Present being or being present?
My attention has been drawn to an article in the German press regarding the celebration of what is termed the "private mass". The Article: "Private Mass Does not fit with Contemporary Understanding of Eucharist" (Gerhards et al) challenges the celebration of Mass in the absence of the faithful. Seemingly, the article is predicated upon the premise that the the Eucharist is a communal celebration, not the privilege of the celebrant. Implicit to this argument is the notion that the celebration of the Eucharist by a priest is somehow forbidden when the "community" is not present. This is a challenging argument; not least on account of the fact it is not readily reconcilable with Christ's own command to the apostles at the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood in the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday.
If social media coverage is to be taken as accurate, teutonic theological utterances are seldom equivocal or troubled by self-doubt. At the outset, it is to be noted that the article already referred to places the celebration of the Eucharist in the "here and now" void of any metaphysical perspective; in the manner of a social meeting in need of a quorum. Is this right?
The Church has received the Sacraments entrusted to her in order that they may be celebrated and preserved in every age. Her teachings affirm that each of the Sacraments constitute encounters with Christ Himself, who is present within them; essential aspects of the continuum of the salvific mystery. The 7th Session of the Council of Trent, declared that grace was conferred by the performance of the sacramental rite itself. Likewise, Pius X observed that the Sacraments are the means by which we call to mind the work and beneficial presence of the Creator: Lamentabili (1907). So too in the Encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) it was declared:
"Christ is present in the august sacrifice of the altar, both in the presence of his minister and especially under the eucharistic species..."
This same truth was affirmed in the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963):
"...Christ is always present to His Church; especially in the liturgical celebrations..."
What then of the Eucharist? Mediator Dei provides an answer:
"Every time the priest re-enacts what the Divine Redeemer did at the Last Supper, the sacrifice is really accomplished; and this sacrifice, always and everywhere, necessarily and of its nature, has a public and social character..."
One might ask, what is this public and social character? The text continues:
"For he who offers it acts in the name both of Christ and his faithful, of whom the Divine Redeemer is the head, and he offers it to God for the Holy Catholic Church and for the living and the dead. And this happens whether the faithful are present....or whether they are absent because it is no way necessary that they should ratify what has been done by the sacred minister..."
This is the power of the sacred minister to renew the mystery of the most Holy Eucharist, It has been the subject of clarification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when under the prefecture of another teutonic theologian: Cardinal Ratzinger. In the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Certain Questions Concerning the Minister of the Eucharist, the authors affirmed the nature and purposes of ordination and continued:
"In this way, [Christ] so configures [the priests] to himself that when they pronounce the words of consecration, they do not act on a mandate from the community, but in 'persona Christi'... since the celebrant, by reason of this special sacrament, identifies himself with the Eternal High Priest, who is the author and principal agent of His own sacrifice in which truly no one can take His place."
What then of those unable to access the sacrament by physical means? The same document continues:
"United, therefore, to the Church through their desire of the sacrament, no matter how physically distant they may seem to be, they intimately and really share in its life and therefore receive the fruits of the sacrament..."
Through ordination, our priests assume a radical poverty of surrender to the Divine Will. In this surrender, they present themselves at the service of the Holy Spirit. In his celebration of the Eucharist, the priest renews the salvific mystery for all; physically present or not. The priest affirms the insatiable desire of the Saviour 'from age to age' to gather a people to Himself. What is required for participation of the faithful is not physical presence but a conversion of heart. After all, prayer knows no physical bounds.
In these difficult days, we have the grace of the priesthood. The same grace extends to the opportunity to witness- through social media- our priests participating in the eternal and unchanging sacrifice of Our Saviour. To the secular eye, this is the solitary act of the priest. To those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, it is the renewal of the mystery upon which our life depends. We witness not the isolation and agony of Gethsemane, but the passion, death and resurrection of Christ himself. In short: the Eternal Will, reaching out to us, and bidding us in our hearts to enter into intimacy with Him. The celebration of the Holy Eucharist which we are able to witness by modern communications, is an invitation to participate with our hearts and minds. In doing so, we may place ourselves before His altar which is unseen; perhaps uttering the Divine Praises: "blessed be God in His Angels and in His saints".
The first step on this journey is to express gratitude for the fact He has already provided for us in our need. As such, we might today offer a simple prayer:
Father, in your infinite goodness, you have bestowed upon us the gift of the priesthood. May all your priests, through the celebration of the Mass, be fortified in their calling, renewed by Your Grace and enriched by Your Love. Keep them faithful to your teachings and never let them be parted from you.
We ask this through Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever.
St Joseph, spouse most chaste, pray for us.
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.