Some reflections on the life of the Priest and the Sacred Liturgy, given to a group of men discerning a call to the Sacred Priesthood in the diocese of Arundel & Brighton. To find out more about vocations work in the diocese, please visit their website here.
One of the central aspects of the life of the Priest is, quite obviously, the Sacred Liturgy. Whether he has an interest in the particular intricacies of rubric and ritual, or a strained relationship with liturgical prayer, seeming to prefer private devotion or less-structured worship, the Priest is always a servant of the Church, and the Sacred Liturgy is the Prayer of the Church. The Priest must always have a deep and profound devotion to the Sacred Liturgy, and must always strive to serve the Church, which is the mystical Body of Christ, through the faithful celebration of her rites and ceremonies, as a outward sign of his love for Christ. In doing this, in being faithful to the texts and ritual, the Priest sets aside his own desires or ideas in favour of something given to him by the Church. This is why we refer to ‘Sacred Liturgy’, because it is not merely some man-made construct, but a gift to us for our sanctification, a gift given by the Church, and so by Christ himself (cf. SC § 22.3).
So it is important that those who are discerning a call to the Sacred Priesthood have, from an early time in that process, a profound respect and love for the Sacred Liturgy. It should be something that gives shape to our week and to our day, and through the Liturgical Year we should be able to see how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, has once and for all shaped the history and destiny of the human race. Particularly in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the very heart of the life of the Priest, we should grow to love and understand each prayer and gesture, each detail and action, as a sign of our desire to love Christ more, to serve him more faithfully, and to present him (and not ourselves) to those to whom we are called to minister.
Just over a month ago I celebrated my first anniversary of ordination, and I was able to spend a little time thinking through some of the first experiences I had as a Priest, in order to refresh my mind and my heart, and to renew with God the promises I have made to him. The Priest’s first year is always one which is filled with much joy and many opportunities for celebration – the First Mass, with all the traditions that honour him the first time he goes to the altar; the first confession; the first time he visits the bedside of a dying parishioner to anoint them… the list goes on. But it is the daily offering of the Holy Mass which stands out as the most formative experience, and which utterly transforms the man into an alter Christus, into another Christ to serve the faithful.
In the convents run by the Missionaries of Charity, there is a sign in the sacristy which reads, ‘O Priest, celebrate this Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass’. This is sound advice. When the Priest goes each day to the altar, sometimes with other things on his mind, sometimes with a frustration or a distraction before him, it is good for him to remember that this Mass is The Mass, and not simply ‘A Mass’. When he ascends the altar, he goes up as Christ does to Calvary; when he greets the people, he does so as Christ did in the cenacle; when he speaks the words Hoc est enim Corpus Meum, he does not do so as a narrator, but as Christ himself. And so, in each and every Mass, the Priest is not his own, but a servant of Christ and Christ’s Church, and an icon of Christ, through whom the faithful encounter God himself. This is why S. John Vianney says, in his Catechism on the Priesthood, ‘The Priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in Heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love’.
There are two particular things which I would like to speak about this evening, based on my own first year as a Priest. These are both very personal things which I have grown to understand and to love, but also – I hope – things which will be useful to you as you seek to grow in your love of the Mass, both as a faithful Christian man and as a man seeking to know the mind of God, and discerning your vocation in and for the Church.
The first is the centrality of the cross in the life of the Priest, and particularly in the celebration of the Holy Mass. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have both emphasised the importance of the crucifix in the centre of the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist, and this is something which I heartily commend as a means of reminding us not only what the Mass is about, but also what the life of the Priest is about. If we are not united to the Cross in all that we do, then we are not united to Christ, and cut off from him we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:5).
When the Priest stands at the altar, he faces the cross; when he stands in the sacristy waiting for Mass to begin, he faces the cross; when he gives absolution in the confessional, he makes the sign of the cross; when he preaches, he is traditionally doing so next to a cross. It is central to the ministry of the Priest, and it is vital to his life and integral to his faithfulness to Christ. The Priest must see the wood of the cross daily in order that he can learn what it is to live a life in the world, rooted in the sacrifice which Christ offered on Calvary.
When the Priest stands at the altar, he stands with his hands joined together as a sign of holy obedience to the Church, and with his eyes lowered – again, a sign that the Priest is not his own man, but belongs to Christ. This means that, quite often, the only part of the crucifix that the Priest can see (for sometimes quite lengthy periods of the Mass), is the feet of the corpus, the feet of Christ on the cross. This has been, for me at least, a quite moving revelation. When we look at the feet of Christ on the cross, we realise that they are bearing most of the weight of his body and yet they are not, at least usually, something that we refer to in traditional piety. We speak of the crown of thorns, even the pierced side, and of course the wounded hands – so intrinsically linked with those of the Priest who holds the Body of Christ in his own hands; but we rarely speak of the Lord’s feet.
