Rorate Caeli

Should Sacred Ministers Mask? Observations and Analysis from a Woman in the Pews

The author of the following essay wishes to remain anonymous.

Should Sacred Ministers Mask? Observations and Analysis from a Woman in the Pews

In almost every Catholic church around the world, one can now find priests wearing masks. Most priests who offer the Traditional Latin Mass have adopted the mask only very reluctantly. Something within them protests against masking during liturgies, but then they dismiss this as imprudence, or aestheticism, or misguided zeal. They conclude that they must “mask up” and bear this cross for the good of their flock.

Ought they, though? Does this really help the flock?

Priests following Christ walk the way of the Cross. The faithful know that. They know that priests today live constantly between a rock and a hard place. When Veronica saw the face of Our Lord, the High Priest, obscured at the whim of the brutal world, she did not remain a bystander. She ran to assist Him and bring honor to His holy face. I hope then, that far from posing a complaint or a condemnation, my study of the mask question may assist holy priests as they discern the path ahead and walk the road to Calvary.

The faithful who have swum from the post-conciliar shipwreck to the shores of the traditional liturgy, have come tattered and starving, disoriented, and hardly able to express the needs of their souls. With the traditional liturgy they found a beautiful mother who took them in her arms and whispered in the tongue of symbolism. She gave them food in the form of Christ Himself, and she gave Him in such a way that their hearts could receive Him as a king. When the faithful see the beauty of their nourishing mother marred by the mask, the countersign, which seeks to drown out her tender whisperings, they cannot help but protest. They are children appalled at the attack on their mother.

I recently told a priest of my distress when I saw priests who otherwise avoided the use of masks, don masks for the distribution of Holy Communion. [1] He seemed dismissive as if this were not so bad; after all, the New World Order has successfully compelled most priests to wear masks for the entire Mass. Why should I have a conniption about this little compromise? In the following three parts of this article, I will explain why the mask, even if worn by only one person in the sanctuary and for only a short period of time, is still a blight on the liturgy, a symbol of conformism that confuses the faithful, a white flag raised in the face of the New World Order, and a dangerous precedent for further invasive tampering with the sacred rites.

Two articles already exist in this vein—one from Dr. Peter Kwasniewski (link) and one from an anonymous religious sister (link). I now make my own contribution.


1. The Mask’s Assault on the Beauty of the Holy Mass

I must begin by stating the obvious: masks obscure the human face in an ugly way. A brief consideration of St. Thomas Aquinas’ conditions for beauty may help to reveal the reasons for this. He says:

Beauty includes three conditions, integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color. [2]

Integrity requires completeness, or wholeness, which of course, the masked face lacks. A mask does not frame the face like a lady’s hat or a nun’s wimple; [3] it simply covers the face. In covering the face, the mask does not reveal more of the human person in the way that modest clothing reveals and highlights the human spirit; rather, the mask stands like a shade over the face, the window of the spirit. [4] Regarding proportions, the mask deletes two-thirds of the face, the focal point of the human form, thereby doing violence to the entire human’s proportions. Whether a priest wears a blue surgeon’s mask, a black “professional” mask, a mask that matches the liturgical colors, or a trendy bandana, his masked face loses its right proportion. Furthermore, the mask mars the clarity of his face by covering its natural color, material, and expressions. One cannot tamper with the human form in such a drastic way without causing drastic aesthetic problems. The mask’s disruption of integrity, due proportion, and clarity in the human face generates objective ugliness.

Even in the humble art of dress, one learns that one cannot mix finery with working gear without creating a clash antithetical to harmony. If a bride decides to wear combat boots and a flak jacket with her gown, she violates the principle of harmony and consequently makes herself appear ugly. Her dress may be beautiful and the military gear useful, but the clash between them generates ugliness. Likewise, a priest in a mask, no matter how lovely his vestments, and no matter how respectable the mask, bears real ugliness.

In the broader context of the sanctuary, masks fare no better. Here, they destroy the harmony essential to the beauty of the scene, starting with the priest’s own person and extending out to the entire architecture of the church building. One enters a gothic church and beholds shimmering stained-glass, carved wood replete with finials, towering arcades, shining tabernacles, Persian rugs, and then, there at the altar, a priest in silk damask and a disposable blue surgeon’s mask. 

The priest vested beautifully for Mass fits within the beauty of the traditional furnishings and architecture surrounding him—that is, until he masks. Then harmony goes out the stained-glass window. The sanctuary becomes the visible equivalent of a Beethoven symphony played in a building with a screeching fire alarm cutting through all of the most beautiful melodies.

