdeacon. It is hard to imagine Mass being offered with any degree of reverence in less than twenty-five or thirty minutes, excluding the time required for a sermon or to distribute Holy Communion to more than one or two people. If Mass lasts much less than that, you might try to find another church -- one where the Mass is offered with sanctity instead of speed.