Rorate Caeli

Defense of the TLM’s “Sacerdotalism”: Full Text of Dr. Kwasniewski’s Michigan Lecture

In the following lecture, recorded in Michigan on March 4, 2022, I defend the “sacerdotalism” or priest-centeredness of the old rite and, accordingly, of its immeasurable superiority for the spiritual life of the priest and for that of his people as well. The video (scroll down to the bottom) includes the Q&A. 

The Relationship between Priest and People in the Latin Mass:
Space and Time for Divine Intimacy

Peter A. Kwasniewski

Critics of the TLM often raise the objection that the priest is “far away” from the people, set apart as the only one offering the liturgy; that he “does everything” and they “do nothing”; that he ignores them, and they are lost; etc. These are the sorts of claims that drove the original liturgical reforms of the 1960s, although it should be noted that it was never the faithful who asked for the reforms, but rather the “experts” who claimed to know best what people needed.

Experience has taught me and study has shown me that the objections are rather superficial and that, if we think about things more carefully, we will find, on the contrary, that the traditional approach makes much more sense of the paradoxes of divine worship. The hieratic distance between priest and people serves to accentuate the divine presence that invites all of us deeper into the liturgy and impresses on us the seriousness of our common work of worship; the priest’s more involved role serves as a model and an invitation for the faithful’s prayer, as they learn from watching and following, like apprentices from a master; and the apparent “ignoring” of us people in the pews by the clergy busy in the sanctuary liberates us from a merely horizontal and human “self-enclosed circle” in which the higher acts of prayer are suffocated in low-level communication and comprehension.

I will take as my point of departure a juicy quote from the blog Where Peter Is. (Maybe some of you have heard of it—it’s a site that promotes a limitless ultramontanism exempt from the requirements of tradition, magisterial consistency, or reason itself. Some wags have dubbed it Where Pachamama Is, but let’s not digress.) In a title that would have served well for the Babylon Bee, the blog published an article called “Pope Francis: Guardian of Tradition“ by a certain Terence Sweeney. Sweeney launches broadsides against the “clericocentrism” of the Tridentine rite and the need for a new Mass that would at last allow the people to have their proper role. He writes:

The Tridentine liturgy centered on a cleric in a parish. All liturgical ministries are conducted by the one celebrant along with other clerics or altar servers dressed in clerical garb. The laity had little role—hearing little and saying less…. A liturgy in which the laity has no active role cannot express the ecclesial reality that the members of the laity do have active roles in virtue of Baptism and Confirmation. The liturgy of the Second Vatican Council is better because it is suited to this era of the Church. More importantly, it activates the full Body of Christ. In fully involving the laity (in the roles proper to them), Vatican II activated the whole Church…. To separate the active apostolate from the active liturgical practice is to foster an ecclesial incoherence. The Roman Rite [sic; he means the Novus Ordo or the modern rite of Paul VI], in contrast, fosters the full coherence of the Church by summoning all to active engagement in the liturgy in ways impossible in the Tridentine Rite.

This way of arguing is so common as to be predictable on the part of those who have little experience and even less understanding of traditional worship. Only one who is profoundly ignorant of liturgical history and theology could forge a terminological contrast between “the Tridentine Rite” and “the Roman Rite” when, in reality, the former was the only Roman Rite the Church had—not just for 400 years but for at least 1400 years if we take into account its full historical sweep from St. Gregory the Great to St. Pius V to the eve of Vatican II, whereas the Novus Ordo bears little resemblance to any liturgy familiar to Catholics prior to the 1960s.

But this all too common misunderstanding gives us a welcome occasion to dig deeper into this problem of lay involvement, so as to arrive at a greater appreciation for the wisdom of tradition.

Distinguish in order to unite

One of Jacques Maritain’s most famous books bore the title The Degrees of Knowledge. Its subtitle is, however, much more interesting: Distinguish in Order to Unite. The book reminds me of a statement in Henri de Lubac: “The more you divide, the less do you really distinguish,” as if to say: by distinguishing two things well, you show how they are, in fact, united to one another in a relationship. We see this most luminously in the mystery of the hypostatic union, where, in Jesus Christ, the divine nature of the Word and the human nature consisting of a rational soul informing an organic body are perfectly united: as in the classic formula of Chalcedon, “distinct but not separated, joined but not confused.”

