"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Saturday 21 April 2012


I CONFESS that I concelebrated at two Easters this year, at pontifical Mass in my own monastery and then, one Sunday later, at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish church in Gloucester. Both celebrations were beautiful, but I want to say something about the second.

  The parish priest, Fr Mykola, two deacons and I sang the Gospel, sentence by sentence in Ukrainian, Greek, English and Latin, to a Byzantine tone.  I sang in Latin.   

I was in the seventh heaven during the whole of the Divine Liturgy.   It expresses so eloquently all that I believe the Eucharist to be as we join the angels and saints in heaven and pass through the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, passing through the veil which is his Flesh into the presence of the Father.

I had a "eureka" moment.   We had just exchanged the sign of peace as a sign of ecclesial love which enables us to, "be of one mind in confessing" the Credo together.   While the congregation was singing, the celebrant and I waved the chalice veil over the gifts that had been placed on the altar, and, by so doing, represented the descent of the Holy Spirit.    I had never been so close to the action before; and the meaning of the symbolism suddenly struck me:  the ecclesial love which holds the Church together and which is expressed in the kiss of peace,the unity of doctrinal faith expressed by the singing in the Creed, as well as the consecration of the bread and wine and our communion in Christ are all one single work of the Holy Spirit.   Each of these elements belongs integrally to the others as dimensions of the same divine work which is Catholicism.   The combination of all these elements in one single reality is what Catholicism is all about.

This truth which is so dramatically symbolised by the liturgical unity of kiss of peace, singing of the Credo and using the chalice veil to remind us of the hovering Spirit, has huge implications.  It means we cannot study the Mass in the way the Scholastics did by separating the consecration of the elements from the concrete celebration of the liturgy.   The consecration is essential to the liturgy, and the liturgy is the essential context and means  by which we understand the consecration; and the Eucharist can only be understood as the instrument which makes the Church what it is, the body of Christ.   The fraternal charity of the congregation which makes possible the unity of doctrinal understanding of the Gospel which, in its turn, makes possible an honest communal recitation of the Creed, and the consecration of the bread and wine and our communion in Christ, are all the work of the same Holy Spirit and dimensions of the same eucharistic and ecclesial reality.   

It is of the nature of the Divine Liturgy that, when the Eucharist, the Great Sacrament, is celebrated, the Church becomes what it receives and is itself the Great Sacrament as Body of Christ.  The Church celebrating the Eucharist itself becomes Sacrament, not a different sacrament but the same Eucharistic Sacrament as Body of Christ, a single eucharistic reality with what it celebrates:   "not only have we become Christians, we have become Christ himself." says St Augustine.   As Pope Benedict XVI says,  ‘The Church is the celebration of the Eucharist: The Eucharist is the Church; they do not simply stand side by side; they are one and the same."*

There is a great paradox in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.   While Jesus Christ is present from the very beginning of the Mass because, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my Name....", yet there are several moments that celebrate him coming among us:

  •  There is the entrance of the Celebrant which was originally met in Patristic times with great jubilation.   He comes in persona Christi, and only when he and the congregation are together can we call the assembly the local Church.   No group of people can be  Church by their own appointment: only a group of Christians united with someone who is heir to the apostolic mandate (the bishop) or his representative (the priest) can make the assembly Church and Eucharist.   Hence there was joy  among early Christians when he entered.
  • Then there is the Little Entrance when we celebrate the entrance of Christ into the community to speak through his Word, symbolised by the Gospel book which is carried in procession before the Liturgy of the Word.
  • Then there is the entrance of Christ at the Great Entrance (offertory) to offer sacrifice, his presence symbolised by the bread and wine which are carried in procession.   That Christ should enter the sanctuary at the offertory, celebrated with the Cherubikon hymn in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and by "Let all mortal flesh keep silent" in the Liturgy of St James, is a notion completely lost in the West where the awareness of Christ's presence is completely absorbed into the presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine.   However, you cannot do what Christ did at the Last Supper unless Christ is present from the very beginning, as he was in the Upper Room and at Emmaus.   If in the Little Entrance Christ enters in the role of Teacher, in the Great Entrance, at what Latins call the Offertory,  Christ enters as presiding Host of the Eucharistic Banquet.   Before ending the Great Entrance, the presiding celebrant in Orthodox churches blesses the people with the bread and wine as symbol of Christ's presence.  This usually does not take place in Greek Catholic liturgies under the influence of the Latins who, because of western controversy, make a sharp contrast between the bread and wine before and after the consecration.  Thus, while we can bless the people with the Gospel book, we would not think of blessing them with the unconsecrated bread and wine; nor would we draw a parallel between the Gospel book and the unconsecrated bread and wine.   Actually, both East and West are victims as well as students of our respective histories which blinker our eyes against aspects of the Christian Mystery that are obvious to the faithful that do not share our history.

  1. Finally, there is the coming of Christ in Holy Communion.   As St John Chrysostom tells us, Jesus comes to us as host (through the priest or other minister) and gives himself to us as food.

