27 December 2007

The Loneliness and Beauty of the Mass

At Fr. Zuhlsdorf's blog, a number of priests have left comments on their experience saying both the ordinary and extraordinary form of the Mass. They were responding to the following comments by a priest new to the Traditional Latin Mass:
The act of praying the Roman Canon slowly and in low voice accented my own smallness and mere instrumentality more than anything else. Plodding through the first 50 or so words of the Canon, I felt intense loneliness. As I moved along, however, I also heard the absolute silence behind me, 450 people of all ages praying, all bound mysteriously to the words I uttered and to the ritual actions I haltingly and clumsily performed. Following the consecration, I fell into a paradoxical experience of intense solitude as I gazed at the Sacrament and an inexplicable feeling of solidarity with the multitude behind me.
Priests' comments follow.

This is an excellent post, and I can identify with the lonliness that this priest experienced during the Roman Canon. I have yet to celebrate the Extraordinary form (though I do hope to celebrate it in the near future), but since I started using an Altar Crucifix and Candles on the Altar of Sacrifice for the Mass of Paul VI I have noticed the same thing happening. The more I focus on Christ and the mystery of the Cross made present during the Canon, and the less I focus on myself or on the people gathered before me the more I experience this lonliness – this sharing in what our Lord must have felt upon the cross. I have also found that the more I shift my attention away from the people and toward the mystery we celebrate the more the people do as well, thus making Christ the center of what is happening and not me. I decrease and Christ increases.

Surely, the Extraordinary Form makes this easier to accomplish, but it can be done with the Ordinary Form as well if we as priests model for the people that neither they nor the priest is the focus of attention, but Christ Himself.

--Fr. Christensen

My own experience of the TLM is that it my priesthood is becoming dependent upon it in a way that I could not have imagined even five years ago. Michael, you sensed the power of the Mass to humble a priest, to recognize our smallness and our our sinfulness. The newer Mass allows you to be Martha at her busiest. With the older Mass, you have only the Better Part. You don’t even get to choose—you are simply there, irrevocably there. I think, Michael, you touched a deep vein by sensing the people WITH you. In the newer Mass you always have them BEFORE you, no matter how hard you try to refocus (even when you celebrate ad orientem, although that helps). But with the older Mass you do sense you all set out IN ALTUM, into the deep. A priest is Alter Christus also in the newer form, but it less transparent to the congregation and to the priest himself. Especially with the more common forms of celebration, there is so much noise, so many other signals, that is exceedingly difficult to PRAY the Mass. But with the older Mass, you are both WITH the congregation and truly alone, abandoned. What a gift, what an incredible, undeserved gift! That majesty is almost intolerably beautiful. And by the way, Michael, it gets better and better. The rubrics become part of you, a second priestly skin, the words stick to the soul, the canon becomes part of your breath. What a gift. And it’s a gift I want for you. Pax tecum.
--Fr. M (not of Patum Peperium)

I have come to cherish the rubrics of the TLM for helping my personality disappear at Mass. At Mass, it doesn’t matter who stands at the altar, as long as he is a priest, because the priest is a mere instrument of Christ.

Once learned, they seem to make perfect sense and flow so naturally with the rhythm of the liturgy. There is an aspect of rote-ness to them, but I think that Mother Church gives the priest the duty of informing the outward gesture with his own love and devotion.
Finally, just a comment of the consecration in the TLM. The fact that we priests not only relate what Christ did but actually look up to heaven, give thanks, blesses, and says Christ’s words is a very poignant reminder that we are acting in the person of Christ. We are not merely reading a narrative, but we are allowing Christ to use us to make Himself in His saving act present. And although we try to dissolve our personality, we remain ourselves and so, immediately after Christ become present in the Eucharist, we fall on our knees, even before showing Him to the congregation. Perhaps there is some aspect of loneliness, but might it not be argued that this is an aspect of the crucifixion?

--Fr. D.D.

