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The Spirituality of the Priest Celebrant in a Time of Change  
Paul H. Colloton  

At the beginning of Mass we sign ourselves with the cross as we sing or say, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The people answer, "Amen." The cross reminds us that it is the whole Christ, head and members, who celebrates the liturgy and in whose name we gather, both ordained and lay. The Preface for Ordination affirms this: "For Christ not only adorns with a royal priesthood / the people he has made his own, / but with a brother's kindness he also chooses men / to become sharers in his sacred ministry / through the laying on of hands."1

The vertical arm of the cross reminds us that through Christ earth and heaven are united. The transcendent God becomes immanent, one with humanity so that humanity might become one with God. The horizontal arm reminds us that through Christ we become one with each other. The liturgy summons us to praise the transcendent God, who is immanent in our midst. The members of the body of Christ are called to live in relationship with God and each other. Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), 7, puts it this way:

In the liturgy, by means of signs perceptible to the senses, human sanctification is signified and brought about in ways proper to each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members.

We preside at a liturgy that is a both/and reality. Liturgy celebrates God's transcendence and immanence. We join ourselves to Christ, both head and members. We gather as the baptized who are members of the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the faithful. Liturgical spirituality is a spirituality of Jesus Christ, in whose name we gather, whose presence we manifest, to whose offering we join ourselves, and in whose name we pray. As the Preface for Ordination states, the ordained "strive to be conformed to the image of Christ himself, / and offer you a constant witness of faith and love."2

Both/And Spirituality
SC, 7, states: "Christ always truly associates the Church with himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and the recipients made holy." The liturgy both glorifies God and sanctifies God's people. The liturgy expresses both transcendence and immanence. The new translation of the Sanctus, "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts," recalls Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. We glorify God (transcendence). "Heaven and earth are full of your glory." Earth is sanctified by the one "who comes in the name of the Lord" (immanence). We end by glorifying God again, saying, "Hosanna in the highest." The pattern of the hymn is transcendence, immanence, and transcendence.

Christ, both head and members, celebrates liturgy:

The whole Church, the Body of Christ, prays and offers herself ‘through him, with him, and in him,' in the unity of the Holy Spirit, to God the Father." (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1553)

In other words, our spirituality as priest celebrants reflects our belonging to Jesus Christ, in whom the transcendent God became immanent in human flesh. In the whole Christ, head and members, the liturgy seeks to glorify God and sanctify God's people. Our spirituality as priest celebrants must keep these both/and elements in a healthy tension, especially in a time when the familiar words of the liturgy will change for all the liturgical assembly, but especially in the prayers we pray in the people's name.

Icons of Jesus Christ
That change entails sacrifice, the total offering of self to the people in Christ's name, and to God in Christ's name. In the new translation of the Doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer we proclaim, "Through him, and with him, and in him, / O God, almighty Father, / in the unity of the Holy Spirit, / all glory and honor is yours, / for ever and ever." The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) reminds us:

The priest invites the people to lift up their hearts to the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving; he unites the congregation with himself in the prayer that he addresses in the name of the entire community to God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit . . . the entire congregation of the faithful should join itself with Christ in confessing the great deeds of God and in the offering of Sacrifice." (GIRM, 78)

A new translation will mean letting go of familiar phrases. At the same time the words will invite deeper meaning as they become familiar to us and the assembly.

Because liturgical spirituality conforms us to Jesus Christ, "in the celebration of Mass, in which the Sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated, Christ is really present in the very liturgical assembly gathered in his name, in the person of the minister, in his word, and indeed substantially and continuously under the Eucharistic species" (GIRM, 27). The sacrifice of praying with new words, images, and melodies will invite us to unite ourselves to that Sacrifice of the Cross. United with Christ, we become icons of Christ. Our witness will help or hinder the reception of these new words by our people.

We will need to take time to pray the new words to convey the "living presence of Christ" during the liturgy. Making the liturgical texts our food for prayer and preaching will help us "pray in the name of the Church and of the assembled community." Our prayer leadership can help the faithful deepen their openness to new words, images, and melodies.

How we preside makes a difference. People notice what we do. They notice whether we sing and attend to the other ministers. The first time I presided at a parish, a number of people mentioned that I sang and carried the hymnal in procession. I paid attention to the lector and psalmist. I made eye contact during the dialogues. I note these comments to emphasize the importance of how we participate. Our example can draw people into (or inhibit) their celebration of the liturgy, and through the liturgy draw them to Jesus Christ. Priestly spirituality involves giving example, modeling participation, and becoming an icon that directs all to Christ: "[We] are to renew in his name the sacrifice of human redemption, to set before your children the paschal banquet, to lead your holy people in charity, to nourish them with your word and strengthen them with the Sacraments."3

An icon is a representation of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a saint. Icon writers have taught me that one looks through the representation to connect with the personage it represents. One looks through the image to offer praise, glory, prayer, or petition to the Almighty. Eyes in an icon seem to follow the viewer, drawing us beyond the image to Almighty God. As priest celebrants we do the same. We draw others to God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

As representatives of Christ, we help the assembly of God's faithful connect to God, through Christ. With the other members of the liturgical assembly, we give praise and thanks to God, offer intercession, and stand in awe and wonder before God's presence, to become what we see, the body and blood of Christ.4 As icons of Jesus Christ, our ministry does not draw attention to ourselves, but through us to the one in whose name we gather and in whom we live and move and have our being.