How wonderfully the traditional Latin Mass distinguishes between the identity of the priest offering the Mass and the identity of the laity who assist—between his role and theirs! By clearly and consistently delineating what is a priestly act and what is a congregational act, the classical liturgy more deeply binds together the celebrant and the people in a common act of worship that is nevertheless hierarchically differentiated. By emphasizing to the maximum the priestliness of the priest, it brings him into the closest spiritual union with the people on whose behalf he serves and for whom he mediates. This, in turn, forms the laity in such a way that they can be mediators vis-à-vis the secular world, whose conversion and transformation is their special vocation.

Christ is the mediator on behalf of man; the priest is a mediator on behalf of the faithful; the faithful are mediators on behalf of the unconverted world. The hierarchical action of the liturgy does not end with the clergy but extends, in this way, to the people and through them to every nook and cranny of creation. But it does so in a hierarchical manner, that is, not higgledy-piggledy, democratically, but in strict accordance with distinctions established by God. This must be so, not only because God delights in order, diversity (rightly understood!), dependency, obedience, service, and sacrificial love, but also because He is, in some mysterious sense, hierarchical in Himself: He is order within absolute unity. The Father is the origin without origin; the Son is originated from the Father and, as one with Him, originates the Spirit; the Spirit is only originated. They are one, yet the Persons proceed in such a way that the “monarchy of the Father” is eternally established.

How we learn to offer the Mass

Paradoxically, it is by seeing what is proper to the priest that the faithful come to understand what is proper to them as a priestly people: we are doing, analogously, what he is doing. We come to know this marvelous truth of our participation in the sacrifice of Christ only by seeing the mystery done outside of ourselves, beyond our reach, and at a level that, in fact, does not belong to us—even as the salvific and sanctifying action of Christ the High Priest surpasses the capacity of any human being.

This is the way we learn almost anything: by watching it done or hearing it explained by someone who knows how to do it well, and then entering into it from below (as it were). The difference, of course, is that with something like literacy, we can eventually become the equal or even the superior of our reading instructor, because a natural skill grows with time and age; whereas with priesthood, there is a qualitative difference in the sacramental character of baptism and the sacramental character of the ordained. The layman is equipped to offer himself, his actions and sufferings, his loved ones, and the world of his work to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; the priest is equipped to offer the very sacrifice of Jesus Christ, on behalf of the same divine Person.

We see this emphasized again and again in the prayers themselves of the old Roman Missal: the separate Confiteors of the celebrant and the servers (they are not interchangeable); phrases in the Offertory like “which I, Thine unworthy servant, offer unto Thee, my living and true God, for my countless sins, trespasses, and omissions; likewise for all here present” and “that it may avail both me and them…”; and plenty of similar examples, which I will return to in a moment.

That the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice is far more evident in the Vetus Ordo than in the Novus Ordo. In its prayers and gestures, the traditional Mass readily presents itself as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in the institution of the New Covenant. I, the worshiper, can see that the priest is going up to the altar on my behalf to offer sacrifice to God for my sins, in continuity with the old priesthood ministering in the Temple with animal sacrifices and incense—now truly accomplished once for all in the self-offering of the divine Victim. Prior to the consecration, the priest puts both hands over the bread and wine as the Old Testament priest would put his hands over the head of the sacrificial victim. This is a clear connection between the Old and the New. Sadly in the Novus Ordo Mass, the language of “calling down the Spirit” has been artificially grafted on to this gesture, completely changing the meaning into a faux Byzantine epiclesis, which the Roman Rite never had and never needed.

