QUAERITUR: Priest at Mass as mere “presider”?

From a reader:

I have attended a spiritual recollection of cathechesis assistants of ___. The augustinian frater who led the sessions concentrated on the Vatican II, said in his presentation about the SC constitution: “We all celebrate the Mass, the priest presides”, as if we the lay folks were taking part in the job of the priest, actually. Since this was not a place for a debate, I did not respond, but I am seriously thinking about some reaction now. There were about 50 people present. I would be most grateful for a response or suggestion from you.

If the Augustinian told you that there is no difference between what a lay person does in offering spiritual sacrifice at Mass and what a priest does, then what he told you is wrong.

There is a sense in which “presider” can work well for an ordained person at Mass.  Say, for example, a priest is saying Mass and a bishop is present in choir.  The bishop can, in a sense, “preside”, though the priest is saying Mass.  When John Paul II could not say Mass easily anymore, he could preside while another said the Mass.   Otherwise, a person might “preside” at a Communion service or the recitation of one of the liturgical hours, which is a true liturgical service.

When it comes to Mass, we can use “celebrate” for laypeople in an equivocal way. What the priest does at Mass is entirely different. We can loosely use “celebrate” for both lay and priest, but let’s not get confused into thinking that what they do is the same.

There is a qualitative difference in how all the baptized participate in the priesthood of Christ the High Priest and how the ordained priest participates in Christ’s priesthood (Lumen gentium 10). The sacrament of Holy Orders confers a qualitatively different priesthood on the man ordained. Holy Orders changes the priest ontologically. The baptized offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God because they participate in Christ’s priesthood in their way. But what the priest does is different.

Put in blunt terms, when the priest says Mass, transubstantiation takes place. This takes place whether the priest is alone or there are other people present. A lay person, saying the same words over bread and wine, effects no change whatsoever. A hundred, a thousand, a million laypeople saying the words does precisely nothing. What lay people can do is, with all their mind, heart and will, unite their spiritual sacrifice to what the priest is doing.   The priest renews Christ’s saving Sacrifice.  Laypeople participate in that renewal by uniting themselves with what the priest does.  That is a real participation, too!

Let not the dignity of how laypeople offer sacrifice be denigrated by trying to dumbdown the concept of the ordained priest’s role.  And, similarly, let not the dignity of laypeople be besmirched by the condescending permission some cleric might grant them to do something that he should be doing.  That is the worst sort of clericalism there is.  The dumbing down of the priest’s role to that of a mere presider is the flip side of the same coing.

When you hear of this blurring of distinctions between the priesthood of the baptized and the priesthood of the priest, remember that if there is no priest, there is no Mass.

We should avoid the description of priest as mere “presider” when it comes to Mass.  “Presider” can mean just about anyone running anything.  “Priest”, however, is connected inextricably from the concepts of sacrifice.  Priests are for sacrifice.  No priest.  No sacrifice.  No need for sacrifice, no need for priesthood.  Priests exist for offering sacrifice.  That is their primary purpose.

When liberals start talking about the priest as mere “presider”, you can bet that they either don’t believe in or they are dangerously deemphasizing the sacrificial nature of Holy Mass.

Yes, the priest is a “presider” in the sense that he stands as the head of the body of the congregation.  Fine.  But he is the head of the body of the congregation because he is the mediator who offers sacrifice.  That is a special role.  Remove the concept of sacrifice and make the priest into a mere “presider” then you remove the need for ordained priesthood. No renewal of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary?  No need for ordained priests.  Anyone can stand up there and say the prayers.  Indeed, it makes no difference at that point if the person is male or female.  A community could pick any person whom they deemed to be competent or appropriate at that moment.  It would hardly make a difference, since Christ’s Sacrifice would not be the point of why they were there.

When you hear “presider” instead of “priest”, your metal sirens should sound.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Mike says:

    Not only do I get to hear “presider” before every Mass at my parish, but I also get to hear this:

    “To preserve the sanctity of our Eucharist, please silence or turn off your cell phones and all electronic devices.”

    While it’s annoying and distracting to hear a cell phone go off during Mass, could anything really harm the “sanctity of our Eucharist”?

    Cue a silent aaaaaarrrrrghhhhhhhhhh.

