The Unique Role of the Priest in the Mass
In Mediator Dei, Pius XII explicitly teaches: “Only to the apostles, and thenceforth to those on whom their successors have imposed hands, is granted the power of the priesthood, in virtue of which they represent the person of Jesus Christ before their people, acting at the same time as representatives of their people before God” (no. 40). But, he adds, in the Holy Mass
the priest acts for the people only because he represents Jesus Christ, who is Head of all His members and offers Himself in their stead. Hence, he goes to the altar as the minister of Christ, inferior to Christ but superior to the people (Saint Robert Bellarmine, De missa II c.l.). The people, on the other hand, since they in no sense represent the divine Redeemer and are not mediator between themselves and God, can in no way possess the sacerdotal power (n° 84).
The rites and prayers of the eucharistic sacrifice “show no less clearly that the oblation of the Victim is made by the priests in company with the people” (n° 87), since “by the waters of baptism, as by common right, Christians are made members of the Mystical Body of Christ the Priest, and by the ‘character’ which is imprinted on their souls, they are appointed to give worship to God. Thus they participate, according to their condition, in the priesthood of Christ” (n° 88).
How do people participate in the acts of Christ’s priesthood?
Now the faithful participate in the oblation, understood in this limited sense, after their own fashion and in a twofold manner, namely, because they not only offer the sacrifice by the hands of the priest, but also, to a certain extent, in union with him. It is by reason of this participation that the offering made by the people is also included in liturgical worship (no. 92).
But Pius XII feels obligated to reiterate once again that “that the faithful participate in the eucharistic sacrifice does not mean that they also are endowed with priestly power” (n° 82). This insistence is justified because even then, in 1947, some liturgists believed “that the command by which Christ gave power to His apostles at the Last Supper to do what He Himself had done, applies directly to the entire Christian Church,” and asserted that “they look on the eucharistic sacrifice as a ‘concelebration’” (n° 83).
Against this error, Mediator Dei taught that “the unbloody immolation at the words of consecration, when Christ is made present upon the altar in the state of a victim, is performed by the priest and by him alone, as the representative of Christ and not as the representative of the faithful” (n° 92). These offer the sacrifice by the hands of the priest
from the fact that the minister at the altar, in offering a sacrifice in the name of all His members, represents Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body. Hence the whole Church can rightly be said to offer up the victim through Christ. But the conclusion that the people offer the sacrifice with the priest himself is not based on the fact that, being members of the Church no less than the priest himself, they perform a visible liturgical rite; for this is the privilege only of the minister who has been divinely appointed to this office: rather it is based on the fact that the people unite their hearts in praise, impetration, expiation and thanksgiving with prayers or intention of the priest, even of the High Priest himself, so that in the one and same offering of the victim and according to a visible sacerdotal rite (n° 93).
Pius XII draws a logical conclusion by explaining that private Masses without the participation of the people cannot be condemned, nor the simultaneous celebration of several private Masses on different altars, on the false pretext of “the social character of the eucharistic sacrifice.” The reason is that the holy sacrifice of the Mass “necessarily and of its very nature, has always and everywhere the character of a public and social act, inasmuch as he who offers it acts in the name of Christ and of the faithful, whose Head is the divine Redeemer, and he offers it to God for the holy Catholic Church, and for the living and the dead.” Hence, “it is in no wise required that the people ratify what the sacred minister has done” (n° 96). Furthermore, “although it is most desirable that the people should also approach the holy table, this is not required for the integrity of the sacrifice” (n° 112); the view of those who “consider the general communion of all present as the culminating point of the whole celebration” (n° 114) should therefore be rejected.
The Reformers Reject Sacerdotalism in Favor of a “Communal Celebrant”
Egalitarian reformers naturally found unbearable this hierarchical distinction between the celebrant and the faithful—made clear by the communion rail, which separated the presbytery (reserved for the ministers of the altar) from the nave (where the faithful remained). To reduce it as much as possible, they resorted to the stratagem of “rediscovering” the “liturgical assembly.” In a lengthy but extremely revealing passage, the Jesuit liturgist Fr. Martín-Moreno explains:
Pre-conciliar liturgy was perfectly visible in the ecclesiology that started from the division between clergy and laity. The choirs of canons were located in the privileged part of the cathedrals, isolated from the others by grills. The presbytery was located on the heights, separated from the faithful by a grandiose staircase. In this way, by having the priest located up there, halfway between heaven and earth, they highlighted his mediating function. But Lumen Gentium starts from the consideration of the People of God before speaking of the different ministries in the Church. The ecclesiology of communion that Vatican II embraced will be reflected in the great importance the assembly acquires in the liturgy. This is perhaps one of the most emblematic features of the liturgical reform.
