Yesterday, I celebrated my 12th anniversary as a priest. Thanks for your prayers! When I was a newly ordained priest, I began my first assignment as parochial vicar to a new pastor who had only been a priest for two years. He told me a story in his previous assignment where a parishioner told him she liked his Masses better than the other priest. I expected he was about to tell me how good this made him feel. However, he surprised me that he told the lady that she just gave him the biggest insult she could give a priest. His vocation was to facilitate an encounter with Christ, not to be the center of attention. Once the priest became the focus, it was all over.
The current tragedy of the faithful being away from Mass has given members of the Church the opportunity to ponder many things that we seem to do second nature or take for granted. For example, my Archbishop has asked that all priests offer private Mass daily while public Mass is suspended. A private Mass may or may not have anyone else there assisting. It has been a great reminder that the vast majority of the words of the Mass are spoken in prayer to the Heavenly Father while very few are spoken to the people in the assembly. Mass is prayer and worship offered to God, not an opportunity for me to interact with the congregation. However, since priests were ordered to face the people during Mass in the wake of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, more emphasis has been placed on the priest’s ability to engage with the assembly. Before the Council, priest and assembly were all facing the same direction in a procession of sorts toward the glory of the returning Christ in the liturgical east, symbolized by the rising sun. Much like a pilot in an aircraft with the passengers behind him, or a guide, leading pilgrims through the fire swamp to the glory of freedom on the other side, it would not make sense for the priest to face the people the whole time. Joseph Ratzinger treats liturgical direction very well in his book Spirit of the Liturgy.
With the priest facing the people, we now have a closed circle. While it can be a legitimate arrangement for prayer, it lacks the sense of a procession with direction that we would have with everyone facing the same direction: priest and people. This article points out the closed circle at least has something of a human symbol. Now with all the live-streamed Masses happening, there isn’t even that. It’s a priest facing a camera, often times with his back to the crucifix and the tabernacle.
Whether we speak of Mass with an assembly or those live-streamed, we would be wise to take caution in entering into a cult of personality around a charismatic priest who is found extremely “engaging.” Are we having an emotional encounter with the priest because of his stories, jokes, and the emotional high we achieved? Or, is he a faceless man that leads me to an authentic encounter with Christ? What are we coming to Mass to see, hear, encounter? The right answer to all of these is that which is invisible, inaudible and veiled in the mysteries of the sacraments. At my live-streamed Masses, I have been fortunate enough to have a crucifix on the altar in front of me, and beyond the crucifix is the tabernacle in the middle of the nave, temporarily, thus giving me the ideal of liturgical east. The camera is off to the side somewhere.