Dialogue and Collaboration
Since the liturgy is celebrated by the whole Christ, we need to collaborate with and pay attention to one another. The GIRM reflects this when it addresses dialogues:

Since the celebration of Mass by its nature has a "communitarian" character, both the dialogues between the priest and the faithful gathered together, and the acclamations are of great significance; in fact, they are not simply outward signs of communal celebration but foster and bring about communion between priest and people. (GIRM, 34)

I am reminded of what scholastic theology says about the sacraments: they effect what they signify. The dialogues effect what they signify. Linguists call this performative language, that is, language that affects reality. Telling a friend "I love you" expresses and deepens our relationship. Liturgical dialogues do the same. They express our mutual belonging in the Christ we put on in Baptism. They deepen our communion with the rest of the liturgical assembly. The dialogues reflect the mutuality and reciprocity in the body of Christ. They nourish and express a spirituality that calls us to pay attention to one another by looking at the congregation as we sing the invitation to which they respond or await their response before beginning the next part of a dialogue, prayer, or reading that follows.

The dialogues also remind us that celebrating the liturgy calls for collaboration: The pastoral effectiveness of a celebration will be greatly increased if the texts of the readings, prayers, and liturgical songs correspond as closely as possible to the needs, spiritual preparation, and culture of those taking part. This is achieved by appropriate use of the wide options described below.

The priest, therefore, in preparing for the celebration of Mass, should have in mind the common spiritual good of the people of God, rather than his own inclinations. He should, moreover, remember that the selection of different parts is to be made in agreement with those who have some role in the celebration, including the faithful, in regard to the parts that more directly pertain to each. . . . Harmonious planning and carrying out of the rites will be of great assistance in disposing the faithful to participate in the Eucharist. (GIRM, 352)

Could a Church document be any clearer about the need to listen and speak honestly, pay attention to all members of the liturgical assembly (including our own role in the assembly), and attend to what the rites of the Church ask of us? The rhythm of dialogue—call-response, speaking-listening, sound-silence—is the rhythm of the liturgy. The common spiritual good of the people of God requires that we put our inclinations aside at times, yet both require our attention. To quote from the Priesthood Preface again, "As they give up their lives for you / and for the salvation of their brothers and sisters, / they strive to be conformed to the image of Christ himself, / and offer you a constant witness of faith and love."5 Attention to our inclinations in dialogue with the common spiritual good of the people and the rites of the Church is one way we give up our lives for Christ and the salvation of our brothers and sisters. In this way we foster and bring about communion with the people, the local worshiping community, and the universal Church.

Our spirituality follows the example of Christ's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus invites her to dialogue by asking for a drink, placing her spiritual good above his own reputation. He listens to her truth and speaks his. Paying attention to her spiritual good, he broke down barriers. She listened to him and spoke honestly in return. Through dialogue she recognized him as the awaited Messiah. Transformed, she who was afraid to be seen in public proclaims her experience to her people. She becomes an icon that leads others to Christ. We are called to do the same.

The Face of Christ
Why do we stand before the people of God? Why do we enter into a dialogue that can make us vulnerable? Why become icons that draw others to God, through Christ, by the way we model participation in the liturgy? Why embrace the healthy tension that is reflected in the both/and reality of the liturgy? Why embrace the changes in translation that will be ours November 27, 2011? I believe that we do these things to be faithful to the mandate of the Second Vatican Council:

The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations called for by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" [1 Peter 2:9; see 2:4–5] is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. (SC, 14)

As we draw people to full, active, and conscious participation, we draw them closer to Christ. We need to realize to always be aware of how we are to show the face of Christ. It is the face of Christ that we are to manifest more clearly. It is the face of Christ that we are to take into the world.

In the new translation of the Missal, among the Dismissals the priest will say are "Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord" and "Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life."

The "true Christian spirit" in which the liturgy forms us, sends us out to continue the mission of manifesting Jesus by announcing the Gospel and glorifying the Lord through our words, deeds, and attitudes. We are to "zealously strive in all [our] pastoral work to achieve such participation," not only in the liturgy but also in life (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 20) For the liturgy to be effective in our lives, we must celebrate it well: "Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations can foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken it" (STL, 5). Full, active, and conscious participation by modeling attentiveness to word and sacrament, transcendence and immanence, and the common spiritual good of the people, will manifest the face of Christ more clearly and help all the baptized live Christ in the world.

I return to the Sign of the Cross: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The liturgy begins and ends with the cross, too. Priest celebrants need a spirituality of a both / and liturgy that celebrates the transcendent and immanent God with the whole Christ, head and members. We are icons of Jesus Christ who express and deepen communion with him and the people of God through dialogue and collaboration. Modeling the face of Christ through full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy we empower the

Charity, justice, and evangelization . . . [that are] the normal consequences of liturgical celebration. Particularly inspired by sung participation, the body of the Word Incarnate goes forth to spread the Gospel with full force and compassion. In this way, the Church leads men and women to the faith, freedom and peace of Christ by the example of its life and teaching, by the sacraments and other means of grace. Its aim is to open up for all men [and women] a free and sure path to full participation in the mystery of Christ. (STL, 9)

As priest were charged at ordination: "Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord's cross" (Rite of Ordination of a Priest). Taking these words to heart will help priest celebrants at all times, but especially when celebrating the liturgy in a time of change.


  1. Preface, The Priesthood of Christ and the Ministry of Priests, The Roman Missal, third typical edition.
  2. Ibid., Preface, The Priesthood of Christ and the Ministry of Priests.
  3. Ibid., Preface, The Priesthood of Christ and the Ministry of Priests.
  4. Sermon 272, Saint Augustine of Hippo, http://www.americancatholictruthsociety.com/docs/augustine/sermon272.htm
  5. Ibid., Preface, The Priesthood of Christ and the Ministry of Priests.

Paul H. Colloton, OP, DMin,
is the director of Continuing Education for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. The ordained friar of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), Province of St. Albert the Great, has 40 years of experience in pastoral ministry as a preacher, presider, musician, liturgist, music educator, spiritual companion, consultant, and in HIV/AIDS ministry.

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