no.

Okay, maybe a little more needs to be said…

For one, we have to understand that major geo-political shifts occur for complex reasons. The problems felt in the 6th to 11th century Europe were the result of the world’s largest empire collapsing and taking with in the infrastructure on which many nations were built. Without safety, investments in roads, and a surplus of food, it doesn’t take long for an entire civilization to crumble.

Second, we also have to question what we even mean by the “Dark Ages.” What was felt in Italy, France, and Germany was not felt in the Byzantine Empire or Ireland. In fact, in both of those places, culture thrived, and much of what remains from the ancient world comes through these nations (each of which were Christian.)

And finally, and maybe most to the point, we need to look at the positive effect that Christianity had on the world throughout history. While the overall output of societal growth may have been much lower in the year 950 than in 150, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any advancements or that the Church was getting in the way. The reality of it all is that the Church was the only major force keeping the Western world from complete collapse, and had it not been for its insistence on art, culture, and studies, the scientific revolution may never have happened.

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There is an important principle that I’ve learned as a friar: when the food is on the table before a meal, make the prayer quick. It’s dangerous to keep people waiting for too long.

It’s for this reason that I think many people struggle with the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass: it is really long. Like, so long, that people find it difficult to follow and don’t even know that it has numerous parts. Seemingly the same each week, the words of the priest seem to all run together in a never-ending monologue, and even the most faithful of Catholics find it difficult to pay attention throughout the whole prayer.

Which is a shame, really, because the prayer is beautiful. Also, it’s the central prayer of our Church, so we should probably want to take part in it.

So, how do we engage with it better and allow the beauty of the prayer to come alive? By learning what it actually says. Although the specific words of each option are different (there are 13 Eucharistic Prayers and 85 prefaces), each Mass followed the same structure. Below, I will leave you with the structure of the Eucharistic prayer, as outlined by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

79. The chief elements making up the Eucharistic Prayer may be distinguished in this way:

  • a Thanksgiving (expressed especially in the Preface): In which the priest, in the name of the entire holy people, glorifies God the Father and gives thanks for the whole work of salvation or for some special aspect of it that corresponds to the day, festivity, or season.
  • b Acclamation: In which the whole congregation, joining with the heavenly powers, sings the Sanctus. This acclamation, which is part of the Eucharistic Prayer itself, is sung or said by all the people with the priest.
  • c Epiclesis: In which, by means of particular invocations, the Church implores the power of the Holy Spirit that the gifts offered by human hands be consecrated, that is, become Christ’s Body and Blood, and that the spotless Victim to be received in Communion be for the salvation of those
    who will partake of it.
  • d Institution narrative and consecration: In which, by means of words and
    actions of Christ, the Sacrifice is carried out which Christ himself instituted at the Last Supper, when he offered his Body and Blood under the species of bread and wine, gave them to his Apostles to eat and drink, and left them the command to perpetuate this same mystery.
  • e Anamnesis: In which the Church, fulfilling the command that she received from Christ the Lord through the Apostles, keeps the memorial of Christ, recalling especially his blessed Passion, glorious Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven.
  • f Offering: By which, in this very memorial, the Church!and in particular the Church here and now gathered!offers in the Holy Spirit the spotless Victim to the Father. The Church’s intention, however, is that the faithful not only offer this spotless Victim but also learn to offer themselves,[71] and so day by day to be consummated, through Christ the Mediator, into unity with God and with each other, so that at last God may be all in all.
  • g Intercessions: By which expression is given to the fact that the Eucharist is celebrated in communion with the entire Church, of heaven as well as of earth, and that the offering is made for her and for all her members, living and dead, who have been called to participate in the redemption and the salvation purchased by Christ’s Body and Blood.
  • h Final doxology: By which the glorification of God is expressed and which is confirmed and concluded by the people’s acclamation, Amen.

Like it or not, Lent is upon us. The time of renewal is here. It is time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

For many of us, that will mean no more chocolate, a hiatus from social media, or a break from alcohol. If that’s what you’re doing… who am I to judge? We all have our reasons for the things we do, and I hope that whatever you do ends up being fruitful for you.

That being said… I’m generally not a fan of any of these fasts in normal situations. It’s not that they aren’t difficult or won’t teach us discipline. If taken seriously, any sacrifice will do that, and if your goal is to build more spiritual discipline, then that’s great. But I’m not sure if that is always the goal people have in mind. More times than not, even when undertaking a difficult task, I find these sorts of fasts to be rather shallow and ephemeral. People’s lives are rarely changed by giving up chocolate for forty days.

For me, that’s a problem.

Too often, I think we fail to take Lent seriously enough. Too often, I think we fail to see the larger story it is a part of. Too often, I think we fail to let our efforts live beyond these forty days.

Lent is not an end in itself, but a preparation that points us to a greater reality: Easter and our own resurrection. The purpose of this time is not to endure suffering or punishment for our sins, it is to make us better disciples of Christ through serious acts of conversion. While we should hardly expect to be perfect disciples come Easter, we should expect to be better Christians than we were before. Because otherwise, what are we doing?

I have said it many times before and I want to reiterate it now: do not give up anything for Lent, but find something that gets in the way of your life as a disciple of Christ, and leave it behind for good. When looking for a Lenten practice, choose something that will actually have an impact on your life, something that will have a lasting effect, and use Lent as an opportunity to take the first step.

If you’ve ever been to confession, you know that it is a “safe space.” When you bear your soul, confessing sins committed, the priest is forbidden to tell anyone what you’ve said. This is the “inviolable” seal of confession.

