Saturday, August 31, 2013
St Augustine famously said to the people of Hippo, 'for you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian',
I have been a priest for long enough to remember people who lapsed after the Council, as a seminarian I remember meeting a rather harassed mother who had been deserted by her husband. She spoke rather energetically about men and women behind desks who she had problems with, teachers, social workers, people at the council officers, people at the housing office, people at the post office where in those days she had cash her benefit cheque. She ended by "And even the bl**** the priest says Mass from behind a desk nowadays".
In the last few of posts I have been trying to compare aspects of the two forms of the Roman Rite, and although Mass maybe celebrated facing or not facing the people in both forms and the CDW have constantly reiterated the orientation of the priest is his choice in the Ordinary Form, in the same way as the choice of Eucharistic Prayers is his, it is perhaps the question of orientation that the marks the strongest rupture between the two Forms.
Saint Augustine's words highlight the two aspects of ministerial identity, one is a bishop (or a priest) first and foremost because one is a Christian, from and amongst other Christian people.
The years after the Council marked a change in many aspects of priestly life, indeed many of the main concerns of groups like ACTA seem almost wholly concerned about the dynamic between priest and people. The problem is that such groups start off from the premise that it is essentially a 'power relationship', in much the same way as the other categories mentioned above of teacher, social worker etc. The true spirit of the Vatican Council presupposes that priest and people are co-owners of the Catholic Faith, and yet the 20th century seems to be marked by division between those who have the 'traditional faith' or the faith of the catechism, and those who seem to question every aspect of it. There should be no distinction between the faith of the heirarchy and that of the man in the pew. On the contrary today often the heirarchs are portrayed as wishing to change or impose something on the received faith of the man in the pew, rather than increasing devotion or fervour they seem to mitigate it. It is perhaps significant that the leadership of many dissident groups are made up of laicised priests or professional lay Catholics.
It strikes me that the orientation of the priest marks a change in how priests were seen or see themselves. It marks a change of emphasis from something cultic to some governmental. It can be summed up in the use of the terms of 'priest' and 'president'. These terms are often are matters of contention when speaking of the liturgy, but more importantly they mark two very different ecclesiologies. Celebrating Mass facing the people speaks 'presidency' whilst celebrating facing the same direction as people speaks of 'priesthood', though when speaking of priesthood and using more traditional terminology 'offering the Mass' might be better.
The idea of a priest in Old Testament or pagan terms works on three levels, first it is about dealing with blood and entrails and the messier side of human life, he deals with sinners, his hands are filthy with touching that offered for sacrifice and with contact with those who want to offer sacrifice, he is comparable to a tradesman, a slaughterman. Secondly he stands with the people before God, he represents them in the Divine Presence, if he or his people cause God's anger, it falls first on him. His duty is to prepare the sacrifice but also his people but most importantly himself for the act of sacrifice. On the third level he enters the Holy of Holies to bring something of the Divine to his people but it is always something of God and never his own.
The idea of a President, is a modern form Kingship, there is gulf between him and the people. The etymology is he 'sits before', or above the people, his role is to rule and govern. Whilst a priest is essentially a servant of God and man, a President is the opposite. A priest is one who stands between God and man, he has nothing of his own to offer. The notion of presidency seems to be one who only has what is his own to offer, his teaching, his instruction, his rule.
Pope Francis speaks of the clergy 'smelling of the flock' he condemns 'clericalism'. One of the great failures of the post-Vatican II era is essentially a failure of leadership or even of government. Rather than celebrating a common faith with our people, praying with them, the role of clergy today has become one of teacher or administrator. It is precisely these areas of teaching the faith and administering government in the Church in terms of morality where we have failed drastically.
The problem I would suggest is one of authority; as a priest of a cult, authority comes from within the cult, as something God given. In the pre-Concilliar Mass the priest took off his chasuble and maniple to preach, in many places where Sunday Mass was on the hour and half hour he didn't preach at all, the sermon was reserved for the High Mass and or the evening service, which was not of obligation, of Rosary, Sermon and Benediction. Indeed the priest was ordained 'to offer Mass for the living and the dead'. The post-Concilliar priest is ordained 'to proclaim the Gospel', again a drastic change. The pre-Concilliar model sees the priest as giver of sacraments, a bringer of Salvation through the sacraments, the post-Concilliar model is that of herald of the Gospel or of the Kingdom of God. The pre-Concilliar model sees the priests authority coming from what he does, the post-Concilliar model suggests it comes from what he says.
'Doing' is something that can be learnt, it comes from the office, basically any fool can learn to perform rituals; 'saying' comes from personal skills, it is however intensely personal but it is on this personal level that we fail. The post-Concilliar period saw a movement away from ex opere operato where the concern was simply about the 'doing' of a rite, to ex 'opere operantis' where the concern is much about the 'doer', his style, his learning, his personal authority. The Church today faces similar problems Augustine found amongst the Donatist contagion, we are obsessed with, not so much the holiness but the personal qualities of individual ministers, a very heavy psychological burden is placed upon them to live up to it. In assessing priests and bishops, even popes our concern is not an objective concern about the office but subjective about personal traits. This is a decidedly Protestant quality and ultimately destructive to all that is Catholic.
What I have been trying to explore briefly and sketchily is does the re-orientation of the altar re-orientate our theology, our understanding of the relationship between God and Man, and ultimately the Church.
Posted by Fr Ray Blake