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.