(This is yesterday's Liturgy post which missed deadline).
For much of my adult life there were many Catholics who were interested in the generic subject of “liturgy” or church worship. Liturgy was a popular concentration in grad school. Priests spent a fair amount of their time conceptualizing and planning the rites and environment of worship. Parishes frequently established “liturgy committees” of lay persons, or in larger circumstances, developed professional staffs. There was much talk of integrating theological principles with rites and architecture: the emergence of church designs, generally semi-circular, that provided for greater visibility and a sense of personal connectedness; the construction of baptismal pools at the entrance of churches; the development of reservation chapels to distinguish the multiple meanings of the Eucharist (times for the Eucharistic meal, times for private adoration.)
When I started writing today’s entry—a few days ago, actually—I started to wonder: if I were interested in liturgical ministry today, what exactly is there for me to do? As a corollary, when I sit down on Liturgy Monday and start pecking away, exactly who am I writing for, and what kinds of encouragement can I offer? Actually, discussion of liturgy is boxed in by several very concrete factors where resolution will not be achieved very easily or in the near future. Let’s take a look at some of the major ones:
Lack of national direction: When the documents of Vatican II and their attendant directives were released over forty years ago, a large number of decisions, including catechetical and liturgical decisions, were deferred to national conferences of bishops. However, in the past three decades, at least, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been divided, much like the country at large. Bishops tend to be “red state” or “red-purple state.” I am not aware of any “blue state” bishops, to tell the truth. It has been nearly impossible for the body to reach consensus on about anything, and in very recent years the Conference has avoided controversial but critical matters. In its last meeting in November, the Conference discussed new prayer rites for the dedication of churches, and exorcisms. One issue of pressing catechetical concern, for example--national standards for certification of catechists—is buried in committee and expected to be there for a long time, I am told.
Lack of national policy has encouraged individual bishops to go ahead with some rather significant changes in their own dioceses: I heard anecdotally that 29 U.S. dioceses permit a return to the early Church’s sequence of celebrating Confirmation before First Communion. Clearly this kind of helter-skelter experimentation has significant impact in the religious education ministry across the country.
Existing Churches: one of the major obstacles in the catechesis of sacramental worship is the very design of many churches themselves. After Vatican II there was a movement to the semi-circular design, which brings even the pews furthest from the altar into much closer proximity and gives children at least a fighting chance to see the rites. (Even the Baltimore Catechism of the 1880’s defines sacraments as “outward signs;” visibility is of the essence of the Mass.) For a multitude of reasons this principle has dissolved in the minds of planners, and I have seen magnificent churches in the $5-$10 million dollar range constructed in this century with floor plans from 1920. One guess: pastors are combining the liturgical assembly site with the reservation site; another, churches, like airlines, are trying to squeeze as many people as possible into minimum space. You can see this in some churches where communicants crash into each other when attempting to reach the ministers with the cup. Given the fiscal crunch (see below) if you have a poorly conceived church now, you will probably have it for a long time.
Money: those of you who are salaried church workers know that in general parishes and dioceses are under great financial pressure. Why? Decreasing membership, bad financial decisions (as in taking out large mortgages in 2008), abuse court settlements, generally poor stewardship patterns, and member dissatisfaction are some factors that come to mind. Whatever the reason, tightening financial screws have a domino effect: parish (and diocesan) staffs are shrinking, ministers are wearing more hats, there is less professional training and supervision of volunteers and other staff, there is no funding for continuing education. To go one step further, some pastors are making the cheapest hires available, and competent prospective lay ministers are no longer seeking degrees and entering church work as a career option. Again, I do not see this problem going away anytime soon.
Present liturgical practice: there are a number of present day liturgical practices that actually work against what catechists are attempting to undertake. I single out one, the state of affairs in liturgical music. The instructions of the Roman Missal are not fully understood and implemented. The Missal assumes that our primary hymnal is the Psalter and in fact prescribes which Psalms are chanted during the procession, response to the Word, offering of the gifts and reception of the Eucharist. (Look in your missalette this weekend.) Moreover, on major feasts such as Holy Thursday and Good Friday, there are musical texts from antiquity, such as Ubi Caritas and the Good Friday Reproaches. (Again, see missal.)