The mediating role between God and men is no longer played by the priest but by the assembly, within which the priest exercises his function. We do not oppose priest to assembly just as we do not oppose head to body. The head is also part of the body. There is no body without a head. There is no assembly without ministries. But there are [also] no ministries without an assembly. The ultimate origin of the ministry is not the assembly, but Christ; but, as Borobio says, ‘the ministry does not originate apart from or without the community.’ The minister does not receive his mandate directly from Christ, as did the apostles or Paul. …
The assembly is the translation of qhl, which in Greek is translated as ekklesia or synagoge. These words designate the convocation, the act of gathering, and the gathered community. Qahal is the general assembly of the people. In its semantic evolution it has designated the call, the levy, the meeting, the gathered community, the Church. Ecclesia is not just Church, but Church convened and gathered in a specific place and at a precise time to celebrate the mysteries of worship. …
It is this Church or assembly, which includes the bishop, priests, and deacons, which directly and formally participates in the priesthood of Christ. The gathered assembly is the reflection and expression of the Church. In it, the Church is incarnated and made visible; in it and through it it is projected to the world, especially in the local Church, which celebrates presided over by the bishop. The council does not want thereby to exclude the existence of other manifestations of the Church. The liturgy is the most visible expression of the Church, but not the only one. The Church also manifests itself in the charitable action of Christians and in many other ways.
The foundation of this participation is found, as we have already said, in the common priesthood of the faithful. In the Eucharist the people offer the gifts together with the president. In SC 48 it is said that the faithful should “learn to offer themselves by offering the immaculate host not only by the hands of the priest but together with him.” On this point, Sacrosanctum Concilium goes beyond Mediator Dei, which used the expression quodammodo, ‘in a way.’ This expression was suppressed by the council. From thence arises the awareness that liturgical actions are not private but have a community character (SC 26). It is necessary to return to the body of the Church what had always been its heritage; the assembly must recover the leading role it had lost due to abusive clericalism.…
This insistence on the community character of the celebration is what motivates the recovery of concelebration, which has contributed to de-privatize the Mass and to highlight the unity of the priesthood and the Eucharistic sacrifice (SC 57). From this perspective, it is incomprehensible today that in the pre-conciliar liturgy, different simultaneous liturgies could be celebrated in the same church, and that some faithful attended one and others another. Therefore, today we can no longer speak of an assembly that attends Mass but of an assembly that celebrates Mass. The bishop or priest who presides over the celebration can no longer be called the “celebrant”—because they are all celebrants—but rather the “president.” This, which was already hinted at in SC 26, is expressly stated in the GIRM [General Instruction of the Roman Missal] 1 and 7. The popular expression “hearing Mass” has been banned forever.…
This ecclesiology of communion ends up influencing even the smallest details of the liturgical reform. It greatly influences the architecture of post-conciliar churches, where the presbytery is only barely raised above the assembly so that its actions can be seen by all. The grills, the communion rails have been eliminated. The center of the Church is the altar and not the tabernacle, which has now been moved to a side chapel. The layout of the nave is no longer rectilinear, like a tram, but semicircular so the faithful see each other better and feel more a part of one another. Side altars attached to the naves have been removed. The choir located at the back of the church has disappeared. The ministry of singing cannot be situated outside the assembly, but as part of it (Apuntes de Liturgia, 60-62).
Reducing Priest to President, Elevating Laity to Co-celebrants
Desiderio Desideravi emphasizes that the celebrant is the entire assembly and reduces the minister of the altar to the condition of the president while omitting entirely that he alone performs the bloodless immolation of the Eucharistic sacrifice in persona Christi.
In the original Italian and Spanish versions of Desiderio Desideravi, the word “priest”—which precisely defines the one who performs and offers the sacrifice—appears only three times, two of which only refer to an ordained cleric. But the expression “presbyter”—which in its Greek and Latin origin means only “the oldest,” the “dean”—is used 15 times. Whereas “presidency” and the verb to preside (or its conjugations) appear 14 times, the expression “celebrant” appears only once, with the insinuation that it applies to the entire assembly: “Let us always remember that it is the Church, the Body of Christ, that is the celebrating subject and not just the priest” (n° 36). Later on, he affirms it explicitly: “The priest also is formed by his presiding in the celebrating assembly” (n° 56).