  2. wmeyer says:

    “Presider” was the only term used in my former parish, and always set my teeth on edge. It implies, always, that there is no great difference between the celebrant and any of the laity. It’s yet another of the Spirit of Vatican II features forced down our throats by people who have never glanced at, much less read or studied the documents of the Council.

  3. Imrahil says:

    In one sense, of course, the dignity of a priest is way above that of what we might normally call a presider.

    But still, I wonder why it is always said mere presider by both progressists and traditionalists (in either sense). For while the dignity of priest as such is above that of presider as such, still a priest in taking the role of a presider takes a role that does not belong to him.

    A bishop can preside (with or without celebration). Maybe (I don’t know) a priest that has been granted by the Holy Father to use the pontificals can preside.

    A priest says Mass. God in His grace has sent the priest for us to say Mass that we might partake this wondrous blessing. But a priest is not the head of the community assembled. This is Christ. Apart from Christ Who is invisible, the community assembled has no head. There is such a thing as the freedom of the Christian man even in the “republican” sense of serving no ruler, and even though the phrase is from Luther. (I say that as one who would, at any time, defend as self-explanatory that there can be free citizens in a monarchy, and who shares with, I perceive, most of the general population the filial sympathy for the members of the deposed dynasty.)

    It is, of course, true that Christ in His infinite mercy also took care to provide us with vicars for His role of Head, to whom we owe some obedience. But, as witnessed by the Church’s history, He seemingly) did not ordain this for everyday life on a regular basis, both that we might value the rare occasions, and that we might not forget Himself amongst all His vicars. Such the priests are not.

    This is why I feel that a priest who wants to “preside”, while he tries to be condescending, is in fact exalting himself.

  4. Clinton R. says:

    “When you hear “presider” instead of “priest”, your mental sirens should sound.”

    I just received the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress registration handbook and in the schedule of events it says: “Closing Liturgy, presider- Archbishop Jose Gomez”. Of course the whole event makes my mental sirens go off. It’s not Holy Mass, it is a “Eucharistic liturgy”. It’s not a confessional, it’s a “reconciliation room”. The weekend is one big “Spirit” of Vatican II lovefest (complete with a labyrinth!?). I am sorry to have digressed from the topic at hand, but it is astounding of how pervasive the “anything goes” mentality is within the Church Militant. Oops, I mean the “faith community”. Kyrie Eleison +JMJ+

  5. jhayes says:

    “Presider” and “presidential prayers” are the official terms used in the GIRM: [So what? That should still ring alarm bells. Alarm bells are what make us pay attention. Do most people use the term “presider” in the sense of GIRM? No. GIRM also stresses “priest”.]

    “The Prayers and Other Parts Pertaining to the Priest

    30. Among those things assigned to the Priest, the prime place is occupied by the Eucharistic Prayer, which is the high point of the whole celebration. Next are the orations, that is to say, the Collect, the Prayer over the Offerings, and the Prayer after Communion. These prayers are addressed to God by the Priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ, in the name of the entire holy people and of all present.[43] Hence they are rightly called the “presidential prayers.”

    31. Likewise it is also for the Priest, in the exercise of his office of presiding over the gathered assembly, to offer certain explanations that are foreseen in the rite itself. Where this is laid down by the rubrics, the celebrant is permitted to adapt them somewhat so that they correspond to the capacity for understanding of those participating. However, the Priest should always take care to keep to the sense of the explanatory text given in the Missal and to express it in just a few words. It is also for the presiding Priest to regulate the Word of God and to impart the final blessing. He is permitted, furthermore, in a very few words, to give the faithful an introduction to the Mass of the day (after the initial Greeting and before the Penitential Act), to the Liturgy of the Word (before the readings), and to the Eucharistic Prayer (before the Preface), though never during the Eucharistic Prayer itself; he may also make concluding comments regarding the entire sacred action before the Dismissal.

    32. The nature of the “presidential” parts requires that they be spoken in a loud and clear voice and that everyone listen to them attentively.[44] Therefore, while the Priest is pronouncing them, there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent.

    33. For the Priest, as the one who presides, expresses prayers in the name of the Church and of the assembled community; but at times he prays only in his own name, asking that he may exercise his ministry with greater attention and devotion. Prayers of this kind, which occur before the reading of the Gospel, at the Preparation of the Gifts, and also before and after the Communion of the Priest, are said quietly.”

