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’.