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What makes for a "good" liturgy?

 Michael Garvey’s thread below, about parish-shopping, has prompted an intelligent discussion which I wish many priests would read and take to heart. I was particularly struck by Claire’s first post, and these two paragraphs:

These days I spend at least half of my Sundays exploring, going to parishes where I have never been before. I feel like a little bishop, witnessing the incredible diversity of Catholic Mass liturgy, yet learning to recognize what constitutes the common core. They have in common that if I prepare the readings in depth, get there early, watch everything, listen to every word of the liturgy and try to pray them, then at some point during Mass I will be filled by a sense of profound peace, of being refreshed, of having a new start for the week; and that's independent of the specifics of that particular celebration. So my impression is that this peace is the core experience of going to Mass. The other potential perks - uplifting architecture, moving music, arresting homilies, smiling pew neighbors, etc. - are just bonus, occasional unexpected gifts.

...Then there are some Sundays when I don't do my homework, and when everything about the Mass is banal, I essentially sleep through it with nothing to wake me from my slumber, and afterwards I find myself exactly as though I had not gone. What's the point? And did anything really happen?  I fear that that's the normal Sunday experience of many, and that is not nourishing. If one needs something special in order to participate, say, a particular style of music for example, then why shouldn't they go where they can find it? 

What I liked about Claire's comments was, first, her recognition of the importance of her own participation in determining whether a liturgy has “worked” for her, and, second, her listing of some of the elements that go into an actual event of a liturgy. And this second point prompts the following questions: If someone asked you why you go to Mass, what would you reply? What is it that you want from a liturgy? What counts as a “good” liturgy? What do you take away from a “good” liturgy?  What elements make for a “good” liturgy? How would you rank them in importance? An encounter with God? Receiving communion? The biblical readings? The music? A sense of community? The homily? The priest’s performance of the gestures and prayers? One’s own personal participation and effort? Reverence? Quiet? Other things?

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Ann:   The notion of transubstantiation is not, of course, specifically Thomist; it antedated him. In fact, it's been argued that he grew less enthusiastic. While it occurred many times in his early commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, it appears rarely in the late Summa theologia. And at Trent they took pains to make sure they weren't canonizing Thomas's doctrine.

Jean:  I can't give you any reason why the doctrine of transubstantiation or of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary would help you follow the "Prime Directive(s)."  I don't suppose it was ever thought that they would. As you imply, there is nothing necessary about either doctrine, but arguments could be constructed to show how they both fit into a comprehensive and coherent Christian worldview. Some times I think that one of the worst mistakes made by theologians was when they decided that things could not make sense unless they could be shown to have been or to be necessary. But from the first Fiat l to the last trumpet, it's all shot through with contingency and freedom--God's freedom, first, of course. The world does not have to exist. We don't have to exist. Christ did not have to exist. Etc., etc.  And yet it all holds together so wonderfully well!

Jean,  I believe that in some way without the Eucharist we die, so I am concerned by everything that gets in the way: rules against divorced and remarried Catholics, statistics about the decrease in the number of priests, but also self-imposed exclusion because of perceived lack of faith (or for other reasons). But it seems that in your case there is a solution:

1. go to confession, expose your issues

2. accept what the priest tells you

If he says you're good to go, you can then receive communion. If not, he'll lay out a path leading there. Voila! Problem solved!

Fr. K, thanks again for your patience. I second Claire's posts above. 

A couple of thoughts. Perhaps you have never heard a Protestant discuss the Catholic understanding of the eucharist in terms of cannibalism because we hang with different crowds. You are a theologian and a university professor and you meet mostly with peers, often in formal conferences and meetings. I suspect that the peers who are Protestant would approach discussing differences in understanding of the nature of the eucharist using different terms than do [at least some] ordinary, everyday, non-theologian Protestants, such as my late father-in-law and a few others I have known. As professionals at gatherings of other religious professionals, it is likely that they would not use a word like cannibalism but would discuss the issues at a more 'intellectual" level. The problem is that we ordinary people (about 99% of the church) do not have graduate level educations in philosophy and theology nor are we employed full-time in professions that rely on either discipline, so it is harder for us to understand what you are saying even when we want to.

You wrote: 

….but by pressing the point: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.... For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” The Greek word for “eat” in that sentence means literally to chew or gnaw or munch (“to eat so as to be heard”), so that in his reply Jesus draws even further away from a merely metaphorical claim. If some people fear cannibalism here, it’s because of the graphic language that Jesus himself used.

