Building Strong Liturgical Foundations

May 27, 2008


Elevation of the HostMost of us involved in the liturgical world know that within the next couple of years, we will be introducing to our parish assemblies the new Ordo of Mass, and in Canada, where I’m from, the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal. What are the foundations that this introduction will need to rest on?

Assessing where we’re at...

Some of us are old enough to remember the introduction of the vernacular liturgy after Vatican II. One Sunday we showed up at church, and Mass was celebrated with the priest facing the people. Then some of the Mass was in English, and we were supposed to participate. Some of us blush at the music that marked those early attempts at vernacular liturgy and implementing the conciliar reform.

But if there is any refrain that could characterize, fairly generally, the parish experience of those days, it is, “No explanation was given.” This should not startle us. After all, Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) was the first document promulgated by Vatican II. All the other developments—in catechetics, in ecclesiology, for instance, were still gestating here in North America. Places that had been in touch with the liturgical, biblical and catechetical movements in Europe had a better chance of being on board than many other places. My own formation, long before I had formally studied any liturgy or catechetics, was profoundly influenced by my first organ teacher, Florence Lovering, who had been deeply involved in the Liturgical Weeks in the United States. She took great pains to hand on to me, a young teenager, what she had received there, imbuing me with a sense of the people of God long before I would hear of such a reality in any other context—certainly long before I heard of it in a homily or a parish gathering.

To a large extent the post-conciliar reform of the liturgy relied for its reception on the mentality of the time, which was prepared to accept what Church leaders said with little questioning. Only later in the process would some pastors, in some parishes and some dioceses, catch up with the catechesis that was foundational to the church’s liturgical life. The advantage that they enjoyed was that the generations that received the reforms of the liturgy immediately after Vatican II already had a strong foundation in Catholic culture. Those who lament the Baltimore Catechism and the style of formation it provided would do well to remember that, despite its limitations, it had given the generations receiving the conciliar reform a Catholic vocabulary. The more homogeneous world of the day supported this sense of common culture. Teachers and workshop leaders in the 1970s and 1980s could easily point to a common experience: “before Vatican II” and “after Vatican II.”

Now, however, the world is quite different. The homogeneous culture of the 1950s and 1960s has given way to the post-modern world of 2008. Those of us who were teens at the time are now aging boomers. Many of our parents are still alive. We and our older siblings, if we have had children, now may also have grandchildren. Those who were starting families in the late 60s and early 70s may even have great grandchildren—and with each successive generation, the homogeneity that once marked the Catholic world has decreased.

More significantly, after we had expended tremendous energy in getting our liturgical ducks in order, we relied on transmitting the liturgical reforms in much the same way as we had relied on transmitting knowledge of the old liturgy: transmission by immersion. However, while the bath is still there, the percentage of people there to be immersed in it (15-25%, depending on the region), has greatly diminished. Furthermore, the other cultural helpers — home and the ambient culture itself — that we had relied on to transmit the faith have now changed so drastically that they can no longer support the transmission of faith reliably.

Theological Foundations to Support Liturgical Renewal

What foundations, therefore, need to be put into place to support this “house” we call liturgical renewal? I’m not talking about “how-to” pieces, but rather, about the theological foundations that need to be in place so we can build on a strong foundation. I suggest the following elements.

1. We need to remember that "the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ". … (Catechesi tradendae: On Catechesis in Our Time, 5; General Catechetical Directory, 80 [the GDC may be found in Catechetical Documents: A Parish Resource]). We need to expect that in the liturgy God encounters humanity, and humanity encounters God. Our goal must not simply be to impart information, but to provide formation, the unique configuration of experience, knowledge, and apprenticeship that will enable people to know the living God.

2. This foundation needs to consist of three “feet”: theology, spirituality, and what Benedict XVI calls the ars celebrandi.

Foundation 1-Theology

Trinity, sacrifice, sin, redemption, revelation, covenant, baptism (initiation), Holy Spirit, church, Christ; eucharist, sacraments, creation, transformation of the world, one table of the word and eucharist.

This seems like a huge number of elements to address – and it is. But these are the foundational elements for understanding any kind of authentic liturgical theology.

Foundation 2 – Spirituality

Trinitarian life and prayer; baptismal priesthood; our sharing in the sacrifice; church as body of Christ; Christ present in the assembly, word, sacrament, priest; eucharist and mission; how the seasons of the liturgical year form us in the paschal mystery; participation.

In other words, we need to let the theology move from being a “head” experience to one that forms our prayer and living. Those engaging in this process of formation need to believe that these “heavy” theological topics can be relevant to our lives. What Dominican Paul Philibert has done for the priesthood of the baptized in his book, The The Priesthood Of The Faithful: Key To A Living Church, and Mark Searle (posthumously, thanks to Barbara Searle and Anne Koester) did for participation in Called To Participate: Theological, Ritual, And Social Perspectives, others need to do for the rest of these theological elements.

Recently I have been working with Pope Benedict’s apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, as a means to introduce a small group of parishioners to the theology and spirituality of some of these elements; really, it has been a process of mystagogy. I’ve experienced with them the “ah-ha” moments when they suddenly realize, for example, that there is a reason why all those communion hymns talk about “One, bread, one body, one Lord, one cup, one faith, one people” or that because of baptism they already live in the Trinity through their membership in Christ’s body. One man said, “I came back from receiving communion this past Sunday, and did something I have never done before. I picked up the hymnal and started to sing.” Another woman said, “I’ve always thought this was about Jesus and me. Never did I imagine that communion involved all of us in the body of Christ.” These are faithful Catholics, deeply involved for years in the life of their local parishes, generous and intelligent people. They simply have never heard this theology, despite years of involvement and Sunday participation and scores of homilies.

Foundation 3: Ars Celebrandi

Proper celebration of the rite, respect for liturgical books, richness of signs, beauty in all things.

This is sometimes the focus of so much of our liturgical formation—and that is good. But without roots in the theology (and the God) that it reflects, it can quickly become empty. All formation for various parish ministries must include elements of theology and spirituality. We do “how-to” sessions at our peril.

The situation in which we currently find ourselves is the result of a lack of systematic liturgical catechesis in our parishes and communities for the last 30 years. It won’t be undone overnight. But with careful attention to what we do in the future—with people of all ages and ministries, and with systematic planning and careful attention to focus on elements crucial to liturgical catechesis, we will begin to repair the foundation for liturgical renewal that so often is so shaky.

Bernadette Gasslein, editor of Canada’s award-winning pastoral magazine, Celebrate!, holds an S.T. L. in Theology with specialization in Pastoral Catechetics from Institut Catholique de Paris.

Photo by Paul Covino

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