The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench


Back to you: a different view of the mass

posted by jmcgee

3155872761_881dce0a9e.jpgThat would be the back of the priest, actually.

Fr. Richard Simon writes of his experience recently saying mass “ad orientem,” facing away from the congregation for a small portion of of the liturgy. The reaction from the people in the pews wasn’t entirely warm:

Some people loved it, most didn’t like it, some were infuriated. In particular I got angry fingers in the face, from someone who said that “the Pope had sent a letter to all priests telling them that they had to face the people.” How do you prove something that never happened? Rome has never said anything about having to face the people during Mass. One must do so only six times. It is one of the great mysteries of our times why, overnight, most of the altars in Catholic Churches were turned around.

And he adds:

I, however, wish I had not said Mass facing away from the congregation, and not because of the anger directed at me. I am a Catholic priest. I am used to people being angry with me. I wish I had not said Mass in what I believe to be the posture assumed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, because it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my priestly life. You cannot imagine what it was like to say words like “we” and “our Father” and “us” while standing at the head of a congregation that was turned together in a physical expression of unity. No matter how one might argue to the contrary, it is impossible to say “we” while looking at 500 people and not be speaking to them.

The Mass is a prayer addressed to the Father, and despite our best intentions, we clergy address it to the congregation at whom we are looking. You cannot help it. The human face is a powerful thing. Last Saturday night I realized for the first time that I was part of a family of faith directed toward the same heavenly Father. I felt as if I was part of a church at prayer. It was not my job. It was my church. I never realized how very lonely it is to say Mass facing the people. I am up there looking at you. I am not part of you. For 13 or 14 minutes. You weren’t looking at me. We were looking at God.

He concludes by noting he’s not planning to make this a regular custom:

I know that most people in my congregation would be offended if I started to face the altar regularly, because they are unaccustomed to it. I would be accused of factionalism or some such crime, so I don’t think that the market will bear it, but from now on every time I say Mass staring at the congregation and they hear Mass staring at my ugly mug, I will remember what could, what should have been. I fear I am as much a performer as a priest. I want to be a priest, but the show must go on.

Read the whole thing. Much valuable food for thought here.



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Mary T

posted November 10, 2010 at 8:08 am


We’ve moved around a lot. I remember one parish we were in a long time ago, when during the Our Father, the priest would come down into the congregation with the parishioners to face God and pray WITH us, not leading us in prayer.
“For 13 or 14 minutes. You weren’t looking at me. We were looking at God.”
I guess that’s what the priest was thinking.



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IC

posted November 10, 2010 at 9:04 am


My first thought–A little bit of preparation beforehand–so the congregation isn’t caught flatfooted and ignorant of what’s happening–can go a LONG LONG LONG way.
I’m surprisingly pretty neutral on this topic (I’m not on most things!) And I have heard priests say this before. But you know, there is the rest of the Church…the people in the pew like me. In this culture, what we are missing is a sense of the holy, education in the faith, and healthy connections with our clergy. Ad orientem seems very strong in evoking the first, not necessarily good at the next two.
The only time most practicing Catholics in the USA see a priest talk is at mass.,,a reality of too few priests for a large population of Catholics.
To my mind, the rite we have, with greater attention to holiness (i.e. no clown masses) and some education in that vein is the way to go. But if priests and congregations wanted to do the extraordinary form occasionally, why not.



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IC

posted November 10, 2010 at 9:07 am


I should say in deference to the priest who wrote this–he did warn those present this was going to happen as an “experiment”.



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Patty

posted November 10, 2010 at 9:53 am


I was raised Catholic but married a non-Catholic in my small Catholic church. I am sorry to say I strayed from my faith but after many years I returned. I was elated to find that the priest now faced the congregation during Mass. I remember hearing one time from a religious instructor that Christ was present on the altar in the figure of a priest.
Would Our Lord turn his back to us? I think not!



