"Full of himself" Print
By James Schall   
Friday, 01 May 2009

A student recently asked me if I could recommend any nearby Catholic churches. He had just heard a sermon that, as far as he could make out, justified relativism.

I often hear parishioners comment that their pastor or assistant is “full of himself.” The very remark is enough to give any reflective priest pause. Every priest is there in persona Christi, not in his own charming or otherwise qualified personality.

The priest is not there to call attention to himself. He is not the main course. Such considerations, plus strange liturgical rubrics, send folks off looking for other parishes where they do not preach relativism or where the pastor is not “full of himself,” where the Mass follows the norms of the Church.

Such thoughts came to mind in reading comments by Australia’s George Cardinal Pell on the new English-language liturgical translations of the missal (he is in charge of coordinating the effort). On hearing these newly translated words, we may finally realize how vapid the present ones we use are. But we are people of habit. Some people won’t like it. A “conservative” will henceforward be someone who does not want to change the present translations, whereas a “liberal” will be one who likes the new ones.

Pell was asked about the direction the priest should face during Mass. He would favor the priest and congregation facing the East, all together facing towards the Lord, the proper focus of attention. Why? “Because it makes it patently clear that the priest is not the center of the show, that this is an act of worship of the one true God, and the people are joining with the priest for that.”

“The priest is not the center of the show” – that is a great line and a great truth.

Joseph Ratzinger made this same point in his Spirit of the Liturgy: “A common turning towards the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential….Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord.” A drum-major marches with his back to the band because he is leading them all to something in front of them. All go in the same direction. An orchestra director has his “backs to the people” so that both he and the audience can see and hear something beyond and in front of them.

Cardinal Pell adds something that I had not seen stressed before. If we insist, as many will, on the priest looking at the congregation and they at him, a “crucifix” should always be placed between the priest and the congregation. It reminds those on both sides of what is going on here. Neither priest nor congregation is the center of attention.

The temptation of the priest at Mass is to be an actor. Not a few excel at it. Ratzinger says, however, that, at the altar, the “priest must decrease, the Lord increase,” referring to John the Baptist.

The following Ratzinger words constantly remind us that the “silence” within the Church is there for a reason: “Whenever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.” We do not attend Mass to be entertained, or to see a good performance, but to worship God. This awe in the presence of the Almighty ought to envelope priest, musicians, and congregation.

Cardinal Pell also touched on something that strikes me as of great importance. In his encyclical on the Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharistia), among other places, Pope John Paul II specified that neither the Mass nor the priest is a function of the community. Without the Mass, as it is in its integrity, no community exists. The community does not “ordain” its ministers. The Church is not a club or meeting hall or a political party.

All ministers in the Church testify to the truth as it is found in the Creed. This is why the Creed must be said every Sunday. It should begin, as in Latin and Greek, with “I believe,” not the present “we believe.” We stand at Mass attesting to our personal affirmation in the intelligibility of what we hold. We are a religion of intelligence.

At Mass, we are full of the Lord, not ourselves. What makes the community is the Mass, not vice versa. The priest is not an actor. He is a priest. He points beyond himself. What he does is not of his own making. He is a servant. He literally follows the books. He does not write them. With his people, he praises the Father through the Son in the unity of the Spirit, Whom he, along with them, worships. This worship is what goes on at Mass, nothing less.

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

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