I notice the difference when celebrating facing the people and I now find it jarring. When I began to celebrate the more ancient use I was even more moved. First you have the offertory prayers which actually convey that you are doing something, that you are prparing for something great. When I enter the Canon I am very mindful (more I find than in the NO) of two things--the Other to whom I am offering the sacrifice and those on whose behalf I do this. The role of priest as mediator between the people and God is so manifest. I do not feel in one sense lonely but I do feel alone. The highlight is when at the consecration everybody who is assisting me withdraws and I am surrounded by silence broken only by the bell. To bend over and whisper the words of consecration!! I was ordained in 1971 and I love the priesthood and the Mass. But this mass (the TLM) returns me to my childhood when I fixed my eyes in wonder upon the priest at holy mass and wanted to do what he was doing. The celebrating of the TLM makes me feel more like a priest.
--Fr. Franklyn Mcafee

I think Father Blake has hit the nail on the head in regard to ad orientem celebration. I first started celebrating the Novus Ordo Mass at the high altar before I obtained an Indult (glad we don’t have to use that word anymore) and started offering the Tridentine Mass on a regular basis. It has been a long time since I’ve said Mass facing the people and I believe I am a better priest because of it.
--Fr. A

While I must say I personally prefer to offer according to the extraordinary rite, I accept the Novus Ordo from Mother Church and will offer it as long as there is “pastoral need.” This I do out of obedience because the truth is that it has been recommended by the Church as our “ordinary form” (for now, at least).

Finally, I don’t think we can now fully judge the role the Novus Ordo plays in God’s Providence. And although there are many graced insights and hindsights about the role it plays, the complete picture will certainly not be clear until the dawning of eternity. Sometimes I think we must accept that we don’t know why, but instead trust. The structure, rubrics, words, and form Traditional Mass so eloquently teach us that!

--Fr. D.D.

As a priest I struggle to remember that I stand in persona Christi meaning that Christ is the center of the liturgy, not me. I stand in for Him. I am only important to the Mass insofar as I stand in His place doing what He commanded at the Last Supper. The words of the Baptist must always be on my lips: “I must decrease so that He can increase.” The struggle is rooted not only in my own weakness, but also, I believe, within the rite of the ordinary form. It is so difficult to recollect one’s self when, as a fellow priest put it, “it is as if you are an actor on stage performing a role in front of an audience that is part of the show.” Knowing and following the rubrics helps. Being reverent helps. (They are two different things.) Celebrating ‘ad orientum’ with the chair perpendicular to the altar helps. Living a recollected life helps. But the rite itself is not designed for recollection or loss of self. The priest’s role is to preside over the assembly.

I look forward to my own “first Mass” in the Traditional Latin Rite. I don’t yet know how it will affect me or what it will effect in me. It is an awesome and terrible thing. But I long for it with all my heart and soul. I believe it is one of the extraordinary graces God is giving me through Our Lady’s hands to save my vocation.

Orate pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.

--Fr. Scott Bailey, C.Ss.R.

I have now been a priest for almost 30 years and I celebrated the TLM for the first time on All Souls Day this year. I felt and thought everything Fr. Kerber is talking about in his article and more; the other priests posting on this site have expressed a great deal of the “more” that I had not yet thought out on my own. I started celebrating my weekday Masses (Novus Ordo) ad orientem on Easter Friday this year, and I do indeed have a sense of liberation from having to be the “face” of the liturgy all the time. Yes, let me, the priest, decrease and let Christ increase at Mass and everywhere! Just this one change of physical direction has accomplished a great deal for me and for the people too, I think.
--Fr. Stephen

I agree with many of the comments from priests and understand the reluctance to use the word “loneliness”. A great priest mentor of mine years ago told me that loneliness is a state of soul – a priest can be on his own yet never lonely, or in the midst of people yet lonely as hell.

At the altar, facing Eastwards, saying the Canon silently, I certainly know that I am, in one sense, alone. The server and the people are there behind me praying but at this point the burden falls on me – not to show my personality or to entertain but to get it right: to pray that awesome prayer with reverence, with accuracy, and with the right intention. The distractions are removed – there is just me, the missal and the bread and wine. Provided I do things properly, God will come down to be present, I will adore him, the server will ring the bell, and the people will have the opportunity to be present at Calvary.