Next was a quote from Hoskyns saying much the same thing.  And so I still must ask – why does this not equate to cannibalism?  These quotes imply that Jesus is describing the eating of (his own) human flesh and the drinking of (his own) human blood in a very literal way and not, as you note, in a metaphorical sense.  You and Hoskyns both mention gnawing and munching on the flesh (meat).  [Merriam Webster: cannibalism: the usually ritualistic eating of human flesh by a human being]

You also say that Jesus' presence is not "natural" but is "sacramental" and that this does not raise the images of cannibalism that Jesus's own words raise.  But does not this distinction again raise the issue of Jesus using these words in a metaphorical way?

You seem to be saying that transubstantiation is not turning bread and wine into flesh and blood “literally” but “truly” while at the same time emphasizing that Jesus himself used language that would normally be understood as describing cannibalism. This is all very confusing.

So the second question is - and maybe your response will clarify this issue for me - why would Jesus use  words with the implications of cannibalism to describe what human beings must do in order to have “life”?

I have read a couple of very brief summaries of other views of the eucharist – including explanations by Augustine and Henri de Lubac, which are much more palatable (sorry). I hope to have time to read a bit more about them and am hoping that de Lubac isn’t so heavy on theology-speak that I won’t be able to understand him!

Finally, even without worrying about the issue of how literally to understand the bread and wine in terms of Jesus’s (human) flesh and (human) blood, there is another question – how is God any more “present” in the eucharist than elsewhere?  What is less “Real” in God’s presence in creation apart from the eucharist?  I’m sorry to have such elementary questions, but these are questions I avoided even thinking about for much of my life.

Claire, how do we "die" without the eucharist? In what sense? Did the 99.9+% of human beings who have lived on this planet in the uncountable millenia of human history who never received the eucharist in a Roman Catholic church "die" in whatever way you are referring to?

I would like to add another thanks, Fr. K.  I have asked these questions of other priests and also of Catholic educators (but at the undergraduate or Adult Ed level of Catholic education) and nobody has ever taken the time to even try to respond.  They either avoid the question (I'm busy, I'll have to get back to you" and they don't) or refer me to the Catechism or some other document, or simply parrot.  It makes one wonder if even the average priest has a good understanding of this teaching.

Many scholars agree that the concrete, even crude, language that Jesus uses points to a eucharistic referent and not simply to the metaphor of his word as the Bread of Life.  Perhaps we can agree that he wasn't holding his arm out to be munched upon. There had, then, to be some other way in which one could eat his flesh and drink his blood. This other way, not natural but sacramental (Trent), removes, for me at least, any implication of cannibalism. 

(I pointed out Jesus' use of the crude language so that some of your Protestant interlocutors might recognize that if the problem of cannibalism arises at all, it arises first, not because of Roman Catholic doctrine, but because of His statements.)

Eucharistic presence is the presence of Jesus Christ. This is not the presence of God in all of creation or in hearts and minds of those who love him. I would not necessarily rank these various forms of presence in terms of "more" or "less," but certainly Christ is present differently in the eucharist. 

Anne, that was a quote from a homily I heard a few years ago. I looked it up now and just realized that the preacher had stolen it from a long homily by pope Benedict, his 2005 homily during the Italian Eucharistic congress. See  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2005/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20050529_bari_en.html. Skip the paragraph in which he bemoans the state of the vast and scary world in typical Benedict darkness; omit the section where I think he misinterprets the reaction of the people protesting  "How can he give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6: 52); and stop before the section on unity and ecumenism, which strikes me as inferior to the rest and put together in a more awkward manner. The rest, to me, is striking. Here is one nice bit that gives a little historical grounding:

The chosen theme [of the Eucharistic congress] - "Without Sunday we cannot live" - takes us back to the year 304, when the Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians, on pain of death, from possessing the Scriptures, from gathering on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist and from building places in which to hold their assemblies.

In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.

Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor's severe orders. He replied: "Sine dominico non possumus": that is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.

After atrocious tortures, these 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with bloodshed. They died, but they were victorious: today we remember them in the glory of the Risen Christ.

There is much more in that homily. Here are a couple of other quotes that I like.The Mass is an occasion to draw strength from Christ: I can relate to that.