No “separation anxiety”

At a sung or high Mass, the salutary separation between priest and people becomes much clearer because of the phenomenon—native to all traditional rites, Eastern and Western—called “parallel liturgy.” Multiple things are happening simultaneously. In the Tridentine Mass as in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, the faithful or the schola may be singing a chant while the priest is saying or doing something else. The liturgy is a complex action with many participants who have different works to perform, yet coalescing around and culminating in a unity. Very different is the the rationalistic construct of “sequential liturgy” favored by the architects of the Novus Ordo, where usually only one thing is allowed to be happening at a time, and everyone must wait until a particular task is done before moving on. This, again, seems to downplay the idea of multiple distinct roles that can overlap like the lines of polyphony in a motet by Palestrina.

The traditional rite makes manifest the nature of the ordained ministerial priesthood and the salutary separation between this and the common priesthood of all baptized believers. The Novus Ordo with its permeable sanctuary, versus populum stance, lay lectors and extraordinary ministers, and so forth, blurs the line between the two, blunting the many lessons and insights that the distinction imparts. The beautiful ways in which the old Mass distinguishes between the priest and the faithful, with so many signs, at so many levels, serves rather to unite the members of the Mystical Body in a common act of worship, where the eye, the hand, the head, and the feet are content to be what they are and to do what belongs to them (cf. 1 Cor. 12:15–26). One might say: there is no body part dysphoria.

In the traditional Latin Mass, I find great comfort in the fact that the priest is offering the Mass on my behalf to Almighty God. He was and is ordained to do so; that is his place, and it helps me to find my own. When a parent has to deal with a fussy baby and can’t follow along, he or she can rest in the peace of the rite, knowing that the Father of the ecclesiastical family is taking care of it for me, on my behalf, and with the awesome power of Christ the Eternal High Priest carrying Him and empowering Him. I can just revel in God’s presence. I don’t feel as if I have to “actively participate” in the Novus Ordo sense to feel like I’ve been to Mass. The action is so mighty and mysterious that my simply being there, with faith and love, is already a tremendous grace, a privilege, a participation deeper than external words or actions.

I “hear” the Mass and I “assist” at it, but I am not carrying it myself, nor is it directed to me; it carries me to the Lord, to whatever extent His grace permits. The rite carries me; I do not carry the rite. The priest, too, though uniquely empowered to offer the holy oblation, is also carried by the rite, no less than the rest of us. Ultimately, we are all drawn by the Cross into the glory of God the Father, “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15).

The priest praying for himself

Given what I’ve already discussed, we can see that a great benefit accrues to the people precisely from the priest himself in the traditional Mass carrying the burden of his unique role as alter Christus or “another Christ,” acting in persona Christi capitis or in the person (that is, on behalf of and by the authority of) Christ the Head of the Church, with numerous ministerial tasks never shared out to the laity, responsibilities specific to himself and to his fellow clergy in the sanctuary. A proper “priestly domain” is traced out, so to speak, by the number of prayers and gestures that only the priest performs.

One of the most tragic aspects of the postconciliar liturgical reform is that, in the mad race to make liturgy more communal, egalitarian, and active, this “priestly domain” was reduced more and more, like the Indian reservations in early America that kept getting smaller and smaller as settlers moved in and took over the ancestral lands. The role of the priest was re-conceived in a functionalist or utilitarian manner; his new work was to engage the people as their dialogue partner, to animate them, to occupy them with pious thoughts (in a best-case scenario); and even when he addressed God in prayers he must do so out-loud and versus populum (towards the people), which creates cognitive dissonance as to who is really being addressed and why. His ministry was evacuated of its own interior spiritual density and earnest focus on God, its mediation of divine gifts, and turned into an extroverted presidency of a social gathering.

Now, there are a lot of problems with this sudden and radical change in the basic conception of what liturgy is and what the priest’s role within it should be. Here I want to focus on the spiritual side of things. 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 such truth is staggeringly obvious, yet its implications seem to be not only ignored, but suppressed: the priest, too, has a soul to sanctify and save.

