In Persona Christi

The actions of a boyish altar server can sometimes be less than the standard expected of those who take part in the greatest sacrament, the “Reality of Realities” to borrow a phrase from Maurice Blondel.  The occasional Aloysius Gonzaga (or would-be Aloysius Gonzaga) notwithstanding, young and adolescent boys have a streak of “bad behavior” innate to them and that part of them can sometimes unfortunately spill over to even the most solemn of actions… such as a Mass.

A certain acquaintance of mine, let’s call him Joseph McConvert or “Joe” for short (my naming skills are pitiful compared to my two friends on TheRadTrad), gave me the horrified look I had seen on the the faces of many church ladies when I humorously (and under the influence of a little drink) recounted some antics that I and some other altar servers had been party to at a past parish.  Mostly, they had been little things such as hiding the priest’s biretta, misplacing the bells, or handing back the Communion paten in such a way that the lights would reflect off it and into the priest’s face.  Juvenile acts, to be sure, but carried out by juveniles.

This fact did little to abate my friend’s shock as he glared at me with his eyes popping out of his skull and his mouth agape in unmitigated horror.

“You did that to a priest?!” He exclaimed. “During Mass!”

I was not prepared for this reaction.  Certainly, I knew he was a convert in adulthood, had never served on an altar of the Lord, held a few superstitions with regard to devotions, and could be a bit of a clericalist (especially when “approved” traditionalist priests were involved); but I had not expected the look someone might give if you told them that you had desecrated consecrated Hosts in the sacristy (which never happened… as far as I am aware).  I sat there bewildered by what was bothering him to this extent.

“You blinded a priest when he was acting in persona Chisti?!” He gasped.

I was blindsided by the statement.  The thought of that priest and many other priests I had known acting in the person of Christ at every moment of Mass was beyond ridiculous to me.  I had seen how some priests act upon the altar and knew better.

“Look,” a third friend intervened, “that was pretty bad thing you did, Vigilante.”

“Of course it was,” I answered, “The priest was a pompous jerk and we were adolescent jerks.”

With that, we changed the subject.

The concept of In Persona Christi is strange idea from my perspective.  Even though I was catechized with “traditional” pre-Vatican II Western catechesis such as the sloppy Baltimore Catechism, I do not recall ever being taught it.  The priest was a man endowed by God with the ability to officially absolve sins, he would stand on the altar and make a prayer which God would answer by manifesting Himself in the wafers, and then we would give really boring and/or misogynistic sermons.  That was it.  That was all.  The priest remained a fallible man, whatever sacraments he carried out for the faithful in God’s name.

“Joe” once had a similar moment of causing confusion for me when he realized that the Byzantine absolution prayer did not have the words “I absolve you”.  He wondered whether they could be valid, since those three words were the “magic” that did it after all.  Another friend and I had to allay his fears by explaining that the Greek Churches did not have the concept of In Persona Christi in their confessions and that the priest acted as the necessary witness of the absolution.  In my own heart and mind, however, that was how I had believed it was even in the Western tradition.  It was quite enlightening to see that my beliefs on certain sacramental matters had always been “Eastern” even before I had ever heard of those churches and for that I am quite thankful.  Had someone, after what I have seen on the altar and in the confessionals, tried to present as a matter of dogma that a priest is “the person of Christ” when he does those sacraments I might have – in my cynical adolescence – laughed in their face.

Does the priest act In Persona Christi in the Roman Rite?  Perhaps during confession, but that would only be during the official absolution.  The advice section certainly isn’t covered.  As for Mass, someone will have to give me a convincing argument to shake my agnosticism on whether the priest ever acts In Persona Christi at any point (a quote from the Early Fathers might be convincing if one can find it).  I have simply been up close to witness the actions on the altar at Mass and am not convinced.

It’s quite strange… that a simple recollection of childish antics from what seems so long ago could prompt such theological pondering.

Apologies for the bad art.

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8 thoughts on “In Persona Christi

  1. “It was quite enlightening to see that my beliefs on certain sacramental matters had always been “Eastern” even before I had ever heard of those churches and for that I am quite thankful.”
    I too share your Eastern perspective on certain sacramental matters, my renunciation of Rome and subsequent conversion to Orthodoxy was merely a matter of natural progression.