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Deacon Chick

posted November 10, 2010 at 9:58 am


IC – I note that you did see that the congregation had been informed, indeed since this Mass followed the conclusion of a patristics conference that we held, notice had been given several weeks in advance.
I assisted at that Mass as deacon and in reflecting on the experience found that it retained the accessibility of the ordinary form yet returned a much more of the sense of sacrifice evident in the extraordinary form. As one simple example when the host and cup are elevated for the doxology (Through him, with him…) following consecration, I was fully in the mindset that these were being elevated to the Father, and not just to show the congregation. It became much more prayerful.
I am hoping that we can continue this on an ongoing basis at one of our weekend Masses. Time will tell.



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Mary DeTurris Poust

posted November 10, 2010 at 10:35 am


I wrote about this very experience — my first time attending Mass with the priest facing away from me — after I returned from Rome in September. I found it to be very powerful, in very positive ways. Not everyone agreed with me, that’s for sure. Here’s the link to my post on it: http://notstrictlyspiritual.blogspot.com/2010/09/new-perspective-on-mass.html



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Romulus

posted November 10, 2010 at 10:36 am


Patty, it’s quite right to say that Jesus is present in the figure of the priest at the altar. But most of the time he isn’t speaking to us, but to the Father. It’s fitting that he isn’t turned to us except briefly, because it isn’t about us.



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Ed

posted November 10, 2010 at 12:22 pm


I agree whoelheartedly with Romulus. People are now so used to the priest facing the congregation it has become more a performance rather than a Holy Sacrifice. Ad Orientem reflects (in my opinion) the proper theology of Mass as sacrifice.



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Gerard Nadal

posted November 10, 2010 at 12:29 pm


Being a child of the 60′s & 70′s, I grew up with the Mass being used as a vehicle for the priest expressing his own personality and theological predilections. It has become a liturgical zoo.
I agree wholeheartedly with Romulus’ thoughts on this matter. It isn’t about us. In fact, having gone to Catholic grade school, high school, university, served as an altar boy for years, done youth and retreat ministry, I never knew that the Mass was a participation at Calvary, at the actual crucifixion until I was in the seminary at age 27!
That says something. It says that we have lost the essence of the Mass in all of the liturgical anarchy of the past 40 years. I wonder if we went back to the Latin Mass (and I have not attended one since I was a toddler) if the language barrier would prevent the ad libbing and game playing. I’m not sure, but something needs to give here.



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deaconnecessary

posted November 10, 2010 at 1:20 pm


“…Ad Orientem reflects (in my opinion) the proper theology of Mass as sacrifice…”
I tend to agree with Ed on that point. However, Returning to this practice as the norm for the Ordinary Form,in my opinion, would not fly
in our parishes today. Not after the last 40 years.
There are too many people who don’t understand the theology and think, “Jesus wouldn’t ‘turn his back on us,’ so why should the priest?”
I think we will have objections when we begin to teach our people about the new changes in the Missal, trying to catechize the faithful about Ad Orientem would be too much!



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Dante

posted November 10, 2010 at 1:45 pm


I have to say that when it come to the Mass of Paul VI (Novus Ordo) I absolutely prefer it in vernacular with the priest facing the Risen Christ (facing the East in theory)for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Why ad orietum? Priest is one among us but our leader/presider in offering the Eucharist to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Priest is facing Christ WITH us not having his back TO us per se. I think it is a beautiful theological body language. The Liturgy of the Word is of course God centered, too, but it is more people-oriented. So why can’t the Lit of the Word be facing us as it is, and the Lit of the Eucharist be ad orientum (until after Holy Communion). I honestly do no see why/how people could get SO upset over this especially if explanations/catechesis have paved the way.



