Priest as Vir Dei & Traditional Latin Mass

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The following is an excerpt from the insightful article, “The Devirilization of the Liturgy in the Novus Ordo Mass” by Father Richard G. Cipolla, Ph.D., D. Phil.(Oxon.), an article exclusive to  The footnotes, although not linked to footnote numbers, are to be found at the end of the article.

“The correspondence between Cardinal Heenan of Westminster and Evelyn Waugh before the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass is well known, in which Waugh issues a crie de coeur about the post-Conciliar liturgy and finds a sympathetic, if ineffectual, ear in the Cardinal.[1]   What is not as well known is Cardinal Heenan’s comment to the Synod of Bishops in Rome after the experimental Mass, Missa Normativa, was presented for the first time in 1967 to a select number of bishops. This essay was inspired by the following words of Cardinal Heenan to the assembled bishops:

At home, it is not only women and children but also fathers of families and young men who come regularly to Mass. If we were to offer them the kind of ceremony we saw yesterday we would soon be left with a congregation of women and children.[2]

What the Cardinal was referring to lies at the very heart of the Novus Ordo form of the Roman Mass and the attendant and deep problems that have afflicted the Church since the imposition of the Novus Ordo form on the Church in 1970.[3]   One might be tempted to crystallize what Cardinal Heenan experienced as the feminization of the Liturgy. But this term would be inadequate and ultimately misleading. For there is a real Marian aspect of the Liturgy that is therefore feminine. The Liturgy bears the Word of God, the Liturgy brings forth the Body of the Word to be worshipped and given as Food. A better terminology might be that in the Novus Ordo rite of Mass the Liturgy has been effeminized. There is a famous passage in Caesar’s De bello Gallico where he explains why theBelgae tribe were such good soldiers. He attributes this to their lack of contact with the centers of culture like the cities. Caesar believed that such contact contributes ad effeminandos animos, to the effeminizing of their spirits.[4] But when one talks about the effeminization of the Liturgy one risks being misunderstood as devaluing what it means to be a woman, womanhood itself. Without adopting Caesar’s rather macho view of the effects of culture on soldiers, one certainly can speak of a devirilization of the soldier that saps his strength and resolve to do what a soldier has to do. It is not a put-down of the feminine. It rather describes the weakening of what it means to be a man.

This is the term, devirilization, that I want to use to describe what Cardinal Heenan saw that day in 1967 at the first celebration of the experimental Mass.[5]    In its Novus Ordo form, what Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio: Summorum Pontificum somewhat cumbersomely, if understandably, calls the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite, the Liturgy has been devirilized. One must recall the meaning of the word, vir, in Latin. Both vir and homo mean “man”, but it is vir alone that has the connotation of the man-hero and is the word that is often used for “husband”. The Aeneid begins with the famous words: arma virumque cano. (“ I sing of arms and the man-hero.”) What Cardinal Heenan presciently and correctly saw in 1967 was the virtual elimination of the virile nature of the Liturgy, the replacement of masculine objectivity, necessary for the public worship of the Church, with softness, sentimentality and personalization centered on the motherly person of the priest.

The people within the Liturgy [6]   stand in a Marian relationship to the Liturgy: attentiveness, openness, pondering, waiting to be filled. Within the Liturgy it is the priest as father who pronounces, announces and confects the Word so that the Word may become Food for those who stand within the supreme activation of the Ecclesia that is the Liturgy.[7]   It is the priest who offers Christ to the Father, and it is this act that contains the defining role of what it means to be a priest. And so the role of the priest as father makes his role distinct not merely in function but in the very ontology of sexuality.[8]    The priest stands at the altar in persona Christi, in persona Verbi facti hominem, and this not merely as homo, which word in a sense transcends sex, but in persona Christi viri: in a sensehomo factus est ut fiat vir, ut sit vir qui destruat mortem, ut sit vir qui calcet portas inferi: God became man in order that he might be that man-hero who would destroy death and crush with his own foot the gates of hell.

