The Priest’s Perspective

A recent article at Huffington Post titled “What does Worship Look like from a Priest’s Point of View?” has a series of pictures taken from the perspective of the priest at Mass. I thought the article was interesting and it caused me to reflect on the priest’s experience at Mass.


Taken from Huffington Post
Taken from Huffington Post


Often times I think we forget that the priest is a member of the community and a participant in our liturgical celebrations. We forget to take into account the feelings, emotions, and perspective of the priest. While scrolling through these pictures, I felt a mixture of emotions. In some of the pictures the assembly looks quite vibrant and alive. In other photos the assembly looks tired and lifeless. It made me wonder what my parish priest sees when he looks out into the assembly. What image are we giving our priest?

I recommend glancing through the images, and I am curious to hear your thoughts and feelings on “the priest’s perspective.” I am left wondering, how can my community be more hospitable to our priests, and how can we narrow the gap between the celebrant and the assembly?


  1. Oh my goodness! The way to narrow this enormous gap is for the priest, leading the people and like the people, to worship eastwards, as Christians have done for the better part of 2,000 years.

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski – comment #1:
      Peter, presently our priest is the only one facing east in our over 100 year old church building while celebrating the ordinary form of the Mass. In order for us all to face east, we would have to all turn our backs on the priest. That would be a fine view!

  2. How does facing the same way as the people (not necessarily east, even in Rome) “narrow this enormous gap”? If you move the altar against the wall the gap will increase as the priest and the Eucharistic Elements are further away from the people.
    When I was in Rome I celebrated Mass at an altar fixed to the wall and all I saw was the book, altar cloth, the vessels and the high altar. Turning around for the dialogue parts (and showing the Eucharistic Elements) felt awkward.
    Personally I like the way they did it in early churches like St Clement’s in Rome. Everyone faces the altar but they are AROUND it, not just on one side. I always thought that we were gathering at the Lord’s table to feed on Him in the Eucharist confected at that Mass.
    Ad orientam altars often include a tabernacle and so they are both altar of sacrifice and altar of repose. This can be confusing to people as they don’t know whether to focus on the tabernacle or the Eucharistic Elements on the altar.

  3. Yeesh, I thought churches in Europe were supposed to be beautiful? 🙂

    I think the camera may exaggerate the sense of separation/gap.

    If liturgy is a dialogue, then it looks to me like these dialogue partners are ready to enter into the sacred conversation.

  4. The facing east/facing people thing has been done to death on this blog, but I do think there is some merit in what Peter says that deserves discussion, and is related to the post. Just today, I had a conversation with our pastor about presiding. He is not an ebullient personality. Although he is quite warm and gracious in private, somehow parishioners perceive him as cold, distant, and “formal,” whatever that means. I think much of this perception comes from the way he celebrates Mass. In general, how much of the engagement of the people in the liturgy is dependent on the personality of the priest? Is there room for more introverted personalities in the priesthood? At what point does an engaging presiding style become a show? Is there more temptation for it to be a show when the priest faces the people? I don’t know the answers, but it seems as if it’s a pretty delicate balance that many don’t get right. I am encouraging him to sing more of the Mass, theorizing that singing gives attention and direction to the words, without relying on vocal inflection, and is very much in line with how he sees the role of celebrant. What do you think?

    1. @Doug O’Neill – comment #5

      Doug, I agree, too many threads have been derailed by the ad orientem vs. versus populum debate. It was not my intention to start a conversation on that topic. But now that it has been raised, and someone was bound to do it, we can move on to what I was intending with my post…

      By this post I was trying to shift the conversation away from the priest and towards the assembly. I think we talk too much about what the priest is doing and his “stance” in the liturgy. For the purpose of this thread I was hoping to start a discussion about the assembly at prayer.

      What should be the proper “stance” of the assembly? How do we foster an environment that fosters communal worship (the harmony of ministries) amid a diversity of ministries? How should the assembly fulfill its ministry as the assembly?

      These I think are more important and pressing questions than debates about what the priest is doing or should be doing at Mass. Developing a theology of the assembly is, in my opinion, one of the challenges posed by the Second Vatican Council.

      1. @Nathan Chase – comment #6:
        Quite true. Maybe what I raised would have been better in a separate post. How the priest acts and how the assembly acts are tied up in each other, of course. Is the way that the assembly perceives their own role related to how they perceive the priest?

      2. @Doug O’Neill – comment #7:
        Doug, I think you raise good questions, and as you say, the way the priest acts and the way the assembly acts are closely related. One informs the other.