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Jim

posted November 10, 2010 at 1:59 pm


Any priest who feels like they are a performer while facing the congregation obviously doesn’t understand or appreciate the theology of the “new” Mass in which we all, priest and people, are gathered together as a community. When a priest prays the prayers at Mass they are directed to the Father. During these prayers and the sacred Eucharistic Prayer, the priest’s attention should not be on addressing the people, but directing the prayer to the Father. The priest can do this just as effectively while facing the people, with his attention focused on what is happening at the altar, not in the congregation. To have everyone facing the same direction is to assume that God is somewhere “out there” rather than within the community gathered together in his name. Let’s remember that “ad orientem” means “to the east”, not simply everyone (priest and people) facing in the same direction.
When the liturgy becomes divisive how can it truly reflect the unity God calls for in the Eucharist. When priest and people are gathered together in unity and in CHARITY, who they face makes no difference, because when the community is united in the Eucharist, they recognize the presence of Christ in one another. Why would anyone want to ignore that fact?



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Gerard Nadal

posted November 10, 2010 at 2:13 pm


Deaconnecessary,
When I was an altar boy in the early ’70′s, there was a small crucifix standing on the altar, I presume so that the priest was still facing the crucifix even though he was now turned around. Liturgical norms have since had that crucifix removed. So, in essence, we have seen the priest turn his back on Christ crucified, as that is now the orientation on the altar.
There is a catechetical explanation for the people that will work with patient explanation. The priest, standing in for Jesus in chronos our time), aids us in focussing on the crucifixion that we are literally participating in in Kairos (God’s eternal time) when he faces the crucifix.
I understand your well-founded pastoral concerns. However, it seems to me that the suggestion that we leave people trapped in the liturgical zoo of the past 40 years is an act of abandonment of the people and a simultaneous declaration of catechetical impotence on the part of the clergy. The faithful were asked to accept the Novus Ordo, without much catechesis. I’m sure that a catechesis that takes in the failures of the past 40 years could very well aid the people in growing in both faith and spirituality. It could also restore much of what has been lost during the past four decades.
God Bless.