Stated baldly, this truth is obvious. One might as well say that water is wet, or fire is hot. But one may genuinely wonder if it’s taken as seriously as it ought to be. Especially since the Second Vatican Council, pastoral activism has threatened to turn the priest into a glorified social worker, a man so much oriented to others that he ceases to be oriented to God. The versus populum stance at Mass, so far from being just a groundless bit of false antiquarianism, becomes emblematic of a way of life: the celebrant is not so much offering a sacrifice to God on behalf of the people and of himself as a member of the Church, but rather offering a service to the people, with himself in the role of teacher (at best) or showman (at worst). This dynamic has been analyzed so many times that it hardly needs elaboration.

Consider, in sharp contrast, how the Order of Mass in the traditional Roman Rite makes the priest pray for himself in a deliberate and earnest way. Not for someone else; not for the people; not for a vague set of intentions; but specifically for himself.

After the sign of the Cross, the first words: “I will go in to the altar of God.” The whole of Psalm 42 is recited, alternately with the ministers, as a personal preparation. Here are the priest’s own verses:

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?… Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost…. I will go in to the altar of God.

Then comes the priest’s own Confiteor—not a shared and therefore comfortably untargeted confession, but a personal one to which the rest of the Church bears witness, and after which the lowly servers or subordinate clerics beg the Lord to forgive him specifically:

I confess to almighty God, to blessed Mary ever virgin, to blessed Michael the archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to all the saints, and to you, brethren, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed: [the priest strikes his breast three times saying:] through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary ever virgin, blessed Michael the archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, all the saints, and you, brethren, to pray to the Lord our God for me.”

As the priest mounts the altar steps, he prays in the plural, but surely with himself most of all in mind: “Take away from us our iniquities, we beseech Thee, O Lord; that, being made pure in heart we may be worthy to enter into the Holy of Holies. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” Then bowing to kiss the altar, he prays in the singular: “We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of those of Thy saints whose relics are here, and of all the saints, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to pardon me all my sins. Amen.” Before the Gospel, the priest recites these prayers at the center of the altar:

Cleanse my heart and my lips, O almighty God, Who didst cleanse with a burning coal the lips of the prophet Isaias; and vouchsafe in Thy loving kindness so to purify me that I may be enabled worthily to announce Thy holy Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. Vouchsafe, O Lord, to bless me. The Lord be in my heart and on my lips, that I may worthily and becomingly announce His gospel. Amen.

Perhaps the most striking example of a priest’s prayer for himself is to be found in the traditional Offertory of the Mass, which emerged in the early Middle Ages and is to be found, with similar texts, in all Western liturgical rites.

Receive, O Holy Father, almighty and eternal God, this spotless host, which I, Thine unworthy servant, offer unto Thee, my living and true God, for my countless sins, trespasses, and omissions; likewise for all here present, and for all faithful Christians, whether living or dead, that it may avail both me and them to salvation, unto life everlasting. Amen….

The Lavabo is found in its full form:

I will wash my hands among the innocent, and will compass Thine altar, O Lord. That I may hear the voice of praise, and tell of all Thy wondrous works. I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of Thy house, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth. Take not away my soul, O God, with the wicked; nor my life with men of blood. In whose hands are iniquities: their right hand is filled with gifts. But as for me, I have walked in my innocence; redeem me, and have mercy on me. My foot hath stood in the right way; in the churches I will bless Thee, O Lord. Glory be to the Father…

Of course, many other prayers in the Order of Mass would include the celebrant, but I am keeping my gaze on those that tie in more personally with the priest’s own role, his sinfulness and sanctification. The next obvious candidate, then, would be the “Nobis quoque peccatoribus” of the Roman Canon, when he strikes his breast and gently lifts his voice in humble confession:

To us sinners, also, Thy servants, who put our trust in the multitude of Thy mercies, vouchsafe to grant some part and fellowship with Thy holy apostles and martyrs; with John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and with all Thy saints. Into their company do Thou, we beseech Thee, admit us, not weighing our merits, but freely pardoning our offenses: through Christ our Lord.

The embolism after the Lord’s Prayer:

Deliver us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, from all evils, past, present, and to come: and by the intercession of the blessed and glorious Mary, ever a virgin, Mother of God, and of Thy holy apostles Peter and Paul, of Andrew, and of all the saints, graciously grant peace in our days, that through the help of Thy bountiful mercy we may always be free from sin and secure from all disturbance.