Surgeons in their operating room may not strike us as beautiful in their masks and scrubs, but at least there exists consistency in the overall scene. A passerby would say, “Ah! They look like surgeons.” Now if surgeons, for some odd reason, decide to wear chasubles along with their masks and scrubs, the passerby would naturally ask, “What on earth is going on? Why are they mixing these things?” I fear that vested ministers who add a mask to all their heavenly finery look even more foolish. One ought not—cannot not—laugh, so one can only cry. A friend tried to comfort me by telling me Jesus wore garments of mockery. I rejoined that He also flipped tables when they desecrated the temple. But putting all wryness aside, the liturgy does not exist to join in mockery of Him but to glorify Him as Lord of Heaven and Earth.

In addition to the beauty of the visible and the audible (physical beauty), there exists spiritual beauty. St. Thomas describes both physical and spiritual beauty as they pertain to man:

Hence the beauty of the body consists in a man having his bodily limbs well proportioned, together with a certain clarity of color. In like manner spiritual beauty consists in a man’s conduct or actions being well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason. [5]

A priest devoutly offering the Divine Sacrifice radiates beauty as his action fits in perfect proportion with the order of creation and God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. The reasonableness of worshiping God in the Sacrifice of the Mass shines with spiritual brightness and clarity. The act of offering the Divine Sacrifice is the most beautiful thing a priest can do. [6]

When the faithful see their priest don a mask at the order of worldly powers, they see conformism to the world; they see the priest intentionally disregarding his intellect which they know almost certainly protests; [7] and they see their priest, whom they know to be a man of good taste, intentionally silencing his aesthetic sense which cries out against the mask as a blight on the beauty fitting for the scene of the Holy Mass. This conformism which exacts such a terrible price from the priest defies the principle of proportion by placing human respect and the homage to “science” (often enough, pseudo-science) above homage to God. In this inversion of priorities, the clarity of reason cannot shine. Thus, conformism is ugly; the faithful can easily sense it, though it differs from the ugliness of the visible realm. Regardless of whether the faithful know the priest acts with the best intentions, the spiritual ugliness generated by his conformism remains. The faithful feel their hearts sink when they perceive such ugliness and a cloud of defeat seems to hang over the head of their shepherd even as he believes he acts for their good.

Finally, in addition to the visible and spiritual ugliness that comes with the mask and exists in and of itself whether anyone perceives it or not, the mask also brings a subjective element of ugliness that varies by person. For instance, masks always strike me as sordid things. When I see one, I can’t help but think of damp, stale breath. Memories of discarded masks littering the sidewalks come to my mind. Others may find their thoughts drawn to politicians wearing masks, or antagonistic interactions at local businesses. While associations vary by person, for most of the faithful, it’s safe to guess that their individual associations with masks will only add to the negative impact the mask has on the liturgy. [8]


2. The Mask’s Assault on the Symbolism of the Holy Mass

Catholics who love tradition understand the great role of symbolism in the liturgy and the immense pedagogical power which symbols wield. The faithful who take time to study the traditional liturgy uncover layer upon layer of symbolism which, watered by the Holy Ghost, have grown up organically over centuries. The priest’s vestments are no exception. Indeed, as they pertain to the priest who stands in persona Christi, one could argue they rank as some of the most important of the liturgy’s symbols.

Every piece of the priest’s vesture—amice, alb, cassock, stole, cincture, maniple, and chasuble—symbolizes profound truths about the priest, the Holy Mass, and ultimately, Christ Himself. For instance, the chasuble signifies the sweet and light yoke the priest takes on as a gift from Christ. The priest wears the chasuble over all his other vestments to signify charity, the cloak which must cover all his other virtues. The chasuble hanging over his front and back signifies the two great commandments which Christ commands His followers to obey—love of God and love of neighbor. [9] Also, what the priest doesn’t wear—his wristwatch (taken off before Mass as a sign of timelessness of the Holy Sacrifice) and, at certain points in the Mass, his biretta (taken off to render particular homage to God)—bears symbolic value. In summary, the priest’s vestments are laden with symbols of virtues, symbols of Christ’s Passion, symbols of spiritual combat, symbols of death to the world, and symbols of Heaven. The symbolism isn’t just some optional “effect” or nice-to-have. Rather, it is the primary pedagogical tool the liturgy employs to illustrate the elevated nature of the priesthood and call to mind the person of Christ the High Priest. [10]

To throw in a mask as de facto a new article of priestly clothing, an article more prominent than any chasuble because of its dominance of the face, the central focus of the human form, is a sure way to introduce a contrasting symbol that not only distracts from the messages of the other symbols, but actually contradicts them as well. Where before the people saw vestments calling to mind virtue, Christ, the beauty of Heaven, and death to the world, now they see an article of everyday utility, a sign of sickness, a sign of conformism to the powers of the world, a sign of fear.