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Romulus

posted November 10, 2010 at 2:33 pm


Jim, community is not the point. Whether Ordinary or Extraordinary Form, the Mass is the Mass. I don’t see how one say speak of a new theology of the Mass without assuming a (false) hermeneutic of rupture.
True, the Mass is a gathering of God’s people, who’s present in their midst. It is a sacred meal. And it is preeminently the public act by which the Church recalls her faith and proclaims it to the world. But beyond any of these things, the Mass is a sacrifice, the unique sacrifice of Calvary made present on the altar, offered for the forgiveness of sin and the healing of the world. “Sacrifice” requires the presence of an offering, of one who receives the offering, and one who does the offering. At Mass, the offering is Jesus Himself, fully and really present in the Blessed Sacrament. The One Who receives the offering is God the Father. And the one who does the offering? That’s the priest of course, but acting “in persona Christi capitis” – in the person of Christ, the head of the Church.
The ordained priest exercises his priesthood in the name of Jesus the true High Priest, so his identity and personality are relatively unimportant. His talents and accomplishments are unimportant. Thanks to the grace of his ordination, even his sinful human nature is unimportant. With his back to the people, his identity is submerged in that of Jesus. The message of what the Mass is all about is reinforced by directing attention to the sacrifice itself and the true High Priest, and away from the personality of the ordained priest.
The decision to turn the altars around so that priests would face the people was never ordered or even contemplated by Vatican II. This change obscured the Mass’s focus on the sacramental dimension — the divine Victim’s atoning sacrifice and of the Mass. Replacing it was a liturgy with a more evangelical and didactic spin, with far more emphasis given to proclaimed scripture and preaching and even ad libs improvised by the celebrant. While all of the critical elements of the Mass are still there, they are sometimes overshadowed by the over-emphasis of alien elements.
All of the world’s great monotheist religions stress orientation in worship. It’s well-known that Muslims face Mecca when they pray; their Mosques are designed with this in mind. Jews at prayer traditionally face Jerusalem because it held the Temple that contained the Ark of the Covenant. Jews living in Jerusalem today face the Temple Mount, for the same reason.
From a very early age, Christian worship also has emphasized liturgical orientation. While faithful Jews at prayer look to Jerusalem as a sign of their messianic hope, Christian churches are traditionally aligned east, the direction of the rising sun, as a reminder of the Resurrection. The alignment reinforces the significance Christianity attaches to Sunday – the day of the Resurrection, but also the eighth day, the first day of the new week, a new and redeemed creation, reminding us that in the risen Christ all things are made new again.
The risen Lord’s prophetic message to the apostles was that He would be going before them, into Galilee where they would see him. Whether true east or “liturgical” east, the practice of everyone’s facing the same direction also effectively makes the point that at Mass the priest at the head of the people is symbolically preceding them, as Christ said of himself to the apostles. Finally, the common alignment symbolizes a hope shared by Jews and Christians for the coming of the Messiah. At the end of the world the Jewish hope will at last be fulfilled, as Christ returns as he promised, this time in unmistakable majesty. When we participate in the the “ad orientem” posture, we’re maintaining continuity with the immemorial practice of the Church, reminding us that for Catholics communion is about all members of the Church looking to Christ as our head in all times and places, not just those who’re with us here and now.
Some Catholics have come to feel uncomfortable with the ad orientem posture. To some it feels unfriendly (but to emphasize friendliness at the expense sacramental symbolism is a poor trade that reduces the Mass to a “meet ‘n’ greet” social event). To some it feels like rejection (it’s really inclusion, since by a common posture the priest and people are doing something together, participating more perfectly in the liturgy). To some it feels as if the people are irrelevant to the Mass (but even in the Extraordinary Form, the priest always turns to the people when his words are addressed to them. The rest of the time he like us is turned towards God). They can’t see the celebrant’s face but this is a good thing since it removes a source of distraction for us, not to mention the distraction for the priest of hundreds of eyes watching him.
Even though most Catholics no longer know why churches are traditionally “oriented” – aligned towards the east – it doesn’t change the underlying principles: that the priest is there above all to make newly-present and to offer in sacrifice the Lord who offered himself for our sins. The priest is not there merely to remind the people about Jesus’s sacrifice. Not just to preside at a meal. Not just to lead the people in prayer. Certainly not just to offer his personality or creativity as inspirations to worship or to gratify his ego. The return to “ad orientem” posture, whether in the older Extraordinary Form of the Mass or the Ordinary Form that’s so much more common, promotes the core principles of what the Mass is all about by removing distractions while allowing the Mass to speak for itself.



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Charles

posted November 10, 2010 at 2:45 pm


I’m sad to say I think the Church has lost it’s way on many issues since I was an altar boy in the late 50′s and early 60′s. The beautiful Latin mass has degenerated into a pedestrian hootenanny in many parishes and the Church has stuck it’s head in the 1st Century sand with regard to the issues of pregnancy prevention and abortion. To me and many other old time Catholics the Church has become irrelevant to those facing modern life decisions and has lost it’s place of authority on most issues of faith practiced in the modern world. It has become nothing more than one more religious organization more focused on the perpetuation its own existence than on addressing the real needs of is followers. Glad I outgrew it, but I do miss the liturgy.



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deaconnecessary

posted November 10, 2010 at 3:07 pm


Dr. Nadal,
I, too grew up in the “liturgical zoo” that was the ’70′s. And, I am glad to see the abuses corrected and the liturgy restored to what it ought to be.
You are right that it takes time. My bishop has been in my diocese for nearly 10 years, and it has taken that long to bring us up to where we need to be.
Gone are the days of liturgical dancing, pop songs sung at Mass, and even gawdy polyester vestments with over-lay stoles. Thanks be to God.
I would never want to leave anyone trapped in where we have left.
But my point that I was originally trying to make was that it would be very hard to implement Ad Orientem.
There have been parishes in my dioces that have celebrated the Mass in that manner during Lent. As long as it was only for a season, most people accepted it. However, I think we are a distance away from it being the norm.
May God bless you richly.
Dcn. Necessary



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Romulus

posted November 10, 2010 at 3:23 pm


Charles, abortion and contraception are not 20th century inventions. Both were well-known in the 1st century in which you claim the Church is stuck. You are very much mistaken if you suppose the Church’s opposition to these evils to be culturally constructed. Her opposition is grounded in her understanding of what human life is.



