Beholding the glory of the Lord with open face

st-basil-the-great-at-liturgy1Yesterday afternoon at Knock I had the privilege of addressing an outstanding group of Irish priests, most of them younger men, and some with only a few years of priesthood. Here is what I said.

Address to a Group of Irish Priests

Nos veri omnes, revelata facie gloriam Domini speculantes, in eadem imaginem transforemur a claritate in claritatem, tamquam Domini Spiritu.

But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Their Gaze Directed to God

Just a few days before his election to the Chair of Peter on April 1, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in the context of a remarkable conference at Subiaco, said:

We need men who have their gaze directed to God, to understand true humanity. We need men whose intellects are enlightened by the light of God, and whose hearts God opens, so that their intellects can speak to the intellects of others, and so that their hearts are able to open up to the hearts of others.  Only through men who have been touched by God, can God come near to men.

Grant me, if you will, the liberty of adapting Cardinal Ratzinger’s text to the circumstances of this meeting:

We need priests who have their gaze directed to God, to understand true humanity. We need priests whose intellects are enlightened by the light of God, and whose hearts God opens, so that their intellects can speak to the intellects of others, and so that their hearts are able to open up to the hearts of others.  Only through priests who have been touched by God, can God come near to men.

The priest is, by definition, the man who has his gaze directed to God. The priest is the man who stands before the altar facing God. The priest is the man who enters the Holy of Holies, penetrating with a filial boldness (parrhesía) beyond the veil. “Let us go therefore with confidence to the throne of grace: that we may obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid” (Hebrews 4:16).

The Father Sees Us in His Son

The Lord said to Moses, “Thou canst not see my face: for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Why then are we priests not annihilated, incinerated, consumed by fire from heaven when we enter the sanctuary, when we ascend to the altar, when we open our mouths, daring to utter words that cause even the angels to tremble? It is because, in that moment, and not only at that moment, but at every hour and every moment of every day, the Father sees us in the Son, and sees the Son in us. We stand at the altar, just as we go to the altar and, kissing the altar, leave it to descend into the midst of the flock entrusted to our care, in persona Christi Capitis.

David’s poignant plea in Psalm 83 effectively refers to you and to me: “Behold, O God our protector, and look upon the face of thy Christ” (Psalm 83:10). Who is this Christ? Who is this anointed? It is Christ in you, brothers, and you in Christ, not by virtue of your personal holiness, or merits, or virtues, but by a gracious and altogether gratuitous gift of God, an irrevocable gift of God conferred sacramentally, that is ex opere operato, in such wise that it cannot be erased, undone, or obliterated; not by men, nor by angels, nor by God Himself, for it is numbered among those gifts of God that are without repentance, gifts by which God so engages Himself that the retraction of them would be God negating Himself. “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance: (Romans 11:29).

The priest at the altar is Christ gazing into the uncreated, immaterial, invisible, infinitely loving countenance of the Father, seeing in the light of the Holy Spirit “what eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

The Head United to the Body

What then are we to say of the people, of the lay faithful of Christ? Are they banished into some kind of outer darkness, forgotten, excluded from the presence of God, and held at bay in the nave by cherubim wielding a flaming sword? The priest enters the sanctuary and stands before the altar, not as the emissary of a distant people to an even more distant God but, rather, in persona Christi Capitis, as the head of the Body of Christ that is the Church congregated in a particular place, and as one organically and vitally united to the members of the Body.

The priest enters the sanctuary and faces God, not in some kind of ritual isolation from his people, but as the head of his people, by whose presence in the sanctuary, at the altar, the heart of the people is lifted up even unto God.  This is the meaning of the Sursum corda.  The head of the body, seeing what he sees from his place before the altar is compelled to cry out to the members of the body with which he is conjoined, “Hearts on high”.  And the people, with one voice, respond to the direction given them by their head, “We hold them towards the Lord.”

