What is a priest supposed to do with his eyes during the celebration of Mass? The question probably seems trifling and frivolous to many, but the answer to it can greatly affect the experience of those assisting and praying at the Mass.
Most of us have seen a Priest Who Makes Uncomfortable Eye Contact During Mass. Many such priests seem basically to have memorized the Eucharistic prayers (or one of them, at least), and generally look at the people throughout much of it — even though it’s a prayer directed to God and not to the people.
The answer that I would like to set forth may be somewhat surprising. In general, I think priests should practice “custody of the eyes” — not looking out into the congregation, except obviously during the homily, when it would be bordering on absurd not to make eye contact.
Not that I always follow the rule that I am proposing. I do tend to look out at other times; but anyway, this is not confession. At least allow me to build an argument about why I think a general policy of “custody of the eyes” during Mass may be what the Church intends!
The first thing is that for the modern form of the Mass — the Ordinary Form — the main body of instructions that guides its celebration is the document we know in English as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. It says nothing about what a priest should do with his eyes. Nothing. This is surely one reason why there may be such a wide variety of practice.
However, it does say something that I think is key to answering our question:
42. The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people, must be conducive to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, to making clear the true and full meaning of its different parts, and to fostering the participation of all. Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. [emphasis added]
Does undisciplined looking at people throughout the Mass conduce toward beauty and noble simplicity – indeed, to prayer? But what is the traditional practice of the Roman Rite in this area? We need to figure that out, rather than solving this problem according to our personal tastes.
The document that guides the celebration of the Mass in the older form — the Extraordinary Form — is known as the Ritus Servandus. We could translate that title as, “The Rite to be Observed” — in other words, the “how to” of that form of the Mass. It has a lot to say about the eyes.
One thing worth noting is that for all it has to say about where the priest is to look, it never once says that he is to look at the faithful. Now again, I think we can reasonably expect that the priest should look at the faithful during the homily or sermon; this is Basic Communication 101.
In any case, apart from those times when it specifically mentions that the priest is to look at the Altar Cross, up toward Heaven, at the Host or the Chalice, the Missal, and so forth, it otherwise assumes (or explicitly mentions) that his eyes will be downcast. Here is an instructive quotation in this regard:
The Priest walks with eyes downcast, in a dignified manner, and with his body erect.
The great rubricist, Rev. J.B. O’Connell, explains the general philosophy of “custody of the eyes” in the traditional Roman Rite as follows (with my emphasis added):
In general, during the celebration of the Mass the celebrant is to keep his eyes cast down… both for his own recollection and for the edification of the congregation. [O’Connell, Rev. J.B., The Celebration of the Mass (1964: Milwaukee, The Bruce Publishing Company), page 195.]
O’Connell says that the humble posture of keeping custody of one’s eyes is edifying for the congregation. How could this be?
Well, this brings us back to the Priest Who Makes Uncomfortable Eye Contact During Mass. Something about that habit of celebration — that particular ars celebrandi — says implicitly, “hey, look at me”. It draws attention to the priest: to his personality, to his skill (or lack thereof) in proclamation, to the meaningfulness and feeling with which he celebrates, etc.
The priest who is not always looking about takes the emphasis off his own ego. Which is what is supposed to happen, anyhow: he is celebrating in persona Christi, not “in persona Fr. So-and-So”. Thus so many other elements of the Mass: from the way that his street clothes are to be completely covered over (using an amice, also, if necessary), to the dignified vestments that he wears (which are nothing like anything we wear on a day-to-day basis; they take the emphasis off him and place it rather on his role as Priest). From the clear and decorous way that he pronounces the texts of the Mass (cf. GIRM 38), to… his not constantly looking about and making eye contact, outside of the homily (and, by extension, the announcements).
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says nothing about where the priest should look during Mass, but it does say that we should follow the tradition of the Roman Rite. It would seem to me that we have here a classic example of that mutual enrichment that Pope Benedict said should take place between the old form and the new. And by understanding better our tradition, we can not only heed the directives of the newer form of the Mass but also, thereby, celebrate it in a way that puts more emphasis on Christ and less on the individual priest: in sum, in a more edifying way.
Here is the full section of O’Connell on the priest’s custody of the eyes during Mass. References to the Ritus Servandus are contained in the footnotes (abbreviated as “R.”).
Click to enlarge the above images. You can purchase O’Connell’s manual HERE.
Regarding the prayer of the “Our Father” in particular — a time, in the Novus Ordo, when many priests look at the people — see this prior post that I did about it.