Priest’s role at Mass is multi-faceted
One of my earliest memories of attending Mass as a child involved my thinking that God must be in the attic of the church. My mother and I most often sat about half-way back from the sanctuary; a perfect spot for a child like me to see not the altar or the priest, but the back of people’s heads. I couldn’t see a thing when everyone was standing, but I could hear everything through the sound system. I heard the voice over the sound system “Glory to God in the highest … Let us pray … This is my body … This is my blood.” Our speakers were hung from the ceiling, and so it sounded like a booming voice from above. For whatever reason, I associated that voice with God. And with the voice coming from above, I thought, “could God be in the attic of the church?”
I find it intriguing that this memory came back to me as I began writing this article on the role of the priest at Mass. You see, the priest isn’t the voice of God in the attic. The priest, through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, stands in the midst of, or more appropriately, at the head of the liturgical assembly – the Body of Christ – as very person of Christ as head of that Body. No, Josh, God isn’t in the attic when we celebrate liturgy. He is much, much closer.
The priest’s role at Mass is multi-faceted, and the confines of this article unfortunately do not allow me to dive into the beauty of the priesthood as exercised in the liturgy. There’s so much important imagery to uncover! At a very basic, human level though – perhaps the most fundamental level – the priest is seen as presiding over the gathered assembly. He leads the prayers and prompts the participation of the people. His leadership in the liturgical assembly can help express the faith of the Church (or obscure that expression of faith); his role can be instrumental in fostering unity in worship with the Church Universal (or fostering division).
He fulfills this role in the very way he celebrates the liturgy. It is for this precise reason that a priest is entrusted not only with the reverent celebration of liturgy, but with the very careful preparation of the liturgy. Too often the temptation is to fall back onto the “ritual” and not be attentive to how one leads the liturgical assembly. Although there is comfort in following the ritual structure, the danger is that one falls into a ritual “rut” and neglects attention to the preparation needed to celebrate liturgy “worthily and well.” This applies not only to the preparation of the priest, but the preparation of all the ministers and to everyone who gathers for liturgy! As the Bishops of the United States have said in their document on music, Sing to the Lord (2009), “faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations can foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken it” (no. 5, my emphasis).
I’ll conclude with a word of gratitude to all the liturgical ministers – especially our priests and deacons – who, week after week, take the time to carefully prepare the liturgy, whether it be through attention to their homily, or to the ritual and music, or to how they voice the prayers or bodily express the faith. Your preparation fosters faith. Perhaps your preparation will even make a young child think that God can be found in the attic of the church. Or better yet — even closer.
—Josh Perry is director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Burlington.
—Originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.