The paradox remains: how can Christ be present during the whole celebration but comes to us several times during the same celebration?   What is a paradox in the Church is also a paradox  in each individual Christian.   I am a practising Christian, and Christ lives in me and I in him.   Yet I receive him every time I receive holy communion.   How can I receive him who already lives in my heart?

To solve this problem I need to ask, where is Christ now?  Through the Death- Resurrection- Ascension, he is in heaven, making intercession for us at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly Jerusalem, accompanied by countless angels and saints, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us.  

Heaven is beyond time and space and is the very centre of our religion because Christ is there in a way he is not anywhere else.   If he is present in the Eucharist and active in word and sacrament, it is because the heavens are opened as at the Baptism and Transfiguration, and earth has become united to heaven.   If, as St Pail says, Christ lives in us and we live in him, this means that we are already sharing in the life of heaven, our lives are hidden with Christ in God.   If we are united to one another "in Christ", as St Paul says, then we are not united to one another by merely human, this- worldly relationships: the source of our unity is in heaven in the dead but resurrected and ascended Christ.   Clearly, this union "in Christ", for it to be authentic, will manifest itself in human, this-worldly relationships, but these are transfigured, in so far as they are truly Christian, by the Holy Spirit who unites us in Christ.   This is why the priest prays to the Father in the epiclesis to send his Spirit on the people to make them truly one in sharing in the body of Christ in communion.

This reality is liturgically expressed in the Byzantine Rite by the fact that the attention of priest and people is not focused on one another but on the sanctuary with its iconstasis through which the people can normally only see glimpses of the altar.  This reflects the reality that the centre of their unity with one another cannot be seen: it is the incarnate and risen Lord who unites us to himself and to one another  as one body by the Holy Spirit.

Heaven is not joined to our earthly reality in the same space-time.   It will only be related to our time and space at the end of time.   Hence it is called "the Age to Come".   However, in our present, we are united to it and share in its life because we are united by the Spirit to Christ in whom heaven and earth have become one.   This is the main theme of the Letter to the Hebrews; and what the Seer of the Apocalypse does in entering through a gate in heaven to share in the heavenly Liturgy is what all Christians do at Mass.

When the risen Christ becomes present among us, he does not become enclosed in our space, even though he is in contact with it through the power of the Spirit.  This is illustrated in the Resurrection stories where Jesus manifested himself to his disciples when door and windows were shut.   He did not pass through the wall like a ghost - he made it quite clear that there was nothing ghost-like about him.  He could appear, eat with them, and then vanish.   He comes to us in reality but is never enclosed in our space.   We can never say, "Because we have him here, he cannot turn up there."  We can always meet him in a new way.   He is present in his Church but can be met outside, in the poor and the needy.   He is always by my side and even within me, but he also meets me in different ways during the day, in ways decided by himself.   

He is present in the Divine Liturgy from the very beginning, but he comes as one who presides through the Celebrant, and he prays in those who pray, sings in those who sing, and he intercedes for the Church and the world.   He comes to the assembly as Teacher in the Word; he comes at the Great Entrance as he who will preside at the Eucharist, who will offer his sacrifice on Calvary to his heavenly Father as sacrifice of the Church and, through the Church, as sacrifice for the world; and he will come at Communion to give himself to us, offering us his flesh through which we enter into the presence of his Father and share the very life of the Holy Trinity.

He is always present and is always coming; and the more we are conscious of his presence, the more we yearn for his coming.   He visits us in so many ways: old and established ways which ever surprise us if we are awake, and new ways which express the ancient Tradition and Wisdom of the Church if we have eyes to see.   "Maranatha" (Come Lord Jesus) expresses in ancient Aramaic the yearning of the early Christians who received Christ, whole and entire, in the Eucharist.   The more we receive, the more we yearn.   Thus, the Latin "Dominus vobiscum" can mean, "the Lord is with you!" or, "the Lord be with you", and means both.

I now want to re-visit the Easter Vigil and Morning Mass at which I concelebrated the week before.   I love the Byzantine Rite, but I also love the Latin Rite in English as we celebrate it at Belmont.   I have no video of this liturgy; but if you watch the video of Westminster Benedictine Abbey in Canada, we are not very different.

It is a post-Vatican II misa normativa with a central altar and the celebrants facing the people; but it is a mass shaped by a community that has no axe to grind, with different opinions but with a shared sense of liturgy.   Recent visitors have commented that we have adapted our liturgy to the instructions of Pope Benedict XVI, but this is not true.   We have celebrated this way for as long as any can remember, except for oldies like me who remember the Latin.   We use Latin plainchant, the hymns from the English Hymnal and liturgical music in English composed by a member of our own community.   On Sundays and feast days we use incense.   The Mass is celebrated with reverence and attention is centred on the altar rather than on the people.   No resident member of the community wants to put the clock back.   We would say that we are celebrating according to the central Tradition of the Latin Church.

I do not like the way people confuse "conservative" and "traditional".    Tradition is the passing down from Apostolic times of the Church's participation in the Christian Mystery through the liturgy, the teaching that accompanies it and the life of holiness.   It is a process in which there is both change and consistency, the product of the synergy between the Church and the Holy Spirit.   

At the human level, there is remembering and forgetting, renewal and stagnation, development as new questions and new situations arise and complacency and lack of vision, and, of course, grace and sin.  However, because of the eucharistic dimension, at every age, from the time of the Apostles till now, the Church is continually being re-orientated through Christ's death and resurrection beyond itself to Christ in his Father's presence. Thus, in every generation, at every Mass, the Church enjoys the plenitude of Catholicism.   The Church moves beyond history to participate in the eternal heavenly liturgy, as both Hebrews and the Apocalypse testify.   It is a liturgy that, while participating in the liturgy of heaven with the angels and saints, embraces the liturgies of all times and places, from the Last Supper to the last Mass celebrated on earth at the end of time.

It is clear that Tradition in the West and Tradition in the East have grown apart in the last thousand years, even though on both sides it is the product of the synergy between the Church and the Holy Spirit which takes its divine-human dimensions from the Eucharist we celebrate in spite of the divide.  Even though the dynamism of the Eucharist takes both sides beyond their historical conditions into the eternity of the heavenly liturgy, this perspective has not yet allowed us to solve our differences.   It seems that both churches identified themselves too closely with their respective civil societies, which is not surprising because they helped to form them.  May the Holy Spirit lead us to see our differences in the light of the Liturgy we celebrate.

Vatican II and the reform of the Liturgy that the council set in motion have helped to move the Catholic Church nearer the Eastern Tradition in some ways, but the gap seems to have widened in others.   

That Catholics now live by the liturgy to a degree they never did in the centuries immediately before the council is a move in the right direction; as is the fact that our understanding of the Church is based on our understanding of the liturgy in general and the Eucharist in particular.   Also, the introduction of eucharistic prayers (anaphoras) which contain a proper epiclesis has given us an emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Mass which is so important both in eucharistic theology and ecclesiology.

   Many of the differences after Vatican II arose because the old Latin Mass was not sufficiently appreciated by the faithful, as the Pope has admitted, and most had no sense of loss at the disappearance of so many beautiful texts.   In fact, most practising Catholics took their spiritual sustenance from  sources other than the liturgy.  This has been commented on by Pope Benedict XVI.  It also meant that so many whose job it was to interpret the documents of Vatican II had no real formation in liturgy, and led to experiments in which whole dimensions of true liturgy were left out because they did not belong to the perspective of the experimenters.   Indeed, some of the experiments were and are horrific, reducing the liturgy to a parody of itself.   I am not too disturbed by all this because, little by little, treasures from the past are being reclaimed, and the Holy Spirit is quite capable of healing the wounds and eradicating the deviations from Tradition, using papal and episcpal authority, good taste and common sense.

One of our tools for understanding the liturgy is the "hermeneutic of continuity", a favourite phrase of the present pope which was originally coined by Pope Paul VI, one of the co-authors of the misa normativa.   It is often mis-used by conservatives as a way of bashing the post-Vatican II liturgy; but, in fact, it is a very good means to understand it against bad interpretations from the right and from the left. 

Let us take private masses which were allowed before Vatican II.   Using the hermeneutic of continuity, I must accept that they are allowed after Vatican II.   They had an intricate part to play in the sanctity of many saints, so who am I to judge those who celebrate private masses.   However, the practice came into being at a time when certain dimensions of the Eucharist had been forgotten.   When a community splits up so that each priest celebrates his own mass, this obscures the identity between the Church, now concrete in a local community, and the Eucharist.   As a practice, it is bad liturgy.  Thus, the Council document on the Liturgy says that
27. It is to be stressed that whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, so far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private.

 If, after Vatican II, private masses are bad liturgy because they obscure certain aspects of the Mass, the hermeneutic of continuity makes me acknowledge that they were bad liturgy before Vatican II. However, this must be seen in perspective.   Because the Holy Spirit has used them in the sanctity of countless priests and they are still important to many, they are allowed, and priests may celebrate them in the liberty of the Holy Spirit.   Nevertheless, those of us whose piety is formed by the new liturgy prefer concelebration and do not say private masses.

The hermeneutic of continuity can teach us to hone in on what is essential in both old and new liturgies.   It is especially helpful about the relationship between priest, congregation and the altar.   By definition, it does not pit one liturgy against another.   The priest celebrating across the altar has been accepted by the overwhelming number of bishops and faithful.   Whatever he has said about it in the past before he was pope, even the Pope celebrates facing the people: it is here to stay.   What then can the hermeneutic of continuity tell us?   It tells us that, whichever way the priest is standing, whatever the rite in East or West, both priest and people are facing the altar.   According to Tradition, the altar is the Holy of Holies, the throne of mercy, the gate of heaven, the means by which the Church on earth participates in the altar of heaven, the place of the Presence by which priest and people come before the Tri-une God.   Thus the hermeneutic of continuity corrects those who think that the Eucharist is about looking into each other's eyes and finding unity there, in putting their faith in feelings of togetherness.   It tells us that what Byzantines dramatically portray by placing an altar behind a screen or iconstasis is shown in the new Latin rite by putting the altar in a prominant position and by showing to all what is on it.   However, whatever the difference of style, whatever way the priest is facing, the same Mystery is being celebrated, and priest and people are facing the altar. 

* Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987) 53.


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