Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI during Mass: A Man Focused on Jesus and in Prayer

Fr. Neuhaus on EWTN noted something that I have blogged on several times over a two-year peiod since I noticed it with the priests at Assumption Grotto. Fr. Neuhaus comments (paraphrased):

When the Holy Father is praying, as in when he is praying in the Mass he does NOT pray as if he is speaking to the people.

So-called liturgists have been teaching seminarians to look around at the people as if they are speaking at a business meeting during the Mass. The Mass is not a business meeting, it is a prayer. It is offered to God and the priest leads us in this prayer.

It was very striking to me, the very first time I encountered it at Grotto. Before Mass starts, the priest is in the back, deep in prayer, with his hands folded in prayer. He is not looking around greeting people because he is in prayer. He expects that they are in prayer too and leads them in this direction by his example.

If the laity get to Mass early and enter into a prayerful preparatio (instead of talking and leaving everyone else in a state of disquiet), then the last thing that needs to happen is to be pulled out of that meditative mode. Exception noted is that of a papal Mass for example, where the Pope is offering a blessing as he goes up the aisle. While I sense His Holiness would prefer that people be more reserved as Mass starts, he also knows that the people have no other way to acknowledge their fidelity than in a burst of excitement. But, this is an exception and is not how Mass ought normally to be done in the average parish on Sunday (with cheers, applause and chanting - and I don't mean Gregorian chant).

Priests are teachers and when they bow their heads and close their eyes in prayer, it drives the people in the pews to do the same.

Notice when the Holy Father consecrated the Host. Did he hold it up and show it to all the people present, looking past the Host and to the the people? No. He bowed slightly and looked directly at the Host and at the words when needed. That drives our eyes to the same focal point. When he Elevates the Body of Christ, where are his eyes? His eyes are fixed on Our Lord, held as high as his arms would permit, even as he celebrates versus populum, facing the people.

Note not only how high he held the Consecrated Host, but that Elevation was prolonged. How can the faithful be led to adore Christ - which is what we should be doing during the Elevation if He is not held high and is brought down faster than one can blink? Why would a priest hold Our Lord below eye level, as opposed to raising Him up as if like the Sun over the summit?

If Our Lord is Elevated with the appearance of indifference, there is a greater chance of creating indifference in the pews. If Our Lord is Elevated with total reverence, in a slow manner, raised as high as possible, and for a prolonged period, it will create a sense of awe. I was deeply affected the first time I have experienced it and it has not changed.

I believe there are varying levels of maturity in worship. The very highest level of worship, in my humble opinion, would be what I call contemplative worship. It is when we want union not only with those physically present, but with those spiritually present. Contemplation is a gift from God - one that we cannot take upon ourselves. However, it is a gift most often given in silence and stillness. While one can hold the hand of the person next to them, they cannot hold the hand of the angel. By taking a meditative approach to the Mass, one that is focused interiorly on the words and music, we pray not only with our being, but with our very soul. Pope John Paul II summed it up well in an ad limina address out west some years ago:

Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.

The world is dominated by noise. Noise comes in the form of TV, radio, cell-phones, blackberries, and too much activity. For the last 40 years, we have had "experts" trying to find ways to build more activity into the Mass for the sake of "active participation". Yet, it has harmed silent, active participation - the kind Pope John Paul II speaks of.

We need our priests to lead us into the deep silence because silence is the language of God. It is where we can hear His voice above all others. We are led into that silence by the actions of the priest. The more subdued, the greater the silence; the more dynamic, the greater the "noise".

Ad orientem celebration of the Mass is important because if people want to experience contemplative worship, then stimulii which serve as "noise" need to be removed. People don't realize the priest is there in persona Christi. Ad orientem celebration it removes the person of the priest one more level. Gone are any concerns about facial expressions, where he is looking, or any other such thing. All that is left is a man who stands, in persona Christi, leading us forward in worship.

Pope Benedict XVI knows that our relationship with Jesus Christ will grow as we learn how to pray and worship interiorly. It starts by getting rid of the "noise".

Seek not the face of the priest in the Mass, but the face of God! It's mystical!

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