After my ordination a perky seventeen year old girl at school said, “Fr Longenecker, do you feel ontologically different?” A delightful question which goes to show the high level of orthodox catechesis at St Joseph’s Catholic School.
A parishioner asked a similar question, “Does it feel different saying Mass as a Catholic priest than it did as an Anglican?”
Personal feelings are, on the one hand, totally unreliable indicators of the truth, and on the other hand they are perfectly wonderful indicators of the truth. In other words, they often help to validate and hammer home the truth to our hearts, but they’re not reliable enough to use as dogma construction materials.
Without getting into issues of validity of orders and so forth, how does it feel to say Mass as a Catholic priest? At first all I felt was the human concern for ‘getting it right’. Immediately after ordination I had a list of Masses to say for Christmas. Most of them were large events with many details to consider. I was nervous and concentrating on all the practical details. After my second Mass was over I came away wondering…”Did that really happen? Did the faithful really receive not bread and wine, but the Body and Blood of Our Lord?” This was not because I had any doubt about the Church’s teaching, but because it seemed so new and strange that I should be involved in any way.
Now I am getting more used to saying Mass I am able to pray more within it. Does it feel different than it did when I was an Anglican? Most definitely! How does it feel different? This is more difficult to explain, but let me try. First, it feels different because it feels more universal. As an Anglican, ministering in England, I was very aware of the Englishness of it all. Ironically, because I valued things catholic, saying Mass as an Anglican actually emphasized (at least for me) the fact that I wasn’t Catholic. As a result, saying Mass as an Anglican (even though I did so in a ‘catholic’ way) actually felt very Anglican. Now it feels universal. At the altar I feel one with the whole church down the ages in a way I never did as an Anglican. As an Anglican I commemorated many of the saints from before the Reformation, now I feel one with them in a much deeper way. I also feel connected with Catholics all over the world in a way I never felt as an Anglican. The Mass I say at school or at St Mary’s is the same Mass being said at St Peter’s in Rome, the same Mass being said at the slum school we support in El Salvador, the same Mass being said in the ugly modern brick church we once attended in England.
The second way saying Mass as a Catholic feels different is connected with the first. In the Anglican Church saying Mass was a style or a preference. As an Anglican priest I could take services ranging from a non liturgical Protestant ‘hymn sandwich’ to a Pontifical High Mass. I could wear anything from a jacket and tie to full fiddleback vestments with a biretta. My own style was ‘high side of middle’. I was ‘catholic’ but not too catholic. I had two churches. At one we had incense and a procession and a sanctus bell. At the other, no such thing. How we worshipped was determined by the preference of the priest in consultation with the people. As a Catholic priest (even with the greater variety after V2) the Mass is given. It is not me and my preference. It is not me being creative. It is not me at all. It is simply the Mass, and I am only the mouthpiece of Christ and his bride–the Church.
The third way it feels different is that there is a natural-ness to the action that I never felt as an Anglican. This may simply be my own change of character, but as an Anglican I always felt somewhat of a fraud or an actor in a play when I was saying Mass. This doesn’t mean I was insincere, or that my ministry was worthless, only that I felt somehow out of place. It could be that I was a convert, or that I was an American abroad. It could be that my ‘catholicism’ in the Anglican Church was a personal affectation. I don’t know. Personal feelings are complex. All I can do is report them, and I would not want to draw too many conclusions from them. Looking back, it somehow felt, well, artificial.
Saying Mass as a Catholic priest feels different from all that. It feels right. It feels natural and simple and real.
It feels like I’ve arrived home after a long journey.