The three prayers of preparation, all of which must be said:

O Lord Jesus Christ Who didst say to Thine apostles: Peace I leave you, My peace I give you: look not upon my sins, but upon the faith of Thy Church, and vouchsafe to grant her peace and unity according to Thy will: Who livest and reignest God, world without end. Amen.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Who, according to the will of the Father, through the co-operation of the Holy Ghost, hast by Thy death given life to the world: 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, Who with the same God, the Father and the Holy Ghost, livest and reignest God, world without end. Amen.

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; Who, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, livest and reignest, God, world without end. Amen.

At the moment of communion, the priest prays privately, still facing east, head bowed to the Lord—and crucially, in the midst of a communion rite of his own that completes the offering of the sacrifice, before he turns to hold aloft the Lamb of God for the congregation:

I will take the bread of heaven, and will call upon the name of the Lord. Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed [thrice]. May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep my soul unto life everlasting. Amen.

What shall I render unto the Lord for all the things that He hath rendered unto me? I will take the chalice of salvation and will call upon the name of the Lord. With high praises will I call upon the Lord, and I shall be saved from all mine enemies. May the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep my soul unto life everlasting. Amen.

Having distributed the Body of Christ, he recites two prayers after communion:

Into a pure heart, O Lord, may we receive the heavenly food which has passed our lips; bestowed upon us in time, may it be the healing of our souls for eternity.

May Thy Body, O Lord, which I have received, and Thy Blood which I have drunk cleave to mine inmost parts: and do Thou grant that no stain of sin remain in me, whom pure and holy mysteries have refreshed: Who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.

Of greatest importance in grasping the theology and spirituality of the Roman Mass is the last prayer said by the priest prior to his giving the final blessing:

May the lowly homage of my service be pleasing to Thee, O most holy Trinity: and do Thou grant that the sacrifice which I, all unworthy, have offered up in the sight of Thy majesty, may be acceptable to Thee, and, because of Thy loving kindness, may avail to make atonement to Thee for myself and for all those for whom I have offered it up. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Mass does not suddenly end but merges into the Last Gospel, a gentle moment of meditation, gratitude, and farewell, when the Beloved Disciple proclaims the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, whom we have just offered and received.

The scandal of the removal of these prayers

Now, we can all agree that the prayers I have just shared with you are extremely rich in their theological and devotional content and in the intensity of their focus on the reality of God with whom, above all, the priest is dealing at Mass. God is more real than a million members of the congregation, more real than a million priests, more real than the liturgy: He is an infinite living fire that consumes with love those who love Him, burns away the iniquities of those who repent, and punishes the wicked with flames of justice. To this God of eternal splendor and righteousness, the Mass brings the priest face to face, breath to breath, heart to heart.

The prayers given to the priest to say must somehow be suitable to the truth of this encounter at the burning bush, at the top of Mount Moriah, at the edge of the celestial Jerusalem. They must plunge him into it and make him recognize the gravity and grace of what he is doing. Not even a thousand prayers could ever be sufficient compared to the one Word uttered from all eternity in heaven; but at least the liturgical rite must show a truthful apprehension of what is taking place, in and through the priest, in his hands, by his voice. The rite will make him pray earnestly for himself and on behalf of the people, for purification, worthiness, and divine help; it will be theocentric, fixed, even fixated on God, and will take the time and the silence and the gestures needed to approach the mysteries thoughtfully and to handle them reverently. That is what we see in abundance in any traditional liturgical rite, including the Latin Mass that we all appreciate for its obvious orientation to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and through Him to the God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all (cf. Eph 4:6).

Is it not, then, a monumental scandal, a frightening departure from wisdom, that nearly all of the priestly prayers I quoted before 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? Not only that, it took away most of the kisses given to the altar, many genuflections, many signs of the cross, a multitude of gestures that tied the priest to the altar, the sacrifice, and the person of Jesus Christ whose high-priestly character he bears. The modern rite barely addresses the subjective disposition of the one offering and the need for careful 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 liturgical 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. The liturgy is above all God’s work on behalf of the people, with the priest at their head—and, as a consequence, he must be especially solicitous for himself, that he may offer the oblation in holiness, in atonement for his own sins and for the sins of the people, and for the strengthening of the inward man, the new Adam, in everyone. To remove or downplay this dimension is to gut the liturgy of that quest for righteousness that makes it serve the foremost need of every Christian, regardless of his place or role in the Mystical Body of Christ.

