First of all, before we get further into this discussion, let me lift—though only a bit—the veil of anonymity that I keep drawn so tightly about myself. At the time I began this blog, I had both a desk job in Rome (though not at the Vatican proper) and a teaching position on a theology faculty. I also had a number of Krazies after me from various books, articles, talks, tapes etc. that I had done over the years. In fact I began the blog primarily as a way of differentiating for the blog-audience the difference between authentic Catholic Tradition and 1950’s style American Catholic traditionalism represented by a variety of blog sites managed by under-catechized self-appointed arbiters of Catholic orthodoxy. It was important that I be very discreet as not to compromise either my bosses in Rome or my teaching position. Well, I gave up my Rome job about eight years ago and more recently have retired from teaching. I am still not willing to let “my reading public” know my exact identity, but let me say that I am a Roman Catholic priest in good standing and a member of a religious Order. I have been a professed religious for just shy of fifty years and a priest for forty of those years. As I am still active in priestly ministry with full faculties and in a somewhat unpredictable diocese—or rather, a diocese with a somewhat unpredictable bishop—I am not ready to give my exact identity or location. I also want to point out that while I had never admitted to being a priest or religious, I had never said anything that denied it—though, some of the things I wrote implied that I was one of you (lay people, you know, the Church’s ‘οἱ πολλοί, the Great Unwashed). Anyway, I think we can now move on.
I am old enough to remember the Mass as it was before Vatican II. I was an altar boy for that Mass. I attended that Mass almost daily from the time I was eleven or twelve. The first changes in the Liturgy after Vatican II took place in my sophomore year of high school but they were pretty minor—mostly some English during the Liturgy of the Word. Now that I think of it however, that may have been the fundamental shift that passed unnoticed. We used to speak of The Mass of the Catechumens and the Mass of the Faithful and now it had become, almost but not quite exactly corresponding to the above The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the “old Mass” there were no lay readers to do the readings. There were no “Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist” to help with Holy Communion. There were no Leaders of Song to facilitate congregational singing—there was almost never congregational singing. When there was music, which was relatively rare, it was performed by the choir or some old warbler up in the loft squeaking through the Agnus Dei. There were no ministers of hospitality. (There were ushers but their job was limited to taking up the collection.) The only lay helpers were the altar servers who were, for the most part, boys (sometimes men but never women or girls) dressed up as little priests with cassock and cotta. (The Italian word for an altar server is cherichetto which means a “little cleric.”)
The liturgy itself was in a language which relatively few—perhaps in an educated society like our own, 10%—could understand. Moreover the prayers were recited, for the most part, in a sub secreto voice. Granted, books could be purchased with vernacular translations but relatively few people bothered with these and busied themselves with private prayers of either a devotional or “meditation” nature while the priest “read Mass.” Those in the sanctuary, especially the priest(s), were dressed very differently than those beyond. While Catholics tended to dress better for Church in those days (though never as respectfully as our Protestant neighbors) the priestly robes were most often over the top with elaborate lace surplices and albs and outer vestments of silk, brocade, or even velvet.
In the old Mass the liturgical action was confined to a space segregated from the faithful. The area around the altar was walled off from the people by a boundary wall formed by the altar rail. It was mean to be a boundary wall—the legislation was very clear that the space was to be enclosed, even where there was no communion rail, by a wall “of at least chest-height”—to keep out those who were not essential to the sacred action. Women were rarely permitted within the sacred space—generally on their wedding day but otherwise no, though nuns (and in parishes, widows) could be permitted in to clean. In other words, everything in the liturgy and its environment made it clear that the laity were there as observers of a sacred action which the clergy performed on their behalf.
The Mass was a drama in which the priest approached God on behalf of the people, interceding for them, bringing them assurances of the Divine mercy, and feeding them (literally feeding—from his hand to their mouth) with the Bread of Life. All depended on the priest. He was the intercessor, the mediator of grace. From his sacred hands salvation was dispensed. The welfare of the people, indeed their only hope for eternal life, was literally at his hands.
And so the Fathers generally lived in comfortable rectories built to give each priest a suite of rooms. They were provided three cooked meals a day. There was a housekeeper for their laundry and to keep their quarters clean. They drove comfortable black sedans, wore good suits with straw hats in summer and homburgs in winter. Should Father condescend to visit your home—in some places they were not allowed to save to bring communion to the sick or anoint the dying—he was offered the best food and beverage you could provide and he never left without an “Irish handshake” that left you ten or twenty dollars lighter in day in a day when that was real money.
To be fair, if privileged, the life of a priest was not necessarily easy. There were poor parishes and rural churches to which troublemaking priests could be assigned without the comforts of life in an established and staffed rectory. Pastors ruled the roost and often bullied their assistants with ridiculous rules and curfews. Once the morning Masses were over there was precious little to do. This was before the era of liturgy committees, parish councils, finance boards, baptismal preparation classes, school boards, and other collaboration with the parishioners in parish matters. A night out might mean an Altar and Rosary Society meeting or leading the rosary at a wake. Days off were one a week—and not an overnight; it began after your morning mass and ended at the time the pastor’s curfew designated. And, of course, a day off usually meant a day with Mom and Dad—maybe doctors’ appointments or going along to visit childless great-aunt Bea who was rumored to be worth “a couple hundred thou.” No wonder alcoholism was rampant.
But still it was a charmed life of being admired and kept comfortably away from want or need. My experience is, however, that very few priests who experienced that life want to go back to it but there are those younger clergy who see that today you could have the privilege without the restrictions. The trick is—how to recover the magic and reendow the priesthood with it. One way, of course, is the Pope Francis way for the clergy to once again earn the respect of the faithful by giving the example of a life rooted in the gospel we preach. The other way, the Cardinal Sarah way, is to make the Liturgy once again a magical act within the sole power of the priest and upon which all are dependent for salvation. Magic is so much more fun—and far less hard work—than the Gospel.