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How the Clergy’s “Distance” from the People Facilitates the Laity’s Offering

The blog Where Peter Is—a site which seems to promote a limitless ultramontanism exempt from the requirements of tradition, magisterial consistency, or reason itself—published an article by Terence Sweeney called “Pope Francis: Guardian of Tradition.” The article launches broadsides against the clericocentrism of the Tridentine rite and the need for a new Mass that would at last allow the people to have their proper role:

[T]he Tridentine liturgy centered on a cleric in a parish. All liturgical ministries are conducted by the one celebrant along with other clerics or altar servers dressed in clerical garb. The laity had little role—hearing little and saying less…. A liturgy in which the laity has no active role cannot express the ecclesial reality that the members of the laity do have active roles in virtue of Baptism and Confirmation.

The liturgy of the Second Vatican Council is better because it is suited to this era of the Church. More importantly, it activates the full Body of Christ. In fully involving the laity (in the roles proper to them), Vatican II activated the whole Church…. To separate the active apostolate from the active liturgical practice is to foster an ecclesial incoherence. The Roman Rite [sic; he means the Novus Ordo], in contrast, fosters the full coherence of the Church by summoning all to active engagement in the liturgy in ways impossible in the Tridentine Rite.

This way of arguing is so common as to be predictable on the part of those who have little experience of traditional worship. Only one who is profoundly ignorant of liturgical history and theology could forge a terminological contrast between “the Tridentine Rite” and “the Roman Rite” when, in reality, the former was the only Roman Rite the Church had—not just for 400 years but for many centuries prior to its codification by Pius V, and when, in reality, the Novus Ordo bears little resemblance to any liturgy familiar to Catholics in the West prior to the 1960s.

But this all too common misunderstanding gives us a welcome occasion to dig deeper into this problem of lay involvement, so as to arrive at a greater appreciation for the wisdom of tradition.

Distinguish in Order to Unite

One of Jacques Maritain’s most famous books bore the title The Degrees of Knowledge. Its subtitle is, however, much more interesting: Distinguish in Order to Unite. The book reminds me of a statement in Henri de Lubac: “The more you divide, the less do you really distinguish,” as if to say: by distinguishing two things well, you show how they are, in fact, united to one another in a relationship. We see this most luminously in the mystery of the hypostatic union, where, in Jesus Christ, the divine nature of the Word and the human nature consisting of a rational soul informing an organic body are perfectly united: as in the classic formula of Chalcedon, “distinct but not separated, joined but not confused.”

How wonderfully does the traditional Latin Mass distinguish between the identity of the priest offering the Mass and the identity of the laity who assist—between his role and theirs! By clearly and consistently delineating what is a priestly act and what is a congregational act, the classical liturgy more deeply binds together the celebrant and the people in a common act of worship that is nevertheless hierarchically differentiated. By emphasizing to the maximum the priestliness of the priest, it brings him into the closest spiritual union with the people on whose behalf he serves and for whom he mediates. This, in turn, forms the laity in such a way that they can be mediators vis-à-vis the secular world, whose conversion and transformation is their special vocation.

Christ is the mediator on behalf of man; the priest is a mediator on behalf of the faithful; the faithful are mediators on behalf of the unconverted world. The hierarchical action of the liturgy does not end with the clergy but extends, in this way, to the people and through them to every nook and cranny of creation. But it does so in a hierarchical manner, that is, not higgledy-piggledy, democratically, but in strict accordance with distinctions established by God. This must be so, not only because God delights in order, diversity (rightly understood!), dependency, obedience, service, and sacrificial love, but also because He is, in some mysterious sense, hierarchical in Himself: He is order within absolute unity. The Father is the origin without origin; the Son is originated from the Father and, as one with Him, originates the Spirit; the Spirit is only originated. They are one, yet the Persons proceed in such a way that the “monarchy of the Father” is eternally established.

How We Learn to Offer the Mass

Paradoxically, it is by seeing what is proper to the priest that the faithful come to understand what is proper to them as a priestly people: we are doing, analogously, what he is doing. We come to know this marvelous truth of our participation in the sacrifice of Christ only by seeing the mystery done outside of ourselves, beyond our reach, and at a level that, in fact, does not belong to us—even as the salvific and sanctifying action of Christ the High Priest surpasses the capacity of any human being.