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Deacon John M. Bresnahan

posted November 10, 2010 at 3:33 pm


It is hard to consider the priest as leading the congregation when he is always facing the congregation. Maybe that is why some people feel that a priest is merely haranguing the congregation rather than leading them when he is always facing them. Physical posture has a very deep effect on our thinking whether we realize it or not.
It seems–from comments made in the past and now–that the reason the altars were turned around had a lot to do with poor catechization of the people. Squeezing the toothpaste back into the tube in this case is going to be very difficult if not impossible.



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wineinthewater

posted November 10, 2010 at 6:56 pm


Jim,
“Any priest who feels like they are a performer while facing the congregation obviously doesn’t understand or appreciate the theology of the “new” Mass in which we all, priest and people, are gathered together as a community.”
There is a big difference between what we know and what we feel. A priest can know that he is not a performer, but it becomes difficult when the setting and posture are all indicate of performance. I have heard this over and over from priests. They know it is not a performance, but they must struggle against the performance setting.
Beyond these from whom I have heard personally, it is obvious from the majority of priests that I have seen that the performance tendency is a problem. More often than not, the priest *acts* as a performer. Now, there is no doubt that having the priest face the people has benefits. But if the posture introduces such a significant problem into the liturgy that is so difficult to overcome, I think we should take a hard look at what we gain .. my hard look has not found a benefit nearly as big as the cost.



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Jim

posted November 11, 2010 at 12:58 am


I was born in the early 60s…completed high school in the late 70s and entered religious life because of the influence of the priests, religious and people celebrating the “new” Mass. I have loved this Mass since I was a child and still do to this day. I’m disheartened that it has become a plaything for those who want to rock the boat or test the waters to see how far back they can go and justify their breaking with accepted practice for the past 40+ years.
There were changes (like there still are and ever will be, Amen) and I have seen and continue to see the Holy Spirit moving in the difficult transitions and, yes, even in some of the changes that seemed awkward. To assume any of us has the market on what IS the best, what WAS the best or what COULD BE the best is to put ourselves in the place of God. I was ordained a Roman Catholic priest of God in the late 1990s and am proud of the Catholic Church that continues to discern the will of God in the here an now.
I personally see a digression in where the Church is going liturgically, but I LOVE the Church and will continue to follow her guidance. I will NOT make a platform of my personal preferences nor argue those preferences, however theologically correct or incorrect they may be, because it’s NOT about me, but about the One who loves us all.
Can we please stop and consider what is really important? Pope John Paul II, in Mane Nobiscum Domine, his apostolic letter for the Year of the Eucharist, states very simply:
“We cannot delude ourselves: by our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those in need, we will be recognized as true followers of Christ (cf. JN 13:55; MT 25:31-46). This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged.”
So you see, it’s not at all about how we DO the Eucharist, but how we LIVE the Eucharist. Thank you Pope John Paul II for this seldom quoted masterpiece which should put every liturgical argument in perspective.



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Kevin Murray

posted November 11, 2010 at 3:34 am


To me there is at the Mass a sense of a shared sacrifice and a shared meal. When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, I’m sure he was facing them. At our Mass we pray together to God who is present among us and especially present in the Eucharist, more so than in the crucifix on the wall.



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anthony

posted November 11, 2010 at 9:10 am


Thanks Fr Jim for your post, you express so well what many of us feel. There are many of us out here who are grateful for the Church as it is NOW, and pray to have the faith to encounter Christ in humble faith and to live that faith day by day. It is great to know there are priests like you in the church! thank you.