The devirilization of the Liturgy and the devirilization of the priest for all practical purposes cannot be separated. In what follows I wish, however sketchily and incompletely, first to talk in more specific terms about the devirilization of the Liturgy itself in the Novus Ordo form of the Roman rite. Secondly I will address the the necessary (coming from the devirilized rite) devirilization of the priest using specific examples.

The description of the Roman liturgy using adjectives like “austere”, “concise”, “noble” and “simple,” is commonplace among many who have written about the liturgy in the modern liturgical movement of the twentieth century. Many of these writers, however, have romanticized this austerity of the Roman rite or have used it to further their own agenda of stripping the rite of the organic growth of the ages, labeling such organic growth with censorious terms like “Gallican accretions “or “useless repetitions”. Rather than denoting the Roman rite as austere, an adjective that arguably has puritan overtones, it is better to speak of the masculinity or virility of the traditional Roman rite. To do necessarily demands a definition of masculinity in this context. This is somewhat difficult, and this question needs deeper study. But I will offer several characteristics of the traditional Roman rite that help to explain what I mean about the inherent masculinity and virility in the context of that rite.[9]

First, masculinity is opposed to sentimentality—not to sentiment, but to sentimentality. There is an absence of any trace of sentimentality in the Traditional rite, also called the Extraordinary Form. This is seen in its collects and prayers that are succinct and to the point without sacrificing beauty of language, and in its rubrics that prevent the personality of the priest from inserting his own feelings and choices into the rite itself. If we take note of Cardinal Newman’s insight that sentimentality is the acid of religion, meaning that it destroys true religion, then the rubrics of the Traditional rite are the little purple pill that prevents the reflux of sentimentality into the liturgy.[10]

Secondly, with the traditional Roman Mass there is the full acceptance of silence as the heart of the means of communication with God. Active participation is understood as contemplation, as prayer. The words of the rite are never the point. They are fixed. They always point beyond themselves. It is a commonplace to say that two real friends are those who can be absolutely silent in each other’s presence and know that heart speaks to heart in this silence. This is the silence of Moses before the burning bush, the silence of the Desert Fathers, the silence entered into by St. Benedict in the cave, the Sacro Speco.

Thirdly, there is the fact of the masculinity of the Latin language. This language, unlike the femininity of the Romance languages that are its offspring, is masculine in its terseness, its conciseness, its formality, its difficulty, its lack of pliancy. Even in the hands of a poet like Ovid who certainly understood and so beautifully put in practice the feminine side of Roman poetry, even there the masculinity of the language holds firm against any attempt to make it other than it is.

Fourthly, the traditional Roman rite demands, not merely in its rubrics, but in its very essence, a submission to its form. It demands a suppression of self-actualization. It is something that one chooses to enter, that one never makes over. And that choice always involves something like a heroic casting aside of the self for the greater goal, the telos.

Fifthly, very closely linked to the fourth aspect above, the Liturgy is something given, never made. It is there to be entered into. This aspect is seen more clearly in the Eastern rites where rationalism and sentimentality have never eroded this sense of the God-given-ness of the liturgy—hence it is known in the East as “the Divine Liturgy”. This given-ness does not imply a fossil nor does it deny organic development. Nay rather, this given-ness is like a great house that has been built by the inspiration of the Spirit through the ages and that is there to be entered. The genius and the truth of Roman Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, which inspired the present Pope, Benedict XVI, so deeply in his own understanding of the Liturgy, assumes this absolute given-ness of the Liturgy, for one cannot “play in the house of the Lord” unless the house is already there to be played in. The priest accepts the prohibition against imposing his own likes and dislikes onto the liturgy. He is willing to be called to remembrance to do what has to be done. He accepts the detachment that the Liturgy imposes, without which one cannot enter into the cosmic Liturgy that transcends time and space.[11]