  6. Imrahil says:

    In view of the documents provided by dear @jhayes, I withdraw any objection to the term of presiding.

    I take it, however, to mean the natural role the priest has by virtue of his sacramental ministry which consists in offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in the celebration of the same Mass.

    There is a notion that focusses on the role of president in the “secular sense”, instead of the really priestly role. This, not focussing on the priestly role, can justly be called clericalism. And about this the same objections remain, even though we may perhaps not subsum it under the “presiding” terminology.

  7. jhayes says:

    Further on, th GIRM clarifies the roles in the Eucharistic Prayer:

    The Eucharistic Prayer

    78. Now the center and high point of the entire celebration begins, namely, the Eucharistic Prayer itself, that is, the prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification. The Priest calls upon the people to lift up their hearts towards the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving; he associates the people 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. Furthermore, the meaning of this Prayer is that the whole congregation of the faithful joins with Christ in confessing the great deeds of God and in the offering of Sacrifice. The Eucharistic Prayer requires that everybody listens to it with reverence and in silence. [So?]

    79. The main elements of which the Eucharistic Prayer consists may be distinguished from one another in this way:

    a) The thanksgiving (expressed especially in the Preface), in which the Priest, in the name of the whole of the holy people, glorifies God the Father and gives thanks to him for the whole work of salvation or for some particular aspect of it, according to the varying day, festivity, or time of year.

    b) The acclamation, by which the whole congregation, joining with the heavenly powers, sings the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy). This acclamation, which constitutes part of the Eucharistic Prayer itself, is pronounced by all the people with the Priest. [So?]

    Continues with items (c) to (e)

  8. Aside from its legitimate uses, the complained-of use of the term “presider” is part of the secularization of the Church that has been an ongoing modernist project for at least the last century. Because words shape thoughts, a great deal of damage has been done by this practice of replacing ecclesiastical terms with secular ones. It is a way to destroy Catholics’ sense of the supernatural, and to make the Church look like just another political institution, rather than the spotless Bride of Christ.

    Another example is the controversy that arose among lay fraternities in my Dominican province about the time I entered the Order, over what to call the leader and his second-in-command of each lay chapter. There were certain parties who wanted chapters to be required to use the terms “moderator” or “president,” and “vice-president” instead of “prior(ess)” and “subprior(ess).” Fortunately, this met with resistance; and while many chapters use the new terminology, those that want to stick to the old way were not forced to change.

  9. RichR says:

    Presiding over the communal gathering of the faithful is a secondary role of the priest. His primary role as priest is to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, whether or not laymen are present to preside over. That is not saying that he is not a president, it is just not his prime function.

    My alarm bells always go off when I hear soooo much about a presider, a communal gathering, and the Eucharistic Banquet….but I won’t hear about the unbloody immolation offered by the sacrificing priest on the altar for the good of souls and for them to participate in the re-presentation of Calvary.

  10. acardnal says:

    “. . . use of the term “presider” is part of the secularization of the Church that has been an ongoing modernist project for at least the last century. Because words shape thoughts, a great deal of damage has been done by this practice of replacing ecclesiastical terms with secular ones. It is a way to destroy Catholics’ sense of the supernatural, and to make the Church look like just another political institution, rather than the spotless Bride of Christ.”

    Precisely! Blurring the lines of distinction between those who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the laity was all part of the agenda of those invoking the “spirit of Vatican 2”: Clerics who want to act like lay people and lay people who want to act like priests.

    Although the GIRM used in the USA was updated in 2011 to coincide (I suppose) with the new translation of the missal, the GIRM desperately needs a total overhaul to rid itself of the faulty language and terms of the ’70s and ’80s style church in America. The priest is so much more than simply a “presider”. He is THE ONE who offers the sacrifice. HE acts in persona Christi. Without the priest, there is no Mass, no Eucharist.

  11. “Presider”…. Reason #34578 for Summorum Pontificum.

  12. acardnal says:

    Yes! Let the TLM/EF missal influence the Novus Ordo.