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Teena H. Blackburn

posted November 11, 2010 at 9:16 am


The priest isn’t facing away from the people. He is leading his people in a particular direction-towards the Orient (Christ). It keeps it about the Lord and not the personality of the priest. We are all on a journey together going in the same direction. What in the world is so difficult to understand about that? I don’t care if a priest facing the people thinks he’s doing a show or not, or whether he’s trying to do a show or not. That’s what it ends up being-you are beaten to death by the personality of the priest. It really matters little in the long run if he’s nice or even pious-the focus still ends up being on him. Yuck.



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Teena H. Blackburn

posted November 11, 2010 at 9:54 am


Just a further note for thought. For those who say the priest facing the people is not a distraction…the Vatican II documents on the Liturgy express concern that “too many” images or multiple images of the same saint might be problematic. They were worried about statues and paintings, so what happens….you end up with rather bare churches, but the priest turns around. Then, you are subjected to a living person, often microphoned loudly, often in a vestment that looks like he’s wearing his grandmother’s sofa. Then…he feels obligated to perform. So, you get those folksy, affected readings of the canon so we all have the subjective feeling of togetherness. I worked with a flamboyantly gay seminarian who treated the liturgy like his own personal Broadway play. Now he’s a priest. If I turn on the local catholic radio station, I can often hear him singing away into his microphone, drowning out everyone else. It’s like being skinned alive. Or let’s see, the priest who would re-write the Eucharistic prayers as he recited them so that we would get the social justice message he obviously felt they lacked. I have seen few liturgies that would not be greatly improved by putting the priest in a substantial vestment, turning him around and sticking him behind an icon screen. They serve the Liturgy-it’s not supposed to serve them.



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rick

posted November 11, 2010 at 10:18 am


Father Dwight at Standing on My Head has an interesting post about whether Jesus was facing the disciples during the Last Supper. There is evidence that at ceremonial meals Jews reclined on their sides on one side of a table with everyone facing the same direction. It is doubtful that Jesus was facing his disciples. They were performing a liturgy–a rememberance of Passover–not an ordinary meal.
http://gkupsidedown.blogspot.com/2010/10/turning-to-lord.html



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Romulus

posted November 11, 2010 at 10:46 am


To me…
Sigh. So much of what’s wrong is evident in those two words.
People, it isn’t about us. It isn’t about our subjective response. It isn’t about how we feel. The priest is never “turning his back to us”, because “we” are not in any sense the reference point.
The Mass is not an exercise in archaeologism. The Mass is not bible study. The Mass is not a memorial meal or a fellowship gathering or a catechism lesson or an evangelical event. Certain of these elements are present to certain degrees, but all are secondary. What comes first is indicated in the psalmist’s words: “Bring me to your holy mountain, to the place of your dwelling, that I may come to the altar of God, to God, my joy, my delight.” An altar is not a dining table; it’s a platform for sacrifice. In the context of the Mass, the “holy mountain” is Calvary, re-presented in the elevated positioning of the altar. That, Fr. Jim, is the theology of the Mass, both new and old.
Fr. Jim, the Eucharist has always been divisive. Re-read John 6. Jesus has always been divisive; the Cross that’s a focal point for some is a scandal to others. The dignity of our God-imaged free will ensures that each of us faces an either/or choice.



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Jim

posted November 11, 2010 at 6:16 pm


Unfortunately, issues like this show how divided we are and how far we are from the realization of the prayer of Jesus to the Father from John 17:20-23:
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
That’s it folks. That’s the goal of the Mass. That’s the goal Jesus places before each one of us. What will each of us do to make this goal a reality?



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Jim

posted November 11, 2010 at 6:18 pm


Anthony, thanks for your words of encouragement. If everyone felt like you we would be much more closer to the unity Jesus envisions for his Church! Thank God we are at peace, brother!



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Provobis

posted November 15, 2010 at 10:10 pm


When you say the Mass in vernacular facing the people, naturally they think you’re talking to them. It took them this long to figure that out?



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