I would like to suggest that, in some sense, the Priest has to be like the feet of Christ on the cross. He has to be there, and indeed his presence is vital to the offering of the sacrifice, but he has to be unnoticed, so that the face of Christ is what the faithful are drawn to. He has to bear the weight of the Body of Christ, the Church, but he must do so with a quiet disregard for himself, and for his own desires, praying for those whom he is serving before he prays for himself.
We often see pictures of the feet of Christ, not on the cross, but at the Ascension, and the Priest – like the wounded feet disappearing up into the cloud – must be the first and last reminder that Christ has not abandoned his people by his Ascension to the Father, but rather has sent us the Holy Spirit to be our advocate, and has left us his eternal and real presence in the Eucharist: his body, blood, soul, and divinity. The Priest, by his life and actions, must be spurred on by the Mass to always draw back to that reality, and to always strive to keep his personal relationship with the Lord such that nothing else can creep in and distort the image of God which is given him on the day of his ordination.
The second thing that I would like to mention is the sense of awe which the Priest faces when he celebrates the Mass. Two things come from this: a profound joy, and a profound sense of unworthiness. So as not leave us feeling completely distraught by the end of the evening, I would like to speak about the latter first.
When the Priest begins to hear confessions, he is – in my experience – immediately reminded of his own sins. I have been to confession more regularly, and better (I hope), since my ordination, than before. Being aware of the humility of others and the sincerity of those who seek God’s forgiveness in the confessional, has the effect of nudging the Priest toward a better examination of his own conscience, and a more profound honesty before the Lord. As I have said to others before, going to confession helps your Priest get to heaven, because it spurs him on to be more serious about his own interior life and his own relationship with the God whom he serves as a Priest.
Preparing for Mass each day, too, is a salutary reminder of the need that the Priest has for God’s mercy. If he is to offer Mass every day, then he must be ready – each and every day – to receive Holy Communion worthily and well. This means that each day of his life, the Priest must be in a state of grace – entirely united to the Lord. He must constantly seek to examine his conscience – each night before bed, if nothing else – and, when possible, to make his confession as often as necessary before celebrating Mass. In some Religious Houses, even now, a Priest will be available in the sacristy before Mass each morning, so that those who want to, can make their confession before going to the altar. Just as all the faithful are bound to be in a state of grace before receiving Holy Communion, so that Priest who wants to celebrate Mass every day – something which is commended to us by the Church and by tradition – must be ready to confess his sins before celebrating the Sacred Liturgy. A Priest is not called to be more holy than anyone else, but he is called to be an example of holiness, and to seek to live his life united to Christ in a particular way. If he is to offer the Mass for those in his care, each and every day, he must free from anything that would stop him from doing so.
Finally, then, joy! I remember standing in a church a year or so before my ordination with, I must admit, some residual doubts. I looked up to the High Altar and thought, without any hesitation, ‘That is where I am meant to be’. The Priest is at home at the altar, because it is there that he is truly and completely what God has called him to be – an alter Christus. The joy that comes from doing the will of God is not some soporific, candy-floss joy, but a deep and unsettling joy which lifts a man’s heart up into the top of his chest and makes him instantly a different man, united in a special way to God. To go up to the altar every day, to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to hold the Host and the Chalice and to speak the words of Christ himself, is a profound joy, and one which fills the man-made voids which life often gives us. I still get a physical sense of excitement knowing that I will celebrate Mass each day. I still experience a real joy as I say the Vesting Prayers and put on the Sacred Vestments. I still relish the opportunity to celebrate Mass with all the music and incense and servers and beauty that we can muster, because this is truly and completely what the Priest is! Other aspects of the life of the Priest are just as vital, of course, but no other single act makes sense of the Priesthood more than offering the Mass, more than acting in the person of Christ, with and for his beloved people.
So, as you continue to ask the Lord what he is asking of, as you continue to discern with the Church if you are being called to this particular service, I would encourage you to work toward three very particular things: a real and profound reverence and love for the Sacred Liturgy; a real and profound sense of your own need for the grace of God, and for his mercy; a real and profound sense that only in doing what God wants you to do will bring about the joy which the saints enjoy, and the joy which – through our baptism, our incorporation into Christ – we ourselves deserve. May God bless you as you seek to be faithful to him.