What is the role of the priest in general? The Catechism of Trent says, "The office of a priest, then, is to offer Sacrifice to God and to administer the Sacraments of the Church." As we see, the word sacrifice again appears in the definition of the role of the priest. In fact, it is no stretch to say that the primary role of the priest is first and foremost to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass. Saint Alphonsus Liguori says of the priest and the Mass, "It has been said by a servant of God, that the whole life of a Priest ought to be a preparation and thanksgiving for Mass." So we can see that even while the priest is not saying Mass he should be contemplating it! Fr. John Hardon gives an elaboration on the primary role of the priest,
"By now, there must be as many definitions of the priesthood as there are dictionaries in print. But in the Catholic Church, the priest exists for one main purpose: to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass. So true is this that, without the priesthood, there would not only be no Sacrifice of the Mass. There would be no Catholic Church. This may sound strange, even exotic. But the fact of life is that God became man in order to sacrifice Himself on the Cross by dying for the salvation of the world. Having died once on Calvary, He continues offering Himself in every Mass so totally that He would be willing to die every time that Mass is offered. It is impossible to exaggerate this identification. The Catholic Church exists mainly that the Sacrifice of the Mass may continue to be offered from thousands of altars every day, even until the end of time."As we continue to bring more objective knowledge to the table, our picture is becoming even more clear as to the importance of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is so sacred that the priest's life should revolve around it. The priest then lives and breathes for the Mass, and everything else he does, preach, teach, give alms, council, etc, all revolve around the Mass. This is not to downplay the importance of the other Sacraments or the many other things the priest is responsible for. It is to give the right recognition to the important and central role of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Let us examine the priest as he participates in the Holy Sacrifice. Catholics should know that during the Mass the priest actually stands in place of the one High Priest, Jesus Christ. The Latin term, in persona Christi, is thrown about by everyone but truly understood by few. Many Catholics give lip service to the term, yet few follow it through when it comes to participating in the Mass. This is largely due to poor catechesis over the past 50 years. The term in persona Chrisi literally means, 'in the person of Christ.' If we contemplate this mystery seriously for a moment, we should begin to develop an image of the priest at the altar.
In the first place we need to understand that Jesus Christ is the High Priest and the victim at the altar. In every Mass He represents Himself to the Father as a supreme and perfect Sacrifice. The ordained priest is merely the instrument to whom God has given the power to stand in His place. The priest does not offer the Sacrifice on his own, but is given the power to do so by Jesus Christ Himself. This means that we should never focus on the personality of the priest during the Mass, because in reality there is only one priest offering the Sacrifice, Christ Himself. Remember we are truly present at the one Sacrifice on Calvary. The priest's identity should be hidden behind the person of Christ. When the priest speaks he speaks as if He were in the place of Christ. This is the same when the priest hears confession. He does not say "Jesus absolves you", he says, "I absolve you" as if he is in the person of Christ. Likewise, the priest repeats the words of Christ Himself during the consecration, "Hoc est enim Corpus meum" or "This is my Body." The priest does not say "This is Christ's Body."
As soon as we see the priest process into the church our spiritual eyes should contemplate no one else but Jesus Christ Himself. Saint John Chrysostom says, "This Sacrifice, no matter who offers it, be it Peter or Paul, is always the same as that which Christ gave His disciples and which priests now offer: The offering of today is in no way inferior to that which Christ offered, because it is not men who sanctify the offering of today; it is the same Christ who sanctified His own. For just as the words which God spoke are the very same as those which the priest now speaks, so too the oblation is the very same." Once we properly understand this reality we begin to view the Mass a bit differently. If a ritual were to lead us in any way to focus on the priest, his personality or his preferred gestures, etc, leading the faithful to have a preference for a particular priest during the Mass, this would present a serious problem, both for the priest and the laity.
For one, the priest should not want to stand out as a personality during the Mass. Saint Alphonsus Ligouri wrote, "Unless a Priest esteem the Holy Sacrifice as it deserves, he can never celebrate it with suitable devotion. Assuredly there is no action, which man can perform, so sublime, so sacred, as the celebration of Mass." The priest then should disappear into the Sacrifice at Mass. Every care should be taken that the priest can as closely as possible present himself in the person of Christ. That is why the rubrics have traditionally been such and important component of the Mass. For those priests who truly understand the Mass, they will tell you that the strict rubrics of the old Mass are truly a blessing. It gives them the freedom to allow Christ to be the center of the Mass rather than themselves. They also understand how important it is for them not to be distracted during the Mass. If the priest were to have too much leeway in the rubrics, it would be easy to get distracted and cause scandal during the Mass by adding in his own personality and preferences.
If you read the older books on the Mass before the Second Vatican Council, it was a mortal sin, a sacrilege, for the priest to follow the rubrics haphazardly or be distracted by other things during the Mass, especially at the consecration. The last thing the priest should be worried about is performing for the laity at Mass. I think it is important at this point to quote Saint Alphonsus at length to prove this point. This again points back to the principles we examined already concerning the nature of the Mass, but now incorporating the priest.
"... a Priest celebrating Mass ought to behave with all the reverence duo to so great a sacrifice. To induce him to do this is the intent, or at least the principal point of this tract. Let us then see what is meant by reverence. It means first, a proper attention to the words of the Mass; and secondly, an exact observance of the ceremonies prescribed by the rubrics. As regards attention to the words, a Priest sins, by being voluntarily distracted during Mass; and as divines say, if it be during the consecration and elevation, or during a notable part of the canon, he sins mortally...I maintain that the holy Sacrifice is not only an act of prayer, but also a most sublime act of religious worship, in which a Priest appears to commit great irreverence, if, while he actually professes religiously to honour God, he is voluntarily distracted with thoughts of other subjects...The Mass, then, being the most holy and divine action in which we can be engaged, it plainly follows, says the Council of Trent, that all diligence ought to be used in order that so great a sacrifice may be celebrated with the greatest possible interior purity and exterior devotion..."The point being made here is that we need to understand the role of the priest in the Mass, in persona Christi, so we can examine the rituals closely to see if one or the other ritual lends itself better to this reality. If one ritual better presents the reality of the priest acting in persona Christi, it would objectively be a superior ritual. We must begin to think differently when we go to Mass, keeping in mind that Christ Himself is present and the priest is His servant carrying out the Holy Sacrifice visibly in His place. In examining these elements we are growing closer to bringing our comparison forth in an objective manner. Before we begin this process, there is one more stopping point along the way. We now need to understand and define the role of the laity in the Mass. This will be covered in part 5. In part 6 we will begin to objectively compare the two rituals.