- By Fr. Peter
- 26 July, 2012
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Sacrosanctum concilium (SC)¸ was the first document put forward by the Second Vatican Council. This week, I continue to offer some reflections on paragraphs 5-13, which alay out the doctrine concerning the liturgy. They form the first part of a longer first chapter, spanning from paragraphs 5-46, which lays down the fundamental principles to be observed in promoting liturgical education and renewing the liturgy. Chapter II runs from paragraphs 47-58 and focusing on the Eucharistic liturgy. This chapter also contains the Council’s first decrees. Chapter III covers all other sacraments and sacramentals and runs from paragraphs 59-82. The Divine Office is covered in Chapter IV, paragraphs 83-101. Finally, Chapters V, VI, and VII cover the Liturgical Year, Sacred Music and Sacred Art.
We should note from this cursory overview that what is understood by the ‘liturgy’ is something far more expansive than Mass, which is where most of us have experienced the effects of the Council’s reforms.
What do we understand by the liturgy? Before we ask the Council what the Church understands by it, we might profit by reflecting a bit on what we think is meant by ‘liturgy’. I would guess that most of us would begin by defining it as something that we ‘do’ as a Church. We come together every Sunday and at other special times to worship God by carrying out prescribed rites. This is just a suggestion of mine, but I’m sure that each of us has a personal, somewhat unreflective understanding of what the liturgy is.
In SC 7, we get a definition: “The liturgy, then, is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ….[E]very liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others.”
Thus liturgy begins with Christ. At root, it is not something that we do, but something that Christ has already done, into which we are ‘grafted’ (SC 6). We are all ‘participants’ in Christ’s priestly offering. This will be important for understanding the controverted phrase ‘full and active participation’. Christ is the primary actor at the liturgy, and we act only by virtue of our incorporation into His Body, which is the Church. We ensure our fullest participation by conforming ourselves to the fullest possible expression of the Church’s entire movement of worship. On the contrary, we weaken our actual participation (ironically) to the extent that we innovate in a desire to make the liturgy more ‘meaningful’ in the short run.
In SC 7, the Council Fathers go out of their way to indicate Christ’s presence and action. They enumerate five distinct ways in which Christ is present: 1) in the person of the minister, 2) in the Eucharistic species itself, 3) in the power of the sacraments, 4) in the proclaimed Word of God, and 5) in the midst of the gathered faithful. Each of these aspects deserves careful reflection. We are most accustomed as Catholics to seeing Christ present in the Body and Blood of the Blessed Sacrament. Since the Council, there has been something of an attempt by some Catholics to privilege Christ’s presence either in the ordained minister or in the gathered faithful, but this is a false dichotomy. According to Vatican II, we must embrace both. Finally, how often do we listen to the readings and the homily and listen for Christ speaking? The Council would have us use our ‘spiritual senses’ to look past the humble presence of the reader or preacher and understand that Christ is speaking to us, heart to heart.
This reality is another example of the sacramental principle of Catholicism, that ‘signs perceptible by the senses’ (in this case the reader or ordained minister), are meant to lead us to the hidden reality behind these signs. This is the way of Christ’s priestly ministry bringing us by faith into union with God. This accomplishes our sanctification and God’s glorification (see SC 7.2). The two are not separable. The glory of God is the human person fully alive, as St. Irenaeus put it in the second century. When we cooperate with the grace of God flowing from the sacraments in the liturgy, we are imbued with divine life, a principle of life infinitely greater and more fulfilling than any life that we could somehow generate for ourselves.
This priestly action of Christ establishes and renews the covenant between God and humanity. The liturgy opens the way to the communication of the divine and the human, and as such always represents a two-way motion that is meant to bring about the salvation of all (and therefore the union of all). This, as mentioned in the previous post, is one of the overarching goals envisioned by Blessed John XXIII.
Let’s reflect on how this works. SC 5 states that God sent his Son, the Word made flesh, into the world to effect this great reconciliation. This He did in a surprising way, by consenting to death in a perfect act of faith and confidence in the Father. In a recapitulation of the creation of Eve from Adam’s side, God fashioned the Church, the Bride of Christ, from the opened side of Christ asleep upon the Cross. The water that flowed from Christ’s side is the font in which the faithful are baptized and become ‘flesh of flesh’ with Christ. “By baptism men are grafted into the Paschal Mystery of Christ. They die with Him, are buried with Him, and rise with Him [SC 6].”
