When we talk about changes Catholic parishes can take to become more welcoming, automatically people become defensive. There are two reasons for this defensive posture. The first reason has to do with culture in that this is the way we’ve always done it and there is no problem with the way we are doing it. These people do not see the church as a way to foster a relationship with Jesus; instead being Catholic is something you do just to do it and it is ritualistic. The second reason is the fear that if we change and implement strategies from other churches and other denominations, we lose what makes us Catholic. The second reason is a legitimate concern. The Catholic identity is very important and must be protected. The problem becomes when we confuse our Catholic identity with our Catholic culture. It is this confusion that can lead to liturgical abuses.
What is Catholic identity?
There are certain characteristics that I believe define a Catholic church and separate it in a good way.
- The Eucharist
The Catholic church teaches that the Eucharistic sacrifice is the source and summit of our faith. We believe that it is Jesus’ body and blood made manifest in bread and wine. It re-presents for us Jesus’ death on the cross. This miraculous event takes place during every Mass. This is the distinguishing feature of Catholic worship. In order to have a valid consecration you must have:
- Bread and wine in which a little water mixed
- the bread must be only wheat and recently made
- The communion may be received under both species or only one
- both matter must be present
- sacred vestments must be worn
- must be celebrated on an altar
- must be celebrated by a Validly Ordained Male Priest
- The priest must have the intent to make Jesus physically present
- the words, “this is my body, this is my blood” must be said.
- Must use the Eucharistic prayer listed in the Roman missal
- The priest must wash his hands in water after offering the bread and wine, but before the eucharist prayer
We, as Catholics should recognize the importance of having a valid consecration. Thus any changes suggested can’t effect any of these requirements.
The definition of the word Catholic means unity. Thus the sacrifice of the Mass should be celebrated in a uniform way in so far as it follows the liturgical guidelines found in Cannon law and in The General Instructions of The Roman Missal. A violation of these requirements does not make the consecration invalid if the above is followed, but it does make the sacrifice of the Mass and the liturgical celebration illicit. So a typical Sunday service at any Catholic parish, you have the liturgical celebration, which includes the introductory rite, liturgy of the word. and the liturgy of the Eucharist. Each of these different stages have different elements and each element has different requirements.
The structure is as followed:
- introductory rite
- the entrance
- the greeting
- the penitential act
- the kyrie
- the glory to God in the highest
- the collect
- The liturgy of the word
- the biblical readings
- the Responsorial psalm
- The Acclamation before the gospel
- the homily
- the profession of faith
- the universal prayer
- the liturgy of the Eucharist
- the preparation of the gifts
- the eucharistic prayer
- the lord’s prayer
- the rite of peace
- the concluding rite
Rather than going through the requirement of each part, I will just say a few words about a few observations that I have made by visiting various parishes. I invite my readers to read the The General Instructions of The Roman Missal ( GRIM) themselves for more details.
I think a priest does the congregation a disservice if any parts are omitted or changed. For example, I believe that it is wrong to omit a part of the introductory rite in order to make room for something else. I have attended parishes that did not sing/recite an entrance chant in order to spend more time welcoming new people. The only aspects of the introductory rite that can be omitted are, the Gloria and that is only during Advent and Lent, and the Kyrie, which can only be omitted if it is incorporated into the penitential rite. Likewise I believe a priest does a disservice if he ad-libs the collect prayer or the greeting after the entrance song. Lastly as far as introductory rites go, I would like to see more reliance on using the antiphons in the missal for the entrance songs rather than automatically replacing them with another liturgical chant. There is nothing in the GRIM that says the antiphons chosen by the church can’t be played in a more modern setting.
The liturgy of the word offers another way to emphasize unity. In the Catholic church, the biblical reading come from a lectionary, which is a book of scripture assign for each day. According to the GRIM, the Homily should be “an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.” It should never be given by a lay person and it should never be omitted. All of these guidelines are designed to ensure that not only is every Catholic hearing the same readings, but that every Catholic receives a similar message. Sadly I have seen priest forsake their sacred duty by allowing a lay person to give a homily or even worse I have seen priest use their homily time to talk about unrelated scripture. Priests and churches who allow this to happen may indeed be successful at captivating an audience, but I have to question whether they really are Catholic. Do you really intend to submit to the authority of the church if you chose to deviate from the readings she has deemed appropriate? If you are not submitting to the church’s authority in this regard, what is stopping you from not submitting to her on other issues? They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. For example, I have seen a Catholic church use the homily time to do a sort of FAQ about the Catholic faith. This is a great idea, but not to be done during Mass; because, as a Catholic parishioner I am entitled to have the treasures of the bible opened up to me and for a homily to expound on the scripture read.
During the liturgy of the Eucharist, unity can be hindered for two reasons: 1. regional gestures are added into certain parts of the Mass, or 2. the prescribed gestures are not done by the faithful. The most common violation of number 1. is hand holding during the Our Father. Rather than enter into that messy debate, I will give you readers a link to an interesting EWTN article: https://www.ewtn.com/library/Liturgy/zlitur10.htm . The second one is violated most when it comes to kneeling during consecration. The GRIM says,
In the Dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by ill health, or for reasons of lack of space, of the large number of people present, or for another reasonable cause. However, those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the Priest genuflects after the Consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and thus it is difficult to talk about beauty and unity in the same breath. What appears beautiful to one person may not appeal to another person. I do believe that the Catholic church does have its identity firmly placed in fostering the development of religious artwork; whether it be stain glass, paintings, flowers, or statues. The GRIM says the following about beauty:
the Church constantly seeks the noble assistance of the arts and admits the artistic expressions of all peoples and regions. In fact, just as she is intent on preserving the works of art and the artistic treasures handed down from past centuries and, in so far as necessary, on adapting them to new needs, so also she strives to promote new works of art that are in harmony with the character of each successive age.
On account of this, in appointing artists and choosing works of art to be admitted into a church, what should be looked for is that true excellence in art which nourishes faith and devotion and accords authentically with both the meaning and the purpose for which it is intended.
I would feel very strange if I were to attend a Catholic church with no artwork or statues. However, I echo the sentiment of the GRIM that such artwork should be simple. I have felt the distracting effect of sitting next to a large statue of Mary during Mass. Too often we have stripped out sanctuaries bare in an attempt to be more protestant, when the reality is that we should be fostering the next generation of Catholics to develop beautiful faith art. Authentic beauty speaks to the soul and helps it transcend.
Just like the song says that we will know they are Christians by their love, we will know they are Catholic if they love the Eucharist, promote unity, and seek out beauty. I believe a welcoming parish need not sacrifice these values.