‘The priest has no face’

Father Frank Almade

Three generations ago, a popular Pittsburgh priest, Msgr. Vincent Rieland, contracted a skin cancer that scarred him such that he no longer could celebrate Mass in public, and he was forced to cover his face with a cloth at all times.

At his funeral Mass, Bishop John Wright used the phrase, “The priest at the altar has no face.  He represents the face of Christ.”  In this powerful sermon, the bishop in true Christian fashion turned a tragic human disfigurement into a reflection of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

This story came back to me as our clergy team talked about whether to publish in our weekly parish bulletin the names of the priests who are saying Mass.  Several parishes in our area already do this.  Several parishioners have asked me to copy this practice on the weekends and weekdays.

Arguments in favor are that the people should know who comes out of the sacristy before they decide to attend Mass.  Different people like different priests, and this gives the faithful the opportunity to go to a particular Mass and hear whom they like.  An argument against it is that it pits one priest against another in a kind of popularity contest.  Who likes who better?  Who is the more charismatic, attractive, eloquent? 

Another argument against is that if at the last minute a priest gets sick, or priests trade Masses for one reason or another, and the “wrong” priest comes out for Mass, people get mad and feel betrayed.  The bulletin got it mixed up.  Why did they make that mistake?

On our most recent weekly Zoom conference call, the deacons and priests weighed in on this issue.  To my surprise, they were unanimous in opposing listing which priest would say Mass in the bulletin.  They felt the arguments against were far stronger. 

I agree.  We will continue to publish the times of Masses, and the intentions of the Masses, but not which priest will be the presider.

There’s a personal aspect to this decision.  I’ve never been known as a “charismatic figure.”  Some priests (and bishops and deacons) just seem to attract a following, by their style of leading prayer, tone of voice and eloquence of words.  I’m not one of them! 

Take the example of Bishop Fulton Sheen.  Seventy years after his top-rated TV show went off the air, Sheen’s sermons are still popular on video and in print.  What about the hundreds of bishops and priests who were preaching and laboring in the 1950s at the same time Sheen ministered, whose words and actions are forgotten?

Theologians like to talk about the “human particularity” of Jesus.  He lived in a particular time (first century), in particular places (born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, died in Jerusalem in western Asia).  If you believe in the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin (as I do), Jesus was about 5’10” tall and weighed about 140 pounds, with the usual beard of men of his time.  He miraculously healed many, which attracted thousands of followers.  He certainly had a creative way with imaginative stories and parables about the Kingdom of God, which were repeated and shared across the towns and villages.  He was, without a doubt, a charismatic figure.

Yet those of us who are called to minister in Christ’s name (both lay and ordained) are not asked to imitate his particularity, creativity or popularity.  We are asked by God to be ourselves, with all our gifts and faults.  And being ourselves, we are called to minister in the name of Christ, to be in Wright’s words, “the face of Christ.”  Priests indeed are “faceless” at the altar as we consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ our Savior. 

Sometimes we represent the “attractive” Christ, who drew crowds to hear him preach and heal.  Sometimes we represent the “repulsive” Christ of Good Friday, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, no beauty to draw us to him.  He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering and pain…held in no esteem.” (53:2)  In every celebration of the Eucharist, Christ works in and through the priest at the pulpit and altar.

I realize that some of us clergy are more popular than others, and I have no problem with “roaming Catholics” who travel to different churches and parishes to catch a particular priest or bishop saying Mass once in a while.  Nevertheless, know that Christ resides in the words and actions of every ordained minister, and that we point past our own human frailty to the enduring and saving face of Jesus Christ.