Bold and Terrible Commerce: A Meditation on Why to Become a Priest

Photo credit: Paweł Kula

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

Author’s note: This article dwells particularly on the vocation to the priestly life. For the most part, the things said about the priesthood are also applicable to the religious life in general. Also, even though about the priesthood, the main points are applicable to the religious life for women. Thus, while its focus is masculine, women may find this article helpful as well, not only for themselves, but also for the men they know.

To many men, service of the church in religious life seems so “dry” – that is, having nothing to give them or ask of them. Such men say, “I will take my catechism, attend Mass on Sunday, be a decently moral fellow. I may even, at times, experience a grace or two and be able to offer a really good prayer.” It will not even cross his mind to say “no” or “I’m not interested” to the question of becoming a priest (or a monk, or a friar, or a canon).

With the Catholic faith thus lacking a palpable sense of the Divine (however that may have happened), it may never cross men’s mind to consider what Christ offers them in the Mass, in the Eucharist, in the priesthood.

Various explanations have been given for the crisis in vocations. The most convincing explanation places the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the origin of the trouble – specifically, the changes made since Vatican II, and especially the creation of the New Mass.

* * *

What is a priest? He is an intercessor and friend of God. The priest stands at the altar and enters into the “bold and terrible commerce of the saints with God,” as a monk memorably put it. The priest is called to be a beloved disciple, who leans on the heart of Jesus to hear what Jesus says in His suffering, death, and resurrection. The priest is called to union with God so as to bring the laity to union with God [1]. He is a mediator who does something vitally important for people that they cannot do for themselves.

What is it about the image of the knight that inspires admiration? It is that he fights for something good; he works hard to further a noble aim. The knight serves the good through sacrifice, is fulfilled by it and rewarded. I would like to break these four words down and examine how they are essential to the religious life.

Serving. This word has been either banished or vilely banalized. It either signifies something you really don’t want to do, that detracts from any aura of importance, wealth, and happiness you might have, or it is heard in the context of “community service,” a phrase that rings hollow as long as it connotes service divorced from “serving the Lord with fear and rejoicing before him with trembling” [2].

Sacrifice. Our present culture is trying to destroy, and to a large extent has succeeded in destroying, this word, or any positive connotation it may have. As we all know, this is one of the definitive words of Christianity; more specifically, it is the very meaning of the Mass.

In its Latin root, sacrifice means “rendering something sacred.” In the secular world, there is nothing rendered sacred. Likewise, the New Mass was designed from the start not to “intimidate” people with a palpable and perhaps frightening sacrality. The many new Eucharistic Prayers have all but removed the sacrificial element of the Mass.

The notion of penance is also gone. The reduction of the Communion fast to a mere hour, the reduction of fasting in Lent, and the almost complete disappearance of kneeling during Mass have all dulled and hidden the reality of sacrifice. Voluntary mortifications such as flagellation and the wearing of hair shirts, practices familiar for more than a thousand years (say, 9th century to 18th century) among all the great ascetics – these are gone.

Fulfilled. “Fulfill” means “to carry out, accomplish” or “to satisfy or to fill.” Never before in the history of the world have people been so filled with “things”; never have people been so un-satisfied. In a similar manner, the reformers of the liturgy thought the people were not “accomplishing” enough – yet never before have we accomplished spiritually so little as we do now. The reformers thought the faithful could not be satisfied with Latin, reverence, and mystery. But the primary sign of the faithful’s “satisfaction” with the New Mass was a widespread apostasy, not only among the laity, but among the religious as well.

Rewarded. Reward is a keyword of our culture … and yet how few ever end up feeling rewarded! In a certain sense, being rewarded and being fulfilled are inseparable. One cannot feel fulfilled without some element of reward and vice versa.

When looking at the etymology of “reward,” I was surprised to find that it is related to the Middle English word ward, to guard or watch, and that from this Middle English word comes “guard,” “regard,” and “reward.” Thus, in a certain sense, one could say that a reward is something one is privileged to guard and to behold.

Four key words – and what they signify is forgotten, misused, or despised today. For young men, all of these words must come into play if they are to hear, understand, and respond to the call of the priesthood.

