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Father Muench Says...
Facing the people at Mass

October 3, 2012

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

Again, I want to look back with you on the wonderful achievements of the Second Vatican Council and its profound effect on me as a young priest.  The Second Vatican Council began its deliberations 50 years ago this month.

The very first document promulgated by the Second Vatican Council was The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, sent out to the world Dec. 4, 1963.  Last week, I mentioned how this document led to the use of the vernacular in the liturgy of our Catholic Church – the Mass in English for us. The document recognized the importance of the Sacred Liturgy in the life of the Catholic Church.  The Council Fathers challenged the Church – “Pastors of souls must, therefore, realize that, when liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the laws governing valid and lawful celebration.  It is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it.” (14)

This led to another change for the priest at Mass – the priest would celebrate the Mass facing the people, standing at an altar of sacrifice.  For most of you, this is the only way you have participated in Mass.  However, at that time, it was a rather spectacular change.

I do want you to realize how important this change was.  I remember well - before the Council – that I stood at the high altar facing the tabernacle and the crucifix with my back to the people, wondering just what they were doing back there.  The symbol was nice – the prayers of the people going through the priest to God.

Yet , when I stood facing the people of the congregation for the first time, I realized how special and important the people were to me as the celebrant of the Mass. As the chosen prayer leader by my ordination, part of my task is to unite all the people with me as family as I look out on them.  I am there to invite them to join with me in this Eucharist. This is not my Mass; all of us are doing Eucharist together, praying together and uniting with Our Lord and Savior.  The people are no longer spectators

A friend, a priest-theologian, pointed out to me that this change challenged the priest to realize just who he is.  The Church was leading the priest to understand that he was not part of some sort of isolated or elevated class.  The priest, especially at Eucharist, is the Good Shepherd, – leading the community, his family, in worship and prayer – one people joined at the altar of the Lord – so that all of us are ready to accept the challenge of the Lord to go forth and make the world a better place today.

I must tell you about the first day that I – joined with several parishioners – prepared the sanctuary for Mass facing the people for the first time. It was Friday afternoon before the official Sunday start.  I was assigned in those days to St. Mary’s Parish in Massena and we had commissioned a local carpenter to build a special altar of sacrifice.  As we were setting up that altar that afternoon, I must admit I was excited.  I also remember that there was a Friday evening Mass scheduled that day and Monsignor Leary, the pastor, said to me,“Bill, I’m going to use the new way today.” He couldn’t wait. He wanted to be the first – a little ahead of time – to offer Mass facing the people.

It has been pointed out to me that these changes to the Sacred Liturgy showed a connection with the ordinary sharing of festive meals at home.  The Eucharist is for us Catholics the center and summit of the Church’s life which means that summit of our own life, the action from which all grace and blessing flow.  Without the Eucharist, there is no living Church. 

The Eucharist is the heart and soul of our faith – the faith of the priests, the faith of the people, the faith of all of us. 

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