An Italian blog I check on recently posted an excerpt from the writings of St. Alphonsus Liguori on the reverence – or lack thereof – with which some priests celebrate Holy Mass. It’s striking to think that this was written sometime about the mid-18th century, since so much of it is just as applicable today. I was really struck by the Saint’s observations and argument and thought it could be worthwhile to share them in English translation here.
I found the text in a scanned book online and made a few small linguistic adaptations for readability and left out some passages for overall brevity. This text is a good meditation for priests and laity alike.
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On Masses Celebrated with Little Reverence
St. Alphonsus Liguori
O God! it would be necessary to weep, and even to shed tears of blood, at the manner in which many priests celebrate Mass. It excites compassion to see the contempt with which some priests and religious, and even priests of the reformed orders, treat Jesus Christ on the altar. Observe with what kind of attention certain priests celebrate Mass. I hope their number is small. Of them we may well say what Clement of Alexandria said of the pagan priests, that they turned heaven into a stage, and God into the subject of the comedy. But why do I say a comedy? Oh! how great would be their attention if they had to recite a part in a comedy! But with what sort of attention do they celebrate Mass? Mutilated words; genuflections that appear to be acts of contempt rather than of reverence; benedictions which I know not what to call. They move and turn on the altar in a disrespectful manner….
All arises from an anxiety to have the Mass soon finished. Some say Mass with as much haste as if the walls were about to fall, or as if they expected to be attacked by pirates without getting time to fly away. Some priests spend two hours in useless conversation, or in treating of worldly affairs, and are all haste in celebrating Mass. As they begin the Mass without reverence, so they proceed to consecrate, to take Jesus Christ in their hands, and to communicate with as much irreverence as if the holy sacrament were common bread… The Lord commanded the priests of the Old Law to tremble through reverence in approaching his sanctuary: “Reverence my sanctuary” (Lev 19:30). And still we see scandalous irreverence in priests of the New Law while they stand at the altar in the presence of Jesus Christ; while they converse with him, take him in their hands, offer him in sacrifice, and eat his flesh. In the Old Law the Lord threatened several maledictions against priests who neglected the ceremonies of sacrifices, which were but figures of our sacrifice… St. Teresa used to say: “I would give my life for a ceremony of the Church”. And will a priest despise the ceremonies of the holy Mass?….
How can priests expect by Masses said with such irreverence to obtain graces from God, when during the oblation of these Masses they offend and dishonor him more than they honor him? Should a priest not believe in the most holy sacrament of the altar, he would offend God; but it is a still greater offense to believe in it, and to celebrate Mass without due reverence, and thus make the people who are present lose their veneration for the holy sacrament. In the beginning the Jews respected Jesus Christ, but when they saw him despised by their priests they lost their esteem for him, and in the end joined in the cry of the priests: “Away with this man; crucify him!” And in like manner, lay people, seeing a priest treat the Mass with such irreverence, lose their respect and veneration for it. A Mass said with reverence excites devotion in all who are present at it; but, on the other hand, a Mass celebrated with irreverence destroys devotion and even faith in those that are present….
[B]ecause Masses are frequently so short, and so little calculated to excite devotion, lay people, after the example of priests, attend Mass with lack of devotion and with little faith; and when they find that it lasts longer than half an hour, they, on account of the bad habit that they have contracted, grow weary and begin to complain; and though they spend without tediousness several hours at play, or in the street, to pass the time, they feel it tedious and fatiguing to spend half an hour in hearing Mass. Of this evil, priests are the cause… The want of reverence with which many priests celebrate Mass is the cause that it is treated with contempt by others. Poor priests!…. Miserable priests! And miserable the bishop who permits such priests to celebrate. For, as the Council of Trent prescribes, bishops are bound to prevent all irreverence in the celebration of Mass: “The holy synod decrees that the ordinary bishops of places shall take diligent care and be bound to prohibit irreverence, which can hardly be separated from impiety.” Mark the words, “shall take diligent care and be bound”….
And let us, dearly beloved priests, endeavor to amend, if we have hitherto offered this great sacrifice with a want of reverence and devotion. Let us, at least from this day forward, repair the evil we have done. Let us, in preparing for Mass, reflect on the nature of the action that we are going to perform: in celebrating Mass we perform an action the most sublime and holy that man can perform. Ah, what blessings does a Mass, said with devotion, bring on him who offers it, and on those that hear it! With regard to the priest who offers it, [one author] writes: “Prayer is more quickly heard when recited in the presence of a priest saying Mass.” Now, if God hears more speedily the prayers which a lay person offers in the presence of a priest celebrating Mass, how much more readily will he hear the prayers of the priest himself if he celebrates with devotion! He who offers the holy Mass every day with devotion shall always receive new lights and new strength from God. Jesus Christ will always infuse increased knowledge and consolation; he will encourage him, and grant him the graces that he desires. A priest may feel assured, particularly after the consecration, that he shall receive from Jesus Christ all the graces he asks…..
The Council of Rhodes commanded priests to show their faith and devotion towards Jesus Christ by pronouncing the words with piety, and performing the ceremonies with reverence and devotion towards Jesus Christ, who is present in the Mass. The external deportment, says St. Bonaventure, is what shows the interior dispositions of the celebrant. And here let us call to mind, in passing, the command of Innocent III: “We also command that the oratories, vases, corporals, and vestments should be kept clean; for it seems to be absurd to neglect in so holy actions what would be unbecoming in profane actions.” O God! the Pontiff has too much reason to speak in this manner; for some priests have no repugnance to celebrate with corporals, purificators, and chalices which they could not bear to use at table!
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