Consider for a moment the ministry of Moses; even while it allows us to grasp something of our own priestly ministry at the altar, is incomplete. It is found wanting. It waits for its completion in Christ.

And when Moses went forth to the tabernacle, all the people rose up, and every one stood in the door of his pavilion, and they beheld the back of Moses, till he went into the tabernacle. And when he was gone into the tabernacle of the covenant, the pillar of the cloud came down, and stood at the door, and he spoke with Moses. And all saw that the pillar of the cloud stood at the door of the tabernacle. And they stood, and worshipped at the doors of their tents. And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man is wont to speak to his friend (Exodus 33:8–11).

Only in Christ, only by sacramental participation in the priesthood of Christ, is the man who goes into the tabernacle, there to speak to God face to face as a man is wont to speak to his friend, organically conjoined to the people as the head is to the body, and the bridegroom to the bride, the two being one flesh. (See Ephesians 5:23–33).

The Priest: the Man Who Sees

The eyes of the body are in the head; the priest, therefore, is the man who sees and, seeing, leads the faithful into the sacrifice of Christ. An assembly without a priest is a body without a head and, therefore, without eyes to see. (This, of course, is the very knotty ecclesiological problem posed by the so–called “assemblies in the absence of a priest”.)

He who stands at the altar and sees is no mere presiding elder; he is the sacerdos, the sacrificing priest; he is the mediator who, facing the Father, enters into the seeing of the Eternal Son and, turning to face the people, communicates to them the grace of what he has seen. “No man hath seen God at any time: the only–begotten Son of God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him” (John 1:18). This, I believe, goes the heart of what Cardinal Ratzinger said in April 2005:

We need men who have their gaze directed to God, to understand true humanity. We need men whose intellects are enlightened by the light of God, and whose hearts God opens, so that their intellects can speak to the intellects of others, and so that their hearts are able to open up to the hearts of others.  Only through men who have been touched by God, can God come near to men.

The Locus and Opus of the Priesthood

Over the past fifty years the theological portrait of the priest has become impoverished and diminished by the minimalisation of the essential locus and opus of the priesthood. The locus of the priesthood is the altar; every other expression of priestly ministry converges in the service of the altar and derives from it. “The liturgy,” says Sacrosanctum Concilium, article 10, “is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows”.

The opus of the priesthood is that sublime mediatorship prefigured in the ladder that Jacob beheld in his dream: “And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending by it” (Genesis 28:10). Who are these angels ascending and descending if not figures of the priests who, “from the rising of the sun even to its going down” (Malachi 1:11), ascend to the altar and descend therefrom, embodying the mediatorship of Christ, the Eternal High Priest?

You, brothers, are men ordained to enter the sanctuary on behalf of all and for all, to stand before the altar and, with eyes raised to the Father — et, elevatis oculis in coelum— offer the Holy Sacrifice, all the while remaining organically conjoined to the body, the spouse given you by the Father and made ready by the Holy Spirit. Take great care, then, not to undervalue the rubric of the Canon by which you are directed to raise your eyes heavenward; squeeze even the smallest rubric and theology comes spurting out of it!

The Anchor of Priestly Identity

The priest is ordained for the altar. If he is not standing before the altar, he is on his way to the altar, or coming from the altar. At every moment of our life we are in relationship to the altar. It is the altar that anchors the identity of the priest.  I shall return to this affirmation in a moment.

It is crucial, then, that we understand the impact of liturgical practice or, if you will, of the ars celebrandi, on our self–understanding as priests, and on the manner in which the faithful today come, almost imperceptibly, but inexorably, to understand our priesthood. You are all familiar with Prosper of Aquitaine’s axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi. Applied in this particular instance, with reference to the priesthood, it means that the law that determines our liturgical comportment, our enactment of the Sacred Mysteries, by that very fact, shapes, and grounds, and determines how we understand our priesthood, and how the priesthood is understood by the faithful.

