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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, 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.

34 thoughts on “Bold and Terrible Commerce: A Meditation on Why to Become a Priest”

  1. If I’m not mistaken, this piece was written by the young man whose photo essay I greatly enjoyed some time ago here at 1P5. It’s good to see him back!

  2. Thank you, Julian, for this insightful article. I am saving it to show my son when he is a little older. He is just 7 years old but has been talking about becoming a priest for about a year now. I began stockpiling articles and videos to help open his heart to the Lord’s call as he grows, and this one is a keeper. I especially loved the video, and enjoyed showing it to all of my children tonight before bedtime. I think they enjoyed it too!

  3. “Why are orders like the *Society of St Pius X*, 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?”

    Fixed it for you…

      • Neither glaring nor nasty. We have great sympathy and support here for the Society, but until their canonical status is resolved, they are a third rail whether they are mentioned or they are not.

        The Church has traditional orders that do not have such difficulties. It’s only natural for someone committed to full, unimpeded, and undisputed communion with Rome not to include the Society in the same breath, even though they certainly have much to show for their love of and fidelity to tradition.

      • ‘they are trying like the rest of us to make sense of what human reasoning cannot make sense of.’
        Why can this not be true also of the above author, or anyone really?

        I understand your concerns and frustrations. I share many of them.

        I have been attending the Latin Mass for 14 years now. Do you know that I threw out a copy of The Liturgical Shipwreck back in those early days!! I don’t really remember what I understood of it, but I guess not too much. I obviously thought others shouldn’t read it. Slowly over the years I have learnt more. It has taken time because not long after my conversion I became a mother and have not had as much time for reading (baby number 8 is now 9 months old). It also took the pontificate of Pope Francis for me for it to become compelling to know just what has brought us to where we are now.
        Through it all, since the beginning of attending the Latin Mass I have had a friend who has been the best of friends. How kindly and patient she has been and is. I cannot thank God enough for the blessing of her friendship. And it was those two royal things that won me. Her kindliness and patience.
        But why was I slow, why have I taken time. Because I love the Lord my God and would do only His will and never anything else. I need to stick to the path that takes me to my God because I would not go elsewhere. This is what all good Catholics are trying to do.

        And I say to you, that I believe you are one of Christ’s generals, and if you will find kindness and patience you will be a great one! Time for us to be serious. Let us pick up our Rosaries! Let us be saint’s! (will delete this last paragraph after you read it)

        Your sister in Christ!

    • I saw that and wondered.

      If it wasn’t for the saintly Archbishop Lefebvre, these other Orders, in “full communion” with the very people who tried to wipe the Mass from the Earth, would simply not exist.

        • The answer to the question being begged is that, without the Archbishop’s reaction to the crisis, the current state of things would be summed up with the following:

          “To tell the truth, it is a different liturgy of the Mass. This needs to be said without ambiguity: The Roman Rite as we knew it no longer exists. It has been destroyed.” – Fr Joseph Gelineau.

  4. You give me, however, a quite different reason which both interests me and which I completely fail to understand. You say that on balance you disapprove of the old rite and approve of the new because it is your function “to mediate religion to your people.” Doubtless you have to mediate it to them in catechism classes, sermons, conferences and the like, but surely not at Mass? What you do at Mass is exactly the reverse: You “mediate the religion of the people to the Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ truly present on the altar.”

    Bishop Forester on Participation at Mass

      • You should read the second part, where it is clear that the author completely endorses Bishop Forester — in fact, quoting the same passage.

        • I am a pedant Professor K: someone needs to be. It’s the historian in me. Please train the writer (your son?) in coherence and great attention to detail. It will make his work all the stronger.

          • You have not even begun to say what your difficulty is with the argument. As a Catholic theologian who has been teaching dogmatics for 20 years, I know that this article expresses the Catholic theology of the priesthood.

          • Fr. Bryan Houghton objects to the Vatican II style “mediation,” where the priest is facing the people and spoon-feeding religion to them. He upholds the traditional notion of mediation, where the priest is a mediator between God and man, bringing to God the gifts of the people and bringing to them His grace and His own Body and Blood. This is the notion of mediation we find taught in the Council of Trent.

  5. When I entered (and later left) a women’s religious order I fell in love. The women were wonderful, welcoming, there was mutual respect, I was eager to immerse myself in this new life. In my postulant phase I lived in a beautiful community. While the entrance requirements were rigorous and at time felt somewhat invasive, I fully trusted these women I had gotten to know over the last 3 years. When I entered the novitiate is where it all went in the opposite direction. I could go on for pages but let me be brief, the Novice Mistress should not have been the NM. The previous group also had the same problems as my group and nothing was done to intercede. There was zero care or concern for any of the novices, the criticisms were so severe and degrading, there was not one positive I or others ever received (not ONE), threats and innuendos caused all so much stress. On top of all this we could not discuss with anyone, even another sister, what was going on. When that year was up and we all went our separate ways to new communities my trust was shattered and no one cared enough to see how much I was hurting. I was totally alone, needing to heal away from them but could not. This second community which I knew well and loved before this experience, was now suspect because of this destruction of trust. I decided to leave right before first vows because if I stayed I would have had a heart attack. I went to live with family with no savings, no job, and so damaged getting a job was impossible because my self worth was totally gone. It took me four years to heal enough to even work. I am now almost 10yrs after the fact and can say that I have healed for the most part. However, when I read stories about vocations and why no one is coming I think about all the hundreds maybe thousands that answered God’s call and were driven away. Formation is like hazing and that mentality is wrong, dead wrong. The old (un)holy rule mentality of domination, subjugation, control, is still present and little is paid towards building up, supporting, nurturing that I encountered before crossing the seal into the novitiate and full membership. I firmly believe that God is calling, but religious life is too dysfunctional, too corporate, too reliant on psychological leaning like the Enneagram and Myers Briggs ( I can’t even begin to tell you how many psychological diagnoses my untrained NM gave me). In my order, they put little thought into the formation program and consider it more like time in purgatory. They have little insight into those who run the program, their motivation for being in the program (some come so they can take out their own past formation dysfunction on the newbies). I hope it can change, I hope they can cherish those who answer God’s call by being what Jesus told us to be, kind, loving, friends, who care about each other, support each other, guide and mentor the newbies. I could not stay knowing that those I vowed to be with were the bigger battle than the world and all the suffering, evil, that is in it. Sorry this is so long.

    • I’m very sorry to know of your suffering too. The enneagram has no place in a Catholic monastery. It would not be found in a traditional monastery. To find a healthy monastic family to which to become a part of can be as difficult as discerning the vocation itself but such families are out there. Not perfect, but being perfected in Christ within their community. I’m sorry this experience was not yours. May God bless and guide you!

  6. Excellent article, both in parts I and II. I have always felt there is something intrinsically shallow (not perhaps wrong but missing the point) with the Novus Ordo Mass. These 2 articles articulate it well and clarify it for me. Thank you a lot, P. Kwasniewski (this would be I guess his correct name, misspelled in the heading). God bless and guide us. Amen,

  7. Excellent post! SSPX should also be included. I attend their Latin Mass every Sunday and Novus Ordo in our local parish almost daily. thanks for this post


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