Sixthly, the liturgy is virile in its understanding of and use of ambiguous gestures like the kiss. The kiss surely finds a secure place in the realm of the erotic. And yet the kiss as a mark of respect and love for the objects used in the liturgy and for those who participate in the liturgy, as in the Kiss of Peace, purify this erotic symbol and raise it to the highest and most objective level of adoration of the presence of God in the Liturgy. I am always amused and befuddled by those who celebrate the traditional Roman Mass without the customary kisses on the grounds that they are somehow “excessive” and prone to misunderstanding. They are never excessive, as Jesus pointed out to Judas when the woman anointed his feet with precious nard. These kisses are prone to misunderstanding only if the Liturgy is shorn of its innate virility.

Finally, the liturgy is virile in its acceptance of the essential aloneness of the priest within the community that are his beloved flock that he loves and for whom he would die if called to do so. The vir priest stands alone at the altar to offer the Sacrifice for his people. He stands in the line of Melchizedek, of Moses, of Saint Paul, of St Augustine and of all those saints who did not fear to be alone with God for and with the Community, especially those who did not fear to experience the aloneness of martyrdom.

It is obvious from the above discussion concerning the masculinity and virility of the liturgy that the devirilization of the liturgy demands and results in the devirilization of the priest. I want now to examine two contexts of the devirilization of the priest: one directly a consequence of the Novus Ordo rite as widely celebrated; the other a consequence of the forgotten essential masculinity-virility of the priest.

There can be no more powerful force for the devirilization of the priest than the modern custom of saying Mass facing the people. Quite apart from its non-traditional nature, quite apart from its foundation in faulty and sentimental appeals to antiquity (against which archaeologism Pius XII warned in Mediator Dei), quite apart from its imposition of a terrible misunderstanding of the essence of the Mass that has made the secondary “meal” aspect of the Mass nearly eliminate the primary aspect of Sacrifice: this custom of saying Mass facing the people as a novelty without the support of Tradition has been one of the primary causes for the devirilization of the priesthood.[12]

On one of my many stays in Italy I noticed that many of the baby strollers were built such that the baby sat in his seat and faced his mother who was pushing the stroller. This seemed strange to me, since in the United States the baby faces the same way as the mother who is pushing the stroller. When I asked a friend about this she told me that too many Italian mothers want to keep constant eye contact with the baby and to be able to smile at the child, talk in baby talk, to make sure the bond is always there between mother and child. The classic mother-child relationship is heightened almost in a perverse way by this perceived need of the mother to constantly engage her child face to face lest contact with the outside word, with “the other” will damage the relationship.

Without pretending that the above analogy is exact or complete, I would assert that the radical innovation, never mandated by the Council or by any liturgical book, of celebrating Mass with the priest facing the people, has transformed the priest’s role at the Mass from the father who leads his people to offer Sacrifice to the Father, to the mother whose eye contact and liturgical patter-banter with the people and whose sometimes deliberately silly behavior, as if the people are infants, reduces his role as priest to that of the mother of an infant. This reduction of the congregation to infants who are forced to look at the mother-priest prevents them from seeing beyond him to God who is being worshipped in the presence of the cosmic sacrifice of Christ. [….]

The priest is like Abraham, the father of Isaac and the father of the Jews and our father in faith. Abraham’s greatest act of faith and worship as a father is when he leads his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him in obedience to God. They walk, each facing the top of the mountain. There is silence except for the brief dialogue between father and son: ‘And Isaac said to this father Abraham: ‘My father!’ And he said: ‘Here am I, My son.’ He said: ‘Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together.” (Gn 22, 7-8, RSV)

It is here between Abraham and Isaac that we see the truly horizontal component of worship, brief and to the point. The vertical and primary dialogue is between Abraham and God, a dialogue that occurs in the silence of awe-ful obedience and faith.