* * *

Men want to be tough. They want to be challenged. Dom Mark Kirby, prior of Silverstream Monastery in Ireland, notes this with extreme clarity:

There is much talk of a crisis in priestly vocations. Summorum Pontificum is the answer to it. Men want to be sacrificers. Men want to be mediators. Men want to be trusted with a work so sublime that it requires the hardness of non-negotiable rubrics in order to be done safely. Men do not want to be entertainers. Men do not want to be facilitators. Men do not want to deal in soft transactions with ever-changing contours.[3]

Why are orders like the Fraternity of Saint Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, and the Transalpine Redemptorists filled with young men, eager and enthusiastic to give their lives to God? The traditional Latin Mass is the answer to the crisis in priestly vocations. This Mass is attractive, yet hard to win. The Latin language makes it mysterious and demanding, but once one is accustomed to it, the same language becomes a consolation and source of strength. The Latin is comforting because one knows that this language is set apart for prayer. There is no mistaking the atmosphere of prayer for anything else.

The rubrics of the Latin Mass are initially hard to understand, but when they become familiar, these rubrics, too, are consoling. It is a wonderful thing to watch the movements of the priest and servers at the Offertory. The vestments and vessels remind you that something terribly important is going on here. They inspire fear and trembling while opening the door to the serenity of participating in the service of God.

“The denial that the Mass is a true sacrifice makes the priesthood superfluous, and the denial of the priest’s unique role as sacrificer eviscerates the meaning of the Mass.”[4] The sacrificial nature of the traditional Mass is impossible to miss. Designated men, clothed with priestly vestments and equipped with sacred vessels, approach an altar. They pay little attention to the congregation, for they are intent upon communicating with God. This is not to say the priest does not care about the congregation; in fact, he cares so much about the congregation that he doesn’t pay attention to them, for, if the priest loses focus on the awesome task of interceding to God for the people, little will the people benefit. These champions pray in a strange language, using ancient signs and forgotten words. They are communicating with another world.

The usus antiquior is beautiful. Who has described beauty successfully? No one, but everyone knows when he has seen it. In a world where the beautiful seems to be less and less a priority, the Latin Mass is home to a great, serene, and subtle beauty.

St. Thomas Aquinas does a good job of defining beauty: for things to be beautiful, they must have the three qualities of integrity, proportion, and clarity. Integrity means that all the parts of an object present are where they belong, while proportion means that all of the parts are in right relationship to each other. Clarity means that something has a certain brightness, effulgence, or splendor so that the object’s integrity and proportion can capture our attention.

In the new form of the Mass, these three qualities are absent; in the old form, they are present.

Integrity: In the New Mass, there is a great lack of integrity: things and people are often not where they belong! From the female altar servers and EMHCs to the distracting hubbub at the sign of peace, there is a lack of integrity. In the Old Mass, people, words, and actions are always according to their place.[5] When one sees a server kissing the hand of the priest or genuflecting before the tabernacle, one knows that it is right.

Proportion: The New Mass is out of proportion in many ways. For example, there is too much talking with not enough silence. The “Liturgy of the Word” is oversized compared with the “Liturgy of the Eucharist.” On the other hand, the Old Mass is well balanced in silence, speech, and song. In the Latin Mass, all of the parts have developed over 1,500 years to exactly the right emphasis, balance, length, and rhythm.

Clarity: Clarity refers to the power of something to impress itself on us. The Novus Ordo’s designers wanted to avoid “scary impressiveness” at all costs, preferring things to be familiar and warm. On the other hand, the Old Mass – whether one is witnessing a Low Mass, a Sung Mass, or a Solemn High Mass – impresses with its reverence and conveys a sense of luminosity.

Thus we can see that while the New Mass fails to pass the Angelic Doctor’s test for beauty, the Latin Mass passes with flying colors (or should one say flying fiddlebacks?).

[1] See this beautiful interview with Fr. Anthony Mary, F.SS.R. for more on this subject:

[2] Ps. 2:11

[3] At http://vultuschristi.org/index.php/2017/06/correspondence-on-the-monastic-vocation-13, accessed September 6, 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] I am fully aware that there can be abuses and sloppily celebrated Old Masses. I am not trying to say that if one attends or celebrates the Old Mass, every problem is fixed, no mistakes are made, no one forgets what page he was on, and no priest ever says anything annoying in his homily. But the rite, as it is celebrated the majority of the time, as its rubrics direct, is filled with much more integrity than even the most well celebrated Novus Ordo.

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