Sunday, June 26, 2016
The Role of the Priest in Mass
I believe that part of understanding the Mass is understanding what is the role of the priest is in Mass. In a concept, he is to act as the Person Christi, the Person of Christ. Upon his priestly ordination his soul is ontologically changed so that when the ministry demands that he speak in the person of Christ, he may do so, not for his own good, but for the good of those to whom he has been sent to serve. For example, within the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when the priest speaks the words of absolution, it is not he that forgives, but Christ using him who forgives. This same idea happens at Mass and informs much of what the role of the priest is during Mass.
In Mass, the priest stands in a crossroads between the world and heaven; he represents God in his role as teacher and priest, he stands before God interceding for the good of his flock. He brings the prayers of thanksgiving, adoration, penance, and petition before God and brings the grace of God, most powerfully seen in the Eucharistic species to feed his flock. Of all the parties involved in Mass, is job is specifically to serve both the people and God. He, himself, is not to be the focus of attention. One of the less than subtle ways the Church points this reality out is that the priest cannot make up things as he goes a long; a ritual is provided, words are provided, scripture texts are provided. He is forbidden by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal paragraph 24 from changing any actions, rubrics, or words in the Mass. This is done to preserve that the Mass is of the Roman Rite and not the Mass of the Fr. Bill (or any priest) Rite. A master changes things, a servant obeys.
The priests has two focuses in the Mass. There are times when his focus is the flock. This is especially seen during the Liturgy of the Word where the priest uses the homily as a time of instruction, exhortation, and example to apply the Scriptures to the lives of his flock. The homily should always have the purpose of drawing the listener into a deeper relationship with Christ. To misuse the homily as a time for stand up comedy, teaching falsehoods, or putting on a show is criminal; it is poisoning the flock one is called to feed, A good priest knows that anything he might have to offer will pale as compared to what God has to offer; he will allow the homily to point to God. In other places in the Mass he stands in the Person of Christ in offering absolution (penitential rite) and blessing to the flock gathered.
The second focus is that of God. In offering prayers, especially the Eucharistic prayer, he stands before God as the intercessor for the people assigned him. His priesthood mirrors the priesthood of Christ who is our great intercessor before the Father. It occurs to me that when the people pray for the priest it is at junctures when the priest must give something of God to them, they pray for the priest because he must stand before God in intercession: first at the beginning of the penitential rite where the priest will be called upon to give absolution for venial sins, second before the priest enters into the Eucharistic Prayer, third when the priest starts the Eucharistic prayer, fourth when the priest extends the peace of Christ, and fifth when he is about to extend God's blessings. A sixth time is also possible when he is the reader of the Gospel, because he now must give the words of the Gospel to his people. When the priest is the momentary focus, it is only so that he may be prayed for so that he may worthily carry out what the office of priesthood demands during the Eucharist. At each of these junctures the priest is reminded of his intercessory role and that in that role, his focus must be on God. One does not ask for something without focusing on the person he is asking.
At that altar, the priest makes present by the power of the Holy Spirit our share in the eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. He does not re-enact the Last Supper. He does not put on a passion play. In fact, he is to be as transparent as possible, for it is the words of Christ that make what is happening happen. At that altar, the focus of all in the Church is on Jesus Christ. In this role the priest must take the attitude of St. John the Baptist, "He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease." In this proper disposition, the priest is not the master of the sacrifice, but the servant of the sacrifice.
I know this gets muddled many times and parishioners can often have to brace for impact every time they get a new pastor or even a fill-in while the pastor is away. The Church does not want this to happen. Again, it is why a uniting ritual, with same words and actions, is given. It is also why the faith of the priest is always on display in Mass. Through his actions and instruction, through his obedience, he models the life of Christ and exhorts his flock to do so as well. When the priest makes mass about himself, his wisdom, his stylings, and his tastes he robs the flock of the very thing they have the right to receive in coming to Mass. Namely, a moment of real contact with the transcendent God who wishes to make Himself known to us. Woe to the priest who stands in the way of this meeting! I cannot point to God and myself at the same time without making myself a God! No, priests within the Mass are to point away from themselves just as Jesus pointed away from Himself and to the Father...just as Mary pointed away from herself and towards God. Because the Mass is supposed to be the place where we get the grace necessary to live the life of Christ, we can never allow Christ to be ignored or placed in a secondary place. The priest has the ability to place the focus where it need be or steal the spotlight for himself. Pray that any priest will never usurp the attention owed God for himself!