Bringing priests into balance

Clericalism, the disorder of clergy who arrogate authority to their own persons, is rampant -- we are really suffering from it. This age, the post-conciliar one, was supposed to usher in a new ascendence of the People of God, the laity; instead, we have priests thinking they are owed abject obedience for the merest prudential considerations (where in the past they would not have thought to venture) and laypeople unable to assert their God-given ability to judge circumstances. 

I concur with Peter Kwasniewski's analysis of the root of the problem of clericalism, which centers on The Priest Praying for Himself at Mass

What might have been “self-evident truths” once upon a time are no longer evident to many clergy, to their superiors, and to their flocks. One of these truths is staggeringly obvious, yet its implications seem to be not only ignored, but suppressed: the priest, too, has a soul to sanctify and save.

He demonstrates what has been lost in today's worship: the prayers at the Mass that the priest says for himself, for his sanctification, for his worthiness. Certainly, clericalism would be much mitigated if the priest could be reminded, daily, that he ought to be humble, that God is ready to humble him, and that humility is a condition much to be sought after.

Nearly all of these prayers [from the Traditional Latin Mass, reproduced in the article] were simply struck from Paul VI’s Order of Mass, which is denuded and exiguous by comparison, and which, practically speaking, is almost totally extroverted and procedural in nature. It barely addresses the subjective disposition of the one offering or his need for preparation. It hardly touches on his unworthiness and need for purification and mercy. It includes remarkably few signs by which an observer unfamiliar with the Catholic Faith could detect that something wondrous, astonishing, and awesome is taking place, before which angels veil their faces and men beat their breasts.

What were the reformers thinking? For them, the prayers of the priest for himself must have looked like exaggerated medieval piety and devotionalism, too introspective and clericocentric; the liturgy is “for the people,” after all. But this is manifestly a false view both of what liturgy is and of what these specific prayers are meant to accomplish.

With the Novus Ordo, priests do not, as a matter of ritual, pray these prayers (such prayers as "Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy; deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man…. Send forth Thy light and Thy truth: they have conducted me and brought me unto Thy holy hill, and into Thy tabernacles…. To Thee, O God, my God, I will give praise upon the harp: why art thou sad, O my soul, and why dost thou disquiet me?... deliver me by this Thy most Sacred Body and Blood from all my iniquities, and from every evil; make me always cleave to Thy commandments, and never suffer me to be separated from Thee... Let not the partaking of Thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I, all unworthy, presume to receive, turn to my judgement and condemnation; but through Thy loving kindness may it be to me a safeguard and remedy for soul and body... " -- and more!). 

Because they are deprived of this ritual of penitential prayer in the midst of the transcendent task they undertake in celebrating the mysteries, I wonder if the effect is to deprive them of the conviction that they must pray, full stop. Personal, intimate prayer is in short supply these days, I think. Seldom are we in the pew reminded that prayer will save our souls. As St. Alphonsus Liguori said, "The man who prays is saved; the man who does not pray is lost." 

I read that great spiritual classic, The Soul of the Apostolate as a new convert; it transformed my spiritual life. In re-reading it many years later, I was surprised that I hadn't quite understood that it's meant for priests (but I still recommend it to you!). Jean-Baptiste Chautard is not shy about warning priests of the danger to their souls if they do not have an interior life, fed by the Masses they are saying and of course by the indispensable time of meditation -- prayer -- where one is present to God on a daily basis. This prayer is what he calls the soul of the apostolate. His message is that no one can hope to bring Christ to others if he has exhausted the interior well of his own soul by neglecting prayer, and the need for prayer begins with a sense of unworthiness.

I watched the first installment of the Mass of the Ages film. The most compelling part was hearing from the priests that saying the Traditional Latin Mass changed now they experienced their priesthood, bringing them into closer personal contact with God by means of the prayers of the Mass. The film does a service by presenting priests who can express the difference between the two forms/rites, the one nourishing a proper humility, the other, sad to say, building up a sense of entitlement. I would love to hear more from them.

The very first time a little chink of light came into my (reform of the reform-oriented) liturgical consciousness was when a dear priest friend related to me his experience of almost losing his vocation; he was rescued by learning and saying the Traditional Latin Mass. That testimony was quite unexpected. Before our conversation, I only thought of my perspective from the pew (even though I admit, I always found something in the priest's demeanor, even when he was trying to be reverent, that gave me pause, and I did at least subconsciously relate it to the way the Mass is celebrated). 

I thought, "Well, that makes sense to me. The prayers of the old Mass do seem deeper for the priest; but it's better for the people to know what's going on and not be so distant." Only gradually did I realize that if the priest's soul isn't being fed in his very vocation, the people will be left hungry, no matter how physically close to the altar they come or how much they understand about their participation. 

