The Focus of the Priest at the Altar

Last Sunday I finally began celebrating Sunday Mass facing the people again. Prior to that we had a good discussion of the matter in the parish council. There I learned that some people had expected not to like celebration with the priest facing the tabernacle and found they did actually like it, others were disappointed and frustrated because they felt they were no longer involved, and some just didn’t understand what was going on. Since the only comments I had personally heard prior to the last Sunday celebration facing the tabernacle were positive I was very appreciative of the fuller perspective on parish reaction.

In any case, I have continued celebration towards the tabernacle during the week and will be returning to the practice regularly. I am planning on Holy Week and Easter Week and then again during Advent and Christmas. More than ever I am convinced that it is the direction we need to be going. Still, having learned a little bit of people’s reactions this provides me with the possibility of addressing various concerns.

First, I want to start with the role of the priest himself.  On the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism, after the 9AM Mass I made some comments on how celebration towards the tabernacle had impacted me personally. This involves more than just subjective feelings.

Let me put it this way. I know that people in the pews want to be able to focus on the celebration of the Mass. For myself, I have spent more years in the pews than at the altar. I also know that people in the pews struggle with various distractions (from the way other people dress, to the noise and behavior of children, especially their own) which make it hard for them to pay attention the way they would like.

Although God sees their good will and effort, people often feel that they have not got much out of Mass because of all the distractions. What anyone really gets out of the Mass is more known to God than even to the person who is attending Mass. In that regard the faith and good will that a person puts into Mass is more important than anything he feels or experiences during Mass.

There are two other persons, however, who put something into the Mass that has an effect on everyone else. First, there is Jesus Christ himself, because every Mass is always his sacrifice; it is always his Body and Blood on the altar. Then there is the minister of Jesus Christ, the priest, through whom Christ’s Body and Blood is put on the altar.

Now the priest is also human like everyone else, is also subject to distractions like everyone else; so also as with everyone else what matters most is the faith and good will the priest puts into celebrating the Mass. Nevertheless, if there is one person who should be paying attention more than anyone else, is it the priest. Further the more the priest is actually able to pay attention and focus on what he is doing at the altar, the better that will be for everyone who is in attendance, whether they perceive it or not. To put the matter simply, the closer the priest is to God, the better for the people.

So on the one hand I want people truly to understand what is taking place at Mass and truly to be involved; on the other hand it might be good for the people also to consider the importance of the priest’s involvement at the Mass.

Before anyone is ordained to the priesthood they will have served in other capacities, both as deacon and as altar server. Those who serve in these lesser capacities inevitably have the experience that because they have to attend to many of the practicalities of the Mass, they are often unable to attend to what is really going on. It is actually a little sacrifice they make, both to make the experience of the Mass more worthwhile for the whole people, but also to help the priest himself focus on what he needs to do at the altar. Poorly trained altar servers are a distraction for the priest, while well-trained altar servers help the priest focus on the Mass.

So how does all this bear on celebration towards the tabernacle? Very simple: when I celebrate facing the people a great effort of concentration goes into not being distracted by what is going on in the congregation (all those aforementioned things that you find distracting) so as to focus on the altar and the presence of God; when I face the tabernacle, the distractions are quite literally behind me, the view in front of me expands towards God, and it becomes easy to focus on the altar and the presence of God.

Continuing, I will try to address what it means to “be involved” at Mass. When I first celebrated Mass towards the tabernacle earlier in the year, there is one woman who commented to me that at first she didn’t like it because it was not what she was accustomed to, but then she discovered that she was actually able to focus and pay attention better. We could say that to her surprise she actually became more involved.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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