Going to church… can be a bit boring. Look out into the congregations of many churches and you will not find hoards of smiling faces, upbeat and excited about what they are doing. No, quite unfortunately, you will find many dour faces and low energy. The problem is so common, in fact, that Pope Francis even addressed it in one of his apostolic exhortations, bemoaning the loads of “sourpusses” he sees coming up for communion.

What a tragedy!

For me, there is nothing more life-giving in all the world than the community gathered for this sacrificial meal. It is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians, the inspiration and strength we need to go out into the world. Catholics do not attend mass simply to get into heaven, as if it were something to be endured before we received our reward; no, we attend mass because it is a small taste of heaven itself. For those who know what is happening at the mass, it is the highlight of their week.

And I think that’s the key: “for those who know what is happening.” When you know what is happening, when you can follow the internal logic of the rite and can enter fully into the mystery before us, the experience is anything but boring. While the execution of the rite (stylistic choices, skill, personality, ability to follow rubrics) can obviously have an effect on the congregation’s experience (there are such things as bad presiders and choirs…) the Mass itself will always give life to those who understand.

And since I cannot fix every presider and choir or force every parish to be filled with joy and energy… the only thing I can do is shed some light on the rite itself, hopefully instilling in others the same love for the Mass that I have. With this series, my goal is to break the whole liturgy down to its individual parts, explain what each mean, and put them back together to reveal a coherent, artfully crafted act of worship that gives glory to God.

There are many ways that this can be accomplished. Some would explain the Mass in two parts, separating the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist; others would build the series around the three processions found in the mass; others still might focus entirely on the complexity of the Eucharistic prayer, breaking that down into four parts, with the Liturgy of the Word and Concluding Rites as bookends. All of these would make for fine explanations of what is going on in the rite, but they are not what I have chosen.

This series will be divided into six parts, a double series of three, following the same structural arc: Called in and prepared, Given a gift, and Sent out. 

Beginning first with the Liturgy of the Word, the first arc will begin with the gathering, call to worship, penitential rite, gloria, and collect. Through this series of actions, the congregation will be called in from their disparate lives and prepared to enter the worship. This will give way to the reading of Scripture and the recitation of a psalm, reaching its pinnacle in the reading of the Gospel. In this way, the congregation will be given the gift of Christ’s true presence in the Word. Bringing the first arc to a close, the homilist will make sense of what has been given, offering practical applications for lessons, and the congregation will respond with the prayers of creed and prayers of the faithful. All three components focus the attention of the congregation to the outside world where they are sent out to live what they’ve heard.

The structural arc will begin again with the preparation of the gifts, in which the congregation literally prepares for what is coming next: they not only prepare the altar for the physical sacrifice, but prepare their hearts for a spiritual one. The Mass then reaches its high point in the Eucharistic Prayer and reception of communion, in which the congregation is given the gift of Christ’s very presence in sacramental form. Having received this gift, the congregation has not just eaten a meal, but has become what it received: they constitute the body of Christ themselves. In this way, then, they are sent out to live as such in the world, announcing the Good News with their lives.

Called in and prepared, Given a gift, and Sent out.

Obviously, the Mass is a complex act of worship filled with more rubrics, history, and symbolic significance than can fit into a six-part series of 10 minutes videos. In preparing for this series, I read multiple Vatican documents, three different commentaries on the mass, consulted liturgists, and built upon my four years of theological study. Regrettably, there was a lot that I had to leave out, and decisions had to be made as to what to keep in. This series will not be the end-all-be-all of mass commentaries, nor will it be without its own flaws and personal biases. Since I had to choose what to include and what to leave out, this series, like any project, will ultimately be incomplete.

And I’m completely fine with that. My goal in sharing this work is not to provide the most complete, objective recitation of facts possible. No, my goal is to share the love that I have for the liturgy so that others may have faith. I do my absolute best to stick to the facts, never outright sharing my opinion on any topic, but there’s no question that my own experience and theology is behind the whole creative process. This series is about telling a story, not about reciting the official rubrics one by one. My hope is that, in sharing my passion for this great communal worship and offering the foundation for its logic, that others will be inspired enough to study the documents themselves and come to their own conclusions of what each part means, why they’re important, and how to share that experience with others.

If that sounds like something you’re interested in, or maybe something that would benefit someone else, I encourage you to join me each Friday for a new installment.

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Among the many ridiculous things that critics of the Catholic Church say about us, none is more bizarre than the attack that we are “cannibals.” Taking our doctrine of the real presence a bit too literally (and forgetting that they, mostly fundamentalist Christians, also have communion services in which they read Jesus’ words “this is my body”) they talk about us as if we were offering a live human sacrifice on the altar and sharing it among the congregation.