This is the way we learn almost anything: by watching it done or hearing it explained by someone who knows how to do it well, and then entering into it from below (as it were). The difference, of course, is that with something like literacy, we can eventually become the equal or even the superior of our reading instructor, because a natural skill grows with time and age; whereas with priesthood, there is a qualitative difference in the sacramental character of baptism and the sacramental character of the ordained. The layman is equipped to offer himself, his actions and sufferings, his loved ones, and the world of his work to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; the priest is equipped to offer the very sacrifice of Jesus Christ, on behalf of the same divine Person.

We see this emphasized again and again in the prayers themselves of the old Roman Missal: the separate Confiteors of the celebrant and the servers (they are not interchangeable); phrases in the Offertory like “which I, Thine unworthy servant, offer unto Thee, my living and true God, for my countless sins, trespasses, and omissions; likewise for all here present” and “that it may avail both me and them…”; and plenty of similar examples.

That the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice is far more evident in the Vetus Ordo than in the Novus Ordo. In its prayers and gestures, the traditional Mass readily presents itself as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in the institution of the New Covenant. I, the worshiper, can see that the priest is going up to the altar on my behalf to offer sacrifice to God for my sins, in continuity with the old priesthood ministering in the Temple with animal sacrifices and incense—now truly accomplished once for all in the self-offering of the divine Victim. Prior to the consecration, the priest puts both hands over the elements as the Old Testament priest would put his hands over the sacrificial victim. This is a clear connection between the Old and the New. Sadly in the Novus Ordo Mass, the language of “calling down the Spirit” has been artificially grafted on to this gesture, completely changing the meaning into a faux Byzantine epiclesis, which the Roman Rite never had and never needed.

No Separation Anxiety

At a sung or high Mass, the salutary separation between priest and people becomes much clearer because of the phenomenon—native to all traditional rites, Eastern and Western—called “parallel liturgy.” Multiple things are happening simultaneously. In the Tridentine Mass as in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, the faithful or the schola may be singing a chant while the priest is saying or doing something else. The liturgy is a complex action with many participants who have different works to perform, yet coalescing around and culminating in a unity. Very different is the the rationalistic construct of “sequential liturgy” favored by the architects of the Novus Ordo, where typically only one thing is allowed to be happening at a time, and everyone must wait until a particular task is done before moving on. This, again, seems to downplay the idea of multiple distinct roles that can overlap like the lines of polyphony.

The traditional rite makes manifest the nature of the ordained priesthood and the salutary separation between this and the priesthood of all baptized believers. The Novus Ordo with its permeable sanctuary, versus populum stance, lay lectors and extraordinary ministers, and so forth, blurs the line between the two, blunting the many lessons and insights that the distinction imparts. The beautiful ways in which the old Mass distinguishes between the priest and the faithful, with so many signs, at so many levels, serves rather to unite the members of the Mystical Body in a common act of worship, where the eye, the hand, the head, and the feet are content to be what they are and to do what belongs to them (cf. 1 Cor. 12:15–26). There is no body part dysphoria.

In the traditional Latin Mass, I find great comfort in the fact that the priest is offering the Mass on my behalf to Almighty God. He was and is ordained to do so; that is his place, and it helps me to find my own. When a parent has to deal with a fussy baby and can’t follow along, he or she can rest in the peace of the rite, knowing that the Father of the ecclesiastical family is taking care of it for me, on my behalf, and with the awesome power of Christ the Eternal High Priest carrying Him and empowering Him. I can just revel in God’s presence. I don’t feel as if I have to “actively participate” in the Novus Ordo sense to feel like I’ve been to Mass. The action is so mighty and mysterious that my simply being there, with faith and love, is already a tremendous grace, a privilege, a participation deeper than external words or actions.

I “hear” the Mass and I “assist” at it, but I am not carrying it myself, nor is it directed to me; it carries me to the Lord, to whatever extent His grace permits. The rite carries me; I do not carry the rite. The priest, too, though uniquely empowered to offer the holy oblation, is also carried by the rite, no less than the rest of us. Ultimately, we are all drawn by the Cross into the glory of God the Father, “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15).

Photo credit: Assumption Mass with Bishop Perry by Allison Girone.

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