The document recognizes that the priestly office “is not primarily a duty assigned to him by the community but is rather a consequence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit received in ordination which equips him for such a task.” But when defining that task, he does not say that it is the priestly task of sacramentally sacrificing the Victim; rather it is the task of presiding over assemblies: “The priest lives his characteristic participation in the celebration in virtue of the gift received in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and this is expressed precisely in presiding” (n° 56).
In the following paragraph, he offers an exclusively anabatic and descending interpretation of the priest’s mediating mission while omitting that he offers the sacrifice to God on behalf of the whole Church:
For this service to be well done—indeed, with art!—it is of fundamental importance that the priest have a keen awareness of being, through God’s mercy, a particular presence of the risen Lord. The ordained minister is himself one of the types of presence of the Lord which render the Christian assembly unique, different from any other assembly (cf. SC n. 7). This fact gives ‘sacramental’ weight (in the broad sense) to all the gestures and words of the one presiding. The assembly has the right to be able to feel in those gestures and words the desire that the Lord has, today as at the Last Supper, to eat the Passover with us (n° 57).
Individuality Merged into the Collectivity
On the other hand, this almost total immersion of the ordained minister in the “assembly” is attested to by the fact that the latter term is mentioned 18 times, highlighting its celebratory function and collective character, which often makes it difficult for each member of the faithful to render to God a truly interior worship by personally offering himself to the Christ-victim, in intimate union with Him:
I think of all the gestures and words that belong to the assembly: gathering, careful walking in procession, being seated, standing, kneeling, singing, being in silence, acclamations, looking, listening. There are many ways in which the assembly, as one body (Ne 8:1), participates in the celebration. Everybody doing together the same gesture, everyone speaking together in one voice—this transmits to each individual the energy of the entire assembly. It is a uniformity that not only does not deaden but, on the contrary, educates individual believers to discover the authentic uniqueness of their personalities not in individualistic attitudes but in the awareness of being one body (n ° 51) .
How much more judicious is this recommendation of Pius XII!:
So varied and diverse are men’s talents and characters that it is impossible for all to be moved and attracted to the same extent by community prayers, hymns and liturgical services. Moreover, the needs and inclinations of all are not the same, nor are they always constant in the same individual. Who, then, would say, on account of such a prejudice, that all these Christians cannot participate in the Mass nor share its fruits? On the contrary, they can adopt some other method which proves easier for certain people; for instance, they can lovingly meditate on the mysteries of Jesus Christ or perform other exercises of piety or recite prayers which, though they differ from the sacred rites, are still essentially in harmony with them (n° 108).
It would be necessary to ask whether the desertion from Sunday Mass that followed the liturgical reform does not come largely from the displeasure of many faithful at the “assemblyist” and collectivist character with which the new rite was celebrated in most parishes, leaving no room for individual piety.
Above all, one would have to ask if the vertiginous drop in admissions to seminaries is not due to the fact that some of those who may sense a vocation do not respond positively because the image of an ordained minister reduced to “president of the assembly” does not match the traditional image of the priesthood, one in which personal sacrifice finds its model and fulfillment in the sacrificial reality of the Holy Mass.
Photo by Allison Girone, used with permission.
 Allow us a little detour to highlight the vagueness of the concept of “ecclesiology of communion,” found on all lips after the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops’s unsuccessful attempt to resolve the conflict between the traditional concept of the Church-perfect-and-hierarchical-society and the egalitarian Church-People-of-God, of the Basic Christian communities. Fr. Juan Manuel Martín-Moreno is perhaps right to include such a concept within his vision of the liturgical assembly…
 This is not the case in the English version, because the word “presbyter” never became common among English speaking Catholics to refer to priests. It is only used as an adjective in expressions like “presbyteral ministry,” “presbyteral council,” etc.
José Antonio Ureta is a senior member of the Plinio Correa de Oliveira Institute of Sao Paulo and the author of Pope Francis’s “Paradigm Shift”: Continuity or Rupture in the Mission of the Church? An Assessment of His Pontificate’s First Five Years.