Tuesday, November 04, 2008


A view of St Clement celebrating Mass in his basilica. But was he "presiding"?

One of the unique things that came out of the liturgical changes after Vatican II was the introduction of the concept of the priest presiding over the community at prayer. This has now got to a stage where in this archdiocese the priest is now referred to as a "presider". At the recent clergy conference a session was held on the art of "presiding". The term "presider" is commonly used by those to remove any notion of priesthood and lead us to a protestant form of worship.

I therefore thought that I would, with my limited knowledge and limited scholarship of matters liturgical, find out how this evolved.

The first reference to "presiding" is in Sacrosanctum Concilium n41

The bishop is to be considered as the High Priest of his flock from whom the life of Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and upon whom it in some way depends.

Therefore all should hold in the greatest esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his Cathedral church. They must be convinced that the principal manifestation of the Church consists in the full, active participation of God's holy people in the same liturgical celebrations, especially in the same Eucharist, in one prayer, at one altar, at whihc the bishop presides surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers cf. St Ignatius of Antioch).

But as it is impossible for the bishop always and everywhere to preside over the whole flock in his church, he must of necessity establish groupings of the faithful, and, among these, parishes, set up locally under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop, are the most important, for in some way they represent the visible church constituted throughout the world....Efforts must be made to encourage a sense of community within the parish, above all the common celebration of Sunday Mass.

This is followed up by GIRM n30 which states:

Among the parts assigned to the priest, the foremost is the Eucharistic Prayer, which is the
high point of the entire celebration. Next are the orations: that is to say, the Collect, the Prayer
over the Offerings, and the Prayer after Communion. These prayers are addressed to God in the
name of the entire holy people and all present by the priest who presides over the assembly in the
person of Christ.43 It is with good reason, therefore, that they are called the ‘presidential prayers.’

31. It is also up to the priest, in the exercise of his office of presiding over the gathered assembly,
to offer certain explanations that are foreseen in the rite itself.

The layout of the Church itself is to reflect the presiding function:

310. The chair of the priest celebrant must signify his office of presiding over the gathering and of
directing the prayer
. Thus the best place for the chair is in a position facing the people at the head
of the sanctuary, unless the design of the building or other circumstances impede this: for example,
if the great distance would interfere with communication between the priest and the gathered
assembly, or if the tabernacle is in the centre behind the altar.

This office of "presiding" does not appear in any of the pre-conciliar documents. Much of them such as in my analysis of Mediator Dei talk of the priest as interceding for the people and leading their prayer.

Much of the lead for the liturgical changes was the account by St Justin written about 150AD where he refers to the president or the presider (the translation of Jungmann's work follows this term) of the assembly. Of course in the tradition of St Ignatius this presider would have been a bishop or presbyter. A number of assumptions have been made from this; namely that there was no priest and the liturgy was primarily the work of the people (another misconception). The idea of presiding also seemed to drive the idea of the priest facing the congregation when of course Justin is silent about what people did in detail.

So here we expose an unintended consequence of wording. The term has been used to totally turn a liturgy on its head and, but furthermore:
  • encourage an attitude of arrogance over a community ie. a priest lords over his community

  • resulting in a talk show approach to liturgy (ie, the david letterman style)

  • denigrate the importance of priesthood now it is essentially the community that celebrates and he is merely there to keep things going (ie. an MC in more fancy dress)

I agree with Fr John McGavin, that this is "the most damaging legacy of the implementation of Vatican II" (The Priest Vol12 May 2008)

The priest leads his flock in prayer, and should do this in all humility, whether at the Altar directly in adoration to the Altar Cross, which stands at the point of reference of the entire liturgy (Ratzinger: Spirit of the Liturgy) or at the sedilia during the liturgy of the word arranged in an appropriate way so that his focus, and that of the congregation's can always be on Christ present at the Altar.

That is why the whole idea of removing High Altars out of old churches was a complete fallacy, and in the end a waste of time and money of little spiritual benefit.

PS: This congregation is focussed!

1 comment:

Joshua said...


I've always been irked by that stupid term "presider", but your analysis points out not only whence it arose, but why it is beloved of partisans of the hermeneutic of discontinuity and why it bespeaks a radically impoverished and distorting view of the sacred ministry.