Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Priest's Joy ...

A Priest's Joy

by Fr. Frank E. Jindra

Article originally appeared on 11 Nov 2002

priestsI have been a priest for 18 years. I am almost completely a "child of Vatican II." The first year I was old enough to serve at Mass was the first year of the "all-English Mass," so I’ve never had to learn the Mass in Latin.

My seminary training required only one year of Latin study—study allowing me to sit with a good dictionary as I made the necessary translations from Latin to English. Needless to say, my ability to pray the "Old Mass" is just not there.

Not long after my first parish assignment, however, I tried to pray the Eucharistic prayer in Latin. My parish town was celebrating the 125th year of its founding, and the pastor and I thought it would be a good trip down "memory lane" for those who grew up pre-Vatican II for us to pray the Mass in Latin. Although I made it through the Mass, I could’ve sworn I saw people cringing as I was praying—at least attempting to pray—in Latin. Looking back on this experience, I’d like to make a "true confession," if you will (as opposed to a sacramental confession), of a few discoveries I’ve made in my years as a priest.

As I stood at the altar for the first time (as a transitional deacon) in my home parish, I was amazed and thrilled as only one thought raced through my mind, "I'm home! Right here at the altar, I am finally home at the age of 28."

The overwhelming feeling of being "home" as I stand at the altar has sustained me throughout some very tough times and very good times as a Roman Catholic priest. During my service as a priest in nine different parishes and one year of active duty in Desert Storm as a Battalion chaplain in the U.S. Marine Corps, I have prayed the Mass rapt in devotion and deep concentration from start to finish. Sadly, on other occasions, I have allowed my concentration to lapse until—bam!—I am suddenly shocked back into the reality of what I’m doing as a priest acting in persona Christi Capitis.

In my opinion, this inconsistency of focus at Mass is not a function of any deficiency in the Novus Ordo Missae. Rather, I believe this inconsistency has everything to do with being a modern American, one who cannot hold his attention on any one thing for any sufficient length of time. We—I—have become too accustomed to quick sound-bites and are therefore hampered in our ability to enter into the mystery and beauty of the Mass, which is, after all, eternal and never quick.

What I remember of the "Old Mass" — the seemingly sudden movements disturbing the seemingly endless periods of non-activity by the priest, followed by the seemingly random and startling bell-ringing thrusting our attention forward and riveting us back to the mysteries — are moments of attention-grabbing, grace-filled, transcendent splendor.

So, how do we get these same wonderful moments to surface in the "New Mass"? To help us concentrate, some have tried implementing the creative application of music, drama, dance, etc., with varying degrees of success and acceptance. When I pray Mass (a more accurate description than saying Mass), I try to plummet to as great a depth of emotion and love for Jesus Christ as possible. I try to pour all my attention and devotion into what I consider to be the most important parts of the Mass: Jesus' own words in the Eucharistic prayers, "This is my Body… this is my Blood…" and the declaration just before Communion, "This is the Lamb of God...."

The Words of Institution need to hold a primary place in the Mass, and this is achieved through the genuflection of the priest and, in many places, the ringing of bells. I have my servers ring the main tower bell of the Church so everyone within hearing distance will know what is happening. Parishioners who have to work early in the morning tell me hearing the bells allows them to pause and meditate on what they know is happening across the street at the Mass they cannot attend.

I try to dwell on the importance of what I am saying each time I pray Mass; but, I must admit, I’m sometimes distracted by the "needs of the day ahead." This is to my shame; yet, I suspect many people in the pews have the same problem. Again, I believe this is a function of the short attention span of our collective society rather than any inherent lack of piety or absence of sacredness in the current translations used in the Mass. We just have a hard time making the transcendent reality of God's Presence in our midst "really real."

I concelebrated a Mass recently where the main celebrant chanted the Words of Institution using a melody from an Eastern Rite. The effect this had on me was palpable — it jostled me into an awareness of the Mystery and what I was doing at that very moment to bring Christ to the altar.

If you notice your priest, during a particular Mass, suddenly being affected by what he is doing, please ask him after Mass what exactly it was that affected him. If you find your priest too often in an apparent monotonous recitation of the Mass, ask him what part of the Mass is most important to him. Then ask him to find some way to highlight it for everyone, perhaps through a change in his tone, a change in the cadence of what he is praying, or some other respectful acknowledgement of what he is doing in that moment.

As I mentioned, the precious moment when I hold the Lord high and declare to everyone, "this is Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…" is the highest point of the Mass for me, second only to actually receiving Him. Sometimes I'd just as soon stay there and adore Him instead of consume Him. At the moment I am standing before Him and all the people, I thank Him and stand in awe of His allowing my hands to hold Him in such an intimate way — the same hands that trained for war before becoming a priest, the same hands that fought so many dirty fights…. Well, let me leave my past transgressions with just that much said. He chooses to be there, with me and through me, and it is an awesome moment. Sometimes as I stand there with Him lifted high over my head, I feel sorry I cannot lift Him higher for more of the world to see. I find myself "stuck" in worship and adoration on many occasions. I find myself not wanting to move, hardly daring to breathe, until my arms ache with the strain of holding Him high…

…Just a small insight into one priest's joy in the Eucharist.

So try to find out what excites your priest in the Mass, and watch for moments of his joy. Enter into them with him and you’ll find the Mass much more than just a busy set of words and actions. The Mass will become the genuine, transcendent, awe-filled worship of our God that it was meant to be. Pray for your priests that they will be able to communicate their joys in the Mass to you. And then, expect Jesus to reveal Himself in the simplicity and grandeur of a Mass you can understand.

I am utterly convinced that some people's dissatisfaction with the "New Mass" stems from the fact that it has become too common an experience for them. Experiencing the Mass as "all too common" leads people to want to leave and go to a place where they can sense the transcendence of the Mass through the "Old" way, or go to a more "relevant" church with "better" content (beware the deception), or go elsewhere to the allures of the world in this all too busy life. I believe this is true for both priests and parishioners. Instead of abandoning the Mass, instead of saying the Mass in a subconscious way, what we need to do is put forth greater effort to respond to Christ’s moments of love, wherever they reach us in the Mass.

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