The Priest as Mediator

Our priesthood is a sacramental participation in the mediatorship of Christ: in His ascending mediation ad Patrem, and in His descending mediation ad Ecclesiam and, by consequence, ad gentes. The priest embodies the ascending mediation of Christ principally, and most perfectly, in the act of the Sacrifice, the Holy Oblation: “This is My Body; this is the chalice of My Blood”. He embodies the descending mediation of Christ principally, and most perfectly, in the act of the Communion: “Holy things for the holy; Behold the Lamb of God”. Sacrifice, then, and Communion correspond to the ascending and descending mediation of the priest. For the first, he passes through the people, enters the sanctuary, ascends to the altar, and faces God; for the second, he takes from the altar what has been offered to God in an unbloody immolation and given back to him from God, and turning to the people, descends from the altar towards them to distribute to them the adorable Gifts by which they are brought into communion with the mystery enacted at the altar.

For the act of the Sacrifice, the priest, following the age–old and venerable tradition in East and West that is confirmed in the rubrics of the latest edition of the Roman Missal, the Editio Typica Tertia, stands before the altar facing the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit. For the act of the Commuion, he faces the people, shows them the Body and Blood of Christ and gives them the same Body and Blood of Christ to be received after the manner of food and drink, the esca viatorum, the sustenance of wayfarers.

The two directions implied in offering the Holy Sacrifice and in presenting Holy Communion to the faithful condition our understanding — or misunderstanding — of the priesthood. By eliminating the so–called ad orientem position for the Sacrifice, one effectively undermines the role of the priest as sacrificer, thereby obscuring his representation of the ascending mediatorship of Christ. By suppressing the movement of the priest toward the faithful for the Communion, one undermines the role of the priest as distributor of the Holy Mysteries, thereby minimizing his representation of the descending mediatorship of Christ.

The Lex Orandi

The lex orandi that determines the lex credendi — that is the liturgical action that grounds and shapes our understanding, in this instance, of the priesthood) refers not merely to the texts contained in the various liturgical books. It refers also to the ritual context of those texts: movements, gestures, melodies, and the entire complexus of sacred signs that give a body to the texts and clothe them with a suitable vesture.

A truncated and minimalistic ars celebrandi will lead to a truncated and minimalistic understanding of the priesthood. Nothing, I fear, has had a greater impact on popular understanding of what it means to be a priest — and this, even among ourselves — than the obliteration in practice of the full liturgical representation, in the person of the priest, of the double mediation of Christ Jesus. Need we be reminded that the Second Vatican Council defined the Sacred Liturgy precisely terms of this double mediation: ad Patrem, and ad Ecclesiam.

Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, article 7).

When the entire Mass is celebrated with the priest facing the people, the theocentric, latreutic reality of the mediating, sacrificing priesthood of Christ is effectively obscured, not only in ourselves but, even more dramatically, I think, in the faithful we serve. This is not an abstruse question for deliberation by liturgical specialists; it relates compellingly to the so–called crisis in priestly identity and to those deficient “theologies” of the priesthood inflicted upon so many seminarians and priests, leaving the trail of suffering and confusion that has so marked the Church over the past fifty years.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The way we celebrate the Sacred Liturgy shapes what we believe about our priesthood, and projets that belief onto the faithful; and what we believe and project about our priesthood shapes the way we live it.

Going to and Coming from the Altar

Lest I be guilty of presenting a priesthood confined to the sanctuary, a priesthood without zeal for evangelisation and without missionary impetus, allow me to return for a moment to my analogy of the priest standing at the altar, on his way to the altar, or coming from the altar.  Each of these three situations corresponds to one of the three aspects of the Church’s life and mission in the world: leitourgía, martyría, and diakonía.

I have already developed at some length the significance of Leitourgía in emphasing it as the context in which the sacrificing priest makes present in his person the mediatorship of Christ.


