ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
48. The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ's faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration. They should be instructed by God's word and be nourished at the table of the Lord's body; they should give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator , they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.
There are about a dozen words in present-day Catholic currency that remain woefully obscure in their precise meaning. “Community” is one, “reconciliation” is another. Recently I was invited to a retreat for the “sharing” of my “faith” “journey.” [A three-fer!] I am a practicing psychotherapist, and I couldn’t give you a crisp meaning of the word “sharing.” At best, “sharing” is a time and circumstance conditioned communication through an unspecified medium to an audience of indeterminate size. Is it confidential information? Is it instructional? Is it powerful emotion such as rage? I guess that “sharing” could apply to all or none of these examples. And yet, Church preaching, catechizing, and writing continue to enshrine this word as a strategy and as an end, with no precise comment on the how, the what, and the content.
This conundrum of linguistic expression came to mind in reading Paragraph 48, which serves as a preamble to the Council’s instruction on how the laity become more “involved” [another golden word] in the celebration of the Eucharist. The words employed in para. 48 may be familiar—at least in the hearing—of any Catholic of any age who has engaged in serious study of the Mass. The use of generic language by the Church Fathers at the Council is probably understandable given the limited time which they had available; more to the point, para. 48 is more a summary of achievement or hope rather than concrete marching orders. My concern is that, a half-century later, we continue to teach more about the finish line than the starting line when addressing the words and signs of the sacraments.
What was the earliest Mass like? We are fortunate that independent documentation has survived in a correspondence between a Roman governor, Pliny the Younger of what is now Turkey, and the Emperor Trajan, in 112 A.D. Pliny is seeking advice on how to deal with Christian communities. He describes Christian meetings tersely: he states that they meet on a certain day before light where they gather and sing hymns to Christ as to a god. They all bind themselves by oath, "not to some crimes"…and subsequently share a meal of "ordinary and innocent food." Pliny’s informant does not mention an embryonic Liturgy of the Word though my guess is that the singing of hymns to Christ may be Psalm response to oral or written accounts of Jesus as they were available at that time. [The New Testament canon was not formally established for at least another century.] The “crimes” reference suggests an early penitential rite.
Pliny’s account of the Eucharist is remarkably straightforward; the simple rite described in 112 A.D. must have had significant impact and sustaining power among the Christians of Turkey, particularly in view of the suspicion and surveillance they incurred living among the governing Romans. Para. 48 embodies many critical points, but it also illustrates both the theological and ritual complexities which have emerged over the centuries, some of which, I fear, tend to obfuscate the essential nature of the Mass.
In its first sentence of para. 48 the Council states what it does not wish to see at Mass, the faithful present as “strangers and silent spectators.” This may be a reaction to the Tridentine Mass prior to 1970 when “familiarity” between worshippers was irrelevant and an ambient silence was the norm. In the post-Council Mass, some precision on this point is called for. I strongly suspect that the desired social setting at Mass is outward bonhomie. In larger parishes in particular, the odds are that a typical worshipper might know less than 1% of his fellow worshippers if that; or, many worshippers may be introverts. I assume that anyone who has made the effort to attend Mass carries a quotient of good will, whether it bubbles to the surface or not. The American monk writer Thomas Merton spent nearly all his thirty vowed years in literal monastic silence, but his immense volume of books, journals and letters is evidence that he was a strenuous actor and participant in the sacramental life, silent demeanor to the contrary.
Paragraph 48 goes on to say that “they [attendees] should take part in the sacred actions conscious of what they are doing.” The only actions I can recall from last weekend are passing the basket (and yes, dropping an envelope) and walking up to communion. Moreover, the permanent wooden pew locks me into a space of 18” square, causing me to turn an ankle if I wish to extend bonhomie to the person behind me. The “sacred actions” referred to the document appear to be more metaphysical than physical. Para. 48 labors under the overweight of generic nouns and a paucity of concrete action.
When I saw the new Eucharistic prayers for the first time in 1968 or thereabouts, it did strike me that the provenance of the central segment of the Mass fell exclusively to the priest. There is theological basis for this, as only an ordained priest may consecrate the bread and wine into the sacred species, but there is no getting around that, liturgically speaking, the Eucharist prayer in its full execution is a period of passivity for the laity.
To begin with, there is the kneeling [in most settings.] The Roman Missal does not oblige kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, only a profound gesture during the consecration. The assumed gesture is standing, a physical position of action and statement. In American Catholic culture, kneeling is associated with adoration and submission. It is hard to fathom why there is so much kneeling throughout the Mass, when para. 48 states “they [the faithful] should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration.” Kneeling—and even worse, “sneeling,” in which the human posterior rests upon the pew—is at best a passive sacramental. There is some humor in reviewing the Roman instructions for sitting at Mass, as during the Scripture readings; the instructions call for church seating [pews are not mentioned] to be “comfortable,” from the Latin cum forte, with strength. Sitting is the posture of Roman soldiers, lances in hand, awaiting a call to enter battle.
What the faithful are instructed to do during the liturgy is “give thanks to God; by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn also to offer themselves; through Christ the Mediator , they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all.” As I alluded to earlier, the general principles cited here continue to lack catechetical precision [e.g., what does it mean to “offer one’s self” through Christ the Mediator?] and equally troubling, they have not translated yet into rubrics and architecture.
It surprises me the translations of the English Mass continue to occupy as much discussion within the Church and the Catholic press as they do. After reflection upon para. 48, I would have to say that the king’s English is the least of our liturgical shortcomings.