--Fr. Tim Finigan

I fully understand the ‘loneliness’ the priest refers to. When Christ was alone on the Cross, He was conscious of all who were being redeemed through His Sacrifice. So I am aware of all those who are behind me and who are the recipients of the graces that are being brought down from heaven through my ministry at the altar.

Like others, when celebrating the Novus Ordo facing the people, I do so with a crucifix upstanding on the altar. I am now less conscious of any need to ‘interact’ with the faithful, I choose options less frequently and now adopt the Confiteor and Roman Canon as the default options for the celebration of Mass on all days. All subjectivism is removed. Who is to say that my choice would be the right one? Surely an informed member of the lay faithful could be entitled to a different opinion? In the options-rich Novus Ordo there is more room for priestly dictatorship or domination of the liturgy. In the fixed older usage, such clerical domination is impossible.

--Fr. John Boyle

The liturgical actions, postures and gestures that accompany every word spoken in the TLM make one pray. It is as if one is forced to surrender oneself to the momentum of the liturgy, it naturally flows (once you’ve grasped it), no thought needs to be given as to when to move or what to think, it’s all there in the prayers and in the gestures. It hones one to remember the intention for every action and prayer before one says it, it seems to prompt one how and what to think.

My heart quickens when I turn the page for “Te igitur”, the beginning of the Canon (and just referring to the “Canon” and not the Eucharistic Prayer seems more meaningful), to catch sight of the glorious depiction of the Passion on the left page, and to see that illuminated “T”! It makes me feel that I am truly entering into the “holy mystery”. The raising of the eyes, the deep bow and the circular motion of the hands, make me realise the awesome act I am about to commit. It is then, in that particular action, that I feel the most humbled. As I bow and kiss the Altar I feel myself willingly surrender to Christ because I know that what I do is beyond my personal ability.

At the Memento, my only distraction if I open my eyes are the vessels and the crucifix, which serve only to remind me of where I am and what is about to happen. I almost feel as if I am physically handing those intentions over to Him. My concentration on the words and actions throughout the Canon seem to make me feel quite distant from myself, “I decrease that He may increase” aptly describes what I seem to feel and He seems to feel very close to me.

“Supplices te rogamus…” seems to resonate so much more with me in the TLM than in the NO. I actually feel as though I am participating in a heavenly liturgy, the veil between heaven and earth is torn.

When I first offered the TLM I too felt loneliness, I felt distanced from the people, I felt exposed “at the front”, all eyes on me. But I have grown with the TLM, my personal spirituality and understanding of the Mass has developed immensely, prayer seems much easier than it ever did before. Though my sense of unworthiness seems heightened because the mysteries of the Mass seem much clearer and powerful to me, I no longer feel alone, my personal relationship with Christ has increased tenfold.

I can’t thank the Holy Father enough for enabling more priests to feel and experience what I feel now at the Altar. My celebration of the Novus Ordo is now tempered and has been considerably enhanced by what I feel when celebrating the TLM and the “continuity” of the Rite’s seem to make more sense, though I feel I am supplementing from the old when celebrating the new. I know it is wrong to say it, but the Mass feels like The Mass in the extraordinary form and “extraordinary” seems a very fitting way to describe this awe inspiring rite.

--Fr. J

Like many of the priests here, I have come to experience the celebration of Mass in the EF as a sublime and spiritually enriching moment. Unlike most of them, I am not able to articulate that experience with the same eloquence. I can attest, however, to the tremendous power this has had on those who have attneded the Masses I have offered, thus far, in the EF - among them, high school students and converts to the Catholic faith who never knew the EF when it was just the OF. One morning, after Mass, my parish’s staunchest proponent of the TLM came into the sacristy. I thought he had caught some of my mistakes – these were glaring – and they could easily have been avoided. Just as a began to call attention to them, this man, a man’s man, not easily given to soft emotion, began to tear up, simply said, “thank you, Father, for the Mass” and left the sanctuary before I could publicly (and perhaps in false humility) scourge myself.

Something great is happening here, something tremendous, something beyond words.

--Sacerdos in Aeternum