This is a slight reworking of my bulletin column for the upcoming Sunday.
In June, the Archbishop gathered all the priests of the Archdiocese for a three-day convocation; this happens every five years. The topic was the seven sacraments; and in the course of answering questions, the speaker made a point that I want to share with you about the Eucharistic Prayer. And it is this: that the focus of the prayer – the one to whom the words are directed – is God the Father in heaven.
Why is this important?
Because many people think the prayer is addressed to them. Indeed, they have been encouraged to think so! Howso? Because many, many priests treat this prayer as an exposition, and a kind of sacred “show and tell.” If you’ve been at a Mass where a priest tends to do this, this is what happens: the priest is standing at the altar, but his gaze, his focus, is on the assembly. And when he comes to the part that recalls Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, he will treat this as a kind of re-enactment of those events.
But that is not what is going on. Instead, what is happening is the priest is speaking to God the Father, in heaven; and the prayer is recalling what Christ did at the Last Supper (and on Good Friday, and on Easter, for that matter). Moreover, the focus on the Father in heaven begins several minutes earlier, but you may not have noticed.
The most decisive shift* comes after the priest has placed the bread and wine on the altar, perhaps incensing them, and then washed his hands, what does he do? He looks at the people (and turns toward them, if he is not facing them at that moment), and says, “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours be acceptable to God the almighty Father.” And what do you say? “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of his holy Church.”
It is at this point when the priest begins addressing God the Father at length; and then, when all have said or sung “Amen,” he invites everyone to join in the prayer to the Father. This is when the priest sings or says, “Lift up your hearts,” etc. Then the priest prays another prayer – to the Father – and then all sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” – again…to the Father. And after that, the priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer – alone – to the Father.
Here’s why this matters: it is important to realize that what we are doing at Mass is not merely or mainly “horizontal” – i.e., directed toward one another – but much more “vertical” – i.e., directed toward heaven. Mass isn’t just talk, talk, talk; but rather, it is action, action, action – by the Holy Trinity. People wonder why folks don’t come to Mass – I think this is a big reason why.
Now, I don’t want to make other priests out to be bad guys. They are trying to be helpful. What’s more, this is what they were taught to do. And…this is why the direction the priest faces at this point of the Mass matters.
Most people have only experienced the priest facing them across the altar; they don’t realize that there is any option. In fact, there is: the priest has the option of offering Mass at the altar while facing the same way as the people (aka, ad orientem). Some say the priest has his “back” to the people, but this emphasizes the wrong thing: where is his face turned? The same ways as yours!
My point being, that having the priest facing the same way as the people – at this very point of the Mass – can do a lot to clarify what’s going on. When the priest faces the people, it’s very easy for both him, and the people facing him, to think that the focus is on each other. Whereas, when the priest and the people are facing the same way, together, then it’s much clearer who the focus is: it is God, and what we look for him to do for us.
FYI, in order to give more parishioners a chance to experience this, at the 7 pm Mass on Tuesday, August 15, for the Assumption, I will offer the Mass in this fashion: meaning, when I am at the altar for the sacrifice, I will use the high altar. I realize this will be unfamiliar to some, and also that some may not prefer it – but give it a try. And do let me know your reactions, whether pro or con.
* In reality, the entire Mass is focused on the Father; but when you have readings proclaimed to the assembly, and a homily, this is obscured. (And readers who prefer the Traditional Latin Mass are smiling knowingly right now.) The point I'm making is that, in the context of the Ordinary Form, there is a distinct moment when the heavenly focus should be crystal clear.