Matt C. Abbott
The Latin Mass and one priest's 'science fiction'
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By Matt C. Abbott
August 14, 2011

In a recent parish bulletin, Father Bill Conway, pastor of Divine Savior Parish in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., wrote (excerpted and slightly edited; click here to see the bulletin):

    It is worth one's time to consider what some of the Church's leading theologians at the Second Vatican Council thought and wrote concerning the Eucharist and liturgy. In recent years one hears some speaking of the role of the priest in the liturgy as acting in persona Christi ('in the person of Christ'). My fear with such language is that it may have the effect of clericalizing the celebration of the Eucharist, making the assembly once again a passive observer....

    While I respect the decision of the Holy Father to permit the extraordinary rite of the Tridentine Mass (please note 'extraordinary'), my criticism of this form is that by the very manner of its celebration it renders the role of the laity to being little more than onlooker. In fact, it was precisely because of this that the Council Fathers in Sacrosanctum Concilium mandated the reform of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Mass: 'In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else (#14).'

    Phrases such as in persona Christi [and] ad orientem, I believe, run contrary not only to the spirit of Vatican II but to the very tradition of the Church. Jesus did not celebrate the Last Supper with His back to the apostles (ad orientem) but rather reclined at table with them....

I asked Father John Trigilio Jr., president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, to comment on Father Conway's assertions. Father Trigilio, as he has done on previous occasions, graciously provided me with the following response:

    Father Conway needs to reread the actual texts of the Second Vatican Council as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His Eucharistic theology is interesting, but not Catholic. If he has a problem with the notion of 'in persona Christi,' then he has a problem with Holy Mother Church.

    The conciliar document Presbyterorum Ordinis had this to say about the phrase 'in persona Christi' in relationship to the priesthood: 'Priests act especially in the person of Christ as ministers of holy things, particularly in the Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrifice of Christ who gave Himself for the sanctification of men.'

    'Thirty years later, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms this teaching:

      'It is in representing [Christ] that the bishop or priest acting in the person of Christ the head (in persona Christi capitis) presides over the assembly, speaks after the readings, receives the offerings, and says the Eucharistic Prayer.' (1348)

      'Only validly ordained priests can preside at the Eucharist and consecrate the bread and the wine so that they become the Body and Blood of the Lord.' (1411)

    Lex orandi, lex credendi. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass embodies what Catholicism believes about the Holy Eucharist. The teachings on the ministerial priesthood and on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are embodied in how the Mass is celebrated. What we believe and how we worship are integrally and organically connected.

    The congregation does not consecrate bread and wine. The common priesthood of the baptized faithful does not have the power to transubstantiate bread and wine into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. The ordained ministerial priesthood alone acts in persona Christi and consecrates bread and wine into the Real Presence for the sake of the people of God. Needing to be spiritually fed, the priest, like Moses of old, provided food for the journey. The manna given in church is the Precious Body and Blood of Christ. The people receive and are fed. The priest is the one who provides and then feeds the people the bread from Heaven.

    The faithful participate in the sacrifice by their offering of themselves. This is why the English translation of the Roman Missal is being corrected to have the priest say at the preparation of the gifts: 'Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.' Previously, the English said 'our sacrifice' even though the Latin was always ut meum ac vestrum sacrificium so as to distinguish the sacrifice of the priest (who acts in persona Christi as an 'alter Christus') from the sacrifice of the faithful.

    Divine worship and Church doctrine coincide and correspond with one another. A theology based on the premise that the congregation or the common priesthood of the baptized consecrates the bread and wine at Mass is not Catholic (and certainly not Eastern Orthodox, either). What also worries me is the one-liner in Father Conway's bulletin: 'Would that those who wish to restrict or limit the presence and active participation of women in the liturgy take heed.'

    Sounds dangerously close to a heretical notion some dissident priests — and one or two nutty bishops — have been recently espousing. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis ended the debate once and for all. It is an infallible teaching of the Church that only baptized males can be ordained. It is also infallible teaching that only the priest consecrates the bread and wine at Mass.

    I suggest that [Father Conway] get some remedial catechesis so he can better instruct his flock on what the Church truly teaches as opposed to his own personal theories, which are more akin to science fiction than divinely-revealed truth.

Responding to the same commentary, Susan Gorski of Illinois sent the following (edited) email to Father Conway:

    'I write to you out of concern for your commentary about acting 'in persona Christi' in your July 31 bulletin. You write about your fears and you criticized a form of worship that is centuries old. Clericalizing the celebration of the Eucharist? I thought it required a priest to consecrate the host into the Body and Blood of our Divine Lord; is this no longer true? Do you openly express that you think the pope was wrong? Do you doubt transubstantiation?

    'You criticize the extraordinary form of the Mass as though it demotes humanity and relegates them to mere onlookers; but that is not true. In the Tridentine rite, everyone participates in the worship of God as led by the priest by intelligently and reverently praying the Mass.

    'The blurring of the distinction and dignity that is the institutional priesthood appears to be a desire to dissolve the priesthood entirely. One of the exact titles of the papacy is Servus Servorum, or servant of the servants. This is an indicator of the responsibility you hold as a priest for the care of the souls in your charge.

    'Are you to be a shepherd of the flock, or a hireling that runs away when the going gets difficult? This is a major difference between a priest and a lay minster. Are there wolves out there ready to scatter the flock? Perhaps you do not believe in an actual devil. If you do not believe in the devil, then who is doing his work now? Is there not evil in this world that is beyond the scope of social justice, or is that all there is?

    'I've heard a number of priests in the Diocese of Joliet say they believe that salvation of souls is achievable through social justice — and they do not believe that the most important work of the priest is the salvation of souls through the sacraments. They feel salvation comes mostly or entirely through social justice; but this is only a very small portion of their priestly responsibility.

    'In the Traditional rite, the priest leads the people in worship of God and the people follow in worship to God. The priest is a servant of the people by being a servant to God first. He is to uphold the faith, he is to care for his flock, and if he should lose one of them, he should go out and search until he finds the lost sheep. This is the traditional priesthood.

    'Priests' hands are anointed for a reason. He is not a hireling; he is married to the Church and is to be her defender. So why do you question the teaching of the Magisterium on in persona Christi? Why do you fear it? Do you doubt your faith? This is what I read when I read your column in the bulletin. Sharing that doubt and fear with your flock means their shepherd isn't comfortable upholding the teachings of the Church.

    'I am praying for you, Father Conway.'

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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