        I am curious to see how our readers respond to your questions and mine. Double the points for those who answer them both! 🙂

      3. @Nathan Chase – comment #8:
        The seating arrangement seems critical too. Having the assembly seated in the nave rather than standing around the west, north, and south side of the altar or sanctuary only reinforces the feeling of being observers of a liturgical performance and not participants.

        Get rid of the rows of immovable pews and place seating along the walls for the elderly , the infirm, and families with children.

  5. I feel a raw sadness leafing through these photos. The tyranny of distance and the staticness. It seems to be a corollary of having a sole order of clergy participating (the Lone Presbyter) who is anchored to a stage-like sanctuary and compelled (even during fervent prayer!) to watch the faces of the other participants, who are themselves corralled in fixed pews – all in a ritual space much larger than its combined occupants’ regular needs (can it just be the camera exaggeration?). Am no fan of the binary polarising performer-audience effect which results. Contrast the very different spatial and ordinal dynamics (yes, the laity and clergy can mingle and move and touch!) welcomed in other traditions, eg:

    1. @Anton Usher – comment #9:
      The camera, of course, catches only one moment. Nonetheless there is little sense of engagement in these photos. I wonder if this is part of the reason Latino Catholics are moving to evangelical churches.

      1. @Alexander Larkin – comment #17:
        These are, of course, Italian churches. As such, they illustrate the modern church architecture of Italy, which often has what to me seems an industrial or commercial air. These are not Latinos; I don’t know whether evangelical churches are found to be appealing by the Italians.

        Second, These photos do not show whether Mass was being celebrated facing the people or ad orientem; the Italian title “Andate in pace” suggests a moment at which the priest would in any case be facing the people.

    2. @Anton Usher – comment #9:
      Well put. Still so strange to see public space where the best seats…the 50 yard line is empty. I always found it strange to greet the huge empty space as if people were there. and let us not think about the Liturgy of the Word celebrated from one corner on the side sometimes still from a spindly metal stand. If a Catholic came into another church building where the altar was over in a corner they would be very puzzled.

      1. @Halbert Weidner – comment #25:
        I wonder – does the Latin rite require readings to take place on one side or corner of the altar area? In my tradition (Russian Byzantine), readings mostly take place in the middle of the temple, the reader or deacon facing eastwards along with all the people.

  6. To me, the one question of all those that appear above that captures the real issue is this from Nathan @6: “How do we foster an environment that fosters communal worship (the harmony of ministries) amid a diversity of ministries?”

    First, with regard to the presider or other worship leaders . . . To the extent that the presider creates the impression that the assembly is listening in on a dialog between the presider and God, the presider has failed to foster that communal environment. The assembly is put in the position of observer, rather than participant.

    Second, with regard to the assembly . . . In the photos of parishes where the seats were not completely full, the people often left the front seats full and seated themselves further back or off to one side or the other. The result, physically and psychically, is greater distance.

    Finally, tone matters. It is possible to be both formal in leadership and also warm and approachable at the same time, but few assemblies seem to experience this from their worship leaders. If the tone is formal and distancing (whether by the presider’s actions or by the assembly’s expectations), fostering communal worship becomes exponentially more difficult.

    As for the “how we do this?”, think about three ways in which people enter into worship most directly:

    Do the congregational songs fit the community and its life? Are they within the musical skills of the assembly, or simply the choir? Is the language that of the assembly, or do the texts go over the heads of the singers? Do those who lead the community’s song *accompany* the assembly, or do they drown it out, drag it down, or otherwise get in the way?

    Do the intercessory prayers connect with the assembly? By the end of them, does the assembly have the sense “I was prayed for today!” or “They were prayed for today, but I wasn’t”?

    Does the homily connect with the assembly? Do people see themselves and their world in the preacher’s examples, or is the preacher always talking about someone…

    1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #10:
      I would add a fourth …… does the parish have any life outside the eucharist?
      People that do stuff together as an expression of their community tend to form friendships that encourage them to sit together and worship together.
      When our numbers started to decline, we removed several rows of benches to get rid of acres of empty space.
      Altars etc can always be moved.

  7. “You never cease to gather a people to yourself.”

    Whenever I pray EP3 (which is most Sundays outside of Lent), I always look at the people God has gathered that day, and it always nourishes my prayer. It can do different things (gratitude, zeal to participate with God in gathering more, compassion for some of the struggles I know they are offering along with the bread and wine), but that visual has always been an aid for me in making more fervent my prayer of the Mass. Other Eucharistic prayers provide other such moments, as does “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.”

