The Cafeteria Is Closed: A liberal priest celebrates his first TLM
The old Missal’s rubrical micromanagement made me feel like a mere machine, devoid of personality; but, I wondered, is that really so bad? I actually felt liberated from a persistent need to perform, to engage, to be forever a friendly celebrant. When I saw a photo of the old Latin Mass in our local newspaper, I suddenly recognized the rite’s ingenious ability to shrink the priest. Shot from the choir loft, I was a mere speck of green, dwarfed by the high altar. The focal point was not the priest but the gathering of the people. And isn’t that a valid image of the church, the people of God?
The act of praying the Roman Canon slowly and in low voice accented my own smallness and mere instrumentality more than anything else. Plodding through the first 50 or so words of the Canon, I felt intense loneliness. As I moved along, however, I also heard the absolute silence behind me, 450 people of all ages praying, all bound mysteriously to the words I uttered and to the ritual actions I haltingly and clumsily performed. Following the consecration, I fell into a paradoxical experience of intense solitude as I gazed at the Sacrament and an inexplicable feeling of solidarity with the multitude behind me.
Keep in mind, this is a priest who didn’t particularly look forward to celebrating the Latin Mass. And I think he highlights one of the strength of the Catholic Mass, especially the Traditional Latin Mass: it’s not about the priest. From what I understand, in Protestant services, the sermon is the center of the service and what people most look forward to and think about later. It’s not that way in a properly celebrated Mass. My ex-girlfriend was always surprised by how infrequently I remembered what the homily at Mass was about, but that’s because it’s not the most important part of Mass: receiving Jesus in the guise of bread and wine is. Even if the priest is an (for example) Indian immigrant who has a thick accent so it’s nearly impossible to understand the homily and the ordinary of the Mass is incomprehensible even following along with a missal, it’s still a worthwhile experience because of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. (And, yes, I am thinking of someone specific.) How can any oration, no matter how great, compare to that great gift?
One of the common criticisms of the “new” Mass is that it puts more focus on the priest and encourages showmanship. Some priests faithfully follow the rubrics of the Mass, as they should. Some deviate only slightly, modifying a few words here and there, which is annoying for those of us who like to use missals and pray along with the priest. Some, however, go completely overboard and make the Mass a form of entertainment. I haven’t seen anything truly awful, except for the “camel Mass” when I was in Germany. (And I’m vaguely remember something weird at a friend’s wedding that made me say “What the hell?”) Given that your typical priest isn’t going to know Latin that well so he needs to be careful when saying Mass, and he’s facing away from the people so there’s less temptation towards showmanship, the Latin mass has a strong tendency towards reverence.
Now, the “new” Mass has it’s advantages as well: wider use of the Bible in the lectionary, the vernacular is much easier for the people to understand. So, hopefully, and I’d imagine this is Pope Benedict’s goal, the two forms will ultimately converge with the nest being taken from each to create a greater experience for all.