When I was a child, my family sometimes spent a week visiting a monastery. On one occasion -- this was surely before the end of the Second Vatican Council when such things got changed -- my mother, sister and I were invited to attend a private Mass within the monastic enclosure.
I was quite intrigued by the setup. Here was a row of cubicles, each equipped with its own altar, so that a dozen or more priests could say separate Masses at the same time. A tidy arrangement in the absence of much latitude for concelebration!
Still, it left the impression that the celebration of the Eucharist could be the priest's private devotion. Lay people were, it would seem, peripheral to the celebration.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes a Vatican II document which gives quite a different impression: "Liturgical services are not private functions but are celebrations of the church which is the 'the sacrament of unity,' namely, the holy people united and organized under the authority of the bishops. Therefore, liturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the church. . . . Rites which are meant to be celebrated in common, with the faithful present and actively participating, should as far as possible be celebrated in that way rather than by an individual and quasi-privately" (no. 1040, see Constitution on the Liturgy, 26-27).
It goes on to make the revolutionary declaration that the community of the baptized is the celebrating assembly for the liturgy. The Mass is not the private action of the priest, but rather an action of the Body of Christ.
This, however, raises other questions. The role of the ordained priest in the liturgy is clear -- he is an icon of Christ the priest. But what is the role of the laity as celebrants of the liturgy? The Catechism makes a brief reference to other ministries such as servers, readers, commentators and members of the choir as "assisting the work of the common priesthood of the faithful" (no. 1143). But that may leave the impression that if you don't participate in one of those ministries, your participation in the liturgy is less than that of those who do. Such is not the case.
The role of the baptized in celebrating the liturgy is crucial. And it involves much more than our physical presence at Mass, reciting the responses, singing hymns and receiving Communion. In a highly significant teaching, Vatican II proclaimed: "For all (the laity's) works, prayers and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit -- indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne -- all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord. And so, worshiping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to Christ" (Constitution on the Church, 34, emphasis added).
Here is the priesthood of all the baptized. The events of our lives may be offered to God through the Eucharist and by that "holy action," the laity consecrate the world to Christ. The Eucharist is not a ritual action removed from the world of work, play and family life. Rather, it is the means by which the baptized "gather up all things in Christ" (Ephesians 1:10). "The faithful, by virtue of their royal priesthood, participate in the offering of the Eucharist" (The Church, 10).
There is a real distinction between the priesthood given through Baptism and the priesthood given through Orders. The lay faithful and the ordained priests play complementary roles in celebrating the Eucharist. Both are called to respond with "full, conscious and active participation" in the liturgy. Neither form of participation is superior to the other. The priesthood of the laity is seen not primarily in liturgical ministries but in the transformation of the so-called secular realm into the image of Christ. We take the living Christ into the marketplace and the marketplace to the Eucharist.
Seen this way, the celebration of a private Mass by a priest in a cubicle is a diminution of the Eucharist. It is a legitimate memorial of Christ's redeeming sacrifice on Calvary. Lost, however, is any visible sign of Christ transforming society and social relationships. That requires the full, active and conscious participation of the lay faithful.
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