Out of the Fog
Given the fact that the priesthood and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are profoundly united, it is important to examine the long-term effects which the Novus Ordo Missae has had on the priesthood itself. This could be done, of course, on a theoretical level by speaking to any priest of the SSPX. It seemed to us, however, important to get not just the theoretical point of view but also a real life, practical understanding of this topic from a priest who has celebrated the Novus Ordo Missae and who has left it behind for the Mass of the Ages. To this end, what follows is an interview with Fr. X, who has kindly consented to help us understand how the Novus Ordo Missae has affected the Catholic priesthood over the years.
The Angelus: Father, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Could you give us some background on your experiences as a priest who has celebrated the Novus Ordo and has since come to offer only the traditional Mass?
Fr. X: I have been a priest for almost 28 years, and for 21 of those years offered only the Novus Ordo Missae. Through those years, not having had any experience of the traditional Mass except as an object of study in the seminary, I intellectually accepted the notion that by offering the Novus Ordo I was fulfilling my proper role as a priest in the Church. I say “intellectually” because my experience of the Novus Ordo was profoundly different. This tension between what I thought and what I experienced was, over time, causing a certain intellectual dissonance—what I had been taught about the priesthood and the Holy Mass in the seminary was not what I was experiencing at the altar while offering the Novus Ordo. It was not until I began to learn and then to offer the traditional Mass that this dissonance was overcome.
The traditional Mass, because it fully expresses the perennial understanding of the Sacrifice of the Mass, allows the priest offering it the intellectual ability to understand his role and his sacred duties. Since the Novus Ordo Missae, “a fabricated, on the spot production,” to use the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s assessment, departed drastically from the Catholic understanding of the Mass as defined by the Council of Trent (see The Ottaviani Intervention, available at Angelus Press), it effectively forces the priest to live with this constant dissonance if he continues to maintain the traditional Catholic understanding of the priesthood.
The only other solution to removing this dissonance (as opposed to offering only the traditional Mass) is to change one’s understanding of the priesthood, which, unfortunately, many priests have done.
The Angelus: What do you mean by changing one’s understanding of the priesthood?
Fr. X: When we speak of the priesthood in the traditional Catholic sense we are speaking of a man who, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) or, expressed another way, as an alter Christus (another Christ). In other words, he offers the sacrifice of the Cross in an unbloody manner to God the Father for the atonement of sin, and then brings these graces back to the people.
In the understanding of the Novus Ordo Missae, the priest is the one who “presides” at the “celebration of the Eucharist,” a sort of sacred Master of Ceremonies if you will, who gathers the People of God together to offer their sacrifice to God. The clear distinction between the ordained priesthood (through the Sacrament of Holy Orders) and the priesthood of the people (through Baptism and incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ) is thereby blurred. This is the understanding of the priesthood that must be accepted intellectually if the priest is going to be able to celebrate the Novus Ordo Missae without experiencing the cognitive dissonance I mentioned. Once this understanding is accepted, it often leads, unfortunately, to the priest losing his bearings as to his role and purpose—once he no longer understands who he is, the next step is often the abandonment of the priesthood. The grace given to a priest at his ordination is spiritually drawing him to the traditional understanding of his role while at the same time his role of “presider” is telling him that his understanding, brought about by grace in his intellect, is mistaken. No one can live with this constant state of contradiction; so either one leaves the priesthood or one is forced to adopt a new understanding of the priesthood.
The Angelus: Is there no alternative?
Fr. X: Of course there is! The alternative is to maintain the traditional understanding of the priesthood and return to offering the traditional Mass—the Mass which clearly explicates to all the role of the priest as an alter Christus. Everyone nowadays is forever talking about the abysmal morale of the priests, and endless words have been written on how to solve the “problem.” Bishops throughout the United States have come up with an endless string of ideas on how to improve the morale of the priests in their dioceses: pay them more, give them more time off, hire laypeople to handle the finances of a parish, get motivational speakers, have more fraternal “get togethers.” The list goes on and on. The real problem, however, is not addressed, and that problem is that of the spiritual and intellectual dissonance experienced by so many priests. Morale is low because so many priests no longer understand who they are (through the Sacrament of Holy Orders) and their proper role in the Church. All the gimmicks in the world, no matter how well intentioned, will not solve a problem which is, at its core, a spiritual one.
