We often forget that the priest stands in Persona Christi when he celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He makes the words of Christ his own when prays the words of Consecration: "This is my Body; this is my Blood."
A local prelate recently gave a talk on the Priest as Victim, reminding his brethren in the priesthood of the importance of their vocation; but, he took this step further and offered them a catechesis on proper liturgy.
In his address, he also reminded them of the importance of their role in the liturgy, telling them that they are servants of the Eucharist. Inasmuch as they stand in Persona Christi, they should maintain the integrity of the sacrifice that they are offering. This reminds me of an address that the former Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith gave back in 2008 at the Gateway Liturgical Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.
(T)he correct approach to ars celebrandi of priests and even of the faithful would be to insure that they allow Christ to take over at the altar, becoming the voice, the hands and the being of Christ, or the alter Christus.
Sacramentum Caritatis affirms this very clearly when it states, “Priests should be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in the first place, but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the center of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continuously work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord’s hands. This is seen particularly in his humility in leading the liturgical assembly, in obedience to the rite, uniting himself to it in mind and heart and avoiding anything that might give the impression of an inordinate emphasis on his own personality” (Sacr. Carit. 23).
In everything the priest does at the altar he should always let the Lord take control of his being. The words of John the Baptist are important in this matter: “He must increase and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
Lamentably, there are occasions when this does not occur. Last Saturday evening, I went to my maternal ancestral parish. The guest celebrant, who introduced himself as a professor of liturgy, took several liberties within the Mass that left me disconcerted. When he could not find the Collect in the Roman Missal, he proceeded to make up his own. He then added words here and there to the fixed texts of the Mass, something that is also forbidden in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and Redemptionis Sacramentum. He also asked the faithful to hold hands during the recitation of the Pater Noster.
All of this made me wonder just what he is teaching the seminarians. After Mass, I tried to charitably bring the concerns up to him privately. He dismissed me right away and said that I should be reading the words of Christ. I told him that even Christ had high regard for the rubrics of Temple worship because these pointed directly to Him and were dictated by, no less than His own Father. I also asked him if he had read any of the documents. He rebuffed me and walked away.
Re-reading now-Cardinal Ranjinth's address in light of this episode and the address that the local prelate had given his brother priests made me think. Why is is that some in the clergy do not see liturgical integrity as a matter of grave importance. Again, let us turn to Cardinal Ranjith:
Obedience to Norms
As Pope John Paul II stated in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, “Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated”; and so “no one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands; it is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and its universality” (EE 52).
Indeed, liturgy is a treasure given to the Church, which is to be jealously guarded. This is so also because it is the actio Christi realized in and through the Church, which is His own Body, in its three-fold extension — the Church Victorious, the Church Purifying and the Church Militant.
Thus every liturgical act has a meta-cosmic extension. Besides, it is in and with the Church that Christ realizes His priestly office, making the liturgy profoundly ecclesial, in the sense of the whole Church. It is the whole Church which celebrates liturgy each time a priest does so with his own local community.
Liturgy Is “Given”
Liturgy thus should be considered a treasure “given” to the Church, not created by it. The fact of the steady growth of liturgical traditions along its bi-millennial history, and the surprisingly harmonious and natural way in which it has happened, is proof of the work of the Holy Spirit and the surpassing nobility of its contents. It is like a tree, which continues to grow, at times shedding its leaves, at other times being pruned to become stronger and straighter, but always remaining the same tree. Sacred Liturgy has undergone a similar process of growth but never a new beginning, right from the earliest times even until now — and so it will be even in the future because it is Christ Himself who through His Mystical Body, the Church, has continued to exercise His priestly office.
Christ, the Main Celebrant at the Altar
And so, the correct approach to ars celebrandi of priests and even of the faithful would be to insure that they allow Christ to take over at the altar, becoming the voice, the hands and the being of Christ, or the alter Christus.
These are the same points that the local prelate made. The sad thing is that when the faithful begin to press their clergy to celebrate the Mass according to the norms, they get labeled as "liturgical police" or "Pharisees" when that is not the case at all.
There was a reason why Pope St. John Paul II ordered the promulgation of Redemptionis Sacramentum, assigning both the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Francis Cardinal Arinze with the task of writing this important document. The recently canonized John Paul lamented over the fact that shadows exist and continue to persist in the manner in which the Mass is celebrated.
As Redemeptionis Sacramentum notes:
[11.] The Mystery of the Eucharist "is too great for anyone to permit himself to treat it according to his own whim, so that its sacredness and its universal ordering would be obscured".27 On the contrary, anyone who acts thus by giving free rein to his own inclinations, even if he is a Priest, injures the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, which ought to be vigorously preserved,28 and becomes responsible for actions that are in no way consistent with the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people today. Nor do such actions serve authentic pastoral care or proper liturgical renewal; instead, they deprive Christ's faithful of their patrimony and their heritage. For arbitrary actions are not conducive to true renewal,29 but are detrimental to the right of Christ's faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church's life in accordance with her tradition and discipline. In the end, they introduce elements of distortion and disharmony into the very celebration of the Eucharist, which is oriented in its own lofty way and by its very nature to signifying and wondrously bringing about the communion of divine life and the unity of the People of God.30 The result is uncertainty in matters of doctrine, perplexity and scandal on the part of the People of God, and, almost as a necessary consequence, vigorous opposition, all of which greatly confuse and sadden many of Christ's faithful in this age of ours when Christian life is often particularly difficult on account of the inroads of "secularization" as well.31
[12.] On the contrary, it is the right of all of Christ's faithful that the Liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations as prescribed in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms. Likewise, the Catholic people have the right that the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass should be celebrated for them in an integral manner, according to the entire doctrine of the Church's Magisterium. Finally, it is the Catholic community's right that the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist should be carried out for it in such a manner that it truly stands out as a sacrament of unity, to the exclusion of all blemishes and actions that might engender divisions and factions in the Church.32
What part of this teaching is lost on the visiting priest I encountered last weekend? What part of this message is lost on clergy and laity alike who continue to treat the Sacred Liturgy as their own personal property?
While the obvious answer is that we need to pray for our priests, we also need to stand up for liturgical integrity and read the documents for ourselves. Even Redemptionis Sacramentum encourages the faithful to charitably defend the liturgy. Celebrants, whether they be priests or bishops, also need to read the documents. It is only by working to ether that we can all ensure that the integrity of the Church's most sacred and most important treasure is guarded and maintained.