Priesthood, Mystery and Liturgy

by Fr. Nick Schneider - Priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota

As the fascinating mystery novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express, develops, the internationally renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot discovers that during the night, Ratchett has been murdered. Through the rest of the novel, Poirot unravels the mystery that surrounds Ratchett’s murder.    

Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the prototypical example of what the contemporary world thinks of as “mystery.” Something at the beginning is unknown. As the plot develops, more and more clues are revealed. At times, they lead a person astray of the actual conclusion to the riddle. Then, at last, the solution to the puzzle is given, and it resolves the various facts that had been revealed throughout the novel. At that point, the mystery is “solved,” and any confusion is resolved. More cleaver authors and inquisitive readers of this genre love stories that are ever more creative and tricky to solve.    

Mystery as we mean it in speaking of the sacred liturgy is much different. Let us begin with the Mass as an example.

The Transfiguration

In the Mass, we know in broad lines what happens. The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is made present to us; we participate in the Last Supper (cf. 1. Cor. 11:26); Jesus feeds us with His own Body and Blood; we are present at the altar of God, surrounded by the “cloud of witnesses” of the angels and saints (Heb. 12:1). As we become more aware of the riches and depth what takes place at Mass, we enter more deeply into these things. Perhaps a new detail comes alive to us, but most of us learn the basic meaning of Mass when we are in grade school. Nevertheless, there is no end to how deeply we can enter into Christ’s gift of self in the Mass. 

One can contrast the modern notion of mystery with the way mystery works in the sacraments. In a mystery story, the reality is unknown in the beginning; in the mysteries of the Church, it is known fairly early in our formation in the faith. In a mystery story, one final bit of information resolves everything; in the mysteries of the Church, nothing every finally resolves our search. Above all, a mystery in the modern sense seeks to “be solved,” where a mystery of the Church invites one to enter into it, plunging ever more deeply into the fountains of grace.

A priest is ordained primarily to celebrate the mysteries of the Church. He is, more than anyone else, a “man of mysteries.” The priest, then, if His ministry is not to grow cold and empty, must continually seek to peer beyond the outer appearances of the celebration of the rites of the Church and into the inner content, which is always Christ. In Baptism, one sees water being poured over a person. In reality, the person dies in the water and rises to new life, the stain of sin is washed away, the person is incorporated into the life of the Church, and springs of living water begin to flow in the inner depths of the person. At Mass, beyond the noble elegant rites, all of the inner content I explained above takes place. All of the sacred rites must be seen in this way.

Often in the life of a priest, because of the demands made on personal time, the drying up of emotional and spiritual reserves, and the various pastoral and administrative duties he is given, the priest can be taken away from the mystery. Perhaps for some, the mystery itself becomes overwhelming, and he feels as if God’s presence is more than he can bear. In any case, it is only at the living font that flows underneath the surface and can only be seen by the eyes of faith that sacred mysteries have their true meaning. It is also only at that living font that the priest discovers his true identity in Christ – the man.