This role of the vir of faith is radically different from the priest who believes his job is not to lead the people to the altar of Sacrifice but rather to dialogue with them and to make them “understand what is going on”. Then the Eucharistic Prayer with its altogether brief dialogue between priest and people becomes another extension of the priest’s dialogue-banter. Here there is no walking up the mountain together; there is no turning to the Lord together; instead there is the terrible and stultifying stasis of the condescending and overbearing mother trying to connect with her child and in the process destroying the child’s freedom to walk up to the mountain of God.[14] [….]

This is indeed what Cardinal Heenan saw on that day in 1967 when the experimental form of the Novus Ordo Mass was first celebrated for the bishops in Rome. He saw there the results of the functionalist mentality that does not understand ceremonial and confuses simplicity with a stripped-down infantilism. He saw there the “newness” of the Novus Ordo Mass, a newness that did not grow organically from the Tradition but rather from a specific strain of liturgical theology that was founded upon and infected by post-Enlightenment rationalism. He saw there the devirilization of the Liturgy and knew what would be one of the effects of the Novus Ordo on the Church: a marked decrease in Mass attendance. He did live long enough to see the beginning of the loss of the sense of the Sacred. What he did not live to see is the devirilization of the priesthood and its disastrous consequences in lack of vocations and personal unfaithfulness to chastity and celibacy.”

(“The Devirilization of the Liturgy in the Novus Ordo Mass” by Father Richard G. Cipolla, Ph.D., D. Phil.(Oxon.), an article exclusive to


[1] Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan, A Bitter Trial, 2nd ed. (South Bend: St. Austin Press, 2000)

[2] Ibid., 70

[3] The important question of the validity of the imposition of the Novus Ordo and the effective banning of the 1962 Missal of the Roman rite was brought up by Josef Ratzinger himself in The Spirit of the Liturgy, (San Francisco:Ignatius Press, 2000) 165-66. It would seem that the answer to the question is contained in the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum and its accompanying letter to the bishops. The question is not whether the Pope can issue a reformed Missal. St. Pius V certainly did this in response to Trent. The question is whether a Pope can impose a new form of Mass on the Church and suppress the traditional Roman rite. The cult-like understanding of the powers of the papacy displayed by Paul VI and subscribed to by those who encouraged him to suppress the traditional Roman rite and by the bishops who acceded to this bold move: all of this would make Pius IX blush with shame and perhaps envy.

[4] Caesar, De bello Gallico, 1.1

[5] Cardinal Heenan prefaced his remark with the observation that he did not know the names of those who had proposed the new Mass, but it was clear to him that few of them had ever been parish priests.

[6] One should not speak of the people being at the liturgy but rather within the liturgy. The Liturgy is something entered into, not something watched or made up or brought into being by the assembled people.

[7] Sacrosanctum Concilium 10: “Nevertheless the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.”

[8] On the ontological nature of sexuality see Angelo Scola, “The Nuptial Mystery: A Perspective for Systematic Theology?” Communio 30 (Summer 2003)

[9] This essay does not attempt to address the verbal content of the Novus Ordo rite, for instance, the radical changes in the collects and offertory prayers. The important and in its way devastating results of the research of Dr. Lauren Pristas in a series of articles and in a forthcoming book on the revisions executed by the post-conciliar Consilium of the Collects of the Mass are evidence of the rationalistic and modernistic policies of revision that led to the new collects in the Novus Ordo Mass. These policies can be understood well in terms of the category of “devirilization”. Lauren Pristas, “The Orations of the Vatican II Missal: Policies for Revision”, Communio 30 (Winter 2003) 621-653; “Theological Principles that Guided the Redaction of the Roman Missal 1970”, The Thomist 67(2003) 157-95; “The Collects at Sunday Mass: An Examination of the Revisions of Vatican II”, Nova et Vetera, 3:1 (Winter, 2005) 5-38. See also Aidan Nichols, Looking at the Liturgy,(San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1997). This short book is still the best source for understanding the rationalistic and anti-liturgical suppositions of the late-modern liturgical movement that resulted in the Novus Ordo form of Mass.