The Angelus: Can you give us an example from your experience with the Novus Ordo Missae which exemplifies your point about the confused role of the priest?
Fr. X: Certainly. After six months of only offering the traditional Mass, a pastor asked me to fill in for two weekday morning N.O. Masses since he was faced with multiple funerals. I reluctantly agreed, but believed I owed him this favor since he had been very generous in having the traditional Mass in his parish. When I arrived for the Mass, I was told there would be two permanent deacons “on for the Mass” as well as the usual lay reader and that they would “take care of everything.” Effectively, at least in my mind, I was reduced to being “needed” just for the Consecration since they did all else. Was I offering the Mass to the Father in persona Christi and bringing Christ Himself back to the people to feed them as a father would his children, or was I just a sacramental functionary? As I sat listening to the first reading (from Genesis, speaking about Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham to father a child and being rather graphic in description being read by a laywoman) and began to experience the intellectual and spiritual dissonance anew, I vowed I would never offer the Novus Ordo Missae again.
The Angelus: You spoke about the priest in the role of a father feeding his children. Has the understanding of the priest as the spiritual father of his people been affected also?
Fr. X: Most definitely. It is important to understand that the experience 90 percent of Catholics in any given Novus Ordo parish have of their parish priest is at Mass. The Novus Ordo Missae has a very feminine orientation, a point made very recently by Raymond Cardinal Burke in an interview. This being the case, the very proper masculine role of the priest as father to his people is blurred almost to the point of completely disappearing. Once again, this causes an intellectual dissonance in the priest who maintains the traditional Catholic understanding of the priesthood.
The Angelus: How, precisely?
Fr. X: Men are, by God’s design, naturally ordered toward fatherhood, not only physically but intellectually and emotionally. This naturally ordered design does not cease in men who have been ordained and vowed themselves to remaining celibate, that is, who have given up wife and natural children for the “sake of the Kingdom of God.” These natural inclinations toward fatherhood in a priest have traditionally found their outlet in his spiritual fatherhood lived out among his people. The dissonance arises when a priest is forced into “presiding” over a highly feminized liturgy which almost completely obliterates his spiritual fatherhood and to live in our society so imbued with feminist rhetoric that practically ridicules natural masculine traits and behavior.
The Angelus: Aside from the over feminization of the Novus Ordo Missae, is there any other particular aspect of the New Mass which can cause this dissonance within a priest who intellectually maintains the traditional understanding of the Catholic priesthood?
Fr. X: I suppose the one thing that I would point to would be the celebration of Mass versus populum (facing the people). This, more than anything, continually forces the priest out of his role as the one offering sacrifice to God and into the role of “presider at a gathering of the People of God.” There is no way to adequately express what a distraction this is to the priest who is trying to remain focused on offering the Sacrifice of the Mass. No matter how hard one tries there is always the tendency to effectively be addressing the people while offering prayers to God; you sense the need to make sure your voice is loud enough and clear enough, and you wonder if your facial expression is correct, to name just a few of the concerns running through your mind. Your intellect knows you are saying the prayers of the Mass to God, but every other part of your being is almost prevented from grasping this when you see all these folks with their eyes staring at you.
Additionally, you are continually drawn into acting as the “stage manager” making sure all is orchestrated well. This is often the case at weddings and funerals when many in attendance do not frequent Mass. Please stand, please sit, please kneel are uttered regularly. Funerals become a real difficulty in this regard since the celebrant will often have to say things like “Now Mary Smith, Mrs. Smith’s granddaughter, will come forward to do the first reading” and hoping against hope that she will not begin to weep in the middle of the reading.
Not only do you feel the need to stage manage, but you begin to feel that you need to be the Master of Ceremonies (in the entertainment sense), continually keeping people entertained and informed as to the proceedings.
Priests who try their best to avoid these traps are often not able to do so, while so many others genuinely throw themselves into these roles by developing a liturgical voice that continually drips with emotion so that the people will “grasp more fully the liturgical action taking place.”
The Angelus: We’ve spoken about many of the negative effects which the Novus Ordo Missae can have on the priest. We would very much like to hear about the positive effect the traditional Mass has had on your priesthood.
