‘He must increase, I must decrease’

I have posted on priests and on the Latin Mass many a time but I have recently been involved in conversations where people object that the Mass of All Times (the Extraordinary form) places too much weight on the priest, too much of a psychological burden. I believe the answer is obvious: the priesthood is the most sublime, the most arduous, the most demanding of all vocations – that is how it should be, in fact it cannot be otherwise. The fact that today some priests are little more than social workers or parish event facilitators reveals a serious amnesia, not to say corruption, of the theology of Holy Orders and its assimilation to the High Priest. (The writings on the priesthood by St. John Chrysostom or St. John Fisher, among others, would make a good corrective to modern tendencies).

When Christ is present in our midst, the right reaction is to worship Him, not one another. The priest ‘disappears’ into the Holy Sacrifice when he faces ad orientem and offers the sacrifice with his face invisible to the people. Jesus alone is the centre, the one Sun whose light illuminates all the worshipers, including the priest. In this sense, the ancient liturgy places at once all the emphasis and none of it upon the priest – he is the most visible and the most invisible, central and at the same time peripheral. He is central as an icon of Christ, he is peripheral as Jones or Smith. Now things are reversed: Jones or Smith, ‘this man’, is central – what has become peripheral is the unique Mediator between God and man.

Reflect on the ethos of humility inculcated by the traditional rite of Mass. In the classical liturgy, all the ‘weight’ is on the priest and the sacred ministers. This is a good thing entirely, though a difficult one for fallen nature. It is good because, first, it enables the faithful to lean upon their pastor, to go with him to the altar – the liturgy is not suddenly thrown into their hands, but paradoxically, because of the centrality of the cleric, the faithful are able to enter more deeply into the sacrifice ‘under his chasuble’, like the medieval paintings of the nameless faithful crowding under the copious mantle of the Blessed Virgin. The reason is that the objective ‘place’ of worship is in the sanctuary, with the sacred ministers, but subjectively everyone can place himself into this place and follow in his heart the offering made by the priest – there is not a false shift to the ‘heart of the individual believer’ as in Protestant worship. The focus remains on Jesus Christ, Head of the Mystical Body, because the focus remains on His sacerdotal icon, the priest who is the self-sacrificing image of the one High Priest.

When people declare ‘But Christ was a layman’ (may God forgive them this blasphemy), this thought is more than a topical or regional heresy – this may well be called the new Mass heresy par excellence: the laicization of Christ and His priesthood, and the clericalization of the laity. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger denounced this trend for many years, it is true, but as long as a defective liturgical form continues to shape the minds and hearts of the faithful, we shall see no end of the ongoing desacralization.

The ancient rite preserves the important act of the priest praying with the people. The liturgy has a far greater purpose than to give us an opportunity for a moment’s adoration in the midst of an ocean of banality, noise,  primadonnas  and nursery songs – indeed the liturgy is not supposed to be itself a mortification, a cause of pain, but a consolation, a reservoir of peace and joy. The purpose of the liturgy is to form our souls in the beauty of holiness.

When the priest strives for purity so that his sacrifice may be perfect, the extraordinary rite aids him with its beauty. In other words, his devotion, which arises ‘naturally’ out of his attention to the perfect prayers of the old rite, aids him in striving for and desiring purity and in sacrificing himself perfec-tly. A rite that comes from God and the saints should be the kind of rite to which a devout person, a person who puts himself aside, can totally surrender himself and a rite to which his sacrifice can be perfectly added. If a rite comes from human hands, either by the priest’s choice of what will be in the Mass or by the construction of a rite by men who are not saints, it will not have a universal appeal. In the end the purity of heart of the priest and his desire to sacrifice himself will be at variance with a rite that does not allow him to do so by making him choose what will be in the rite. If the Mass is a thing of his own making, his subjection to God (his devotion) will have to be something he attempts to supply on his own, rather than something elicited by the rite itself.

As Father Nicholas Gihr writes (Holy Sacrifice, 337): ‘That overruling influence of the Spirit of God, that directs even in secondary matters the affairs of the visible Church, nowhere else appears so marked and evident as in the arrangement of the extraordinary rite of the Holy Mass which, although only monumental, yet in its present state forms such a beautiful, perfect whole, yea, a splendid work, that it excites the admiration of every reflecting mind. Even the bitterest adversaries of the Church do not deny it – unprejudiced, aesthetic judges of good taste admit that even from their own standpoint the Mass of all our saints and of all ages is to be classed as one of the greatest masterpieces ever composed. Thus the momentous sacrifice is encompassed with magnificent ceremonies: it is our duty to study to penetrate more and more into their meaning, and to expound what we have learned to the people according to their capacity’.


16 Responses to “‘He must increase, I must decrease’”

  1. 1 Ward Torres February 18, 2010 at 21:22


    I can’t help but repeat that when the priest and faithful together face the same way, it manifests our common act of worship, it symbolizes our common pilgrimage toward the returning Lord, the Sun of Justice and our hope in the resurrection and the world beyond the here-and-now, our pilgrimage to the Promised Land.

    The priest and people must both face the same direction. And celebrating ad orientem, the Eastward position, is both biblical and patristic and has been done throughout the history of the Church.

