From 2012-2014, Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois performed a survey for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Illinois to discover the reasons behind serious declines in Mass attendance over the last decade in the Springfield Diocese. This study yielded major findings for both active and inactive Catholics in the Springfield Diocese.
As I was reading through the results of the survey, there was a major finding concerning active Catholics that I believe is worthy of some reflection:
“Parish priests or pastors were the most frequently given responses for what parishioners liked least about their parish and for those considering separating from their Parish, the Catholic Church or both.”
How is this possible? How did the priest acquire such importance? Why would someone’s relationship to a parish or to the Catholic Church itself depend entirely on an individual priest?
As many of you already know, I am an adjunct professor of Theology at Benedictine University in Mesa (the sister campus of Benedictine University in Lisle). In particular, I teach Sacramental Theology. At this time in our course, my students and I are reading through Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s (also known as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), The Spirit of the Liturgy. In this magnificent theological work Ratzinger mentions something that I believe pertains to the major finding as noted above.
In the chapter, “The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer,” Ratzinger notes that the shift from celebrating the Mass, ad orientam, or “towards the east” (in other words, facing the same direction) to versus populam, or “facing the people,” resulted in “an unprecedented clericalization.” Ratzinger says: “Now the priest – ‘preside’, as they now prefer to call him – becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him…His creativity sustains the whole thing…Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a ‘pre-determined pattern.’ The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle.”
The celebration of the Mass, ad orientam, was never done with the intention to exclude lay people from the Mass. It wasn’t “the priest turning his back on everyone else.” Rather, it was theologically understood as the priest leading the people of God, “toward the east” – toward the rising sun (or rather, the Risen Son of God). In this way, the priest was never the center of attention at Mass. An encounter of Jesus Christ was the center of attention.
The problem with the versus populam (toward the people) direction of the Mass is that it carries with it the temptation to overemphasize the importance of the priest. Commenting on this, Ratzinger says: “Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord…What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle but the common movement forward, expressed in a common direction for prayer.”
As someone who celebrates the Mass every day, I can honestly say, at times I feel like I am in a fish bowl: everyone is looking at me and watching every move I make. Now, although I understand that I am the valid minister of the Sacrament of the Eucharist (and that without me, the Mass could not happen), I struggle with the unnecessary attention that is often placed on me in the Eucharistic celebration and wonder if this is one of the major reasons why there are so many active Catholics who are considering leaving their parish or the Catholic Church altogether.
Although priests play an important and indispensible role in the life of the Church, must they be so centralized that people risk their entire faith on them? Must the impact and success of our Sunday worship depend entirely on them? Is this solid ground on which to build our faith?
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not lobbying to have every Mass celebrated ad orientam (although it is important to note that the official rubrics of the Mass imply that it is already celebrated this way – and every priest has the option to celebrate it this way if he so desires). What I am saying is that I agree with Ratzinger’s point: that the common practice of celebrating Mass, versus populam, has contributed to a misunderstanding about the role and importance of the priest. His point echoes a universal principle in the life of the Church that has been communicated for nearly two thousand years: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi (how you worship effects what you believe and how you live).
If we are going to recover a proper understanding of the priesthood and the liturgy, we need to remember (with or without Mass celebrated, ad orientam) that the primary action of the liturgy does not belong to the priest or the community, but to Jesus Christ. Our action is secondary and a mere incorporation into the action of Jesus Christ. Jesus is and must always be the focal point of the liturgy and of our faith. When we come to understand and believe this, the importance of the priest is put in its proper context, and our faith will no longer rest entirely on his shoulders, but on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, who searches for us, loves us, challenges us, and draws us deeper into Himself.
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