Looking over the Order of Mass, we cannot help noticing that the Novus Ordo has largely purged this element of the priest praying for himself. While we can readily admit that moral and doctrinal problems existed among clergy before the Council, we have nevertheless seen an exponential rise, a tidal wave, of clerical dereliction and corruption since the Council, and particularly since the introduction of the modern rite of Paul VI.

If we actually believe in the power of prayer, can we not attribute much of our current crisis to the fact that priests (with the exception of the 1% or so that are celebrating the traditional liturgy) are not habitually praying for themselves and making confession and reparation for their sins in the context of the Church’s highest and most powerful prayer—that very sacrifice of the High Priest to whom their ordination configured them and for the offering of which they have been separated and empowered? Such sacerdotal prayers are meant to guide and inspire the priest to offer the liturgy “in spirit and in truth,” imbuing him with the gravity and grandeur of what he is daring to do. When God says to St. Catherine of Siena: “I am He who is, you are she who is not,” He is stating a basic truth of the spiritual life—one that must be forgotten neither in one’s private rooms nor in the Church’s public worship.

The old Mass recognizes the priest’s unique role—for the benefit of all

In his book Cor Jesu Sacratissimum, Roger Buck quotes a priest who sent him the following description:

Unlike the Mass of Vatican II in which a dialogue between celebrant and congregation carries most of the ritual, the prayers and rituals of the Tridentine form demand that the celebrant be continually attentive to the rites he is enacting. His voice varies from being audible to a quiet whisper; his eyes regularly turn to the crucifix; the movements of his hands are conscious and deliberate. Even when he turns to the congregation the greetings are brief, his glance downward, his gestures precise. The Priest is servant of the ritual, and the rubrics foster a mindfulness and self-awareness which not only focus his own attention, but also that of the faithful, as they kneel once more at the foot of the cross of Calvary. Each time before he turns to the congregation the Priest kisses the altar. Priest, altar and sacrifice are at the core of Catholic worship. When he is at the altar offering the sacrifice a Priest’s ministry finds its most sublime expression. His kiss of the altar is not only a sign of honor and respect for the source of his identity, but also an expression of his own affective attachment to his vocation. (303–4)

It is no form of clericalism but simply Catholic truth to say that the priest is indeed given to the people as a model and a guide. All Christians in their baptism—and priests in a new way in their ordination—are ontologically configured to the priestly office of Christ (1 Pet 2:5; Rom 12:1). The priest above all should be setting the example of pursuing the holiness of a priestly people, that we, in turn, might catch fire from that example. The liturgy ought to be the image of the Christian life, not a mere “filling station” where the tank is filled (as a popular Catholic online personality actually had the cluelessness to say!), or a meeting place where we exchange greetings and announcements. Thus, as I discussed earlier, the priest’s offering the sacrifice devoutly and earnestly for himself models to the entire congregation how they, too, must offer the sacrifice of themselves with Christ upon the altar. What he does and says in the liturgy is exemplary for all of us. Lay Catholics who follow along in their daily missals learn how to apply these “priestly” prayers analogously to themselves, too.

In short, as prays the priest, so pray the people. If the liturgy is reduced to a priest’s engagement with the people, the people’s liturgy will be reduced to their engagement with the priest. If the liturgy is oriented to God, with the priest offering intense pleas for his own forgiveness and purification and earnest appeals for sanctification and salvation, the people, too, will ask for the same—often with the same words and even with the same or similar bodily attitudes; they will be habituated to seeing liturgy as the locus of God’s work of salvation among us.

