HEN I first became a priest, I experienced a great temptation to maintain eye contact at many points during the celebration of the Mass. I had practiced the art of making eye contact in many other contexts, such as public speaking and various types of performances. It felt only natural to apply what had been learned through those experiences to my new role as a priest.
Not long after ordination, however, it began to feel less natural. As I grew into the role of speaking publicly to God the Father and leading the parish community in prayer, it became more apparent to me than ever before that eye contact is not always a virtue. I found that—like all the other gestures of the priest during the liturgy—the use of my eyes was a true means of communication. But what was I communicating?
To be clear, I do not suggest that priests should fashion an idol out of making no eye contact whatsoever during the celebration of the Mass. I have witnessed this very thing on a few occasions, and it has been counter-productive. What I do recommend is more modest, namely that priests should learn from the wisdom of our own tradition, which calls for a certain discipline with respect to our eyes at Mass. The fruit of this discipline, when practiced well, is increased devotion and love for God, among both priests and people.
ORAL theology teaches us to maintain custody of the eyes (custodia occulorum) in daily life. All of our human senses require a measure of control, and the sense of sight is no exception. Keeping guard over one’s eyes is certainly a praiseworthy practice for avoiding sin, but it is also more than that. It is a beneficial way to focus one’s attention on the thing at hand, and, ultimately, it is a path toward centering one’s love on God, Himself. The distinction between avoiding sin and loving God, of course, is more a matter of perspective than an essential difference. To avoid sin, in other words, is to love God; loving God, likewise, entails the avoidance of sin.
Practiced rightly, custody of the eyes helps us to look past surface appearances and into the depths of the heart. In this way, we become more like God, Who once spoke to Samuel in the context of choosing David as king of Israel: “The LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7, RSV).
We ought to strive after this ideal in the way we use our sense of sight at all times. It should be our desire to catch this higher vision, above all, during the sacred liturgy.
HE RUBRICS of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite specify where the eyes of the priest should be cast at many points during the Mass. When he processes to and from the altar, for example, his eyes are to be cast downward. His eyes are to be directed toward the sacred host on the corporal during the first minor elevation, the Memento of the Dead, the Pater noster, the prayers before the priest’s Communion, and whenever he is handling the host following the consecration.
Perhaps most interestingly, these rubrics dictate nine moments at which the priest is to raise his eyes to the cross. They are as follows:
1. Before the Munda cor meum (preparation for the Gospel)
2. Before Suscipe, sancta Pater (offering of the host)
3. During the entire Offerimus tibi (offering of the chalice)
4. At the words Veni, sanctificator (during offertory)
5. Before Suscipe, sancta Trinitas (during offertory)
6. At the words Deo nostro in the Gratias agamus (preface dialogue)
7. Before the words Te igitur (beginning of canon)
8. At the words elevates oculis in caelum (before consecration of the host)
9. At the words Benedicat vos (final blessing)
Expounding upon these rubrics as they apply to the Missale Romanum 1962, O’Connell has this to say:
By the raising of the eyes, the celebrant, following the example of our divine Lord, more expressly directs his prayer of offering, thanks, or petition to God; and so his eyes are to be raised . . . to the image of the Crucified. This image, if the altar cross be in accordance with the rubrics, will ordinarily be higher than the six large candlesticks, so that the priest, in looking at it, will look heavenward (as Ritus VIII, 4 and XII, 1 expressly enjoins). Should the cross, however, contrary to the prescriptions of the rubrics, be a very small one, or set low down, the celebrant should raise his eyes above it, so as more obviously to direct them ad Deum, ad caelum. If, on the other hand, the cross be very high, it suffices to look towards it; the celebrant should not throw his head back to look at the image of the Crucified. (J. B. O’Connell, The Celebration of Mass: A Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal [Milwaukee: Bruce, 1964], 195)
The cross is central to our Catholic faith, and its centrality is ritualized and concretized by these rubrics of the Extraordinary Form.
Experience has taught me that the discipline of guarding my eyes during the celebration of the Mass is beneficial for my own prayer and for that of the faithful. It is the sort of healthy rigidity that, far from diminishing the human quality of liturgical celebration, facilitates our approach to the divine and conduces to our spiritual growth.
HE PROCESSES of mutual enrichment have not, as yet, taken any official form. In the meantime, however, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) includes a very important admonition:
The gestures and bodily posture of both the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers, and also of the people, must be conducive to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, to making clear the true and full meaning of its different parts, and to fostering the participation of all. Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice. (GIRM, #42)
My argument here is simply this: priests would do well to be less arbitrary in their choices concerning eye contact and more informed by the GIRM and the traditional practice of the Roman Rite. This would go a long way towards fostering that participation of mind and heart which the Liturgical Movement so earnestly encouraged.