26 November 2007

"Liberal" Priest & the Extraordinary Form

Hat tip to Fr. Z. for pointing out this excellent piece by Fr. Michael Kerper. If, like me, you are a priest who would rather boil and eat America Magazine than read it, take the time to read this piece. If you are one of those priests who think America Magazine, Commonweal, and NCR(eporter) should be added to the biblical canon, pay attention to the highlighted parts of the article. Fr. Kerper is showing us what it means to serve in humility!

America Magazine: December 3, 2007 (pdf)

My Second First Mass

Fr. Michael Kerper

ON SEPT. 23 I walked down the center aisle of our parish church, genuflected and made the sign of the cross while saying, In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Thus began my first Mass according to the Roman Missal of 1962 more than 22 years after my first experience of celebrating the Eucharist. When Pope Benedict XVI issued his letter of July 7 eliminating most restrictions on the use of the so-called Tridentine Mass, my reaction oscillated between mild irritation (Will this ignite conflict? How will we ever provide such Masses?) and vague interest (Is there perhaps some hidden treasure in the old Mass?). Within a week, letters trickled in. Some demanded a Latin Mass every Sunday, insisting that the pope had “mandated” its regular celebration. Others were more reasonable. In August, I met with a dozen parishioners who wanted the Mass. The meeting became steamy as I explained that I had never said the “old” Mass as a priest and had served such Masses as an altar boy for only two years before everything changed. Some thought I was just feigning ignorance to avoid doing it.

A few days after the meeting, I obtained a 1962 missal, looked through it, and concluded, reluctantly, that I knew more Latin than I had thought. My original cranky demurral crumbled under the force of my own pastoral self-understanding, which had been largely shaped by the Second Vatican Council. As a promoter of the widest range of pluralism within the church, how could I refuse to deal with an approved liturgical form? As a pastor who has tried to respond to people alienated by the perceived rigid conservatism of the church, how could I walk away from people alienated by priests like myself—progressive, “low church” pastors who have no ear for traditional piety? An examination of conscience revealed an imbalance in my pastoral approach: a gracious openness to the left (like feminists, pro-choice advocates, people cohabiting and secular Catholics) and an instant skepticism toward the right (traditionalists).

Having decided to offer the Tridentine Mass, I began the arduous project of recovering—and reinforcing—my Latin grammar and vocabulary so that I could celebrate the liturgy in a prayerful, intelligible way. As I studied the Latin texts and intricate rituals I had never noticed as a boy, I discovered that the old rite’s priestly spirituality and theology were exactly the opposite of what I had expected. Whereas I had looked for the “high priest/king of the parish” spirituality, I found instead a spirituality of “unworthy instrument for the sake of the people.”

The old Missal’s rubrical micromanagement made me feel like a mere machine, devoid of personality; but, I wondered, is that really so bad? I actually felt liberated from a persistent need to perform, to engage, to be forever a friendly celebrant. When I saw a photo of the old Latin Mass in our local newspaper, I suddenly recognized the rite’s ingenious ability to shrink the priest. Shot from the choir loft, I was a mere speck of green, dwarfed by the high altar. The focal point was not the priest but the gathering of the people. And isn’t that a valid image of the church, the people of God?

The act of praying the Roman Canon slowly and in low voice accented my own smallness and mere instrumentality more than anything else. Plodding through the first 50 or so words of the Canon, I felt intense loneliness. As I moved along, however, I also heard the absolute silence behind me, 450 people of all ages praying, all bound mysteriously to the words I uttered and to the ritual actions I haltingly and clumsily performed. Following the consecration, I fell into a paradoxical experience of intense solitude as I gazed at the Sacrament and an inexplicable feeling of solidarity with the multitude behind me.

Even as I cherish this experience, I must confess that I felt awkward, stiff and not myself. Some of the rubrical requirements, like not using one’s thumbs and index fingers after the consecration except to touch the host, paralyzed me. As a style, it doesn’t really fit me (I also can’t imagine wearing lace). But as a priest, I must adapt to many styles and perform many onerous tasks. Why should this be any different? Perhaps we have here a new form of priestly asceticism: pastoral adaptation for the sake of a few. My reluctant engagement with the Latin Mass has not undermined my own priestly spirituality, born of Vatican II. Rather, it has complemented and reinforced the council’s teaching that the priest is an instrument of Christ called to serve everyone, regardless of theological or liturgical style. Ultimately it means little whether Mass is in Latin or in the vernacular, whether I see the people praying or hear their silence behind. For sure, I have my preference, but service must always trump that.


  1. Anonymous2:54 PM

    Ah go for a bit of lace Fr!

  2. Anonymous7:18 PM

    From someone's comment at WDTPRS on this post:

    I was ordained a priest for 20 years before I said my first TLM… only a Low Mass at first. For all those years, I never sang a note at any NO Mass. With the TLM, I slowly began to see myself as a mere instrument of the Liturgy, not it’s faciliator. So eventually I learned the priest’s chants for the Missa Cantata. I endured the humiliation of public singing which I had avoided for 21 years. Suddenly, I realized nobody cared that I wasn’t a great singer. The rubrics required it, and I did it. Later I learned the intricate Deacon and Subdeacon roles so that we could have a Solemn High Mass. Learning my proper place in the Liturgy was exciting. In learning the intricate choreography of the SHM, I learned that the liturgy did not revolve around me, but that I was merely one part of a swirling action around the altar.

    I was a mere humble instrument—easily replaced. I know it sounds self-evident that the liturgy does not revolve around the priest ( me). But in the NO, the priest is the center in more ways than one; he often chooses the music, and the options (which Eucharistic Prayer? sometimes chooses the readings, often composes the Petitions of the Faithful or the Tropes!! etc.) It is his personality and humor that apparently attracts people. He may even decide about the decorations in the sanctuary, and the arrangement of furniture. He may delegate these functions. But he is the Creator of the liturgical space, and its “feel.” The Rubrics of the NO encouarge this type of creativity and novelty.

    However, this is not the case with the TLM. In a Missa Cantata as well as a SHM the priest is subservient, not only to the rubrics, but to the Master of Ceremonies as well. The MC is the boss, not the celebrant… even if the MC is wrong!! haha The MC is a layman in most cases. Indeed, the laity have a very important role in the Extraordinary Form. The priest joins all in being a “servant.”

    Comment by Dom Anselm — 27 November 2007 @ 11:30 am

    Pleeeeease will you sing a Mass for us Father Philip?

  3. Anonymous12:12 PM

    Re: the comment "I can't imagine wearing lace..." Who says you have to? The Tridentine Mass can be said while wearing a Gothic chasuble, etc. with no lace at all. Many though seem to believe that the old Latin Mass MUST be said by a priest who wears a Baroque Roman/fiddleback chasuble, an alb dripping with lace, etc. This is nonsense. Best of luck to you Father, and God bless you!