[10] This theme of the destruction of true religion by reducing it to mere feeling runs through all of Newman’s sermons and works. The Bigletto Speech given in Rome when he was made a cardinal is a restatement of this theme in terms of what he calls Liberalism. This speech is at once powerful and prescient.

[11] On these points see Romano Guardini, The Church and the Catholic and The Spirit of the Liturgy (Sheed and Ward: New York 1935), especially chapters 3 and 9.

[12] The third revision of the General Instructions of the Roman Missal makes it quite clear that Mass facing the people is not mandated and that the traditional posture of ad orientem is certainly allowed. One of the great mysteries of the post-conciliar liturgical revolution is how Mass facing the people became mandated despite any official documents to support this. For a detailed and dispassionate history of and theological understanding of the “eastward” position of priest and people in the celebration of the Mass, see Uwe Michael Lang, Turning to the Lord, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2009)

[13] St.Justin Martyr, Apology. 66-67

[14] Guardini, “The Primacy of the Logos over the Ethos”, op. cit., 199-211

[15] This deadly role of functionalism in the liturgy is discussed and refuted by Benedict XVI in a collection of essays on the role of music in the liturgy entitled Lodate Dio con arte (Venezia:Marcianum Press 2010).

[16] Guardini, op.cit., “The playfulness of the Liturgy”

[17] In Italy, where the liturgical establishment seems still committed to functionalism and a technocratic attitude towards the Liturgy, they have recycled a wonderful word to describe the stripping down of the liturgy and the church building to the bare bones: adeguamento. In Lodato Dio con arte Benedict XVI discusses this term and the deleterious effects that the carrying out of adeguamento has had on the liturgical life of the Church in Italy.

[18] One can see the beginnings of this devirilization of the priest in the Hollywood depictions of priests like that played by Bing Crosby in the film, The Bells of St. Mary. The picture of the priest as a good sort of guy who smokes a pipe and is no threat to anyone at all, the domesticated priest that helps to dispel the knee-jerk anti-Catholicism of Protestant America. One wonders how many young men have been turned off from becoming priests these past forty years because of their fear that becoming a priest would mean the relinquishing of their manhood and virility.

[19] On the specific question of the discontinuity of the Novus Ordo rite with the Roman rite see Josef Ratzinger’s introduction to The Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Klaus Gamber, Roman Catholic Books 1993, and Josef Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, , especially the chapter on Rite. For a detailed example of the consensus among many scholars that the Novus Ordo is discontinuous with the Roman rite, see the proceedings of the liturgical conference held at the Abbey of Fontgombault in 2001: Looking again at the Question of the Liturgy, Alcuin Reid, ed., (Farnborough, England: St. Michael’s Abbey Press. 2002). This question of discontinuity seems to be side-stepped, quite rightly, for pastoral reasons in Summorum Pontificum and the accompanying Letter to the Bishops. The fact that the two forms of the Roman rite co-exist in the Church does not say anything definitive about whether they are continuous or not.

[20] Discontinuity is a separate question from the validity of the form. The validity of both forms of the Roman rite is taken as a given.

[21] Pristas, Orations: With regard to the work of the post-Vatican II Consilium on the Collects of the Mass, Pristas speaks of “the construction of an entirely new city”. It is remarkable that the work of this scholar has not caused great disquiet among the bishops, who are, in fact, the moderators of the Liturgy in their diocese.

[22] Flaminia Morandi, San Benedetto: Una luce per l’Europa(Milano:Paoline 2009)

[23] “simplices, sobriae, aliquando fortisan austeriores, decoram certe et firmamissam exhibent lineam, de cetero dulcibilem ac per hoc maxime expressivam, omnium susceptibilem temperamentorum, intimos animae sensus preferendi capacem.” Antiphonale Monasticum, (Tournai: Desclée & Co., 1934) p. xi