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    • I flirted with Chalcedonian Orthodoxy before and came to the conclusion that I would only be trading one set of problems for another. I am just as much at odds with the “JP II the Great” or “St. Pius X, the great hammer of modernism” or the devotional-fetishist crowd as I am the ethnocentrists, the Caesaro-Papalists in Moscow, those who would deny the validity of my baptism or confirmation (strangely, only FSSP-ers have also done so to me), or those who sneer “Uniat” at a Greek or Oriental Catholic. There was no reason for me to “renounce” Rome as, according to the authority freaks, I had never been part of her in the first place in my SSPX years (after all, Lefebrve was a wicked schismatic right?). I chose to remain in the communion I had been born into, the radical papalists’ opinions aside, but keep at arms length in Slavonic Greek Catholicism.

      I have no use for triumphalism or the idealism of a great “true church” to the exclusion of all other Apostolic Christians. I more see an “invisible bond” of sacraments and belief among myself, many in the Roman communion, many in the Chalcedonian communion, many in the Miaphysite communion, many of the Assyrians, perhaps some ongoing vagantesand continuing Anglicans out there who are genuinely trying to keep the Christian faith alive, and any of the poor pagans in the world who truly search for the Light.

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  2. As far as I can tell, the theological theory of “in persona Christi” comes from Aquinas, when he is writing specifically about the consecration of the Eucharist (Summa, III.82). Later theologians (I think) applied it to the priest giving absolution. It has never been defined by a council or pope as official doctrine, in spite of being popular in spiritual writings, and I believe that Vatican II is the first council to actually mention the idea. It also appears in the 1983 code of Canon Law.

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    • So, it’s a theological hypothesis that some of the less well-read have taken and accepted as dogma. Aquinas put a huge emphasis on the “Words of Institution” being the precise moment of transformation, so it only makes sense that he would follow that with the priest speaking in persona Christi for those two sentences specifically.

      I believe it is the first person nature of the Roman absolution (“I absolve you” versus “Our God and Lord Jesus Christ… forgives you”) that lends itself to the idea of in persona Christi.

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  3. Well, this is a rather complex – and thus interesting – subject. In his study of the Christian anaphorae and their Jewish and OT forerunners (La struttura letteraria della preghiera eucaristica, i.e. “The literary structure of the Eucharistic Prayer”; Rome, 1981), fr. Cesare Giraudo wrote a chapter on the distinction and complementarity between the notions in persona Christi and in persona Ecclesiae. His conclusions were that, being those concepts by no means opposite but rather complementary, in persona Ecclesiae was 1) more anchored in the Tradition of the Church and 2) representative of a more holistic view, which sees the role of the priest in the Liturgy as an integral part of the worship conducted by the whole Church. In persona Christi should be used only to deal with very concrete priestly duties. Some years ago I would have blame this study for heretic; when I finally read it, I couldn’t but agree wholeheartedly.

    (to be continued)

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  4. On the other hand, the relationship between the Christ-like role of the priest during the consecration and the very momento of the consecration itself seems to be an old one, whilst never unanimously accepted until Lateran IV. Saint Ambrose writes in his De sacramentis in the very same paragraphs where he reports the text of the Roman Canon as it was used at his time (book IV: 21-23):

    Do you want to know that it is consecrated by heavenly words? Pick which are the verbs: “Make for us (he [the priest] says) this offering to be fixed, blessed, reasonable, acceptable: which is the shape of the Body and the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. He Who the day before he would suffer took the bread in His holy hands, looked up to Thee, holy almighty Father, everlasting God, giving thanks, He blessed it, broke it, and give the broken to His apostles and disciples, saying: ‘Take it and eat it: for this is my Body, which will be broken for many.’ In a similar way, after having dined, the day before He would suffer, He took the Chalice, looked up to Thee, holy almighty Father, everlasting God, giving thanks, He blessed it (and) handed it to his apostles and disciples, saying: ‘Take it and drink all of you from it: for this is my blood.'” See all that! Those words, up to the “Accipite” of the Body and of the Blood, are of the Evangelist; from there on the words are those of Christ: “Take it and drink from it all of you: for this is my Blood.” And see every single thing.

    Who (he says) the day befor he would suffer took the bread in His holy hands. Before it is consecrated, it is bread; but where the words of Christ came, it is Christ’s Body. And then he is heard while saying: “Take it and eat it: for this is my Body, which will be broken for many.” And before the words of Christ, the Chalice is full of wine and water; where the words of Christ would have worked, the Blood of Christ, which redeems the people, is formed [efficitur]. So see in how many ways Christ’s speech is mighty in transforming everything! Thereupon the same Lord Jesus shows us that we are eating his Body and Blood. Should we therefore bear any doubt about His faith and testimony?

    This seems to indicate that, in saint Ambrose’s view, the priest was acting in some kind of persona Christi when uttering the institution narrative. On the other hand, it is quite probable that he never meant any almost-magical rationalization alike to those thought by late theologians…

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