What most people don’t know, however, is that this seal extends far beyond words and is completely free of exceptions. A priest may not act upon anything he hears in the confession, neither telling anyone else or changing the way he would normally act, no matter what is confessed. While a mandatory reporting for things like suicide in abuse in every other case, if such things are revealed within the confessional, he risks excommunication if shared with authorities.

Recently, this is come under great scrutiny by civil authorities, and some states have even made it illegal, forcing priests to break the seal under certain circumstances or risk being imprisoned. At the moment, California is considering this exact legislation.

And in one way, it makes sense, right? Why would we want to protect a potential murderer, child molester, or someone at risk of suicide? We should want to do everything we can to turn this person in, either to get them help or to punish them for their actions.

And yet, I have to argue that something quite essential would be lost within the sacrament if the inviolable seal were removed: with anonymity comes the freedom to return to God with one’s whole heart and take the first step towards retribution for one’s sins. Without the fear of civil punishment, the Church is able to engage with people who would have otherwise carried their sins alone until their death, never taking a step forward and never finding the peace necessary to make things right. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, a firmly believe that the seal of the confession actually makes it more likely that people who have committed horrible sins will seek the help they need and reconciliation will be achieved by all involved.

As the Church continues to move forward with scandal, showing that it has been irresponsible to keep the safety of the public in mind, this case is going to be more and more difficult to make, but it is one that I think we must continue to hold. There is truly nothing like the opportunity that the sacrament allows, to step outside of our time and space, and to speak directly to God.

After being “sent out” with the homily, creed, and universal prayer, bringing the Liturgy of the Word to a close, the Mass begins again (in a sense) with the Liturgy of the Word. And just as the congregation was gathered in and prepared, given a gift, and sent out to share that gift in the Liturgy of the Word, so, too, will it be with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In many ways the most practical part of the Mass—the altar needs to be set in order for the sacrifice to take place—many forget that every action in the mass is filled with symbolic meaning that help the congregation enter more deeply into the mystery. Sure, the practical reality is that we need to get the gifts from point A to point B, but do we ever stop to wonder why? Do we stop to ask how it should be done? Too often, I see parishes diminish the preparation of the gifts to a merely practical act and the richness of the gesture is lost. Here are a few “pet peeves” that I notice.

The collection is not brought to the altar, or if it is, it is brought up afterwards and not acknowledged by the priest. While, yes, the overall point of the collection is to raise money for the church and its needs, there is also a sense that it is a symbolic act of participation on behalf of the whole congregation. We are quite literally giving from ourselves what is necessary for the sacrifice before us and life of the church. It is not simply a practical necessity that we throw into the liturgy at this time because the people have nothing to do; it is integrally connected to the preparation of the altar and offering sacrifice. In this act, the congregation offers its own sacrifices in the form of donations, symbolic of our spiritual sacrifices. For this reason, it is very important that the collection be brought to the altar and received by the priest along with the bread and wine.

The gifts are all stacked on the altar by the altar servers so that they can go do other things. Just as it is the priest who receives the gifts from the congregation, it is the role of the priest to pray over them and place them on the altar. Placing them on the holy altar is a serious act of bringing the preparation to a conclusion, a concrete act of beginning the sacrifice. To simply stack the bread off to the side or place the wine down indiscriminately without any prayer or intention diminishes this act. There should be intentionality to this act, which means that only that which is being offered as sacrifice should be placed on the altar, and only when it is ready to be offered should it be placed down (and not moved or fiddled with until the actual institution narrative.)

The gifts are “offered” to God during the preparation. Often you will see at this time the priest holding the bread and wine above his head while raising his eyes. While no words are spoken, the gesture seems to indicate that he is raising the gifts to heaven, “offering” them to God. While seemingly intuitive, this is actually not the point of this part of the mass; the priest does not “offer” the gifts to God at this moment (this will come later with the anamnesis.) His purpose is to begin the fourfold act of Jesus: Take, Bless, Break, and Give. At this point, he is merely completing the act of taking, and blessing what has been received, offering a brief word of thanksgiving to God. For this reason, the Roman Missal is clear that when saying a prayer over the gifts, he “holds it slightly raised above the altar with both hands.”

Washing one’s fingertips alone. This final one may not make a lot of sense to the congregation as it is almost never seen, but it is still a weird pet peeve. After the gifts have been placed on the altar, the priest turns to the side and washes his hands. Starting in ancient times as a literal act of washing hands (because he has just received assorted gifts from the people that are no doubt dirty), today, we recognize this as a symbolic act of purification before offering the sacrifice: the priest asks to be worthy of what he is about to do. Some priests, however, taking the washing too literally, pour water simply on their fingertips, as, I guess, they believe that this is the only part of them that will actually touch the bread and chalice. This greatly diminishes the power of the sign and runs the risk of perpetuating a very narrow theology of cleanliness as we approach the body and blood of Christ. Is the host such that we should be afraid to touch it outside of our fingertips? Are we only to cleanse that which will touch it and not our whole selves? Wash your whole hands. And use lots of water.

In any event, I’m sure this post of pet peeves could go on for a long time and I could make an entire series out of it, but in the interest of time and charity, I will stop here. My point, I hope you understand, is not to go on a rant or to criticize churches that do any of these things, but to show that even the most practical acts can have tremendous symbolic importance, and if we are not careful to understand why we are doing what we do, the entire Mass may sink into one giant practical act. When people claim that they are bored at Mass or that their liturgy is unengaging, this is generally why: shortcuts are made for practical reasons, keeping only what it necessary and losing what is beautiful. Brevity is wonderful, but when something is meaningless, no matter how short, it will always be more of a chore than something that is lengthy but full of beauty and significance.