Friday, December 6, 2013

Can my pastor turn his back to me?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
My piece-of-work, hare-brained pastor has done it again. He is now celebrating the first Mass of Sunday facing the wall. There is already some Latin sung at the Mass, and he allows people to receive communion kneeling. Now this! Doesn’t he know that the Vatican Council did away with Latin at Mass and kneeling for communion and facing the wall? Is he trying to drag us back to the dark ages?  My parents built this church and now he is changing my Mass, the Mass I have always gone to. How dare he turn his back on us! What are we? Chopped liver?
Patty D. Maison
Dear Patty,
It is clear to me that you are an enlightened progressive person, who will not tolerate intolerance. I can see that you want nothing but the best for God’s Church and you will not allow people to slip back into former modes of prayer from the dark days when the churches were full and confessional lines long. It is clear that you feel it your duty as an enlightened person to make sure that everyone does what you think is right. Bravo!
I fear however that you may be mistaken about a few things. Before launching into a few slight corrections, I urge you to be flexible with your old pastor. He is probably an aging hippy who read Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book one too many times, particularly the line “Let a thousand flowers bloom....”  You said that he allows people to kneel for communion. Does he force them to kneel, or does he let them make up their own mind about the matter?  He has brought back Latin, or is there Latin at all the Masses? It is curious that you say it is your Mass. Are there other people at the Mass, or are you the only person in attendance?  The Mass I would think belongs to the Lord and the Church Universal. If you don’t benefit from his antique style at the early Mass, you might go to one of the Masses that is more to your personal taste. It doesn’t sound like he has forced this foolishness on all the Masses, just the earliest one on Sunday.
As for the Vatican Council ending kneeling for Communion, that is not quite true. As far as I can find, the first incident of standing for Communion had nothing to do with the council. It was something used at a liturgical convention in Seattle in 1962. The reason given for the change was that it would speed things up, a deeply spiritual reason if ever there was one, I’m sure.
And as for the Vatican Council taking Latin out of the mass, it just isn’t so. Surprisingly, the Vatican Council foresaw a limited use of the common modern tongue at mass for pastoral reasons, but intended the Latin rite Mass to continue in Latin. The Council said that “. . . the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”(Sacrosanctum Concilium, #36; December 4, 1963)
The council never mandated that the priest face the people at the liturgy. Altars were to be moved out from the wall, making it possible to walk around them, but I have never been able to find the document that says the whole liturgy must be offered facing the congregation.
Still more shocking, the newest Roman Missal assumes that the celebrant is facing away from the people for large sections of the Novus Ordo, or Ordinary Form of the Mass. In the Missal there are black letters and red letters. The red letters are called rubrics, form the Latin word for red. The black letters are what the celebrant is supposed to say, the red letters indicate what the celebrant is supposed to do. In the 3rd Roman Missal the rubrics indicate that the celebrant must face the people only seven times, as far as I can tell. Here are the citations from the missal. You can look ‘em up if you don’t believe me.
1.      When the people are gathered, the Priest approaches the altar.....venerates the altar with a kiss... then... with the ministers, he goes to the chair. When the Entrance Chant is concluded, the Priest and the faithful, standing, sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, while the Priest, facing the people, says: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  (The rubrics  seem to imply that the greeting and the penance rite are said facing the people, since they are addressed to the people, not to the Lord and thus are included in the rubric indicating that the celebrant face the people at this point in the Mass.)
29. Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending and then joining his hands, he says: “Pray, brethren...”  (The end of the offertory)
127. The Priest, turned towards the people, extending and then joining his hands, adds: “The peace of the Lord be with you always...” (The sign of peace)
132. The Priest genuflects, takes the host and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb...”
139. Then, standing at the altar or at the chair and facing the people, with hands joined, the priest says “Let us pray...” (The final prayer)
141 Then the dismissal takes place. The Priest, facing the people and extending his hands, says: “The Lord be with you...”  (The blessing)
144.  Then the Deacon, or the Priest himself, with hands joined and facing the people, says “Go forth the Mass is ended.”
The part of this that I find most interesting is not just that the priest may face away from the congregation, but that it seems expected. Still more interesting is that almost no one except the Pope Emeritus and a few curmudgeons like your pastor seem to notice or follow what seems to be clearly implied in the rubrics. Go figure. 
Why no one seems to notice, much less follow the rubrics is completely beyond me. I suppose that’s because no one actually reads the rubrics. They assume these things were mandated by the council and are demanded by the rules. You know what they say about the word “assume.” “To assume makes a beast of burden out of you and me.”
I suppose that it is allowed to say Mass facing the people, but it seems odd when you think about it. The rubrics seem to indicate that when the priest is speaking to the people, he faces the people. When he is leading them in prayer, standing in for Christ, he faces the Lord, with the people. This makes sense. It isn’t as earth shattering as it first appears. The priest faces the people these seven times and while he is seated in the presider’s chair. In the average mass of 50 minutes, using the 2nd Canon and including a homily, the priest faces away from the people for all of 10 minutes maximum.
In the old days there were quite a few mortal sins that a priest could commit while saying Mass if he willingly altered the structure of the Mass. It used to seem absurd to me that the rubrics were that important. I have had my mind changed in my old age. After seeing enough clergy skipping down the aisles distributing Easter eggs, or wearing clown makeup or dressed as Barney the Purple Dinosaur, I understand that the prohibitions were aimed at clerical narcissism. They were not simply medieval taboos.

You said that the 8 am Mass was your Mass. I understand what you mean. It is your custom. However a priest who decides that the Liturgy of the Church is “his” to play with as he pleases does commit a very grave sin. The Mass is unfortunately a wonderful stage for those who fancy themselves actors. The Mass is no one’s property except the Lord’s and the celebrant is nothing more than the servant of the Lord and of His bride, the Church. To personalize the Mass excessively is to take what belongs to the Lord for one own self expression and even aggrandizement. Perhaps it is a good thing that the priest occasionally turns to the Lord with the people whose servant he is and of whom he is just a part by virtue of his Baptism. Perhaps by turning away from the people and facing the Lord with them, the celebrant will remember that he is not the center of the Mass. It is the Lord who is the object of adoration as Pope Francis has reminded us.

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