Martyría corresponds to the priest making his way to the altar, bearing witness, evangelising and catechising as he goes.  Being, at every moment of his life, on his way to the altar is the essential witness of the priest. All that he is, all that he says and does has a Eucharistic finality. Evangelisation, catechesis, preaching, and teaching, as well as the ascetical yoke that the priest willingly bears in the sight of the world by remaining unworldly, and by presenting himself visibly as a priest, all of this is Martyría.


Diakonía corresponds to the priest coming from the altar to bring the remedies of Divine Mercy to those who, injured and broken, lie in darkness and in the shadow of death.  Every sacramental and pastoral expression of the hospitality and compassion of Christ is Diakonía. Every ministration to the sick, every moment taken to listen to the pain of another, or to dry another’s tears, or to speak a word of hope or risk a gesture of love is Diakonía.

Three Pontificates

It is interesting to note how readily each of these three aspects of the Church’s life and mission corresponds to one of the three pontificates that most of you have known: Blessed John Paul II was the pope of Martyría, bearing witness to the splendour of the truth, even unto death. Pope Benedict XVI is the pontiff of Leitourgía, making the Church a place where beauty is at home, and summoning the Church to a foretaste here and now of the beauty of the liturgy that awaits us in the heavenly Jerusalem. Pope Francis is emerging as the pontiff of Diakonía, showing the mercy of God in gestures that touch the poor, that reach the alienated, and that seem even to stir the indifferent.

In the Friendship of Christ

None of this, of course, can be sustained unless a priest abides in the friendship of Christ and, like Saint Joseph and Saint John who appeared at Knock, opens his innermost life to Mary.  The first direct mandate that Our Lord gave His Apostles after their ordination to the priesthood in the Cenacle, on the night before He suffered, was that they should watch and pray with Him. He asked only for their company, for their presence, for their prayer (cf. Matthew 26:37–41). “Watch ye, and pray that you enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 13:48).  Very specifically, He asked this of Peter, James, and John, thus illustrating for generations of priests through the ages that we are to come together for prayer, even if we be but two or three. “For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).  In asking this of the Apostles, Our Lord confirmed the original reason that motivated His choice of them, according to Saint Mark’s account of the call of the Twelve:  “And He made that twelve should be with Him” (Mark 3:14).

The priest who opens his heart to the friendship of Christ, particularly by being spendthrift with time set apart for adoration of His Eucharistic Face and for exposure to the fire of His Eucharistic Heart will, by the same token, find himself living in the presence of the all–pure Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary. One who, in imitation of Saint Joseph and Saint John, lives with Mary, will follow the Lamb whithersoever He goes (Apocalypse 14:4).

Prayer of the Heart

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and the Divine Office prayed reverently, devoutly, and attentively are indispensable to one called to embody the mediatorship of Christ the Eternal High Priest. Liturgical prayer will, nonetheless, without the intimate prayer of the heart, grow cold and formalistic.  The liturgy is a searing, soaring flame that renders all that we bring to it incandescent, but when the flame of the liturgy disappears, there must remain a bed of glowing embers — the uninterrupted secret prayer of the heart — lest we succumb to the cold that sets in as soon as one stops praying.

In conclusion, permit me to turn to prayer the magnificent text of Cardinal Ratzinger’s discourse at Subiaco eight years ago:

Lord Jesus Christ,
Eternal High Priest, and immolated Lamb,
Mediator between God and Men,
make of us priests who hold their gaze fixed upon God,
priests capable of understandingthe weakness of men
and of bearing witness
to the transforming power of Your grace.
Make of us priests whose intellects are enlightened
by the radiance that shines from Your Face,
and whose hearts have been opened by Your love
as by a lance;
So fill our gaze at the altar
that our intellects will be able to speak
to the intellects of others,
and our hearts listen and speak to their hearts.
Only through priests who have been touched by You,
can You come near to men.
Touch us, then, so often as we touch Your most pure Body;
Touch us, so often as Your saving Blood moistens our lips,
that through us You may make yourself present
in places and in lives where, even now,
you remain unknown, unwelcomed, and unloved.
Who live and reign with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.



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