Bold and Terrible Commerce: The Mass, and Those Privileged to Pray It

Editor’s note: This article is Part II of a series. For Part I, click here.

The traditional Mass can be compared to a tournament. At the beginning of a High Mass, the priest (knight) processes in with the deacon and sub-deacon (squires) and all the acolytes, torchbearers, and other servers (pages). The priest is arrayed in glorious attire, as are his assistants according to their rank. The choir is singing for its champion, who represents the king (Christ). The congregation bows to him. Coming to the foot of the altar, he does battle with his sins, backed with the beauty of the prayers. He proclaims the truth of the cosmic battle to all assembled (epistle and Gospel). He fights for his lady, the Church. Acting in the person of the king, he renews the great victory over death that Christ won for us on the Cross. The priest then strengthens all the people by helping them partake of the victory through Communion, so that all may depart to fight their own faults and win heavenly glory.

The priest is a powerful warrior; a custodian of secret truths and words; and, in a wondrous and mystical way, a father to all under his care. He is a champion for his people: he guards and nourishes them with the food of true doctrine; good example; and, most especially, the Eucharist.

All that I am saying may sound rather like a fairytale of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, or a Lord of the Rings rip-off.

Yet I find it extremely interesting that The Lord of the Rings, and books like it, suddenly became immensely popular just as “modern man” was supposed to have grown out of medievalistic symbolism (as the liturgists of the ’60s and ’70s would have us believe). Gandalf: Who does not love, admire, want to be like him? And yet what qualities of his are to be found lacking in St. Benedict? If we want spiritual protection, fatherhood, and angelic power over life and death, wisdom beyond that of mortals, we can find it all in Saint Benedict. Even if one looks purely for visual satisfaction, one finds a old man in flowing robes with a staff and long beard. This in not by accident. What JRR Tolkien shows his readers in the character of Gandalf is but a transposition of the qualities of any holy man of God.

What is there in Aragorn that cannot be found in St. Louis IX? In Galadriel that is not to be found in St. Hildegard of Bingen? All of the qualities people are attracted to in the genre of “fantasy” are to be found in the Catholic Church [1]. This present obsession with C.S. Lewis and Tolkien shows that people have a great hunger for true heroism.

It used to be the case that, instead of obsessing with the world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth through their teenage years, people had already seriously thought about or already entered into the religious or married state – and this even in the last century, not the middle ages. St. Thérèse of Lisieux entered the Carmel monastery when she was 15. At the same age, St. Padre Pio became a Capuchin. St. Peter Julian Eymard (my own patron) firmly decided to become a priest when he was 17. At the age of 16, St. Maximilian Kolbe received the Franciscan habit [2].

This is not to say there is anything wrong with, or not to be learned from, fiction – quite the contrary. Nonetheless, the disintegration of minds from reality has come to a point where young men and women no longer realize that the beautiful things in, for example, a book by Lewis or Tolkien are actually pointers to spiritual realities. Since the changes to the liturgy and the whole approach to the divine as advocated by the liberals during and after Vatican II, the identity of the church as “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic” is lost [3]. The Catholic identity has largely been lost, giving rise to a need for an alternative.

Having lost their identity via liturgical lobotomy, people don’t realize (or are incapable of realizing) that we can be just as cool as any of Tolkien’s characters – much more, in fact. We need only to remember that the Catholic priesthood and consecrated life still exist, and that it is the reality of which wizards and wise men, beautiful and happy kings and queens, good and evil magic are but a faint shadow. These fictional things depict the spiritual economy of the priesthood, the Mass, and the sacraments darkly, as through a glass.

* * *

At the altar, time stands still. As the Canon begins, the priest approaches T.S. Eliot’s “still point,” where “time past and time present are both perhaps present in time future” – that is, where the sacrifice of Calvary is made present for us all, making time eternally redeemable. Silence and adoration are the only fitting things to do now; this immense, incomprehensible mystery is fittingly shown to us and emphasized in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. At the altar, “You are not here to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report. You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid” [4].

The New Mass is not this way. The priest is there to “mediate religion to the people” [5], to preside over a horizontal community gathering (as Cardinal Ratzinger said). He is there not to intercede to God on their behalf. Having separated from the Mass any sacrificial character, the Mass no longer has the ability to reward and fulfill the priesthood. Now that priesthood is no longer a great good to be assiduously striven after, men quite naturally gave up seeking it. For no reward, why make any effort?

* * *

It is time for men to remember that the apostle closest to our Lord was the beloved disciple. They will not lose anything by becoming close to our Lord. In fact, they will gain beyond their wildest expectations.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his inaugural address in 2005, said this:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope [ John Paul II] said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

If the religious life is to be attractive, it has to be – some might find this surprising – attractive! For men to see the priesthood as a comparable to – in fact, much greater, more demanding, and more rewarding a gift of self than – the married life, they must be gotten out of the ordinary – that is, the Ordinary Form, with its ordinary time, intelligibility to ordinary Catholics [6], and ordinary language and expectations.

If the priesthood is seen by our young boys as noble, honorable, and something special  –  a transformation of the man who is ordained by a power given by God that can only be wielded by the ordained  –  they will be drawn to it once more. Yes, the priesthood is a calling, but to make it possible for those called to answer, their intellects and wills must be given every opportunity to see the beauty of such a sacrifice and joyfully embrace it. And to complete their journey, seminarians must be allowed to act the part. They should be reminded that they are in training for something that transcends the lay state, and exhorted to act accordingly. Only then can they truly begin to entertain the sublime idea that they may, if God wills it, someday become Christ’s priests – and forever, sacerdos in æternum, be able to live the part! [7]

Service, Sacrifice, Fulfillment, Reward – these are inseparable from the priesthood’s success, its attraction, and its reward. It is not too late. Traditional monastic communities like the monks of Norcia, Silverstream, Clear Creek, and the Wyoming Carmelites prove this to be true. Traditional orders that serve in parishes, like the FSSP, the Institute of Christ the King, and the Transalpine Redemptorists prove this to be true. Communities of Canons, like the Canons Regular of Saint John Cantius and the Servi Jesu et Mariae prove this to be true.

The greatest men of all time undertake the hardest and most rewarding work of all time. Who were they, and what were they doing? They were the saints, and they were celebrating the Mass.

[1] I have no problems with The Lord of the Rings and JRR Tolkien. In fact, I love them. I am just pointing out that what is appealing in his stories actually exists.

[2] I am not suggesting that anyone should try to force a vocation or try to enter religious life before he is ready. In many ways, it takes longer for people to mature now than it did even 50 years ago. But I am pointing out that people need to realize that they have a duty to consider consecrated and married life in a much more serious way than they do right now.

[3] Not that Vatican II was the cause of all these problems, but it is a reference point and even dividing line between sanity and its alternative.

[4] T.S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets,” Little Guigding, line 45.

[5] Fr. Bryan Houghton, Mitre and Crook (New York: Arlington House, 1979),  43-45. This an excellent book – it wittily describes a fictional English bishop in the ’70s who decided to reverse the reforms of Vatican II in his diocese and how his clergy, laity, and fellow ecclesiastics react.

[6] A type of person that never existed, by the way.

[7] “The Identity Crisis in the Priesthood: Diminution by Design?” OnePeterFive by José Miguel Marqués Campo.

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