I remain somewhat enkindled by a loaded comment recently made by a priest of the Latin diocese in which I reside, in which he made reference to my mode of celebrating the Novus Ordo: not because it was especially hurtful towards me, but because it represents such an offence against what is true.
Readers may remember in my last entry how I explained that when I celebrate the Roman Rite, I try to observe all rubrics strictly. That is, for a good number of reasons, I do things like praying together with the people, facing the Risen Lord, ad orientum. Not least of the reasons I do this is the fact that facing the liturgical East is clearly what the Missal assumes, and I do not believe that I, an insignificant, individual priest in the great history of the Church, have any personal authority to pick and choose which of the Church’s instructions I shall obey. This is because picking and choosing is tantamount to saying, ‘I know that Gregory the Great did it, and Bede, and Thomas Aquinas, and any number of other great minds and souls in the Church’s history… but I know better. My people are different. My times are different. I know what the people need better than the stuffy old Church.’ And my personal response to this posture is to say ‘utter tosh’.
The Liturgy of the Church is the summit of her life and consummation of ours. When we work; when we dream; when we love; when we look up at the stars and wonder at the sheer magnitude of creation: all this is taken up in the Liturgy and set in a cosmic, eternal context beyond our rational reckoning. In this respect, the Liturgy is not primarily about the gathered community; the gathered community is about the Liturgy. There can, of course, be no Liturgy without a gathered community (I say with some proviso), but the community is subordinate to the action at the Altar.
The truth of this can not be overstated. Indeed, it is the whole purpose and role of the priest to effect and preside over the action at the Altar. There is absolutely nothing else a priest can do that a lay person cannot do save this (the confection of sacraments). The visiting of the sick; looking out for the poor; remembering the lonely: these are central to the life of the Church, and they are the responsibility of everyone. The priest, however, has a particular vocation, analogous to the vocation of the surgeon, the lawyer, the teacher, and the mother. In other words, it is his; no one else in the community can do what he does. And what he is supposed to do is to celebrate the Liturgy in all its aspects. If he does not do this well, or makes up the rules as he goes along, then he is failing in the one task that is his. To carry the analogy above slightly further, it would be like the surgeon deciding that he or she was going to carry out surgery differently today, damn the rules.
The Church is at a crucial moment in her life. We, her members, can either choose a path that has been tried and found wanting – that is, the path of revolution and constant revision – or we can try the path that not been found wanting, but never sufficiently tried – that is, the path of orthodoxy, obedience, humility, virtue, and faithfulness. This latter path does not entail a choice between the way of Pope Benedict and the way of Pope Francis; rather it means choosing to hear both, and responding to the challenge they both present. Neither is easy. Both are vital. But the most easy to confuse with the post-conciliar revolution of the last five decades is the challenge of Francis, and confusion must be avoided at all costs. The task of every priest now is to undertake his particular vocation faithfully and to the best of his ability, and to make the splendour of the Church’s sacramental life as present and as real as possible.