Jun 15, 2009

What Do We Mean When We Say "In Persona Christi"?

Online Edition: June – July 2009

Vol. XV, No. 4

What Do We Mean When We Say

"In Persona Christi"?

At Mass we are full of the Lord, not full of ourselves

by James V. Schall, SJ

A student asked me if I knew of any nearby Catholic churches. He heard a sermon that, as far as he could make out, justified relativism. I often hear parishioners comment that their pastor or assistant is “full of himself”. The very hearing of this acid remark is enough to give any priest reflective pause. Every priest is there in persona Christi, not in his own charming or otherwise qualified personality.

The priest is not there to call attention to himself. He is not the main course. Such considerations, plus strange liturgical rubrics, send folks off looking for other parishes where they do not preach relativism or where the pastor is not “full of himself”, where the Mass follows the norms of the Church.

Such thoughts came to mind in reading George Cardinal Pell’s comments on the new English-language liturgical translations of the Missal, the coordination of which he is in charge. On hearing these newly translated words, we may finally realize how vapid the present ones we use are. But we are people of habit. Some people won’t like it. A “conservative” will henceforward be someone who does not want to change the present translations, whereas a “liberal” will be one who likes the new ones.

Pell was asked about the direction the priest should face during Mass. He would favor the priest and congregation facing the East, all together facing toward the Lord, the proper focus of attention. Why? “Because it makes it patently clear that the priest is not the center of the show, that this is an act of worship of the one true God, and the people are joining with the priest for that” (Adoremus Bulletin, April 2009, from the London Catholic Herald, March 20). “The priest is not the center of the show” — that is a great line.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made this same point in his Spirit of the Liturgy: “A common turning toward the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential…. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord.”

A drum-major marches with his back to the band because he is leading them all to something in front of them. All go in the same direction. An orchestra director has his “backs to the people” so that both he and the audience can see and hear something beyond and in front of them.

Cardinal Pell adds something that I had not seen stressed before. If we insist, as many will, on the priest looking at the congregation and they at him, a crucifix should always be placed between the priest and the congregation. It recalls to both what is going on here. Neither priest nor congregation is the center of attention.

The temptation of the priest at Mass is to be an actor. Not a few excel at it. Ratzinger says, however, that, at the altar, the “priest must decrease, the Lord increase”, referring to John the Baptist.

The following Ratzinger words constantly remind us that the “silence” within the Church is there for a reason. “Whenever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achieve- ment, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.” We do not attend Mass to be entertained, or to see a good performance, but to worship God. This awe envelops priest, musicians, and congregation.

Cardinal Pell also touched on something that strikes me of great importance. In John Paul II’s encyclical on the Eucharist, among other places, it was specified that neither the Mass nor the priest is a function of the community. Without the Mass, as it is in its integrity, no community exists. The community does not “ordain” its ministers. The Church is not a club or meeting hall or a political party.

All ministers in the Church testify to the truth as it is found in the Creed. This is why the Creed must be said every Sunday. It should begin, as in Latin and Greek, with “I believe”, not the present “we believe”. We stand at Mass attesting to our personal affirmation in the intelligibility of what we hold. We are a religion of intelligence.

At Mass, we are full of the Lord, not ourselves. What makes the community is the Mass, not vice versa. The priest is not an actor. He is a priest. He points beyond himself. What he does is not of his own making. He is a servant. He literally follows the books. He does not write them. With his people, he praises the Father through the Son in the unity of the Spirit, whom he, along with them, worships. This worship is what goes on at Mass, nothing less.


Father Schall is professor of political philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He is the author of many books, including Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (2006), and countless articles. This column was published online at The Catholic Thing, May 1, 2009, and appears here with the author’s kind permission.



Father James V. Schall, SJ

The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.