To circle back to Peter's article, the old Mass demonstrably invests the priest with a greater sense of the importance of his actions; simultaneously, it divests him of any thought that he is in a position to offer worship because of his personal importance

Clericalism is identifying the priest with Christ (or with authority in general) in an inappropriate way. It is the error that posits the priesthood is an identity; it views the faithful as assuming a role: the role of audience, of "participators," of would-be priests if only given jobs to do in the sanctuary. This attitude that the priesthood conveys status (rather than servitude) on the man spills over into life, where priests seem to expect honor for who they are, rather than what they do. Only the traditional rites, of which there are many, emphasize this distinction between man and action -- even more than the Latin rite, the Eastern ones give more of a role to the deacon and place the priest behind the iconostasis where he can hardly be seen. Only the Novus Ordo creates a situation where this distinction can be performatively denied. 

The priesthood is an indelible mark on the man, but the priest acts in persona Christi when he accomplishes what the Church asks of him. He takes on a role. This is the significance of the prayers highlighted in the article, as well as of other matters, such as the vestments that cover him. These things not only radiate a beauty of their own, they cover the man in order to remind him of his, in a sense, imposture; they nearly obliterate him, so that he can perform the rites as they must be performed, that is to say, by the High Priest, Christ Himself. It's also why he speaks in the name of Christ and not in his own name when he absolves sin in the sacrament of Confession.

The Novus Ordo strips those reminders away and creates an identity (and I am using this word separately from the indelible mark) between the man and the person doing the opus Dei of the rites. It allows the priest to impose his personality, using that word with precision, rather than Christ's PERSON-ality. The modern priest is taught that he doesn't need heavy vestments, he doesn't need a prayer of unworthiness. By being a priest he is encouraged to see himself as, well, worthy. 

James Hitchcock wrote about this paradox:

The celebrant of the Mass is now often called the “presider”, in order to minimize his hierarchical role and the idea that he represents Christ in some special way. But ironically, this has led to a new and exaggerated clericalism. In the traditional liturgy the identity of the celebrant was largely irrelevant. But, as Max Weber pointed out, in times of confusion and destruction, authority shifts to the personality of the “charismatic leader”, who appears to understand the movement of history and offers the guidance that established structures no longer provide. As many commentators have noted, a possibly unintended effect of the celebrant’s facing the people at Mass is to emphasize his personality and his “style” of celebration. [My note, after many years have gone by: I'm not sure now that this effect was unintended]

The laity on the other hand are... the laity. We appear at Mass in our own personae. We don't have any particular things we must do outwardly (as a matter of ritual, though perhaps as a matter of good behavior) because we don't have to demonstrate that we are taking on any role. There are lay people who appropriate clericalism! They assume authority because they are lectors or EMHCs or Help Father Out With Everything. They are a nuisance!

Even more, although men and women both are receptive in relation to God, women are more receptive than men by nature. So women are better at being laity than men, and men are better at showing that they are taking on a role. Thus, it's not offensive for a layman to serve a Mass, although he is not ordained, but a woman in the sanctuary can't help looking out of her natural place and somehow betraying her identity. Our Lady is the highest creature, you know. The honor of our race.  Her femininity suits her rank, and no man could usurp it. 

We need the old prayers, because it's not good for us and it's not good for him that the priest believes the deception that he is pretty good, all things considered. We start to think the same about ourselves. And that is how we are in this wretched state.

As Peter Kwasniewski says in his article:

May more and more priests discover this truth and embrace it wholeheartedly, for their benefit, as well as for the benefit of the faithful, living and dead. A holy and zealous priest, plunged into the mysteries of Christ, united with the Savior’s own prayer before the throne of grace, will always benefit the people of God far more than the people-centered or outward-oriented priest that the postconciliar era sought and still seeks to produce.


  1. I, too, was struck by the priests' testimonies in the Mass of the Ages film. I found that to be far more effective than the widow's story that the film was built around. (Small side critique there - if they had started with her conclusion first the rest of it would have made more sense, but I digress...)
    But I was also struck by the visual of the difference in various signs of reverence during the Masses. What a difference for the priests for sure!

    1. I agree ... I found the opening weak. It's hard to tie the whole thing to a general thesis until the end. This makes the narrative lose power. I've hesitated to share the documentary because of this.

    2. I'm actually happy to know I'm not the only one. I haven't really shared it either for that reason, or if I do it's with a caveat. All the other parts I found very effective but every time they went back to the main storyline it seemed out of place and broke attention to the Mass itself. A small bit of editing could fix that I think, or at least tie it in better.

  2. I am curious, Leila, if you saw Mel Gibson's recent video where he talks about the persecution of good priests and the corruption in the Church.