The mask invariably makes some combination of the following three statements about the priest who wears it: 1) “The priest is afraid of getting sick.”  Or 2) “The priest is afraid of getting you sick.” Or, perhaps most commonly for the priest who loves tradition, 3) “The priest is afraid his parish will get shut down.” Fear. This is the dissonant chord struck by the mask. Fear for the body. Fear of worldly powers. Miserable conformism to a dictatorship of psychotic sanitization. The mask is so tiny, so simple, but its ugliness amplifies its dissenting message to a volume that fairly screams above all the other symbols of the priest’s vesture. One has only to see a masked bishop in full pontifical raiment to realize that the mask steals the show.

Those who love tradition know that in addition to the symbol-charged vesture of the priest, virtually every movement he makes from the beginning of the Mass until he returns to the sacristy bears deep symbolism. The traditional rubrics tell him what to do with his head, his hands, and even his fingers as the Mass progresses.

It’s beyond my scope to run through the symbolism of the entire liturgy from start to finish, but by way of a brief example, consider this description of the priest’s arrival at the altar. When the priest arrives at the altar, he places his folded hands on it in such a way that the ends of his little fingers touch the front of the altar (representing the dual nature of Christ which allows him to approach) and his middle three fingers lie just on top of the altar (representing the faithful presented to the Father by his mediation), and finally, his crossed thumbs remind him of how the rubrics of the Church bind him as he offers the Mass. He then kisses the altar as the vessel that brings the Lord to us, as it symbolizes Christ the Cornerstone, as a sign of reference towards the relics of the saints it contains, and, most beautifully of all, he kisses the altar as Christ kisses the Church, His beloved bride. [11]

The faithful who have learned the symbols of the liturgy or at least have some intuition of the profundity of the priest’s stylized movements, cannot help but sense a terrible disorder and real loss when the priest bends down to hover his masked face just above the altar without actually kissing it. [12]

And this is just the start of Mass. As the liturgy progresses, things go from bad to worse. The priest might temporarily remove the mask and put it on the gradine where it lies alongside gold-plated candlesticks, flowers, and the relics of saints like an uncouth intruder. He then invariably book-ends the distribution of Holy Communion with the donning and doffing of the mask. Once again, the faithful who know the care the priest takes not to use his thumb and index finger for anything but touching the consecrated host, vaguely wonder how the priest can stand for this imposition.

Of course, the faithful know the liturgy allows for the human weakness of the priest. They have seen him reach up his sleeve for a handkerchief and then blow his nose or wipe his brow; they have seen him sneeze and cough; they have seen him adjust his glasses or his chasuble. But they always recognize each of these acts as a concession granted for an incidental necessity and sometimes unavoidable demands of the body even at the most sacred moments. These simple gestures don’t disturb the faithful with political baggage, and they never become a regular practice which inserts itself into the ritual the way the mask routine does. 

It doesn’t matter if liturgists or theologians make lofty arguments on how the mask can’t really corrupt the liturgy because it’s not an inherent evil; the glaring effect of the masked priest buries the arguments which seek to justify it. This new piece of vesture truly disturbs and harms the faithful because it mars the beauty of the Mass, conflicts with the Mass’s symbolism, and mixes political and worldly connotations with the liturgy of Heaven.


3. A Word to Priests on the Use of Masks in the Sanctuary

Dear Priests,

In the previous two parts of this article, I have discussed the use of the mask in the sacred liturgy and concluded that it harms the faithful. Now, I wish to address you directly with love and simplicity and encourage you to uphold the dignity of the sacred liturgy.

Hildegard von Bingen wrote this beautiful antiphon in honor of the Church’s priest confessor saints:

O successores
fortissimi leonis,
inter templum et altare
dominantes in ministratione eius
sicut angeli sonant in laudibus
et sicut assunt populis
in audiutorio,
vos estis inter illos
qui hec faciunt,
semper curam habentes in officio Angi.

