– Aurelio Porfiri
Why the priests wear a biretta? What is the meaning?
First, to have something to take off! That is, the Rite of St Gregory contains much courtesy (a word which refers to the manners of the court). So being able to doff one’s hat to the superior is humane and reverent. But the meaning of that curious looking hat is rather profound; or perhaps I should say that the meaning I see in it (being guided by the medieval knack of symbolic understanding) is this: It has four corners. This signifies that the priest should preach the gospel to the four corners of the earth, “teaching all nations” (Mt 28:19). There are three tabs on it to represent the Holy Trinity, which is the highest and greatest of our doctrines. So the biretta is physically above all the other vestments, as the dogma of the Trinity is above all other dogmas. You might have noticed that the priest puts on the biretta holding only the middle tab. And when the servers hand the biretta to the priest, they hand it is such a way that the priest may take it by the middle tab. This middle tab represents Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, as it is only through Him, only by virtue of His Incarnation, that we can grasp the truth of the Trinity.
Why is the Eucharistic prayer not audible to the faithful?
I suppose we could just as well ask “Why in the world would you say the Canon out loud?” It never was in history. The original Masses celebrated in the Holy Sepulcher demanded silence, since there was so little room in there, and the faithful could not have heard it. But a fuller reason has to do with the first Mass Christ said from the Cross. Most of His prayer was to His Father, and very few words directed to us. I like how St Remegius reflected on this silence. “When praise and thanksgiving have been made for the great grace of our redemption, then comes a silence on all the Church. The noise of words stops: the heart’s devotion attends to God alone: and the priest, accompanied by the prayers and desires of all, begins to pour forth the prayer.”
How come, during the Eucharistic prayer, the priests only make audible the phrase “Nobis quoque peccatoribus” (“to us also sinners”)?
During the Roman Canon, there are seven times in which the priest breaks the silence so to speak, and each of these seven times corresponds to the seven last words the Lord spoke from the Cross. St Albert the Great comments on this prayer; “He says, And to us sinners, who intercede for others, when we ourselves have greater need of others’ prayers. Therefore the priest at this moment raises his voice a little and strikes his breast The striking denotes the work of satisfying for sin, since a blow brings pain. The audible speech denotes the act of confession.” The celebrant strikes his breast once, that our humility might be as becoming as the prayer of the publican who struck his breast, and also to signify that Christ died once for us sinners. This is the prayer of the Good Thief, who openly acknowledged his sins: “We receive the due reward of our deeds” (Lk. 23:41). It also recalls those who returned from the Crucifixion, “lamenting and striking their breasts” (Lk. 23:48).
Why is the Our Father is sung only by the priest and the faithful can only join in in the last phrase?
The priest is an alter Christus in the Mass – another Christ. So in the Our Father the priest represents Christ praying on behalf of the whole Church to the Father. This is expressed by his hands in the orans position (palms lifted toward heaven). The faithful do not turn their hands up in this way, but keep them folded while listening attentively to the intercession of Christ. So this corresponds to the seventh and last word Christ spoke from the Cross: “Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.” Eutychius writes that Jesus uttered these words with a loud voice, to make all men understand that He was the true Son of God, calling God His Father. But St John Chrysostom writes that He cried with a loud voice to teach us that He did not die of necessity, but of His own free will, uttering so strong a voice at the very moment when He was about to end His life. This was in conformity with what Jesus had said during His life, that He voluntarily sacrificed His life for His sheep, and not through the will and malice of His enemies: “I lay down My life for My sheep … No man taketh it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself” [John 10: 15]. So the response is done in a loud voice signifying that we are one with His sacrifice.
Why does the priest repeat three times himself the phrase “Domine, non sum dignus” before inviting the faithful to do the same?
First, an Enlightenment understanding of how things should go would mean that it should be said only once. But we repeat things three times at several points during the Mass. For me, if I just say something once, then I have a certain participation in it…but it is easy to let the significance slip. But if it is done three times, it drives the point home. Besides, the doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Trinity is expressed well in this little prayer, where I exclaim to the Father, and then to the Son, and then to the Holy Ghost that I am not worthy of this indwelling. For more on this doctrine, read the magnificent work of St Elizabeth of the Trinity on it.
How come the Confiteor is said before Communion?
It is not required – in fact it is not in the missal. But it is a long, long custom established during a time. And it serves a good purpose; it can be used to prepare better to receive the Host if there has been willful distraction during the Mass.
Why does the priest read the Gospel of John at the end of the Mass?
There are historical reasons for this, but first understand that it is not at the end of the Mass. The Last Gospel is said after the Mass is over, and it is the priest’s solemn thanksgiving, like the Prayers at the Foot are the solemn preparation. It is said quietly, since after His death on the cross Christ went to heaven to engage in the eternal thanksgiving to His Father, to which we are not privy, so in the High Mass the priest turns to the Gospel side of the altar to say the Last Gospel quietly. It is said out loud in the Low Mass, as an expression that while we do not know the extent of the prayer of the Son to the Father and with the Holy Ghost, some of that conversation is known to us by revelation.