But unlike some of the other doctrines for which we are criticized in a ridiculous way (venerating Mary, baptizing babies, having a pope, etc.) I have the sense that most Catholics don’t know how to defend themselves on this issues. In fact, I suspect that many Catholics actually make the situation worse, misunderstanding our doctrine and perpetuating misunderstandings in their attackers.

We believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist… but we do not believe that it is actual flesh and blood. In this case, “real” takes on a very different significance than we are used to.

That’s the topic of these week’s Catholicism in Focus, the first of the season. Theologically, what are we actually saying when we say that Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity.

Now, as a caveat not in the video (a reason why you should read the blog as well and not just watch the video!) there have been what are called “Eucharistic miracles” on various occasions in which the host has appeared to bleed. I have intentionally left these instances out of the video, not because I do not believe in them or because they challenge the point I’m saying, but simply because they are the exception. Regardless of whether or not you believe in such miracles, they are miracles precisely because they act against the normal way of things—the normal Eucharist that we celebrate does not bleed real blood because that is not what we believe is happening. If God so chooses to make it bleed so that some may have faith, as it appears may have happened a handful of times in history, then God is capable of such miracles, but they serve as the exception to the rule, not the norm.

Anyway, that might make more sense after watching the video, so you should do that first. Also, you should come back every Monday this semester for new episodes!

To the outside observer, there is something mysterious about the Catholic mass. What with the funny costumes, various gestures, silent prayer, and even the Latin language, it would be easy to misconstrue what is going on with some magical incantation.

For just this, reason people have associated the origin of the phrase “Hocus Pocus” with the Catholic mass for centuries. While the actual origins of the phrase are unknown, all the way back in 1694 an Anglican priest suggested that it derived itself from the Latin phrase Hoc est enim corpus meum (this is my body) said during the Mass in Latin, a way for Protestants to make fun of Catholics. More recent speculators have even connected the “hokey pokey” dance to the same origin. And even though scholars have mostly debunked the former and completely debunked the latter, the fact that such ideas prevailed for centuries shows that there is at least an intuitive connection between the two. You can definitely see it being true, even if it isn’t.

Which presents an obvious question for us as Catholics: if what we are doing is not magic—and it most certainly is NOT—what is the difference between the sacraments and magic? An investigation of the two reveals differences in overall worldview, role of the minister, purpose of the ritual, and overall effect.

In the 19th century, of the (many) reasons that Catholics faced discrimination from their Protestant counterparts was over the issue of sex. While many Protestants had been swept up in the Victorian-era repression of sex, believing that sex was merely a means to an end and should be avoided except for the procreation of children, that all sexual desire should be suppressed, Catholics took a slightly different approach. Not only did we emphasize the importance of pleasure in sex, we freely talked about it, with Church leaders routinely commenting on sex in homilies or letters to the faithful. For those who thought that what happened in the bedroom was private and was no one’s business in the Church (even God’s?), the Catholic Church was a strange and promiscuous institution that one should be wary of.

Funny how the more things change the more things stay the same. Today, we’re still looked upon as strange by the outside world, but instead of being promiscuous and free we’re now seen as repressed and stuck up. And while our teachings have stayed the same all of these years, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that few people actually understand what’s at the root of these teachings. Why do we say what we do? What is at stake in terms of our definition of the human person? How does sexual activity require responsibility, morality, and (dare I say) even some virtue? Even for married couples, even for those in the privacy of their own bedrooms, the Church stands firm in believing that everything we do should reflect our faith. Marriage does not give someone the free pass to do anything they want just as a driver’s license doesn’t give someone free rein of the highway.

Obviously, there are many ways to exercise this and some may faithfully approach sex without coming to the same conclusions that we do. In fact, even within the Catholic Church, among the faithful and clergy alike, there is great debate surrounding our sexual teaching. To say that simply because someone disagrees with the official magisterium of the Church means that they are not taking this sacred act seriously would be a serious overgeneralization. There are many faithful ways to view the same issue.

What I present to you this week, then, is not meant to be dogmatic teaching inherent to the very nature of being a Christian. What I present is an attempt to understand the logic behind the Church’s teaching. Not everyone will accept this, I accept, but that is not my hope in taking on this topic. In a world so divided on such a controversial issue, my only hope is that people may come to a greater knowledge of why our teachings are the way they are so to engage them more critically in prayer and conversation. We’ve gotten a bad rap on this issue for centuries, and while some of it is certainly deserved, I think the vast majority of it springs from misunderstanding.

Heaven is one of the most imaginative topics of our Christian faith. Because we have very few actual descriptions of it in scripture, and because no one has come back to tell us exactly what it’s like, much of our what we hold to be true about the afterlife comes form art and entertainment. In some ways, this can be a great thing, giving us vivid depictions for what we cannot rationalize ourselves; in other ways, though, this can be a negative thing, filling our minds with very un-theological beliefs about a very theological topic.

This week, I address one such un-theological belief that encountered in my conversation with a stranger and offer what I hope to be a better way of approaching life.