Liturgists for years have decried the American practice of the “four hymn sandwich” which substitutes non-biblical texts. There may have been some wiggle room here forty years ago when a body of common hymns did unite Catholic worshippers. However, many parishes are using very new songs and texts usually promoted by the musical-missalette industrial complex, if I may paraphrase President Eisenhower. I noted that during our own Triduum the copyrights of our music, as a rule, dated roughly between 2007 and 2014. Thus, children in many of our churches are liturgically catechized to neither (1) the Psalms, (2) a tradition they can fall back on, nor for that matter, (3) the importance of quality art in worship.
These are significant structural disadvantages against which you work. I have others, but these in particular pertain to catechetical formation for Eucharist, “the source and summit” of the Church’s life. You may not be able to change them, but there is no rule against discussing them.
Next to “where do babies come from?” (which, fortunately, has never come up in any of my presentations to date) I think the question I most fear in an educational setting is “who wrote the Bible?” The easy answer, of course, is God, which is certainly true enough. But generally what students really want to know is how their biblical texts—the bibles they hold in their hands or bring up on their Kindles—came into being. And this is one of the most complicated stories in the history of the early Church.
To answer the question appropriately, it is necessary to emphasize three points: (1) Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples and the importance of Pentecost in identifying the powers and responsibilities of the new Christian Church; (2) the use of specific texts in early Eucharistic liturgies, and (3) the role of Sacred Scripture in protecting the tradition of the teachings of the Lord Jesus necessary for salvation.
We know that in several Gospels Jesus commanded his disciples to teach everything he had taught them. For at least one generation the essentials of Jesus’ teachings were passed down orally; St. Paul is the first to use the written word, in his famous Epistles which date to around 51 A.D. and the following decade. Interestingly—and this is important down the road—Paul wrote about the meaning of Jesus and virtually nothing about his biography. However, as the first witnesses died off, and the Church—under the inspiration of the Spirit—came to a deeper sense of the meaning of Jesus in the plan of history—a Christian named Mark put to paper a “theological biography” for Christians in his region of Rome undergoing persecution. Other authors began to imitate Mark—among them Matthew, Luke and John.
When these texts began widespread circulation throughout the Roman world, we see their importance in the primitive form of the common Eucharist. We have a remarkable surviving description of a Christian Eucharist in c. 150 A.D. from St. Justin Martyr, the great apologist who was defending Christianity against the charge of cannibalism. Regarding what we would call today the “Liturgy of the Word,” Justin states that when the assembly was gathered, “The recollections of the Apostles or the writings of the (Hebrew) prophets are read, as long as there is time.” After this, “the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. “ A more complete description is found in the Office of Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter.
As you might expect, a natural winnowing process continued in church worship, as certain texts and authors were used more frequently by bishops, presiders, and the faithful at large, texts believed the best embody the core of God’s revelation through Jesus. Christians, of course, revered the Hebrew Scripture and integrated them into the early Eucharist. Thus what would eventually be called “The New Testament” began to take shape as the product of the Spirit’s revelation given both to the authors and the community that received their texts.
The need to establish formal recognition of which books were precisely considered canonical, that is, belonging to the canon or collection of God’s revelation, became evident around 200 A.D. with the teaching of Marcion of Sinope. One of the early Church’s truly interesting rogues, Marcion denied the God of the Hebrew Scripture and produced a bowdlerized edition of St. Luke’s Gospel. This was the last straw, and Church bishops and theologians coalesced around the 27 books we know today as the New Testament, a very new term in 200. By the year 400 A.D. we can see in writings of Church Fathers a general acceptance of these books as inspired, containing everything necessary for the attainment of salvation.
Were there books that “missed the cut,” so to speak? Absolutely. A few that come immediately to mind are Gospels attributed to St. Peter and St. Thomas, which you can purchase on Amazon. They were passed over because of questions of authorship, but more likely because of content. The Church showed an amazing collective wisdom in selecting works essential to the core of Jesus’ message of salvation. The “also-ran” books are popular today in part because they often purport to give us lost information about Jesus. Again, the books of the New Testament Canon are focused on the meaning of God’s plan and Jesus’ words and acts. If biographical detail had been critical, St. Paul would have never made the cut.
Over time the Church has taught that the Age of Revelation concluded with the death of John the Apostle, traditionally believed to be the last living author of the New Testament. This is why the Church in general (and me, to be honest) tends to downplay visions and apparitions even in the present day, on the grounds that even Marian apparitions cannot add new information to the New Testament canon. The Church permits private and even occasionally public popular devotion to saints and their divine appearances when they reinforce the established truth of the Canon, as in the case of St. Margaret Mary and devotion to the Sacred Heart.