Successors of
the mighty Lion,
between the temple and the altar
commanding in his service:
as angels sing in praise resounding
and quicken to defend the people
with their aid—
so you among them
as they do these things
keep ever carefully the office of the Lamb. [13]

The antiphon calls the confessors the “Successors of the Lion,” which naturally makes them lions as well. These lions stand between the temple and the altar—that is, in the sanctuary—and tend carefully to the office of the Lamb. Dear priests, you too are successors of the Lion. You must stand like lions in the sanctuary and keep carefully the office of the Lamb. The faithful count on you to do this. They learned from their earliest days in the traditional world that the Communion rail sets the sanctuary apart as the Holy of Holies, the place where Heaven breaks onto Earth and eternity breaks into time. Looking in from the nave they marvel; they rejoice. But when their priest masks, he disturbs this mystical chord that sounds in their hearts. He adds a note of such dissonance that the faithful can hardly bear to look at what was once their greatest joy. For the good of the faithful, I beg that you treat the Communion rail like a rampart, an impregnable wall. Do not allow the clawing fingers of the Sanitary Dictatorship to cross this line and violate even the smallest part of the sacred liturgy—even at the expense of being shut down.

I know very well that priests who mask have good intentions. They believe they will set an example for the people and show that they will take the hit. They believe that they must be the sacrificial lambs that save the parish from the health department or chancery. They will be the blood on the door that wards off the angel of “cease and desist.” If the bishop hears complaints about noncompliance at a priest’s parish, the priest will go to him and say, “Look, I mask—I can’t force anyone else to,” and thereby try to shield the people who won’t. But these sacrifices, though kindly meant and heroically suffered, have a tone of defeatism and compromise that confuses the faithful. If the priest does not stand for the sacred rites themselves, then what does he stand for? 

Many priests will argue that the mask is not an inherent evil and therefore must be tolerated even in the sanctuary. They assure themselves they will gladly make a stand when the inherent evil does come. But will the cunning Sanitary Dictatorship make the enormous tactical blunder of giving its victims the coveted prize of red martyrdom? Will it show itself for what it is in our lifetime? If it does, then its game is over. No, it has only just begun with its clever, creeping measures calculated to destroy the Faith in the most secret and quiet ways. It can do much more before it ever asks anyone to perform inherently evil acts.

In reality, timid, careful priests, looking out vigilantly for the elusive “inherent evil,” will spend their whole lives forlornly accepting invasions that come under the guises of “health measures,” “safety measures,” and even “pro-life measures.” To shield their minds from the fact that these “measures” embody nothing but so many acts of obeisance to the New World Order, priests will have to live in a very painful state of denial. And as Peter Kwasniewski starkly puts it: “With this kind of ‘playing dead,’ pretty soon the Church will move past playing dead—it will just be dead. And thus does Christian faith go out... not with a bang, but with a whimper.” [14]

God’s ministers insist that they must do what it takes to stay open; they simply must get the people the Sacraments. They may not realize it, but they begin playing God when they adopt this attitude. God will supply the Sacraments when and where and how He wills. And there is such a thing as the underground. [15] How do priests know they “must” compromise the liturgy? Allowing the erosion of the sacrality of the liturgy in the name of “getting the people the Sacraments,” is the same flawed strategy that has led to the Novus Ordo “Sacramental Delivery Systems” (SDSs) we see today. [16] The SDS approach does not serve the people; it harms the people; it results in the loss of Faith and the loss of souls and much sacrilege besides.

I bring this plea to priests who love tradition: Make the resolve to disallow masks within the sanctuary. In this wordless and unmistakable way, tell the people, faithful and secular alike, that no matter what the world says, you priests are the custodians of the sacred liturgy and the shepherds of souls, and you will not allow ugly countersigns to invade the liturgy and harm your flocks. By making this stand for the protection of the liturgy, you will bring far more reverence to the Holy Eucharist and the sacred mysteries (even if you are shut down) than if you were to proceed under the terms of the Sanitary Dictatorship. You will be misunderstood and maligned, but remember the Psalm verse you pray every week in the Breviarium Romanum: “Quoniam zelus domus tuae comedit me: et opprobria exprobrantium tibi ceciderent super me.” (Psalm 68:9) “For the zeal of Thy house hath eaten me up: and the reproaches of them that reproached Thee are fallen upon me.” Do you mean that when you pray it? Then show your flock. Show them you will stand like lions between the temple and the altar, keeping the office of the Lamb and protecting the sacred liturgy, our nourishing mother.


