Monday, June 3, 2013

Mere Priesthood

In the past few weeks there has been a bit of a kerfluffle based on a rather silly survey of a few US priests, regarding the new translation of the Mass.

While the results of that survey must be taken with a grain of salt, I think there is probably some truth in it, in that some priests are dissatisfied with the new translation.

And, I think, that is just fine.

The new translation was easily accepted by the people in part because the Order of the Mass did not change much for us. Oh sure, we had to learn words like "consubstantial," but long sections of each prayer, including the entire Our Father, were kept as-is. We did not have much adjusting to do.

For priests, in contrast, the adjustment was thoroughgoing. And again, I think this is a good thing.

Given the very awkward reality of the versus populum posture, the priest has a number of challenging decisions to make about his ars celebrandi. How much eye contact with the congregation is appropriate, and at what liturgical moments? Where else can he fix his gaze so as not to distract? Will he smile so as to project warmth? Will he hold an upright or a relaxed posture? Will he look at the lectors during the readings so as to indicate attention, or close his eyes, or look directly forward?

These questions become more pointed when the priest speaks. Will he use a normal everyday voice? Does he have a special tone of voice reserved just for saying Mass? Will he take on a persona of an actor, a television anchorman, or a motiviational speaker whom he admires? Will he try to project emotional engagement and pastoral outreach with the prayers? Will he take on the style of a teacher, trying always to get across "the main points?"

A priest who does any of these things will struggle with the new translation.

The orations of the new translation reduce the priest to being merely a priest. He cannot be an anchorman any more, if that was his style. He cannot rattle off the prayer in a casual tone--he cannot be just one of the guys. The new translation does not accommodate itself to play-acting of any kind. And this is really ok.

A priest has the most enviable and difficult job in the world, and once those hands are laid upon them, there is no running away from the task. There's no making it into something else. He is our intermediary, anointed for our service. He's not just one of the guys anymore, and if public speaking is part of his job, the orations are not the time for that. The orations are, clearly, prayers. From us, to God, through him, our other Christ--which is to say through Him--our prayers rise to God.

The priest should normally find the orations to be an ascetic experience, because they do not express merely human desires. The orations elevate our desires, expressing those hopes which as Catholics we ought to desire. It is a high honor to be able to express these prayers, but it is a challenge as well, and speaking them with all their force is bound to feel a bit uncomfortable at the beginning.

For what it's worth, musicians who seek to sing the Church's authentic music undergo a similar ascesis. Instead of doing our best Beyonce or Kingston Trio act, we begin to subsume ourselves to the less-easily-personalized contours of the chant. Instead of choosing our favorite comforting songs, we sing the texts of the Mass appointed for the day. While making enormous gains, at first it can seem that we've lost something. Instead of us shaping the Mass, the Mass begins, over time, to shape us.

And that's just fine.