I am reminded here of a saying recounted by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard: “If the priest is a saint, the people will be fervent; if the priest is fervent, the people will be pious; if the priest is pious, the people will at least be decent. But if the priest is only decent, the people will be godless” (The Soul of the Apostolate, trans. A Monk of Our Lady of Gethsemani [Trappist, KY: The Abbey of Gethsemani, 1946; repr. TAN Books, n.d.], 39). Actually, I first heard this saying in another form that is perhaps more striking although melodramatic: “If the priest is an angel, the people will be saints; if the priest is a saint, the people will be good; if the priest is good, the people will be mediocre; and if the priest is mediocre, the people will be beasts.”

Some people might roll their eyes at the supposed “clericalism” of this sentiment, but to me, and I imagine to many others, it expresses a fact about our communal life as Christians that we would be hard-pressed to deny or refute. There will never be an orthodox Christianity in which the priest does not have the primary role in liturgy, as the mediator and the model of our approach to God. This cannot but have ripple effects in every aspect of the Christian life. Are we really surprised that holiness flourished in the parish run by St. John Vianney, or near the confessional of Padre Pio? Examples could be multipled endlessly. As prays the priest, so pray the people; and a priest who lives from and for the altar, the sacrifice, the bread of life, will raise up a people who live from and for the altar, the sacrifice, the bread of life.

Over and over again, experience has impressed upon me the importance not only of what the priest says, but of what he does and how he does it—the ceremonial aspect, the “clothing” of the words. The way the priest is dressed, the way he behaves, the way the acolytes fulfill their tasks, the nature of the sacred vessels, the design of the altar, the gestures and motions: all of these are like the clothing of the mysteries, which are too bright to see without mediation. We can compare it to the clothing of Mary, the Mother of God. Would our Lady wear immodest or ugly clothing unworthy of her dignity? Of course she would not; and neither should we in our public worship of God. All of our rites should be fully and magnificently clothed in the vesture of royalty.

This is how, for example, we should see the use of the noble Latin language—specially set apart after untold centuries of use in the sacred liturgy, consecrated, as it were, to divine service. When we hear the sonorous, lofty, unchanging sound of Latin, we know instantly that we are at worship; the Church’s public homage has commenced; it is offered not for the instant and simple grasp of the people, as a didactic lesson would be, but for God first and foremost, as a sweet offering of incense, the fragrance of ancient orthodoxy and timeless praise, uniting us with the saints of our history and the saints in heaven; the worship rises above the bounds of this present moment in society and culture.

Latin, together with Gregorian chant and periods of silence, serves as a “sonic iconostasis,” a symbolic barrier that, on the one hand, tells us we are on sacred ground and should not succumb to the temptation of excessive, over-easy familiarity with God; and, on the other hand, reminds us forcibly that we are now being invited into the embrace of His divinity, summoned to a foretaste of beauty and happiness that exceeds our earthly concepts and projects. The very differentness of traditional worship is its chief strength, helping us to overcome the “domestication” and the “secularization” of God that is a perennial human temptation, whether in the form of rank idolatry or in the more subtle forms we see in the modern West, like the pursuit of a humanistic interreligious global fraternity that elbows out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Another example of how the traditional Mass is clothed in the vesture of the royalty of Christ is the customs surrounding the Most Blessed Sacrament, which is, after all, Our Lord Himself. The host and the chalice are treated with the uttermost reverence at every moment. An elaborate offertory and the unsurpassable Roman Canon makes it clear that the bread and wine are intended to become, and do become, the sacrificial Victim, the Lamb of God, in the sacramental separation of His Body and Blood.

The priest once again relates in a specifically priestly way to the people by being the only one who handles the Body of the Lord and gives Him to the faithful. When the faithful receive Communion on the tongue, kneeling, the divine nature of the food we are receiving is emphatically proclaimed: we did not earn this food, we could not obtain for ourselves (as we do when we “bring home the bacon”), and we cannot even feed it to ourselves. Only Christ our Lord can feed us with Himself; and thus His minister, who is empowered by the Sacrament of Holy Orders to stand in His place and to do His work, feeds us, who like little children humbly allow ourselves to be nourished. The heavenly gift comes from above, down to our mouths; we obey God who tells us in Scripture: “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.”

