Rorate Caeli

The Loneliness of the Novus Ordo Priest in the Pandemic

The Priest is Never Alone

I as a priest have the singular privilege of celebrating Holy Mass in my private chapel every day.  

I celebrate the Mass without a congregation, even without a server.  In the Novus Ordo world, the idea of a private Mass without a congregation causes great consternation among priests and bishops.  It does so because most see the Mass as the Community Meal at which the priest is the “presider”, whose function is to see that everyone is playing his or her role properly. His special role is to read the Gospel and preach, and to consecrate hosts for Holy Communion, the large host for himself, the small ones for the congregation. This understanding of the Mass is certainly not that of Catholic Tradition.  One does not have to any research at all to see that from the early patristic era to the eve of the Second Vatican Council the primary understanding of the Mass itself was the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross, the offering of the Son to the Father in our space and time. The heart of the Mass is Sacrifice, not meal.  That the Eucharist was instituted at a meal, probably a Passover meal, is an historical fact.  But it was Jesus who departed from the “script” with “Do this, in remembrance of me”.  What Jesus did in the presence of his disciples at the Last Supper is the sacramental form of his suffering and death on Good Friday.  They are the same act, the same life-giving saving act, one in sacramental form, the other in that time and that space two thousand years ago.  That is why in the Traditional Roman Mass the Collect for Holy Thursday is the same as for Good Friday.  They are the same event in different form.  

It is no wonder that so many priests are bewildered in their offering of Mass without a congregation at this singular time in our history.  Most of them do not see the point of the celebration of Mass unless there are people in the pews. Just as his parishioners think that the point of Mass is to receive Holy Communion, rather than to worship God by assisting in the Sacrifice that saved them. Many have seen the photo on the internet of a priest who taped pictures of his parishioners on the pews of his church so that he would “see” them when he celebrated Mass.  This priest obviously understands his role as a priest only within the context of the community Meal over which he presides, in which act of presiding he faces them and they face him, forming a closed circle.  Without the people there is no circle, and he stares into a void.

  If only he turned around and faced the altar cross and the tabernacle he would immediately no longer be lonely, for he would suddenly understand that his congregation is indeed with him spiritually whenever he offers the Holy Sacrifice for them with the whole Church present, with Mary and the saints and all the hosts of heaven.  He would realize that he is not a presider nor a facilitator nor an entertainer:  he is a priest, and a priest is a priest because he offers sacrifice, and it is that Sacrifice he offers that showers grace on the living and the dead in ways he cannot know.  Perhaps he would begin to understand that his job is not merely to consecrate hosts for the people.  He would begin to understand that his act of consuming the Body and Blood of Christ is not merely receiving Holy Communion first before the people.  The priest consumes the Sacred Species to complete the Sacrifice. It is only then that he can invite his people to receive the precious gift of Holy Communion.

Can we hope that this “forced desert” into which we have been cast by the pandemic will be a time to deepen our faith and to rethink our understanding of the Mass?  Just as the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for forty days to prepare for his ministry by being tempted in fundamental ways to renounce who he was and his mission, so let us pray that that same Spirit is pushing us to rethink our understanding of what Catholic worship in the Mass really is: the joining of ourselves to the Sacrifice of the Cross in praise and thanksgiving to God.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla