It’s the week after Thanksgiving in 1979. I’ve been a priest for 6 months. I’m 26 years old. I’m the associate pastor in a parish with a grade school, where several nuns are teachers. Every Friday we have a mass for the students. On a late November morning, one of the nuns approaches me with this question: “May we celebrate an Advent mass with the school children this Friday?”
The First Sunday of Advent that year fell on December 2nd. From this catechist’s viewpoint, it would help the children if they could get into the season right away. Perhaps she knew that even in 1979 not many of these children would be at mass that Sunday. Perhaps she had been teaching them about Advent all week, and concluding the week with an Advent mass would help drive home the point to the children. I didn’t know. I couldn’t think in those terms. Not only was I a budding young liturgist, I was a very recent seminarian. I was probably more a former seminarian than I was a new priest.
I remember looking at this religious woman, who I’m sure was as good as gold, as though she had just stepped off the Starship Enterprise. I’d never even heard such an idea before, and here it was tainting the start of my day.
I was already thinking of complications beyond the simple, “It’s still Ordinary Time and we can’t do it.” You see, with December 2nd on a Sunday, that meant the Friday in question was November 30th, a feast day on the Roman liturgical calendar. In those occasional years when the First Sunday of Advent precedes November 30th (and there had been one of those as recently as 1977), we don’t celebrate Advent that day. We celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew. I needed to convince the catechist-nun that Andrew was more important than Advent this Friday. And I said the worst possible thing. It was true, what I said, but it communicated entirely the wrong motive. I said, “My middle name is Andrew.”
An opportunity for liturgical catechesis was lost because the catechist was thinking school calendar not liturgical calendar, and the priest was thinking personally and not ecclesially.
Liturgy is the privileged place of catechesis. It is also a privileged place for catechetical battles. Liturgists live by the motto lex orandi, lex credendi: the way we pray shapes the way we believe. In all honesty, though, things we believe can shape the way we pray. Catechists are a little savvier on this point. They often use the liturgy as another tool of catechesis: lex credendi, lex orandi.
This is not a bad thing. Consider, for example, how many things are missing from the Roman liturgical books. The sacramentary boasts a dazzling variety of prayers covering circumstances such as these: persecuted Christians, pastoral or spiritual meetings, those who serve in public office, congress, the progress of peoples, war or civil disturbance, productive land, famine, refugees and exiles, and those unjustly deprived of liberty. Thanks be to God, we do not need all these texts every year. But we have no texts in the missal for some annual catechetical circumstances: the opening of the school year; the start of preparation for first confession, confirmation, and first communion; joining a Newman Club; the taking of exams; the closing of a school year; or graduation exercises. The school year poses challenges for those who consider their primary faith community to be classmates – not their parish. How do they celebrate the meaning of Christmas during Advent before classes adjourn? How do they acknowledge the centrality of the Triduum when classes still convene? We have worked around the omissions: The Book of Blessings answers some of these needs. Some Catholic schools start the year with a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit. But when students begin their formation to receive a sacrament in the Church, many catechists naturally want to present them to the Sunday assembly. We have no formal prayers for this, so publishers create them and catechists use them. A purist might argue that we should not insert into the liturgy texts outside our formal books, any more than a Catholic wedding should include a unity candle or the conferral of medallions upon children conceived in previous liaisons and who are now forming the new household together with the bride and groom. It’s lex orandi, lex credendi, goes the puritanical argument: The liturgy informs the way we believe, not the other way around.
However, on occasion, the other way around is not a bad idea. When children are beginning their preparation for first communion, it is a beautiful thing to ask the entire community to pray for them, even though we don’t have such a prayer in our liturgical books. This catechetical impulse chastises the liturgist to remember that we enter the presence of God in many ways.
Liturgy and catechesis are meant to work together. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is the locus classicus for this intersection. The various rites follow measurable progress in catechesis, and they launch the catechumens into successive phases of formation in the Christian life. Still, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is a rite, not a catechetical manual. You will find guidance for catechesis, but not an outline for catechetical sessions. The same is true of the Rite of Marriage and the Rite of Baptism for Children. They presume that catechesis precedes ritual – and that it follows ritual. But the books are rites, not textbooks. For them to work, catechists have to work with liturgists.
My task is to examine this relationship from the point of view of the liturgist. To that end, I’d like to explain some ways that the liturgy catechizes. So, I’m not treating how pertinent catechesis might be given apart from the liturgy, but how it naturally happens within the liturgy. In part, this is obvious. Every text we say articulates some aspect of our faith. Collects and prefaces, for example, contain concise presentations of doctrine. But the liturgy catechizes in many ways. Some of them are intentional; some are not. I will explore four areas in which the liturgy – especially the eucharistic liturgy - catechizes: the building, the rubrics, the people and the texts. I will show how the ritual serves as a home for our teaching and a gateway to our service.
Before ever a word is said or an action is performed, the church building catechizes. Its walls separate the secular from the sacred. Its interior divides sanctuary and nave. The centrality of the altar draws attention to our communion and sacrifice. The raised ambo declares the magnitude of the word of God. These aspects of the building catechize about the sacred and the profane, the diversity of gifts, the primacy of the eucharist, and the significance of the bible in the lives of Catholics.
Three other aspects of the building have produced considerable discussion because of the diverse ways they may catechize. These are the overall shape, the location of the font, and the placement of the tabernacle. Whenever a local church decides on these factors, it makes a catechetical statement about our belief.
The overall shape of worship spaces has undergone a slow but deliberate evolution throughout history. Christians met first in house churches, which catechized about the presence of God in ordinary life. The intimate size of the space still permitted the distribution of ministries while affirming the relative equality and unity of the body.
In time, churches adopted an architectural form from the secular world: the basilica. By the second century BC two large buildings had been erected in the Roman forum for the purposes of conducting public business – legal proceedings, speeches, and meetings. They were built in a way that let large groups see and hear what those in charge were doing and saying. The walls and roof protected against inclement weather. The apse at one narrow end of the rectangle amplified sound originating there. A raised platform at that end allowed people to see. Windows pierced the upper side walls for lighting.
When Christians began building public spaces for worship in the fourth century, they built according to this form. They did not model their spaces after pagan temples or synagogues, perhaps to distance themselves from other believers. Instead, they modeled churches after basilicas. The basilica shaped the liturgy by creating the need for processions and accenting the difference between the sanctuary and the nave.
These aspects of the basilican design became more prominent in the Gothic era, when flying buttresses allowed walls to reach higher than ever, and during the Baroque period, when decoration turned commonplace buildings into panels of exceptional beauty. Increasing the height redistributed the interior areas of the building. Not only was there a horizontal distance between the faithful and the ministers in the nave and the sanctuary, but there was also a vertical distance between the assembly and the divine. The builders of the cathedral in Chartres, for example, not only raised the roof, but they also lowered the floor. The back of the nave abruptly slopes down to the front door. This helped the removal of wastewater from scrubbing and cleaning, but it also intensified the effect of entering the building. When you first step inside the door, the ceiling and the floor are higher than you are expecting. It makes you feel smaller than you thought you were. The cathedral catechizes you about your place in the universe.
Some modern art requires enormous space for display. The metal sculptures of Richard Serra, for example, need space equivalent to several rooms; his sculptures are so large that you cannot experience one all at once. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party fills an entire room specially built for its installation. It is tempting to think that modern artists have more hubris than those of the past. But seen from another angle, the Baroque decoration of counter-Reformation church buildings was nothing more than large-scale art. Statues, mosaics and stained glass hang within enormous wall-frames. Entire interior spaces were designed for harmony. The buildings catechized that the Church deserved the finest resources, the best artists, the most extravagant materials, and the most moneyed of donors. Arguments that the money could have gone to the poor are often countered with the truism that both poor and rich have access to the art of churches. Still, the buildings taught things about fiscal and artistic priorities, and the teachings remain controversial to this day.
The basilica shape served the Church until the reforms of the liturgy in the Second Vatican Council. Although no conciliar document specifically addressed the matter of the building’s shape, the revised principles of liturgy caused it to be rethought. After all, the council urged a return to the sources, the reclamation of prayer styles from the early days of the church, and a pruning away of excesses. Hence, the introductory rites of mass were simplified, many repetitions were eliminated, altars became freestanding, and more participation of the full assembly was encouraged, most notably in the use of vernacular languages. These changes challenged the traditional shape of church buildings and encouraged a return to some factors from the early house churches with their feel of intimacy and collegiality. The fan-shaped church allowed worshipers to see one another, and established a feel of gathering around one table. Where the distance from the last pew to the sanctuary is narrowed, the participation of worshipers was enhanced.
The Catholic Church now finds itself with a foot in two architectural worlds. Many of our older buildings fit the preconciliar liturgy with its emphasis on distance, while many newer buildings strive for proximity. Like good Americans, we want it all, and we get it all whenever we survey the variety of architectural styles within a diocese. The building catechizes.
So does the font. I worked briefly for a parish in our diocese that had one of those baptismal fonts on wheels. They kept it in the closet unless we needed it for a baptism; then we wheeled it out. When setting up for the Easter Vigil that year, I moved the font into the center aisle, but as decorators continued their work, they kept bumping into it. Finally, one of them said to me, “Father, this font just seems to be in the way. Do you want me to put it back in the closet for you?” The font catechizes. In this case, it was catechizing that baptism is not central to parish life, that it gets in the way of work, and that it belongs in the closet.
Fonts have gone through their own historical development. For several centuries after Christ people were baptized in running water or lakes. Then baptistries became buildings unto themselves. They catechized. They told people baptism was so significant that it deserved its own sacred space. But eventually baptistries were incorporated into the side chapels of churches, where a small group of people could gather around a font without disturbing worshipers. Those fonts taught that baptism was a family event, quite distinct from the eucharist.
This point was missed by the anonymous artist of a stained glass window on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. The medieval window depicts the patristic-era St. Eleutherius baptizing a group of pagans. Eleutherius certainly baptized in the more generous fonts or water sources of his day, but the hapless artist familiar only with the small fonts of his day could figure out no other way the saint could have fulfilled the ritual except by having the friendly catechumens baptized simultaneously in a single font. If Eleutherius did in fact baptize in this manner, it may account for the large number of converts for whom he is responsible.
Today, of course, many fonts are much larger to accommodate baptizing adults by immersion. The font’s location and size are teaching about the centrality of baptism in the community and the transformation it causes in the individual.
Tabernacle location also teaches a community. Prior to the 20th century, people were not receiving communion very often, but harbored a deep devotion to the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. The central location of the tabernacle gave it equal prominence with the altar. At the start of the 20th century, Pope Pius X successfully promoted the frequent reception of communion, and by the 1960s the Catholic Church called for altars to be freestanding. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal still states, “The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns” (299). After the council, many churches relocated the tabernacle off the central axis in order to throw greater emphasis on the altar. This practice was and remains difficult for some Catholics, who thought the parish was incomprehensibly denying the significance of the reserved Blessed Sacrament. No such denial was in the works, and there is no evidence that moving the tabernacle stems from or leads to a crisis of faith.
Still, in recent years many have advocated that the tabernacle still belongs on the central plane, notably Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy that “Communion only reaches its true depths when it is supported and surrounded by adoration” (p. 90). Wherever it is located, the tabernacle catechizes. It either humbly steps aside so that worshipers can fix their attention on the miracle taking place on the altar, or it announces the effect of that miracle, the enduring presence of Jesus Christ in our sacred space. Sometimes people make a bigger deal out of this than they should. You may have a preference; most people do. But it’s not like those who prefer a different location than you do are vandals. We all share fervent faith in Christ.
The building, then, catechizes in many ways. And some buildings catechize poorly. Without a doubt the Council promoted a liturgy that facilitated participation, that situated baptism at the heart of the Christian life, and that affirmed the sacramentality of religious actions. The Council implied that our buildings should change. Many of them have; many have not. The decision to change or replace a building is difficult. It will reveal beliefs and tensions that have lain covered in a parish community. But taking the big picture, we must ask this question of our church buildings: How well do they catechize? And if they catechize inadequately, how should they change? Some argue that we owe it to past generations not to change the building they created; but we owe it to future generations to sustain buildings that catechize our true faith. Liturgists need such buildings; catechists need such buildings.
The rubrics of the mass also catechize. Whether we bow, genuflect, kiss, process, swing incense, ring bells, impose hands, spread arms, shake hands, open the mouth, close the eyes or accidentally drop something, everything has meaning. To deal with the rubrics of mass is to get to the heart of Catholic liturgical piety: We do things in a certain way as an expression of our unity with one another today and with generations long past.
Recent changes to the communion rite demonstrate how rubrics catechize. After the Second Vatican Council, designated lay persons received permission to distribute communion at mass as extraordinary ministers. Ordained clergy remained the ordinary ministers of communion. As parishes took advantage of this permission, the work of these ministers evolved in a way that expressed their devotion to the eucharist, their call to serve, and the diversity of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The performance of the rubrics by extraordinary ministers of holy communion catechized the people in all these ways. However, the Vatican introduced a number of changes that challenged this approach. Certainly no one denies that we should be devoted to the eucharist, summoned to service, and share our gifts. But changes to the communion rite indicated that another catechesis was more important: not just the diversity of ministries, but their rank.
In recent memory, this scenario was common: communion ministers approached the altar to share the sign of peace with the presider. One of them fetched extra hosts from the tabernacle. The ministers assisted in the breaking of the bread and pouring cups. They received communion in the hand, but held it there until the priest and deacon received communion; they all received together, and in some cases did so after everyone else. At communion time they lifted their own vessels from the altar. After communion they returned leftover consecrated bread to the tabernacle and cleansed the vessels. These actions are now restricted. When the changes happened, many communion ministers felt personally offended. The changes came during the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal, when many lay people felt they should be taking more responsibility at the parish, not less.
As with the location of the tabernacle, the two views both fit within the beliefs of the Church, but they catechize differently. The preference for one over another may have to do with the needs of the times we live in, the nature of the local community, and the universal practice of the faith that is so hard to represent evenly across the many cultures and climes of Catholicity. The changing of the rubrics for the communion rite set off a variety of tangential catechetical questions: What is the relative force of rubrics? How does one appropriately manage them? Which is more important when facing legislation of questionable value: the humility of obedience or the certitude of reason? How much of liturgical practice should be uniform? What is the value of pastoral experience in determining universal practice? How can we effectively promote communion under both kinds? And how is the communion rite the appropriate setting for highlighting the hierarchy of the Church?
Because we are so steeped in rubrics, everything we do makes a difference. In the case of the communion rite, parishes have made adjustments to comply with the new rules in order to catechize about the universal nature of the mass. In many parishes the rite really does move more smoothly now; but in others it does not, and many practitioners of the liturgy would like to see more flexibility here: Call it the ordinary and extraordinary forms of distributing communion. The tolerance of former practices could go a long way to affirm the insight of pastoral leaders on the local level, to show more reverence for the eucharistic species and the vessels that hold them, to pace the mass more respectfully, and to honor the gifts of lay people who only want to serve Christ and the Church. These are leges credendi that could be more effectively expressed in the lex orandi.
People at the liturgy also catechize. I’ll give you two examples of this, both from the rites of initiation. In both cases, people catechize in spite of themselves.
The first concerns the age and occasion for confirmation. Arguments over the appropriate age for confirmation are legendary. Some argue that it is a sacrament of initiation; others that it is a rite of passage into maturity. The question, “What is the appropriate age for confirmation?” is best answered obliquely: “It depends on your definition of confirmation.” If you don’t define what it is, then the age you choose for it will do the defining for you.
Confirmation is one field where liturgists and catechists frequently spar. Many liturgists, steeped in the vapors of historical insight, acknowledge confirmation as a sacrament of initiation. Many catechists, by contrast, stereotypically prefer a later age for confirmation, so that it may serve as a celebration of insights gained. These see the sacrament as a confirmation of studies learned and commitment attained. Others see it as God’s confirmation of the grace of baptism.
Proponents of both views call confirmation a sacrament of initiation. The assignation is so common now that few people realize it is somewhat new. It is true that anointing with prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit has been part of initiation rites since the earliest Christian centuries, but it was only called initiation when it was celebrated on the occasion of baptism. Confirmation detached from baptism in most circumstances from the 5th century on, but in some cases it was still administered to the newly baptized. The word “initiation” was used consistently in our history as a way of identifying the baptismal rites. When confirmation was celebrated separately, nobody called it initiation. It was something else. Initiation was what took place with baptism. Period. The same can be said of first communion. It used to be administered with baptism. For over 1000 years in the West, newly baptized infants also received communion on the same occasion – in the Roman Rite. Only after the 13th century did communion follow baptism on a later occasion, and first communion ceremonies did not appear until the end of the 16th century. Still, nobody called them initiation rites. That’s what baptism was.
Only at the turn of the 20th century did theologians coin the term “initiation sacraments” in a way that embraced the deferred celebrations of confirmation and first communion. And no official Catholic Church document calls these two deferred celebrations “initiation rites” until the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. The result is that the meaning of the word “initiation” has dramatically changed. It used to pertain to the baptismal complex, however elaborately or simply it was celebrated, but now it refers to the three sacraments, whenever they are celebrated. That is why for the first time we are talking about initiating adolescents who were baptized many years ago, and why questions arise among teens whether or not they really are Catholic if they opt out of confirmation at this time.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that confirmation should not be considered a sacrament of maturity, but you know what they say about something that walks like a duck. As soon as you line adolescents up in front of a bishop for confirmation, the people in question are catechizing. The youth are teaching that confirmation concerns their step into adulthood. You can call it initiation if you like, but it sure looks like a sacrament of maturity. And if you insist that it is initiation, then you have changed the meaning of initiation. You say that there are stages of initiation, and that somehow baptism is incomplete in its ability to initiate.
Some propose a return to what is called the “restored order” or “original sequence” of the sacraments of initiation. This means celebrating confirmation at about the age of 7, followed by first communion, or even at the first communion ceremony. This helps minimize the confusion over what confirmation is, and it better unifies its catechesis in all its manifestations throughout a diocese. For example, you don’t have to explain why catechumens need not interrupt the Easter Vigil after their baptism to perform service hours before they may be confirmed.
However, even the ordering of these sacraments does not resolve all the difficulties. It wasn’t just the sequence of these sacraments that seemed important to the early Church; it was the occasion for them. They chose one single occasion for what came to be known as baptism, confirmation and first communion. That’s what made them initiation rites. Once they were celebrated as a unit, the persons were initiated. The neophytes catechized the community about the meaning of these sacraments.
Another terminological difficulty is the word “original” in the phrase “original sequence.” To be honest, the original sequence was baptism, and then later eucharist, and that was that. Look it up in Acts of the Apostles. Yes, there are instances in Acts 8 and 19 when the apostles lay hands on Christians baptized by others for the coming of the Holy Spirit, but both of these accounts address exceptional circumstances. There are numerous accounts of baptism without any handlaying throughout the rest of the book. And nowhere does the New Testament report the existence of a baptismal eucharist. No one received communion on the occasion of his or her baptism. But communion was shared among the baptized. So the original, original sequence required two occasions: baptism, and then eucharist.
Further, by the time the initiation rites developed in the 3rd to the 5th centuries, the Syrian Church was anointing catechumens before they were baptized, not after. It didn’t seem to make a difference. It was like asking when you wash your hands, do you use soap and water or water and soap?
So if you say you want the original sequence of the sacraments, you have to specify which original sequence. And even though the three rites were celebrated together in most instances in the West and the East, there were always circumstances when a person was baptized by someone other than a bishop because of travel, illness, or the burdensome distance between home and church. In those cases, a person was baptized and probably received communion, but was not anointed until later. Evidence for such practices is contemporaneous to the evidence for what many call “original sequence.” If you want the “restored order” of the sacraments of initiation, you may be asked, “restored to what? Which order do you mean?” because there were several.
For many centuries when confirmation was celebrated apart from baptism, the age of confirmation had nothing to do with catechetical preparation. It had everything to do with the availability of the bishop. If you were baptized but had not been confirmed, you could be whenever the bishop came to town. It didn’t depend on your catechesis; if you were baptized, you were entitled to confirmation. In the 14th century, Giotto decorated the bell tower of the cathedral of Florence with images of the 7 sacraments; for confirmation, he shows a bishop anointing a young child held in the arms of its mother. That was how his contemporaries would have recognized the circumstances for this sacrament.
In the end, we are catechizing several things about confirmation. It is an initiation rite. It is a maturity rite. It is a rite celebrated when another Christian becomes a Catholic. Our teachings tell us it is one sacrament, and it is. But the people who receive it catechize something more: it has different meanings, and this is confusing even well-educated Catholics.
A similar situation has evolved with baptized candidates for reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church. Our theology says one thing, but our ritual seems to be expressing something else. Precisely, the issue concerns making distinctions between the baptized and the unbaptized. Throughout the United States the number in the two groups is about even; only a slightly higher percentage of those joining the Catholic Church have previously valid baptisms. For practical reasons we frequently conduct the catechesis for unbaptized catechumens and baptized candidates together. The groups bond. They also celebrate their rites together. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults offers a suite of rites to progress from the early stages of the catechumenate through initiation. In the United States a parallel set of rites was created for candidates. In addition, in the United States, both groups may celebrate the main ceremonies together through a set of combined rites. The combined rites of acceptance and welcoming, of election and the call to continuing conversion are quite popular in parishes and dioceses. Competitive parishes compare the number of those becoming Catholics at the Easter Vigil as though they were evaluating batting averages. The rites of initiation (and here I mean baptism, confirmation and first communion) are combined with the rite of reception for baptized candidates. Both groups are confirmed together; both receive communion together.
The RCIA expresses concern that the groups be treated distinctly, and to some extent they are. Within the combined rites they are identified by baptismal status. But something else is going on here, especially at the Easter Vigil. The council’s original vision of the rite of reception of previously baptized Christians was very simple. It takes place at a normal celebration of the Eucharist, perhaps a Sunday in Ordinary Time. It required no preliminary rites. Catechesis was meant to bring the candidates to a certain level of discerned readiness. When they reached it, they were to be received. All this was designed for individuals, not for groups. As each baptized candidate was ready for reception, he or she underwent a ceremony considerably simplified from its historical antecedents, which had included the renunciation of false worship. In the fervor of the ecumenical movement, the reception of baptized Christians was supposed to avoid triumphalism, lest it appear that the Church was proudly boasting, “We’ve bagged another Protestant!” Instead, the revised ceremony was meant to tone down the reception, to orchestrate it within the context of an ordinary eucharist when members of the faithful could rejoice with an individual who had made a reflective spiritual choice.
However, when the US edition of the RCIA appeared in 1988, it included a series of combined rites that climaxed with the Easter Vigil, during which the unbaptized were baptized and the baptized were received. Earlier in the 1980s, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and the Congregation for Divine Worship were horrified at the idea of receiving baptized Christians this way: They wrote, “The insertion of this rite into the Easter Vigil gives such importance to the event that it may cause surprise and even pain to our fellow Christians and give rise to new difficulties.” When the American bishops basically responded, “But we’re already doing it,” the Congregation changed its mind and approved the combined rite: “[T]he proposed new rite appears in a different light, i.e., as making a distinction which badly needs to be made. . . to remedy a situation that will not otherwise be easily improved.” The combined rite for the Easter Vigil appeared with the other combined rites in an appendix, where the Congregation hoped no one would notice. They did. And the combined rite is being widely used, as if it were the only way to receive previously baptized Christians.
In truth, baptized Christians may be received at any time of year on any occasion. Many of them are ready long before the Easter Vigil and they need not wait. The priest who receives them has the faculty to confirm them and give them communion. Use of this rite apart from the Easter Vigil has many pastoral advantages, not the least of which is a more formal distinction between the baptized and the unbaptized.
But when the rites are combined at the vigil, one has to wonder about the catechetical message. We say there is a great distinction between being baptized and not being baptized, but then we receive the baptized while we are initiating the unbaptized; in fact, in the midst of their initiation rites, between baptism and confirmation. The combined rites could not be more inextricably linked. The conflation of the two groups is complete in the most triumphalistic ceremony of the church year. The Easter Vigil balances the themes of resurrection and baptism. As we believe Jesus rose from the dead, so we believe our baptism participates in that resurrection. The Easter Vigil with its new fire, glorious candle, solemn exsultet, joyful Gloria, liberated alleluia, and self-defining gospel becomes the place par excellence for the celebration of baptism. But when we receive baptized Christians during the same ceremony, we occlude the distinction between them and the unbaptized, as well as the neat juxtaposition of symbols of the resurrection. It makes difficult the very points we are trying to catechize about baptism: that it is like the resurrection, which is in turn a new exodus. To be baptized is to be different than you were before, but we seem to be saying something else if the person in question was baptized in another Christian Church. We are teaching that they are rather like catechumens.
The combined rites were born of pastoral necessity after well-meaning efforts to affirm the decision of baptized candidates. But the time has come to reevaluate them in the light of our theology of baptism and the need for more vigorous ecumenical dialogue. Almost every Catholic would like to have greater communion with other Christians, and almost every parish has the opportunity to advance these efforts case by case.
When people stand in front of the assembly, they catechize about the meaning of our rituals. Whether they are adolescents being confirmed or baptized candidates being received, they convey a distinct meaning to the rituals of the Church, and that meaning is not always what we intend.
Perhaps the most controversial project of Catholic liturgical life today is the forthcoming revised English translation of the Missale Romanum. It is being greeted by enthusiasm, fear, relief, anger, melancholy, and disinterest, depending on whom you ask.
People familiar with the current translation are noting considerable differences in the one that is coming. The language is more elevated. The vocabulary is broader. The scriptural and hagiographic allusions are more evident. The sentences are longer. Everyone agrees the translation will be different. But not everyone agrees if it is for good or for ill.
In the interests of disclosure, let me tell you I do some work for ICEL, and I think the book we’re getting will be better than the one we have. There are parts of it that may seem clunky, but there are far more parts that will sound elegant. I believe we’ll be all right a few years into the implementation, but getting from here to there will be difficult. We need catechists.
The texts are going to catechize, and I suspect when most people think about how the liturgy catechizes, they think about the spoken word. There will be improvements to the Creed, for example. Currently we translate the Latin phrase, et incarnatus est with the expression “was born.” But there is a difference between becoming incarnate and being born. The introduction to the memorial acclamation is quite striking in Latin: Mysterium fidei. Our current translation expands it into an exhortation: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” As a presider, I always find this disorienting. I’m supposed to be concentrating on the eucharistic prayer addressed to God, but I put it on hold for a moment to talk to the people. This concern probably lay behind the practice in some parishes where the deacon introduced the memorial acclamation. In Germany, the rubric calls for him to do it. Putting the deacon on duty here gave the priest a chance to focus on his prayer, but the acclamation really doesn’t fit the role of the deacon, who usually invites people to perform some action, such as the sign of peace or the dismissal, rather than to proclaim a text.
Mysterium fidei is an acclamation like “The Word of the Lord,” “The Body of Christ,” and “The Blood of Christ.” “The mystery of faith.” We used to say, “This is the Word of the Lord,” and we changed it. We discourage communion ministers from saying, “This is the Body of Christ.” The stark acclamation, “The mystery of faith,” will fit the flow of the eucharistic prayer and the structure of parallel parts of the mass. We’ll also rediscover that this phrase was meant to introduce a dialogue between the priest and the people. The acclamation itself actually belongs to the people in the same way that the responses to the preface dialogue do. The priest technically is not supposed to make the response to “The mystery of faith.” It’s not a big deal, but when the priest is silent here, it does enliven the dialogic nature of this part of the mass, and it frees him to continue his next lines of the eucharistic prayer, which echo the content of the acclamation the people have just sung.
These are brief examples, perhaps insignificant in the great scope of things. I just want to point out that some improvements are on the way, and the liturgy will catechize well. However, I do remain concerned about a few items of the translation, and I think the most challenging of them will be the pro multis. When the English translation first came out in 1970, the priest picked up the cup and said, “It will be shed for you and for all men, so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.” In time, it was felt that this translation was gender-exclusive, and in one of the earliest changes to the Order of Mass, the word “men” was eliminated. It was thought to be a better translation of the expression in Latin, pro multis.
However, those words literally mean, “for many,” or “for the many.” I am not a Hebrew scholar, but I am told that in the local patois of his day this expression says “many” but really means “all”. It’s similar to the way in English you cannot tell from the isolated word “you” if it means the singular or the plural. Somehow we’ve gotten along just fine without further clarifying the matter. The New Testament is clear that Jesus died to save everyone, but the part we are quoting uses this expression pro multis. I am told that the translation was progressing without changing the current words, “for all,” but Pope Benedict himself has expressed a desire for a more explicit rendering of the Latin.
The problem, I think, is obvious. At a significant moment of the eucharistic prayer at every mass, we priests will be saying that Jesus died for many, when we used to say he died for all. In English it will sound as though Jesus was more choosy than we realized. One resolution to this problem comes from the new rules of translation as articulated in Liturgiam authenticam, which says that wherever translations are difficult to understand, we will rely on catechesis. But this is easier said than done. We can give catechesis on parts of the mass, but we don’t explain the same part week by week. We proclaim it week by week, and the texts will catechize.
One must trust in the Holy Spirit that all this is unfolding for the good, and there is much more about the new translation that will happily give clear articulation to our faith. But the liturgy catechizes, sometimes in spite of our efforts.
In this talk I’ve surveyed four areas of the liturgy that also catechize: the buildings, the rubrics, the people, and the texts. In each example, the liturgy catechizes somewhat differently. In buildings, architects have been making intentional decisions to shape spaces that fit contemporary worship, and the shortcomings of older buildings are laid bare. In the rubrics, recent changes to the communion rite have introduced catechetical elements that were not being stressed over the past few decades. The people who celebrate our sacraments reveal a great deal about our theology, and some decisions made since the council about the age of confirmation and the occasion for the rite of reception are being reevaluated. The texts of the mass will continue to be a primary source of catechesis, and although the new translation will be controversial, it will more richly express the complexities of our faith in ways that will evoke a response.
Liturgy is the privileged place of catechesis because in it we profess what we believe, we uncover what we didn’t know we believed, we emphasize certain aspects of our belief, and we shape it to fit our beliefs. For these reasons, the old saying lex orandi, lex credendi is sometimes disingenuous. Yes, the liturgy forms our faith, but our faith has also shaped our liturgy, its buildings, its rubrics, and its translations. The liturgy catechizes on its own, and it has also become a place through which the Church chooses to catechize.
For these reasons, it is important to be intentional in what we say and do when we gather for worship. We need to reflect on our liturgical choices and ask what they are teaching. And we need to enter the liturgy ready to abandon ourselves to the presence of God. This is perhaps why liturgists feel apprehensive about catechists. The liturgy is supposed to catechize on a subliminal level; catechists generally use their skills to explain and exhort. The purpose of liturgy is to worship, not to catechize, and a stress on catechesis during the liturgy removes the heart of what worship is about. Good catechesis fosters good liturgical worship; and good liturgical worship will inspire catechesis.
But there is something more beyond liturgy and catechesis. The Christian life demands something more. Jesus demonstrated this on the very occasion he left us the eucharist. While they worshiped, he taught the disciples something. Discipleship is not just a matter of liturgy and catechesis. It involves more than the heart and the mind. It needs feet.
When the disciples arrived for the Last Supper,
Jesus looked down at their feet and furrowed his brow. This would never do. How could he enjoy the last meal of his life when the disciples didn’t even clean up before coming in?
. . . Jesus loved to eat, and he enjoyed the company of friends and opponents. But he had some expectations of hosts and guests alike. He never shook those expectations, not even on the night before he died.
When the disciples showed up for the meal, they probably had no idea that Jesus was about to unveil the eucharist for them. They probably entered and sat down in their usual spirit of camaraderie. Jesus decided to set a more proper tone right away.
He took off his clothing and tied a large towel around his waist. He tipped a vase of water into a basin and scooted across the floor to the sandaled toes of the nearest disciple. He stuck the surprised feet into the basin and scrubbed them with the towel. Then he went to the next disciple. And to the next. The water muddied. The towel turned dark.
Jesus came to Simon Peter, who couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus rolled his eyes and sighed, thinking “Isn’t it obvious?” But what he said was more polite: “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
It was polite, but it reminded Peter how stupid he sometimes felt in the presence of his master. “He keeps telling me I don’t understand,” Peter thought. Then he got an idea. He decided Jesus was testing him. Here was his chance to make an impression, to show he wasn’t as ignorant as Jesus thought he was. Bravely, confidently, Peter uttered a command: “You will never wash my feet,” and winked.
Wrong. Not the response Jesus wanted. Jesus sighed and explained, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
“Now I get it,” Peter thought. He had another idea. Obviously he had taken the wrong extreme. “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” Peter grinned.
Wrong again. Not the response Jesus wanted either. Jesus just shook his head and lifted Peter’s ankle.
When Jesus finished washing the feet of all the disciples, he put on his clothes and joined them at the table. It was time to start the lecture. “Do you realize what I have done for you?” Of course, they didn’t.
Jesus continued, “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.” Peter felt relieved that at least they got that much right. Now Jesus taught as the master he was: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Before Jesus ate and drank for the last time with his friends, he taught them a final lesson about service. It wasn’t just manners after all. It wasn’t just about conventional behavior. It was about hospitality and humility. You don’t eat and drink unless you also serve (from Guide for Adult Servers, Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, forthcoming).
During the liturgy of the Last Supper, Jesus catechized with a simple action. He taught that there was more to this meal than the meal. There is more to liturgy than worship, more to catechesis than learning. There is worship. There is commitment. There is humility.
The washing of the feet not only challenged the disciples, it affirmed them. It showed them what they should do, but it also affirmed what they had been doing. Good disciples have dirty feet. They’re out there. They’re living the word. They’re walking the walk. If we are to have the opportunity for prayer and learning, someone has to do the dirty work.
So let us sing a hymn of praise for liturgists and catechists who get it. They do not so involve themselves in their own fields that they neglect the needs of others. They feed the hungry and visit the sick. They care for children and devote time to the elderly. They challenge racism and promote peace. They volunteer at the polls, they help at libraries, they slow down for slow learners, and they are patient with reluctant singers. They live in a way that shows what they believe. They support other professionals, and they learn from those who have a different point of view. They get dirty feet. They wash the feet of others, but they get dirty doing it. And when it happens, it shows you that the liturgy really is the privileged place of catechesis, because in it the faithful feel inspired and informed, challenged and affirmed. They leave the eucharist and enter the world, where they catechize. How do people know we are Christians? Not by how we pray. Not by how we teach. But how we serve. They will know we are Christians by our love.
This talk was given at the annual gathering of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions in Hartford CT on October 10, 2007.
It was also published as follows:
“Dirty Feet.” Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions Newsletter 34-5 (October-November, 2007):42-53.