All the ceremonies surrounding the Body and Blood, be it the many genuflections, the priest holding together his thumb and forefinger, the thorough ablutions of the fingers and vessels—everything conspires to show us, to reinforce our faith, that we are in the presence of God Himself, whom we must never treat in a casual, sloppy, ordinary way, for that would be no better than contempt. Surrounded by angels, we do not think it too much to imitate, however poorly, their perfect service, which tirelessly attends to every detail.

Two truths are impressed on us when we hear the priest speaking or singing Latin: first, we learn that the realm of the divine, though it penetrates into our world and surrounds it, is also a realm of its own, above and beyond our world. A thousand years ago when more people spoke and understood Latin, its linguistic beauty and nobility would have been appreciated, but it would not have seemed so foreign; and to that extent, I maintain we are more fortunate than they were, because Latin is now so stamped and impregnated with sacred significance that it functions nearly as a sacramental, like holy water that blesses those who use it and those upon whom it falls.

At the same time, as rational animals we should be moved by a desire to grasp the meaning of the Latin—not only its generic symbolic value, but the intelligible content the liturgy is offering us. That is where education comes in: we should pay attention, at least sometimes, to the prayers of the liturgy, starting with the translations in a daily missal; and, as time and opportunity allow, we should learn some ecclesiastical Latin. The special character of the language is not in the least diminished when we start to grasp its meaning; on the contrary, we come to appreciate its incomparable vividness, its poetic beauty, and the subtlety with which it conveys the truths of our Faith.

It is truly a perfect instrument for its purpose in worship, and as we grow in our awareness of it, we see and marvel at that perfection all the more, and penetrate more deeply into the truths expressed in the language. Mystery and catechesis, liturgy and education, do go together as natural companions. Even if it is true that the traditional Latin Mass does a lot more “silent catechizing” than the Novus Ordo does, much of the liturgy will remain a “closed book” unless we take some time to deepen our understanding of its prayers, antiphons, readings, and ceremonies. Fortunately it has never been easier to do this than it is today, when we have access to excellent books and articles that can serve as guides on this road of discovery. My book Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright is designed as a helpful resource of this kind, and also contains an annotated bibliography, which includes books for younger readers and recommended websites.

To conclude: the sorts of things I have been describing in my talk this evening—the hieratic distance between clergy and people in the old Mass; the dense content of the priest’s own prayers, which are often heard aloud by no one else; the use of Latin, chant, and silence as a sonic iconostasis; the manner of handling and distributing Holy Communion—can all be taken as illustrations of a general principle: catechesis is more or less worthless if the signs of the liturgy contradict it. To put it positively, the first and most elementary catechesis is how we act in the liturgy. How we act, in turn, shapes and is shaped by what we say we are doing in the liturgy—and I mean, not what we say about  the liturgy outside of it, but what is said within it and by it. Of Jesus Christ, we read in the first verse of the Acts of the Apostles: “He began to do and to teach.” The doing precedes the teaching.

In its acta et dicta, the traditional form of the Mass more fully expresses and more intentionally inculcates the virtues at the heart of the Christian life than does its 1969 replacement. If we want to take Christianity seriously—if we really believe in the existence of truth, virtue, prayer, holiness, and eternal life—we will return, as swiftly as we can, to a liturgical rite that takes these things seriously and, in its texts and rubrics, imposes them on the celebrant, as a sweet yoke and light burden uniting Him with Christ.

The traditional Latin Mass is the ideal form of liturgical prayer not only for the laity but also, in a very special way, for the priest. 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.

Let us pray for our priests who already love the TLM, who are now under a great deal of strain and suffering; let us pray for priests who may be open to learning it; let us pray for more and more vocations to the traditional priesthood and religious life. Wicked men who seek to extinguish the works of God may succeed for a short time but their “cancel cultus” campaign will not ultimately prevail. We must have confidence in Our Lord and in the intercession of His Holy Mother, who, when she says “they have no more wine,” will bring about new miracles of multiplication. May Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, intercede for all priests—and for all of us.

Thank you for your kind attention.