The Priest: «Seeing Him Who is Invisible»

Dom Benedict at Altar, First Solemn Mass
The Second Conference

Let us pray. Stir up in us, O Lord, that saving grace which thou hast vouchsafed to bestow upon us by the laying–on–of–hands: that those whom thou hast consecrated to thyself as thy ministers may be found faithful stewards of thy mysteries. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


At that time Jesus answered and said: I confess to thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to the little ones. Yea, Father; for so hath it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered to me by my Father. And no one knoweth the Son, but the Father: neither doth any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal him. (Matthew 11:25–27)

The sacred liturgy is the experience of ‹things hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed to the little ones› (Matthew 11:25). These are the things concerning which Blessed Columba Marmion was able to say: «But to us God hath revealed them, by this Spirit. For the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God» (1 Corinthians 2:10). The liturgy has become the place of much speaking. For the priest, however, the liturgy must first be the place of much listening, and not only of much listening, but also of intense looking, looking heavenward. The Apostle enjoins the Colossians to seek the things that are above and to mind the things that are above.

Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1–4)

If Saint Paul addresses these words to the faithful, how much more must they be taken to heart by the priest who, standing before the altar, echoes them in the great cry of the Preface Dialogue: Sursum corda!

Just a few days before his election to the Chair of Peter on April 1, 2005 — just ten years ago — 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 our mission as priests:

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). It is said of Blessed Columba Marmion that when he pontificated in his abbatial church at Maredsous his whole countenance became majestic and grave; his regard was that of a man «seeing Him who is invisible» (Hebrews 11:27).

The Father Sees the Priest 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 Face of the Son, and sees the Face of the Son in us. We priests stand at the altar, just as we go to the altar, and leave it to descend into the midst of the flock entrusted to our care, in persona Christi Capitis, in the person of Christ the Head.

David’s poignant plea in Psalm 83 effectively refers to every priest: «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 the priest, and the priest in Christ, not by virtue of the priest’s 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 Lay Faithful of Christ

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, in the person of Christ the Head, 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 the priestly ministry at the altar, it 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 (cf. Ephesians 5:23–33).

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.

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).

The Priesthood: Locus and Opus

Over the past fifty years, the theological portrait of the priest has become impoverished by the minimalisation of the essential locus (place) and opus (work) 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? In 1917 Blessed Abbot Marmion wrote:

As I put on the vestments before celebrating Mass, I feel that through the Church, I am entering into an intimate union with the High Priest Jesus and that, with her and through her, I am sharing in the dispositions of Jesus Christ.

Priests 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 them by the Father and made ready by the Holy Spirit. Two years before his death, Blessed Columba Marmion wrote of his own experience of  the mediating priesthood, of standing before the altar on behalf of all and for all:

When I celebrate Mass, it seems to me that the heavenly Father is front of me and that the weaknesses and wretchedness of my soul and of the souls of all those for whom I pray become the weaknesses and wretchedness of Christ because He identifies Himself with His members: vere languores nostros ipse tulit. Every day at Mass I think of all those who are in trouble or affliction and I ask Christ to pray through my lips for all those miseries; in this way the priest is truly os totius Ecclesiae.

The priest is one who faces God and waits upon Him. The priest is the eyes of the world fixed upon God, and the hands of the world lifted up in worship before Him. The priest lives his priesthood most intensely when standing before the altar.

The Priest for the Altar

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 priests are in relationship to the altar. It is the altar, the place of the Holy Sacrifice, that anchors the identity of the priest.

This is brilliantly set forth in the dialogue that took place in 1612 between George Abbot, the Protestant archbishop of Canterbury and Blessed Maurus Scot, a Benedictine monk and priest, martyred at Tyburn.

Blessed Maurus Scott, O.S.B.

George Abbot (whose brother Maurice became Lord Mayor of Dublin) was charged with trying and prosecuting Dom Maurus Scot. The bishop still urged him to answer if he was a priest, or no. «My Lord», said he, «are you a priest?» «No», said the prelate. «No priest, no bishop», said Mr Scot. «I am a priest», said the bishop, «but not a massing priest». «If you are a priest», said Mr Scot, «you are a sacrificing priest, for sacrificing is essential to priesthood; and if you are a sacrificing priest, you are a massing priest. For what other sacrifice have the priests of the new law, as distinct from mere laicks, to offer to God, but that of the Eucharist, which we call the Mass?  If then, you are no massing priest, you are no sacrificing priest; if no sacrificing priest, no priest at all, and consequently no bishop».

But as Mr Scot perceived the judges were resolved to proceed, upon bare presumption, to direct the jury to bring him in guilty; he told them he was sorry to see his cause was to be committed to the verdict of those poor ignorant men, who knew not what a priest was, nor whether he was a man or a mouse. Then, turning himself to the jury, he said it grieved him much that his blood was to fall upon their heads; but withal, bid them consider, for the securing their own consciences, that nothing had been alleged against him but mere presumptions; and as he was not to be his own accuser, they were to proceed according to what had been legally proved, and not upon presumptions.

The jury withdrew, but quickly returned again, and gave in their verdict, by the mouth of the foreman, guilty; which word, Mr Scot had no sooner heard, but he fell upon his knees, and said with a loud voice, «Thanks be to God», adding that never any news was more welcome to him, and that there was nothing that he had ever wished for more in his life than the happiness of dying for so good a cause. Then turning himself to the people, he said, «I have not as yet confessed myself a priest, that the law might go on in its course; and that it might appear whether they would proceed to condemn me upon mere presumption and conjectures without any witness, which you see they have done. Wherefore, to the glory of God and of all the saints in heaven, I now confess, I am a monk of the Order of St. Bennet, and a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. But be you all witnesses, I pray you, that I have committed no crime against his majesty or my country; I am only accused of priesthood, and for priesthood alone, I am condemned».

Blessed Maurus Scot was executed at Tyburn, wearing his Benedictine habit, on 30 May 1612. His only crime was that he admitted to being a priest of the Roman Catholic Church — not a presider, not a minister, not a preacher — but a massing priest, a sacrificing priest.

The Mediatorship of Christ and of the Priest

The priesthood is a sacramental participation in the mediatorship of Christ: in His ascending mediation ad Patrem (turned towards the Father), and in His descending mediation ad Ecclesiam (turned towards the Church) and, by consequence, ad gentes (addressing all nations). The priest embodies the ascending mediation of Christ principally, and most perfectly, in the act of the Sacrifice, consecrating separately the bread and the wine, so as to show forth the bloody immolation of Calvary in an unbloody manner: «This is My Body; this is the chalice of My Blood». The priest 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 «For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come» (1 Corinthians 11:26). 

Sacrifice and Communion, then, 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 stands before the altar facing the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit. For the act of the Communion, 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.

Nothing, I fear, has had a greater impact on popular understanding of what it means to be a priest — and this, even among priests — 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, that is, looking at his own body — for he stands at the altar in the person of Christ the Head — the mediating, sacrificing priesthood of Christ is effectively obscured, not only in the priest himself, but, even more dramatically, I think, in the body of the faithful at whose head he stands. This issue, which Pope Benedict XVI addressed serenely, dispassionately, and clearly, lies at the very root of the crisis in priestly identity 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 the priesthood and projects that belief onto the faithful; and what we believe and project about our priesthood shapes the way we live it. May it please God to make of all of us «massing priests», «sacrificing priests» of the conviction and courage displayed by Blessed Maurus Scot.

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