    The Mass is to have the sense of an ordered, solemn ceremony addressed to God. There is what we call a vertical dimension – that mystery of the transcendent God. Although ordained to administer the sacraments, it is not the priest who gives grace, it is not I who shed my blood on the cross. When the priest faces the congregation, we can forget or misunderstand that only Christ is the source and giver of all grace. ad orientem avoids focusing attention on the personality and mannerisms of the celebrant and reminds us that the priest stands at the altar in persona Christi, offering the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

  2. 2 Brian February 19, 2010 at 01:23

    Gabriella –

    Thank you for your teaching. The Extraordinary form is certainly not well received here in NJ. Very few parishes offer it. As a child I was trained as an “Altar Boy” with the Latin prayers. I still remember them today. For more people to appreciate this Mass they will have to experience it. I will do all I can to get the word out!

    God bless!

  3. 3 Maria February 19, 2010 at 02:11

    YES!!! This is what the mass is. And yes, we should all be facing the same direction, all praying together. I read somewhere that the church is in a “Good Friday” in these days, but we can hope that Easter is coming. I wish the mass was the same everywhere, but with the liturgy in so many different hands, it isn’t. My most “comfortable” way to worship is a very simple new (post Vatican II – Novus Ordo I think) mass, because it is the most familiar to me and I always know what is going on. I love the Latin mass, but I’ve yet to feel comfortable attending, which is a shame. I was baptized at 2 months old and have gone to mass viritually every weekend of my life – and I feel like an outsider when I got to Latin mass.

  4. 4 Mary Nicewarner February 19, 2010 at 02:32

    My mom sings in the choir at the Latin Mass. She loves it! I told her that I would attend the Latin Mass this month. I always go to the regular Mass because I attend a Bible study after but I’ll have to work something out. Thanks for all the information regarding the Extraordinary Form. When I was born they were already celebrating the Novus Ordo and that’s all I’ve ever known. The Latin Mass seems holier, though. It makes sense for everyone to be facing the Tabernacle where the Holy Eucharist is.

    • 5 churchmouse February 19, 2010 at 10:57

      Hello, Mary — You’ll love Latin Mass. I can’t describe it in a way that will do it justice. Having grown up with it myself, I can see why your mom gets such spiritual fulfilment from singing in the LM choir! She is one lucky lady.

      Also, Catholic churches were packed on Sunday when Latin Mass was the order of the day. It was so quiet, so solemn, so reverent. There was a real mysterium tremendum. The Novus Ordo diminished attendance as well as the idea that the Mass is about God and His Son Jesus Christ.

      I hope that you enjoy Latin Mass as much as Gabriella and some of her readers do.

      Have a great weekend.

  5. 6 anne bender February 19, 2010 at 03:48

    Very interesting! I’ve learned so much from you Gabriella!

  6. 7 Llewellyn February 19, 2010 at 14:24

    Churchmouse is right: It is so quiet, so solemn, so reverent. There was a real mysterium tremendum.

    Maria, The Extraordinary Mass is the same all over the world! It’s the new mass that differs in different countries.. actually, in different parishes! It depends entirely on the creativeness of the priest and the pious women that have taken over the churches.

    I understand how you feel when you attend the Extraordinary Mass at first, but once you have the proper missal to follow it and you’ve attended more than five times, I assure you that you won’t be able to do without.

    The Extraordinary Mass is certainly the more difficult to follow but.. this and more we owe Our Lord.. after all, what did he say about taking the narrow road..

    God bless.

  7. 9 Marcie February 19, 2010 at 21:00

    In addition to the priest-and-people looking together toward the returning Lord (ad orientem, toward the East, from where it is written Our Lord will come), common orientation during the Eucharistic liturgy also symbolized, once, “the journey of the pilgrim people of God towards the future…” It’s worth discussing whether our present orientation contributes to a loss of the congregation’s self-awareness as God’s people on pilgrimage, through history, towards God’s promises.

  8. 10 Karinann February 19, 2010 at 21:17

    Thanks for this insightful post. Unfortunately I have to echo Brian’s sentiments as I am also from NJ. More parishes need to offer this form of the Mass. So much sacredness has been lost with the Novos Ordo.

  9. 11 Raman Chakravorthy February 20, 2010 at 10:33

  10. 12 Victor S E MOUBARAK February 20, 2010 at 13:39

    What a lovely peaceful video. Thank you so much for posting it.

    God bless.

  11. 13 Feliks Wallenty, Denmark February 21, 2010 at 09:44

    Maturity is a must both physically and spiritually. As is so often the case, the principles of the physical realm and the spiritual realm are often in conflict with each other, or work in opposite directions. When we mature in the physical realm we INCREASE in size. However, in the spiritual realm maturity means we DECREASE in size!
    It is so easy to get trapped in promoting self rather than God, our needs often drive us to do whatever we need to do to lift “ME” up first.
    Unfortunately you are right. The new mass doesn’t help at all. The priest is the center of attraction and the faithfull quarrell as to who must read or show up in some way during the liturgy but it ends up with only the same ones doing everything all the time.

  12. 14 Morinne February 21, 2010 at 13:46

    Every step every sign every vestment has a deep deep meaning in the Liturgy of All Times.
    Check this site: http://www.catholiclatinmass.org/traditional-latin-mass.html

  13. 15 L'osservatore February 23, 2010 at 00:55

    Ciò che abbiamo trovato nascendo ci è stato donato da Dio e dagli uomini e nulla è nostro ma ne abbiamo solo l’usufrutto.
    Chi crede apprezza Dio e ne coglie la presenza in ogni cosa !!!

  14. 16 Evelina February 23, 2010 at 08:17

    Ciao Osservatore (non Romano, spero) 😉

    In due righe dici cose verissime, grazie – ma penso che questo commento doveva essere sotto l’ultimo post di Gabriella, quello sulla gratitudine – o mi sbaglio?

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