NOTES

[1] Excerpt from National Catholic Register interview with His Eminence, Cardinal Burke: “There are many difficulties with the practice of priests distributing Holy Communion while wearing a mask and covering their hands with gloves,” Cardinal Raymond Burke told the Register May 26. “Our faith tells us that the priest acts, in virtue of sacramental grace, in the person of Christ Head and Shepherd of the flock. The priest fulfills his divinely-given mission most fully and perfectly in the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and in the distribution of Holy Communion, the sublime fruit of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Wearing a mask and gloves, while fulfilling his most important service of the faithful is a countersign. It gives the impression that the priest is a mere functionary carrying out the action of the Holy Mass and distributing the Sacred Hosts, instead of Christ himself who comes to give himself — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity — to his faithful.” National Catholic Register, “Why Some Italian Catholics Object to Distribution of Communion With Gloves and Masks”, Edward Pentin, 3 June 2020.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Green Bay: Aquinas Institute, Inc. 2012 – 2018), Ia, q. 39, a. 8.


[4] New Liturgical Movement, “The Temptation of Christ and the Facelessness of the Devil”, David Clayton.

[5] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, q. 145, a. 2.

[6] Does the priest’s offering of Holy Mass exceed even the beauty of martyrdom? Yes, it does, because martyrdom, while a gift to God, is not God giving Himself to God, as in the Holy Sacrifice.

[7] I am not arguing here for or against the efficacy of the mask in preventing the spread of germs. One may find studies which say the mask does nothing and studies (though often dubious) which say it is indispensable. I am, however, pointing out that the faithful know their priests. They know their priests are well-educated men with common sense. The faithful know that the priests know that we are not dealing with the Bubonic plague here. The faithful know that priests, like the rest of the sane world, can deduce that the virus we’re dealing with is not at all the killer that the propaganda machines of the New World Order make it out to be. It is not some deadly mustard gas wafting through their churches, causing its victims to drop like flies in the pews; indeed, if it were, flimsy cloth masks would be a rather pitiful defense!

[8] One could put forward the argument that associations go both ways, and that there is such a thing as having good associations. For instance, some of the faithful may associate the mask with the priest’s solicitude for the health of his people. However, this only strengthens the primary association between the mask and sickness, or at least supposed sickness, and demands elaborate mental gymnastics.

[9] Rev. James W. Jackson, FSSP, Nothing Superfluous (Lincoln, Nebraska, 2016), 67–77.

[10] It is important to note that even if the faithful do not know all of the symbolism expressed by the vestments, the overall beauty of the vestments and their otherworldliness will not fail to strike them as profound. With everything in the traditional liturgy, vestments included, the faithful experience a sense of wonder, a sense of there being “something greater than Solomon here.” They might not know anything about the symbolism of the priest’s vestments, but they intuitively sense that there is symbolism there and many more things they don’t know, and this fills them with a sweet and mysterious joy. They feel like children in a new and beautiful world, which, of course, is exactly as they should feel as children of God assisting at the heavenly liturgy. Needless to say, when the priest wears a mask, he mars this experience.   

[11] Jackson, Nothing Superfluous, 118–119.

[12] I’m keeping the focus on masks here, but I can’t refrain from pointing out that in liturgies where the mask appears, one often encounters corresponding and even more appalling “health measures” surrounding the distribution of the Eucharist. May God forgive us.

[13] International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies, “O successores”. 

[14] Life Site, “It is time for civil disobedience in the name of fidelity to Christ”, Peter Kwasniewski. And another helpful source: Life Site, “Why priests and laypeople must work around bishops forbidding sacraments for COVID” by the same author. 


[16] “If the Mass were supposed to be a schoolroom lesson and/or an SDS (Sacramental Delivery System), then of course it should be as short and simple and to the point as possible, streamline for optimal data transfer and receipt of goods, a sort of ‘Amazon Prime’ of the spiritual life. But this premise is totally false. The Mass is our earthly participation in the beatific liturgy of Heaven, where the angels and saints in communion with the Eternal High Priest are praising the Almighty in song and adoring Him face to face. When this heavenly worship pierces through the veil that separates us from eternity, the result is the sacred liturgy.” Peter Kwasniewski, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright (Angelico Press: Brooklyn, New York, 2020), 203-204.

 

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