From this point, God now sends the Church to work with Christ in bringing the message of salvation to all. However, this message is not a mere ‘idea’, but must be ultimately actualized precisely by bringing all into the liturgy. Thus, the Apostles went forth to preach the Good News, but when it had been heard, it called for the response of faith. This means is to consent to baptism and to partake in the great sacrament of unity, the Eucharist. There is no merely ‘mental’ or ‘emotive’ salvation. There is no assent to the Gospel without a corresponding return to the Father, following in the train of Christ’s Ascension.
Thus, there is no apostolate that does not ultimately lead back to the liturgy. From the renewed sacrifice of Christ, we then are once more sent forth. This is what is meant by the liturgy being the ‘source and summit’ of the Church’s life. The Church is born in the liturgy and from this source is sent forth to bring about the reconciliation of all creation through the priestly ministry of Christ. For this priestly ministry to achieve its fullest expression, all things must be brought back to the Father through the liturgy, which is the ‘summit’ or ‘culmination’ of all the Church’s activity.
Let me illustrate this important reality with a key quote from SC. “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows. For the goal of apostolic endeavor is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the Sacrifice and to eat the Lord’s Supper.”
This formulation makes clear the intrinsic relationship between the contemplative life and the active life, as understood by current Canon Law. There are many in recent decades who believe that the contemplative life is outmoded, a relic from more magically-inclined ages that felt the need for ‘powerhouses of prayer’. Today’s complicated world, it is thought, needs persons of action to bring the Good News to the poor, and the liturgy should be truncated to support this important work.
To this formulation, I would respond: the Church indeed is impelled to preach the Good News to all, and especially to those most excluded from the usual notion of human flourishing. But what Good News do we have to preach, other than the event—the Paschal Mystery—to which we are witness and in which we participate at the liturgy? To what consolation do we invite the poor, the blind and the lame if we do not possess the fullness of life offered by Christ in the liturgy? And how can we maintain a profound belief in this fullness without the full witness of the Church’s liturgical tradition, which should be especially safeguarded by contemplative communities and the bishops? There should be a deep symbiosis between the different members of the Body, those whose special charge it is to maintain the bond of love in the action ‘surpassing all others’—the liturgy—and those whose mission it is to invite others to this bond of love by word and exemplary acts of piety and charity.
One final note on this introductory material, which as I have written above, is worth taking the time to reflect upon carefully: the efficacy of the liturgy is guaranteed by Christ’s presence. However, the Church, as a pilgrim body, not yet fully purified nor fully enlightened as to the mystery of Christ, will experience the transforming effects of the liturgy to the extent that Her members work at two specific types of conversion. The first is that of repentance: “We must always carry around in our bodies the dying [mortificatio: ‘mortification’] of Jesus, so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in us [SC 12].” The traditional practices of mortification (fasting, personal prayer, chastity, almsgiving, etc.; see also SC 9.2) contribute to our conformity to Christ in the liturgy. The second is that of education: “Pastors of souls must, therefore, realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the laws governing valid and lawful celebration. It is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it [SC 11].” That is to say, beginning with pastors, all the faithful must learn to reflect on what the liturgy is and means by careful study and catechesis.
These two types of conversion, the ‘ascetical’ and the ‘intellectual’ correspond nicely with the two levels of conversion found in the ancient monastic tradition of the active and contemplative life as part of every Christian’s discipleship. In this more ancient understanding, the active life is that of mortification, of uprooting the vices and planting virtues. The contemplative life is that of the ‘renewal of our minds’, by the docile reception of God’s saving Word. This well-established program of conversion will make possible ‘full and active participation’ more certainly than will changes in liturgical forms. As I indicated above, ‘participation’ is not about finding things for everyone to do at the liturgy, but will naturally come about when all the faithful have, by self-denial and growth in true holiness, learned to worship God in Spirit and in Truth. When we become ‘true adorers such as the Father seeks [SC 6; John 4: 23],’ then we will see more clearly that it is Christ Who is all in all in the liturgy, that it is God Who is the source and summit of our lives. It will not be about our doing anything at all except the will of our loving Father.