When as man is ordained a priest he is admonished by the bishop to think about what he will be doing when he celebrates Mass. The idea behind that counsel is not only to ward off the easy tendency to fall into mindless routine but, more important, to assure the very validity of the Mass by sustaining the priest's intention to be doing the right thing (as the Church understands it) when saying Mass. (Fortunately, as long as a priest keeps unchanged his original intention, namely, always to act according to the mind of the Church, his intention is safeguarded for the rest of his days.) It is however the first reason for the bishop's warning that ought to motivate a priest to consider, at least from time to time, the meaning of what he does at the altar so as to enable him to participate more exactly, more deeply in the mystery of Christ's sacrifice.
I have in the past written several reflections of my own about the Tridentine Mass verses the so-called 'ordinary' form of the Mass. I have not been reticent to point out the superiority of the former rite in many, though not all, of its features. Another one of them occurred to me recently as I thought about the fact that the priest begins the old Mass in the posture of having his back to the people.
Now the first thing to say here is that I myself already corrected that way of describing the stance of the priest in the Tridentine Mass. I said somewhere that the oriented (eastward) position, both priest and people together are facing unto the Lord, in the east. (I will not repeat here what I then wrote.) Truth to tell, however, there still remained something unsaid about the often heart objection that the priest's back is to the people in the old Mass. About this I have gained some thoughts.
First, it is altogether right for one to consider the back, the hinter side, as objectionable. It's the less noble side of the anatomy and it's symbolic of refusal or rejection, as in the phrase, 'to turn one's back on another.' The words 'behind' and being 'backward' have similar negative connotations. And yet, there seemed to me something very right about the priest having his back to the congregation. I reflected on that.
What came to mind was the role of the priest as, in the language of the Church, another Christ (alter Christus). So much of priestly identity nowadays has been lost, in my opinion, simply because the priest has been made to face the people for Mass. In this, not only does he not symbolically face God but he also loses his semblance to Christ the Priest bearing 'on his back' the sins of men. Christ 'took on' all humanity's sins in His Passion. The priest, in like manner, assumes his smaller portion of men's sins -- those of the assembled congregation -- on his back, just as Christ carried His cross on His back in going to Calvary.
What all this points to is the fact that the priest is not only the sacrificer -- the one performing the sacrifice -- but also representationally the victim (who is Christ, in the fullest sense). This is the aspect of priestly identity that has been nearly forgotten. In fact, the understanding of the priest even as the sacrificer has been obscured in modern times, let alone his identity with Christ the Victim. (Recall here, just to back up a moment, that Christ was uniquely both Priest and Victim on the cross: He offered Himself. A ministerial priest then can rightly be said to assume Christly identity in both senses as well.)
So, what would result from a priest who came to the realization that he must assume the identity of Christ both as priest and as victim? It would utterly transform his life. It would indicate that he needs to make reparation for his people's sins, bearing them on his back, bringing them to the altar with him, and offering himself -- with and under Christ -- for sacrifice in order to make atonement. (I hasten to add that this would also tend to chasten his conduct outside of Mass.) Heady stuff, no? Gone would be the priest as crowd warmer, entertainer, worship facilitator and paltry presider.
This is why I so love the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar that begin the Tridentine Mass. The priest is carrying the load of men's sins, bowing low before God, confessing them, and then boldly making his way unto the holy altar of God to recommence the sacrifice of Calvary.
Some liturgical changes that followed int he wake of Vatican Council II were improvements in the celebration of the Roman Rite. Facing the people for Mass (a thing not mandated by the Council) was a bad thing, disorienting (literally and figuratively) the priest and distorting if not obliterating his fundamental identity as 'another Christ.' How now this as one of my favorite bible quotes: "The old is better" (Lk 5:39)?
Saturday, January 03, 2015
Profound: Fr. Perrone on the sacerdotal significance of the priest as alter Christus with his "back to the people"
Fr. Eduard Perrone, "A Pastor's Descant" [temporary file only] (Assumption Grotto News, January 19, 2014):