For many complicated reasons, classical Protestantism differs from Roman Catholicism on the exact books of the New Testament Canon. So, that bible you stole from the Days Inn motel room years ago may not have the Epistle of James, for example, which ironically reminds us that faith without good works is worth nothing…so stop stealing motel room towels, too.
I happened to come across a news service background piece on Senator Marco Rubio’s religious history. (The public interest in such matters made me wonder, among other things, if an avowed atheist could ever attain the presidency, but that is a discussion for another day.) Rubio’s history intrigued me from a religious educator’s standpoint. He was born and raised Catholic, spent early adolescence as a devout Mormon, and returned to full Catholic communion for his adult life. He also attends a Southern Baptist church in Miami on a regular basis. I found this statement from his autobiography quite intriguing: "I craved, literally, the Most Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion, the sacramental point of contact between the Catholic and the liturgy of heaven," he wrote. "I wondered why there couldn't be a church that offered both a powerful, contemporary gospel message and the actual body and blood of Jesus." (Thus we have the first candidate to state on the record that Catholic preaching could be a lot better.)
Last Saturday, during my course on the Eucharist, the issue of Real Presence was raised by a number of students, primarily in the context of belief and respect. I thought that today’s “Scripture Tuesday” might be a useful time to gather at least some biblical insight into the celebration and reception of the Eucharist. Our short entry here cannot do justice to the rich Hebrew tradition upon which the Eucharist depends. The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) clearly identify what we would popularly call “the first Mass” and specifically the first sharing of the Eucharistic bread and cup as concurrent with the annual Jewish Passover Meal. The Passover was and is described as a “memorial,” but in a much stronger sense that our English usage would suggest. “Memorializing” (or in Christian theology, the term anamnesis) takes the participants back in time to the actual saving moment. For the Jews, this would be the historical deliverance from slavery in Egypt led by Moses. For Roman Catholics the Eucharist is a living return to the original Triduum of Christ’s supper, death, and resurrection.
The Gospel texts are clear that the Last Supper/first Mass occurred in a meal context, that real unleavened bread was broken, divided and handled, and that one cup was shared. From the three aforementioned Gospels we can see that that early Church lived with the paradox of belief in what later theologians would term “Real Presence” and imitating Jesus’ domestic example of breaking and handling the bread and sharing the cup with a kind of physical informality, like a family eating around the table.
However, even within the New Testament canon, there is a range of theological emphasis on the proprieties of Eucharistic sharing. The earliest historical discussion of Eucharistic celebration predates St. Mark by at least a decade, St. Paul’s famous discourse of 1 Corinthians 11. Paul gives us an account of Eucharistic celebrations where drunkenness, gluttony, and social divisiveness were major problems. Paul’s condemnation of eating the bread and drinking the cup unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:27) is based upon his contention that one has sinned against the very body and blood of Christ. The nature of this sin is one of lack of faith in the true reality of the food, but from the text there is also indication that one receives communion badly by disregard of the needs of other members (1 Corinthians 11:22).
One of the most powerful teachings on the Eucharistic food comes from the famous Chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel, which will be read in its entirety for several weeks this summer as a break from Mark’s narrative. Again it is important to remember that John is writing to a well-established Church; enough time had passed for erroneous or mistaken notions of the nature of Jesus, the Eucharist, and the legitimacy of the Church to take root.
Chapter 6 begins with a retelling of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but as is usually the case with John, a miracle is an entrée into prolonged discourse, and in this setting the subject is the very nature of Eucharistic bread. Jesus declares in no uncertain terms that he himself is the living food from heaven; that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood already participate in life everlasting. The evangelist records that this teaching—with all of its implications—caused great consternation among friend and foe alike. When speaking of Jesus’ flesh, for example, John uses the Greek word sarx, which is the term for flesh meat. So blunt, so literal, was this teaching that later Christians were popularly accused of cannibalism by uninformed Roman officials.
John observes (6:66) possibly with sadness “from this time on, many of his disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer.” When Jesus asks the Twelve if they, too, wished to leave, Simon Peter, in one of his best moments, replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (6:68)
The New Testament is thus very clear that the bread and wine of the Eucharist is indeed the very humanity and divinity of Christ. If this sentence is not particularly disorienting or mysterious, perhaps it is time to reflect on what we actually do at Mass. The New Testament is equally clear that Jesus intended this food to be broken and eaten frequently, in a banquet setting of men and women for whom we hold responsibility given our baptismal vows. Respect for the sacred food, then, is a matter of disposition of the heart and social accountability.