The Eucharistic liturgy as teacher.


The actions are so powerful I can hardly hear the words.


This blog came out of a lunch by the water in Toronto with two friends. A comment was made about the liturgy being the first teacher. What follows are some of the ruminations of my drive back to St. Catharines.


jpg Too often in Catholic circles and particularly in Catholic ecclesiastical circles teaching tends to be thought of as didactic. The teacher, and that is often the male, celibate priest tells and the other(s) listen and take in. And that is generally followed by a QED or !


The liturgy is a great teacher and I want to suggest that too often in Catholic Eucharistic liturgies what is taught, intentionally or otherwise, is antithetical to the message of Jesus of Nazareth.


jpgt For many Catholics the teaching of the liturgy is almost exclusively associated with the readings from scripture and the homilist’s reflections on those same readings. This also seems to be the understanding of goodly numbers of the clergy who, “say Mass”, or“celebrate the Eucharist”. This approach ignores the dictum of Francis of Assisi who suggested, “Preach the gospel daily, if necessary use words.”


jpg So how does the Eucharistic liturgy teach? The earliest followers of Jesus – the followers of the way – gathered weekly in private homes to offer thanksgiving (berakah),and to remember what and how Jesus taught (do this in memory of me). As they were basically devout Jewish followers of the Jewish teacher Jesus of Nazareth and as they were meeting in Jewish homes the celebration/ceremony was lead by the woman of the house. It could be no other way. Today if a Catholic woman chooses to preside at a celebration of Eucharist as an ordained Catholic womanpriest she is excommunicated, “latae sententiae“, automatically, without a hearing and due process. What a powerful teaching.


If you live in a parish that has no priest in active orders then your community cannot officially celebrate eucharist until such a priest in active orders is parachuted in. Once again our history teaches that some of our earliest Christian communities were invited to elect from their midst a respected and respectful member to preside. Scholars will point out that it was often recommended that this person be a married man(vir probatus). If today your community includes a married priest who is no longer “active”(does not have ecclesiastical faculties) you cannot invite him to preside at a community celebration of Eucharist. This despite the fact that according to Catholic teaching that person is still and will always be a priest. What powerful teaching.


jpg The priest who presides at your parish Eucharistic celebration may be married and have a wife and children. This is often the case with Anglican priests and United Church ministers who have joined the Catholic communion and are allowed to continue priestly ministry in their new church. But if, as in the example above, the married man is a Catholic priest, albeit not “ecclesiastically active” then he must stay the other side of the altar, and consequently not preside at a Eucharistic celebration. What powerful teaching.


Pope Paul VI wrote eloquently about the community celebration of Eucharist. He went so far as to say that without community there is no Eucharistic celebration. This was a continuation of the revised theology of sacramental celebration that came out of Vatican II and was a direct response to the many “private” masses that were said in seminaries, communities of priests and even some parishes that in the 1960s had 3, 4, and 5 priests in residence. Today we have many communities, many “Eucharistic communities” that are not allowed to celebrate Eucharist because there is no “active” celibate priest to say the magic words. Magic words have replaced community belief. What powerful teaching.


jpg Last Sunday, when I visited a parish that had been my home for a dozen years I was greeted at the door by the priest and two ministers of hospitality. As is my wont I was in church fifteen to twenty minutes before the start of the celebration so this was not a last minute thing and those three members of the parish community were there specifically to welcome people. I shared with the three greeters my history with the parish before moving to the pew. What powerful teaching.


In contrast to that experience has been the all too numerous occasions when the priest was in church as possessor of the magic words, and we were to be grateful for that because without his presence Jesus would not and could not be there. We were not welcomed to the church or the Eucharistic celebration. Paul VI may have taught that the community belief was necessary for a Eucharistic celebration, but too many Catholic priests believe that without the priest and his words of consecration there is no Jesus. This is often the priest who is there to “say Mass”, to celebrate the “sacrifice of the Mass” and the congregation is there to “hear Mass” and thanks to the priest and his magic words to receive a fill-up of Jesus. What powerful teaching.



Community wisdom ignored


jpg And what about the readings and the homily?  Despite 60 years of Catholic scriptural scholarship beginning with Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1948, and despite the fact that here in North America we have the most theologically educated Catholic citizens ever, the reflections on the scripture readings are too often didactic and always come from one mouth. The community is rarely, if ever, invited to reflect with or comment on the interpretation of the homilist, even less the interpretation of the scripture readings. In the heady days after Vatican II it is what we would have called a “shared homily”. Today the priest is not only the possessor of the magic words but also the sole authority on the readings, even if those reflections have often come from a subscription to a homiletic service. What powerful teaching.


And what about the language of the celebration,or “the words of the Mass?” The words are not only magic because they are said by an active,ordained priest but now they are magic because of the words themselves. Taking the lead from the Australian Cardinal Pell, the Vatican has decreed that Baptism that did not use “Father, Son and Holy Spirit/Ghost” but rather, “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer” is not valid and consequently neither are any subsequent sacraments celebrated by such illicitly “baptized” persons. That being the case some of the most meaningful and celebratory liturgies I have ever been part of are by fiat decreed neither meaningful nor salvific. What a powerful teaching.


jpgMuch of the language used – the Creed, the Our Father, the Gloria, the various Collects – are reflective of the understandings and the expression of those understandings from ages past. And I don’t mean pre-Vatican II. I am talking of Nicea, Chalcedon, Trent etc. The Greek of the “pre-existent logos”, the “ascension into heaven”, the “sitting at the right hand of the Father”  – in fact the complete maleness of ALL the prayers – the hierarchical order of prayers, for the Pope, bishops, priests and if we pay attention maybe for the hoi polloi, are all examples of a celebration that focuses on the male celibate clergy – the magic men – and are intended to let the congregation, the community without whom, according to Paul VI, THERE WOULD BE NO EUCHARISTIC CELEBRATION know our place. We are there to “hear” Father “say” Mass. Benedict’s return to the Latin Tridentine Mass makes perfect sense in this scenario. The priest will say the magic words in an arcane dead language and we, the community will once again say our individual prayers and be grateful that the priest is bringing Jesus to us. What powerful teaching.


As a Catholic who is privileged to celebrate Eucharist with various Christian communities I am scandalised at the exclusion of my sisters and brothers from participation at Catholic Eucharist, not because they do not believe in the real presence, but because of a medieval philosophical theory called transubstantiation. What powerful teaching.


Liturgy is a powerful teacher. I wish the teaching was more positive.

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