Why I was glad to see the back of my priest
In gratitude to our priests who celebrate Mass reverently, and particularly ad orientem
I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death–
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.
Grief by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
We are grieving – how we are grieving! Many of us have been crying literal tears for the crimes of our pastors.
Our beloved Catholic Church, which many of us have loved very late, or only after first squandering our inheritance, is reeling, apparently floundering under the weight of her pastors’ sins. The valuable pearl, for which many of us have paid an enormous price, seems tarnished beyond repair.
Yet, She survives. People are still entering the Church. Adults and babies are still being baptised. Children are still receiving the sacraments, even in the impoverished liturgical settings which mark many of our suburban parishes and ornate cathedrals alike. Many of us still attend Mass as frequently as we are able to. What else can we do? We have nowhere else to go.
“Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68)
There have been many good articles written lately about our crisis and how the faithful might make amends for the transgressions of both the abusers and those members of the hierarchy who covered their crimes. Some have suggested fasting or public penance or giving Mass offerings only to parishes faithful to the Magisterium. Others have suggested independent review boards, staffed by laypeople, in every arch/diocese. These actions would all be very helpful.
Also prevalent is an emphasis on personal holiness as a means of reinvigorating the Church. In fact, there has never been a time when this was not an obligation for every single Christian, but the message needs repeating in our times of lackadaisical liturgies and anaemic architecture.
A visit to another parish reminded me how much I wanted to add my voice to the chorus. Contrast is a good teacher.
It’s strange that young children – and older ones, too, in my experience – prefer the ‘rigid’ rituals of the Traditional Latin Masses or devoutly-celebrated Novus Ordo Masses to the hip and relevant love-ins so prevalent in our days. They obviously appreciate, as we adults do, the stillness and calmness of those liturgical events presided over by humble and faithful priests.
In many of these reverently-said Masses, (always in the Extraordinary Form), the priest says many of the prayers, including the consecration, facing away from the congregation. This is known as ad orientem, or toward the east, symbolising our orientation “toward the Lord”, who will return from the East.
The first time I attended a Novus Ordo Mass celebrated in this way was at a small home in the foothills of Mt. Wellington, near Hobart. A bishop was staying with some friends, and it was quite a drive to the nearest church. The bishop, a holy and orthodox man, said a weekday Mass for a group of us, and even in this unusual setting, the increased reverence that the ad orientem form facilitates was evident.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is well-known for promoting the ad orientem orientation. In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, then Cardinal Ratzinger suggested that by facing east, the priest and his congregation anticipate good things for the future: our own constant renewal in Christ. He asked,
“Is it not important, precisely today, to find room for the dimension of the future, for hope in the Lord who is to come again, to recognize, indeed to live, the dynamism of the new creation as an essential form of the liturgy?”
His words remind us that heaven is our true home, our ultimate destination and that our trials will some day end. All the sufferings and humiliations of this world are only the means of attaining our destiny, which is eternal life with the Holy Trinity.
Cardinal Sarah has also spoken of turning to the east. [Source: 2016 Sacra Liturgica conference.] The first paragraph is relevant for all liturgical practices, and not only to the priest’s orientation:
“I wish to underline a very important fact here: God, not man is at the centre of Catholic liturgy. We come to worship Him. The liturgy is not about you and I; it is not where we celebrate our own identity or achievements or exalt or promote our own culture and local religious customs. The liturgy is first and foremost about God and what He has done for us. In His Divine Providence Almighty God founded the Church and instituted the Sacred Liturgy by means of which we are able to offer Him true worship in accordance with the New Covenant established by Christ. In doing this, in entering into the demands of the sacred rites developed in the tradition of the Church, we are given our true identity and meaning as sons and daughters of the Father.
Dear Fathers, we should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: “they have turned their backs to me and not their faces” (2:27). Let us turn again towards the Lord! Since the day of his Baptism, the Christian knows only one direction: the Orient.”
At this point, I would like to say that we love our faithful priests.
You make us want to become holy; your example reminds us of our dear Lord, and makes us less likely to offend Him.
We pour out our souls to you in confession, and you feed us like your children in Holy Communion.
As Jean Baptiste Chautard said, you ‘radiate hope.’
We want to help you carry this heavy cross of scandal and sacrilege.
There was a time, even before this latest shocking round of admissions of abuse and coverups, when I despaired of the Catholic Church ever again being taken seriously by the public, the media, by legislators. Of course, if the Church is doing Her job, then She is bound to be unpopular, but She was once held in relatively high esteem despite Her doctrines being rejected. This was largely due to the integrity of Her clergy and the respect shown to priests by the laity. Those were the days when the celebration of the liturgy itself indicated that something of extreme importance was taking place there. Now the vaguely-catechised amble off to Holy Communion as if they are buying pies at the footy.
But then something happened to give me hope that things will change.
At Mass one day in my own parish, during the consecration, I saw an image of a renewed Catholic Church. I hope I can do justice to the scene that was before me; it is a scene that is repeated daily in my parish and in many others that are like beacons in the fog.
There was Father, kneeling, facing the altar – and facing the tabernacle and the crucifix – with his back to us, of course. His beautiful vestments reminded us of his great dignity as a priest of God; his visage – hidden – symbolised the humble self-effacement proper to a priest. The server, with his personality and identity similarly invisible, knelt behind him, gently swinging the censer. Our dear Saviour looked down from His crucifix onto priest and server, as they offered the Holy Sacrifice on our behalf. And at that moment I realised that the beauty of the Mass and the purity of holy men like these will revitalise our Church, so sullied by the impurity of unholy men.
We should never have worried.
God has had it all in hand, all along.