  13. benedetta says:

    In the reference above where we all celebrate and there is a presider, it has the false sense that somehow we laity can show up and all celebrate independently, and, with or without a guide/moderator/facilitator/presider, we may simply carry on the Eucharist by ourselves. That is a dangerously false illusion built from leftist modernist church-speak. Alas, people in many parishes are finding themselves more and more lacking of “presiders” and the result hasn’t been good for those who promoted this nonsense in the first place, and certainly not for the faithful who never bought it either. I seriously doubt that the priest in question was reading the GIRM to people on an evening of recollection. That said, given the very wrong ideas conveyed, it would have been a clarification and improvement to quote from it in its entirety. The GIRM is a technical document. Just as the vast majority of people haven’t been catechised to be able to hear the alarm bell when one hears “the presider” in an evening of recollection presentation to laity format, the vast majority neither are in the habit of clarifying the true nature of what the presider is doing (unlike celebrating along with us) via reference to the language of the GIRM.

    Just because the word “presider” is used in the GIRM in a specific way does not mean this priest used the word appropriately, or that he was conveying an accurate view of the priesthood.

  14. Mike says:

    If only our Novus Ordo Masses would follow a local TLM…no encouragements from the choir, telling us it’s such and such date, opening song is such and such, presider is so and so, and the worse, “as we gather at table our Communion hymn is….”

    In my NO parish, it’s ALL about US, and how WONDERFUL we are!!!


  15. Gail F says:

    Actually, that explanation given by the questioner’s priest is the most coherent explanation I’ve ever heard for the word “presider,” and makes me think of it with a little less animosity. I can see what the priest was tryign to say with his choice of words, which doubtless makes perfect sense to him. However, words should make perfect sense to everyone whenever possible. I edit a Catholic web site and the stylesheet I developed for it does not call for using the word “presider” unless it’s a direct quote, and calls for “celebrant” only sparingly. Whenever possible, the best word is “priest” (or bishop) who “celebrates” the “Mass” (note the caps). The terms are clearer and express more reverence, but are also matter-of-fact — all of which mean better writing. And “presider” is a clumsy, awkward word.
    Some people like to refer to laypeople “assisting at Mass” in the same way the priest above was saying laypeople “celebrate” the Mass with their “presider.” I don’t use that phrase. It’s not familiar to a lot of people and usually the entire phrase is superflous anyway.

  16. mysticalrose says:

    There are also new ecclesial movements that use the term presider almost exclusively, presumably with magisterial approbation. Cf. Neocatechumenal Way.

  17. WGS says:

    For my wedding in 1965, in addition to the priest celebrant, deacon, subdeacon and choir of men, my former pastor “presided”. He was an elderly retired Monsignor and as far as I know had no liturgical function in the celebration. His esteemed presence seemed to describe the function of a “presider” in those years.

  18. cornelius74 says:

    The presentation for that lecture is available online, although in my mother tongue that I share with the late President Vaclav Havel, for instance. Should you like to have a look at it, go here: http://adks.apha.cz/texty-z-duchovnich-obnov/ and in the centre of the page click on the link “Prezentace o II. Vatikánském koncilu” which contains a PowerPoint material. I think some of the illustrations are also quite telling. Actually, when I received the training to get the permission to lead cathechesis in my parish, there were other gems there, such as a theologian saying that there is NO sacrifice during the Mass, which is actually a gathering, a feast of the faithful…

  19. JKnott says:

    acardnal said: ” Blurring the lines of distinction between those who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the laity was all part of the agenda of those invoking the “spirit of Vatican 2?: Clerics who want to act like lay people and lay people who want to act like priests. ”

    Yes. The bad fruit of all this has had a negative impact other forms of liturgical prayer. Namely the recitation of the Divine Office in common.
    During our yearly ‘third order ‘conference/retreat which combines several communities we cannot get the priests of the order or the secular priests who are in the order to lead the Liturgy of the Hours as it stipulates in the rubrics. Each and every year we invite them to “PRESIDE” and each year all of them decline, defer to the laypeople and sit in with the crowd. One email request to a priest asking him to lead came back, ” I am just like you, there is no difference between us.”
    Not one, not one, ever agrees to lead the Office, even the “retreat master”.
    If they only knew how it compromises their credibility in everything especially retreat content.

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