In today's Gospel, Jesus has explained to us, through the gift of manna, for what bread God wanted to prepare the people of the New Covenant. Alluding to the Eucharist he said: "This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and died nonetheless, the man who feeds on this bread shall live forever" (Jn 6: 58).

In taking flesh, the Son of God could become Bread and thus be the nourishment of his people, of us, journeying on in this world towards the promised land of Heaven.

We need this Bread to face the fatigue and weariness of our journey. Sunday, the Lord's Day, is a favourable opportunity to draw strength from him, the Lord of life.

And then, this next paragraph, which I think is related to Joe's comment on Christ being so very close to us, closer than we are to ourselves (I forget exactly how he worded it - he was quoting someone) - so if we lose Christ, we lose ourselves: that's a way of dying...

Moreover, this is not an arbitrary journey: the path God points out to us through his Word goes in the direction inscribed in man's very existence. The Word of God and reason go together. For the human being, following the Word of God, going with Christ means fulfilling oneself; losing it is equivalent to losing oneself.[my emphasis]

And again:

"Let me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (Jn 6: 53). Truly, we need a God who is close to us. In the face of the murmur of protest, Jesus might have fallen back on reassuring words: "Friends", he could have said, "do not worry! I spoke of flesh but it is only a symbol. What I mean is only a deep communion of sentiments".

But no, Jesus did not have recourse to such soothing words. He stuck to his assertion, to all his realism, even when he saw many of his disciples breaking away (cf. Jn 6: 66). Indeed, he showed his readiness to accept even desertion by his apostles, while not in any way changing the substance of his discourse: "Do you want to leave me too?" (Jn 6: 67), he asked. Thanks be to God, Peter's response was one that even we can make our own today with full awareness: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6: 68). We need a God who is close, a God who puts himself in our hands and who loves us.

Isn't it beautiful how he presents the Eucharist as the occasion for God to be close, really close to us? Finally this last quote is related to our discussion about the mechanics of the Real Presence.

Christ is truly present among us in the Eucharist. His presence is not static. It is a dynamic presence that grasps us, to make us his own, to make us assimilate him. Christ draws us to him, he makes us come out of ourselves to make us all one with him.

I note, by the way, that he did not use the word "transubstantation" anywhere. Maybe, like Joe and Trent, he has some reservations about the use of that word.

I realize that you might prefer if I said my own down to earth, hastily put together construction of how without the Eucharist we cannot live, but after reading that homily, I have to say that I don't really want to try to find my own words. The contrast would be too great.

 

So the second question is - and maybe your response will clarify this issue for me - why would Jesus use  words with the implications of cannibalism to describe what human beings must do in order to have “life”?

I think one answer is proposed by pope Benedict. I'm not sure I agree with the beginning, but here it is in full. See what you think of this!

However, we have heard that at his first announcement, instead of rejoicing, the people started to murmur in protest: "How can he give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6: 52). To tell the truth, that attitude has frequently been repeated in the course of history. One might say that basically people do not want to have God so close, to be so easily within reach or to share so deeply in the events of their daily life.

Rather, people want him to be great and, in brief, we also often want him to be a little distant from us. Questions are then raised that are intended to show that, after all, such closeness would be impossible.

But the words that Christ spoke on that occasion have lost none of their clarity: "Let me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (Jn 6: 53). Truly, we need a God who is close to us. In the face of the murmur of protest, Jesus might have fallen back on reassuring words: "Friends", he could have said, "do not worry! I spoke of flesh but it is only a symbol. What I mean is only a deep communion of sentiments".

But no, Jesus did not have recourse to such soothing words. He stuck to his assertion, to all his realism, even when he saw many of his disciples breaking away (cf. Jn 6: 66). Indeed, he showed his readiness to accept even desertion by his apostles, while not in any way changing the substance of his discourse: "Do you want to leave me too?" (Jn 6: 67), he asked. Thanks be to God, Peter's response was one that even we can make our own today with full awareness: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6: 68). We need a God who is close, a God who puts himself in our hands and who loves us.

If anyone is still interested in metaphysical explanations of the Eucharist, here is are some relatively clear summaries  of various theological positions on the matter by Alvin Kimel.  

http://pontifications.wordpress.com/transubstantiation/

Much ado about a mystery that is bound to be limited by human metaphors as well.  But there are some clarifications, e.g., the "presence" of Christ in the Eucharist is not the same thing as his *identification* of Christ and the Eugharist. and there is more on the Eucharist as sign.

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