Monday, January 25, 2010

On Mass Versus Populum, and Watching the Priest

When I first started going to the Traditional Latin Mass on a semi-regular basis, one of my favorite things to do was simply to watch.  Sure, I'd read through the proper chants for the day, but I knew the gist of what was going on without reading along, and I could instead watch in rapt attention as the servers genuflected in perfect sync, as the priest made deliberate, measured motions, as everything proceeded like your proverbial well-oiled machine...

Learning to pray the Extraordinary Form of the Mass taught me much about how to pray the Ordinary Form: it taught me how to insert my heart into the prayers, to really offer the Lord my whole being; it taught me the best bits of the sacred attitude by which things had been done (more or less) for centuries; it taught me to quiet my mind and pray in silence with others.

The more I came to learn about the liturgy and its rubrics, the more difficulty I had praying at most Masses, because of the unfortunate reality that liturgical abuses abound, largely out of cluelessness.  A popular coping mechanism was to look at anything other than the priest.  One spiritual director actually suggested that I close my eyes at certain times.  This is nothing unusual, in our current day and age; many of my peers have shared with me similar experiences.  We just close our eyes when we can, at first to block out what is probably going wrong, but after a while it just becomes habitual: I just don't watch the priest, save perhaps when he's preaching.

And on the rare occasion when I do watch the priest, I usually spend the entire Ecce Agnus Dei wishing that I didn't have to try to mentally block out the priest's face, directly behind where he's holding Our Lord, in order to properly adore my God.  This does not encourage me to change my ways.

Many excellent books and articles have been written to address the question of celebrating Mass ad orientem.  I think it's a fantastic idea for many reasons, and wish it were done more frequently.  That being said, I have little power to effect such change from my pew, so I don't lose sleep over it.  Instead, I have to pray with what I have available to me.  And when the EF is not reasonably available, that tends to mean that I have to offer myself to the Father even though the priest is looking at me.

Several weeks ago, this strange inspiration struck me, and I looked up to watch Father as he prayed the Eucharistic prayer (I honestly can't even remember if it was the Canon).  The OF may have removed many of the signs of the cross and other reverential actions of the EF, but there is plenty remaining for displaying love of and devotion to Our Lord, and this priest certainly displayed that.  I was spellbound: here was a man offering to God this perfect sacrifice, paying no attention to me, attending carefully to every detail.

His very ars celebrandi lifted my soul up to God.

Is this not what proponents of Mass versus populum intended?

Since then, I have made a concerted effort to watch the priest, to unite the movements of my heart to his ritual actions, for those actions were placed there deliberately by Mother Church and have great meaning.  Sometimes it's a bit like listening to a reading proclaimed in a thick, unfamiliar accent: you can understand, despite the difficulty, but it takes some effort.  In analogous cases, what we often perceive as a lack of reverence on the part of the priest (thereby making it hard for us to pray, because we in the pew feel like we're taking the sacred action more seriously than that man in the sanctuary who, though ontologically configured to Christ the Priest, seems to be just going through the motions for the end of having Communion to distribute)... this is more likely just an indicator of a different spirituality, a different brand of reverence from our own.  How judgmental we humans can be when life is not how we expect or want it to be!

Remember that story of the two bishops walking down the street who see a prostitute?  The first bishop averts his eyes to keep himself from lustful thoughts, and the second simply looks at her with great love.  When the first bishop rebukes the second for not protecting his innocence, bishop #2 cries with sorrow: "How sad that such beauty should be sold to the lusts of men!"*

I don't know about you, but I want to be that second bishop, no matter what it is I'm observing.

Jesus, mitis et humilis Corde, fac cor meum secundum Cor Tuum.

*The prostitute converted and became St Pelagia, in case you were wondering.  :)


  1. The ars celebrandi of the priest *can* bring reverence to a versus populum mass, as can a particular amazing talent for oration, a strong stage presence, etc. The issue with this is that very few men have it in them to do this correctly. A fair number of most excellent priests that can celebrate the OF very, very well come to mind as I read this, but they are sadly the minority. More men are called to the priesthood than have the ability to visibly do these things. I know were I a priest, I'd be a weak orator, in terms of my delivery, and lack the charisma to charm with my presence, and lack the concentration, on most occasions, to block out people I'm looking at. When I serve as an acolyte in the EF, I find it much easier to maintain a fixation on Our Lord than I do in the OF, because during most of the mass, I can only see the people in the corner of my eye, or not at all.

  2. This is an example of where I leave behind liturgical theology as such and back up to coping mechanisms.

    The theological question, then, turns on how much is reasonable to expect the priest to do. I respectfully decline to venture an answer here just yet.

  3. Unlike what it seems that you describe, I have never had a problem watching the sacred action. None of the arguments AGAINST versus populum have ever really reached me. I didn't really find it an "enclosed circle with no room for God," (although I appreciate the imagery); I didn't see it as a cult of personality; I didn't find the priest distracting; I didn't mind (in the silliest objection I've ever seen) seeing the priest "chewing." That is to say, at least, I didn't mind any of these things so long as it was Fr. Ed or an equally reverent priest offering Mass. The way some priests offer Mass did bother me; but I chalked it up to the priest and not to the orientation of the altar.

    My attraction to ad orientem was first theological, because I read the Spirit of the Liturgy before I ever went to an ad orientem Mass.

    But it hardly stopped there.

    Why is it that I think the reorientation of the altar (along with restoration of the Calendar!!! but that's a different issue) or the two outward liturgical reforms most needed?

    It comes down, I think, to the experience of worship.

    Versus populum has its own charm, and I've always appreciated it.* Its success is also its failure, however. Its success is that it makes what's happening at the altar more important. Its failure is that it makes what's happening at the altar more important.

    The internal structure of the Mass points toward something invisible, that to Whom the Cross on the east wall has united us: the Lord of heaven and our Father. The sacred action, though rightly the focus of much devotion, looses its intrinsic meaning when it becomes devotional.

    Versus populum tends to make the priest more important, but that is not much of a problem if the priest is fully immersed in Christ. But -- and you may light the stake for my burning once I have said this -- the real problem of versus populum is that it makes the Eucharistic presence of our Lord important in the wrong way. The Mass becomes primarily an act of Eucharistic worship.

    More theology, right? Not entirely. The thing that attracted me initially to ad orientem worship wasn't the theology. It was the fact that the priest and the people -- Christ the head and Christ the body -- faced the same direction: they faced the Father. It is not too much, I think, to add that Christ sub sacramento also faces the Father in the Mass.

    The experiential difference between ad orientem and versus populum for me is the difference between my vision stopping AT the altar and my vision passing BEYOND the altar to the throne.

    I think this is pretty fair and pretty universal. The structure of modern liturgies (not to mention the structure of modern Churches) does not intend to draw the eye "beyond." Even though the prayers still emphasize that our worship is "through with and in" Jesus and toward the Father, I think this is oftentimes lost.

    Because where the eyes go, there goes the heart also.

    We can rightly praise versus populum, when rightly done, for inspiring some degree of Eucharistic devotion. We can rightly blame versus populum in almost all cases for destroying some degree of the sacrificial character of the Mass.

    *The back history of some of the early proponents of versus populum is fascinating. While some of them did it based on a misguided historicism, not all did. The great Pius Parsch, for instance, did it for purely pastoral purposes. I am certainly not immune to the pastoral argument.


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