    The one time I’ve offered Mass ad orientem with a congregation (because it was the custom of the community I was subbing in), I’ve really felt like I was missing out on something nourishing.

  8. Peter Rehwaldt : Do the intercessory prayers connect with the assembly? By the end of them, does the assembly have the sense “I was prayed for today!” or “They were prayed for today, but I wasn’t”?

    Great questions, but I wonder: Is the point of the intercessory for the members of the assembly to feel “prayed for,” or should they feel like THEY have prayed for “the whole People of God in Christ Jesus, and for all people according to their needs.”

    1. @Kevin Vogt – comment #12:
      The point of the intercessory for the members is that they are part of the whole People of God in Christ Jesus,” and that when the leader says we are praying “for all people according to their needs,” this includes them.

      If we say for “the whole people of God” and “all people,” yet leave out the very people gathered in front of us, we have not only left the body of Christ in pain, but added to that pain.

      1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #14:
        Peter, you are being inconsistent here – first you say that when we pray “for all people” this includes them, which is absolutely true. Yet later you imply that it is possible to leave out the “local” people when we pray for “the whole people,” which is impossible, according to your first statement. Although it is crucial to pray for the needs of the community, my experience is that, living in a me-first privileged society, it is more important to focus on the needs of others, rather than for me to feel “prayed for.”

      2. @Doug O’Neill – comment #19:

        I took Kevin’s comment @12 to be saying we should be praying for “the whole people” and not “these people”, just as you seem to be doing in your last sentence with your use of “rather than.” If we set Them vs. Us, we are missing something.

        An example: I previously served a parish in a poor neighborhood of Topeka KS, where the liturgical assistant prepared the intercessory prayers. One Sunday after worship, I was chatting with one of the parishioners, who noted “We prayed today for the folks suffering from hunger in drought-starved Africa, and that’s fine — but it made me mindful of the families sitting in front of me, where I know the parents are going without meals themselves to keep at least a little food in front of their kids. I couldn’t help but wonder how they heard those prayers. When we say ‘all people, according to their need,’ perhaps we need to be a bit more aware of those who are right in front of us, as well as those on the other side of the world.”

        Both/and, not either/or.

        It’s one thing to say the words “all people” but when we ignore the clear and obvious needs of those in midst of the assembly, we create the distance we are trying to eliminate.

      3. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #21:
        I said nothing about the biddings being crafted in ways that EXCLUDE those in the local assembly, only that making them “feel prayed for” is not the primary purpose of intercessory prayer. If someone is any need I would hope they would feel included in the assembly’s intentions for prayer (all the more reason to avoid too much specificity). The biddings can certainly also be worded in such a way that all the baptized sense their inclusion in the priestly mission of Jesus, sharing even now in his risen life and his redemptive sacrifice for the life of the world.

  9. I think that we often treat the assembly with kid gloves. If they are of the utmost importance, then that means that they also have a great responsibility, do they not? As a music minister, I have a responsibility to do careful selection of the liturgical music, to properly prepare, to do my best to render quality, to encourage the congregational song, to educate them as to what we are doing, and as to what there role is. “Let those who have ears listen.” It is NOT my responsibility, however, if some people don’t pay attention. It is NOT my fault when people refuse to sing, if I have done my best to tell them they should. The ideal goal is full participation, and yet that never happens, even with the most familiar songs. If I accepted all that responsibility myself, I would beat myself and fall into depression. When we use language like “invite” them to participate, that implies that they may opt out of the invitation. I don’t invite them – I tell them they have a God-given responsibility to participate. God gave them voices – if they don’t use them, they are not attempting to fulfill their potential as God’s people. If they are full participants in the liturgy, important ministers, then that means they have a duty. When we coddle them in the name of getting them through the door, we diminish their potential, and encourage them to be selfish recipients of the liturgy, rather than as selfless contributors to the liturgy.

  10. Peter Rehwaldt : @Kevin Vogt – comment #12: The point of the intercessory for the members is that they are part of the whole People of God in Christ Jesus,” and that when the leader says we are praying “for all people according to their needs,” this includes them. If we say for “the whole people of God” and “all people,” yet leave out the very people gathered in front of us, we have not only left the body of Christ in pain, but added to that pain.

    Indeed. The “priestly people” are specifically charged to pray for the Body and the entire world, to intercede for them and for each other before God. That is what makes us “priestly.”

    I fear most assemblies, most members, do NOT see themselves as having an active role at mass, of being part of a ministry. For all the nitpicking over “celebrant” and “presider” seems silly, the dispute does point to the ideal that it is the Church, the entire Body, that celebrates.

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