Fr. X: Before speaking of the positive effects of the traditional Mass, I would like to mention the traditional breviary as well, since after the Holy Mass, it comprises the largest part of a priest’s daily “official” duties. I started saying the traditional breviary not too long after I began offering the traditional Mass and was immediately drawn to how intrinsically united the Divine Office and the Missal were. In the Novus Ordo, one was very hard pressed to find any coherence between the missal and Liturgy of the Hours, as the Divine Office is called—the priest had no real sense that the Divine Office is, in a sense, a prolongation of his action at the altar. I think it is for this reason that many priests in the Novus Ordo have given up praying the Divine Office altogether. They do not see the Office as continuing their role as intercessor before God for the people; after offering the Perfect Sacrifice on the altar they continue by offering a sacrifice of praise throughout the day by praying the Office. This unity of the Missal and the breviary is a significant way that helps a priest better understand his priestly role as intercessor for and father to his people, which offering the traditional Mass does by its very nature.
Another great gift of the traditional Mass is the deep sense of continuity with the Church through the ages which it provides. This was one of the first things that ran through my mind as I first offered the traditional Mass. It is so easy for us to get caught up in the trials and tribulations of our own times that being able to step into the timelessness of the Mass helps us to realize that we are but a rather small part of the Mystical Body of Christ, and that in the Mass we find our union with Christ the Head and all those who are members of His Body. We are able to experience the genuine oneness of the Church Triumphant, Militant, and Suffering and from this draw strength—Christ is with us always as He promised, but also the great company of Saints in heaven with whom we are united at every Mass.
The traditional Mass also provided me with a much greater sense of stepping out of time and into the eternal. At Mass we enter into the heavenly Holy of Holies where Christ offers Himself to the Father and at the same time are drawn to Calvary by offering, in an unbloody manner, the same Victim who offered Himself on the altar of the Cross. Two things strike me as being particularly important in aiding the stepping out of time: offering the Mass ad orientem (facing the altar and not the people) and in Latin. Both of these keep the priest focused on what is happening and what he is about to do as acting in persona Christi. I have to say that the very few times I have had to speak to an altar server to give a direction or ask for something, I felt like it was an intrusion into the sacred action. The traditional Mass itself inspires this sense of awe and the importance of the priest not directing his attention away from the sacred duties he is performing.
The last great gift of the traditional Mass for me is one that I’ve only begun to comprehend or sense recently, and I suppose it reflects the more emotive spirituality of the Spanish Carmelite mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross; specifically, it is a sense of real intimacy with Our Lord as High Priest while at the altar. This comes about, I believe, through praying the Canon silently—the priest is addressing the Father while standing in persona Christi, while knowing he shares, by virtue of his ordination, in the one, eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. The priest is, therefore, called to a life of self-immolation for the people he serves and should expect no less, since Our Lord Himself said that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Because he shares in the external priesthood of Our Lord, the priest must strive to become one with Christ the Victim as well. The dignity of the priest is great, but so also his responsibilities—the traditional Mass brings this home to a priest each time he goes to the altar of God in a way that the Novus Ordo does not and, indeed, cannot.
The Angelus: Any closing thoughts?
Fr. X: Two come to mind. The first is probably the most obvious: In constructing the Novus Ordo Missae, its fabricators not only wanted to dismantle the Catholic understanding of the Mass, but of the priesthood as well. When the traditional Mass is in place, there can be no misunderstanding by the priest of who he is and what he is; intellectual dissonance is removed, and the priest can enter into the joys of the priesthood without the continual questioning of his very self.
The second is not so obvious, especially given the current state of ecclesiastical affairs. Not all priests who continue to offer the Novus Ordo Missae have given up the traditional Catholic understanding of Holy Mass and the priesthood. Many struggle each day with the dissonance I have spoken of throughout this interview and, as of yet, have not been able to recover a peace of soul so necessary to be effective priests in today’s world. They need our prayers asking God to allow his grace to be received by them, not the opprobrium they often receive from those of us who have, by God’s grace alone, come to Tradition. Pray for these men, and realize that they are often lost and confused as they try to find their way amongst the Modernist crisis affecting the Church.