Twenty-Sixth Sunday: The Realism of the Gospel

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

NM 11:25-29; PS 19: 8, 10, 12-13, 14; JAS 5:1-6; MK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

This Sunday’s readings teach us to be realists.  Now, the word “realist” can be used in two almost opposite ways.  Often by “realist” we mean “compromise.”  A realist in this sense abandons his idealism because he thinks it’s too hard to live.  The Gospel is “unrealistic” in this sense – or rather, the Gospel’s “realism” remembers above all that the God who made the world is the God who pours his love into our hearts.  We never need to compromise our values – if they are truly God’s values, Gospel values – because the promise of the Gospel is that God gives us the strength to live out those values.

But in another sense, “realist” means we are focused more on the world “out there” than on the world “in here.”  Realist spirituality cares about the “real world,” not just our feelings.  That is the realism we learn this Sunday.


Our first reading plunges us into the theme.  God has anointed Moses as leader, but now is sharing that leadership with the “seventy elders.”  “Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses, the Lord bestowed it on the seventy elders; and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied.”

Three quarters of this short reading are about Eldad and Medad, two of the seventy who were not there when the Spirit was shared, but who nonetheless receive the Spirit and themselves prophesy.  When someone complains that these two are prophesying, Moses says, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets.   Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

The main point is that God’s interior anointing bears fruit in exterior prophesy.  What makes them leaders is the action they take, in the real world.  God enables them to do that – but he enables them to do that: to act, in the real world.


Our Gospel begins with something parallel, the story of people driving out demons in Jesus’s name though they are not followers of the apostles.  The Evangelists deal with this story differently, but here in Mark, Jesus’s comment is “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Like Moses’s prophetic elders, they are judged by their fruit.  Their external action is good, whether or not they are obviously part of the club.

But Mark – the roaring lion, always insistent on making us see things together – add three more statements of Jesus that round out the theme.  First, he speaks of, “anyone who gives you a cup of water because you belong to Christ.”  Next, it is “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.”  And finally it is, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”

At first glance, this is a strange bunch of sayings to tie together.  The one who drove out demons in the first story was not giving water to the apostles, and cutting off your hand has little connection to either one.

But the point in all four is objectivity, realism.  Focus not on who is in the club, but on how they behave: casting out demons, caring for little ones, not scandalizing them, and not sinning

This does not exclude the importance of the internal.  As in the first reading, elsewhere we could emphasize that it is precisely the Spirit of Christ that allows us to be good.  This is not about some secular righteousness, in which Christ doesn’t matter.  But here, at this moment, Mark is emphasizing that if our roots are in Christ, we ought to act like it, objectively, in the real world.

(He underlines his seriousness with three references to Gehenna, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”  The Lectionary reduces these three to one – but the seriousness is still apparent.)


The second reading is from that most objective, realist Letter of James.  As always, the Epistle’s commentary enriches the theme.

First he emphasizes the objective weakness of worldliness: “your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded.”  The Gospel is about our interior.  But the exterior bears “testimony against you.”  This world is passing away.  Set not your heart on passing things.

But again he returns to economic justice is a key element of an objective spirituality.  “The wages you withheld . . . are crying aloud.”  Why do the poor matter?  Because, whether the little children or the workers, they point us outside ourselves.

There is no place in Christianity for moral preening, congratulating ourselves for membership in the club when we don’t act the part.  A tree is known by its fruit.

Are there places in your spiritual life where your interior gets too far separated from your exterior actions?  Where do you need to get real?



Twenty-Fifth Sunday: The Lord Upholds My Life

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

WIS 2:12, 17-20; PS 54:3-4, 5, 6, 8; JAS 3:16-4:3; MK 9:30-37

This Sunday’s readings are about trusting in God.  The real proof of our faith is whether we believe God is active and will preserve us.  This is the real depth of humility: to trust in God, not in horses or princes.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues to teach the disciples about his coming death: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  “But they did not understand.”  (Interesting: “they were afraid to question him” – because they did not trust in him to care for them.)

What part did they not understand?  Perhaps they did not understand the opposition, why anyone would want to kill Jesus.  But gosh, there’s been plenty of opposition in the Gospel.  That men are violent and unjust is not hard to understand.

What they did not understand was the rising part.  In fact, they did not understand the dying part because they did not understand the rising part.

So often our trust in God is thin.  We believe he will protect us through human means.  We trust in God to the extent that we hope he’ll make everything be fine.  But in the Cross, Jesus calls them to trust even when things are not fine.  God wants to take us to where there is nothing left but trust in him.


In the second half of our Gospel reading, we see the practical circumstances.  The disciples are arguing about who is, already, the greatest among them.  Jesus tells them, to be great, become little.

Because the only true greatness is the greatness that is given by God alone. Divine greatness comes from so trusting in God that we do not try to become great by human means.

From this comes, again, love of the poor.  Here it is in the form of a child: “whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.”  But the point is, children are not the way to greatness.  We’re looking for the way to become important.  Jesus says the only way is to focus on the things that don’t make you important – and trusting in God, God alone, to raise you to glory.  To find glory, do not seek it – except in God alone.

On one level, Jesus says that he is in the child: whoever receives the child receives him.  But in another way, he is in the renunciation.  By focusing on the child – on the person who can give you no glory; not advance your career; not make you popular – you assert, with your deeds, that you trust in God alone, seek your glory in God alone.

That’s one reason the poor and the little ones matter: because they are a way of renouncing the quest for human glory.  Do you really believe God will give you glory?  Or do you seek it in human achievement?


Our Old Testament reading, from the book of Wisdom, talks about this dynamic in terms of the Law.  To follow God’s law is here above all a renunciation of human glory.

The wicked fear the law will get in the way of their worldly success.

But the constant refrain of the just is that “God will defend him and deliver him,” “God will take care of him.”

And so he is gentle and patient.  He does not need to fight – he renounces the fight – because he trusts in God.


And in our continued tour through the Letter of James, we get one of his central, defining passages.

On the one side is the way of war.  “You covet but do not possess.”  We have desires and we hope to fulfill them – by taking, and fighting, and scratching to the top.  “You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.”  It doesn’t work.  The way of the world seems “practical” – but it doesn’t get us where we want to go.

And, perhaps, this mentality affects us, too.  Unlike our Old Testament reading, James isn’t talking “us” vs. “them.”  Here it’s his own audience, his own congregation, whom he accuses of war.  He underlines this by saying, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly.”  These are people who pray – but whose heart is not set on God.

He contrast them with “the wisdom from above,” which is “peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy.”  The way of peace – he repeats that most beautiful word three times.

But the way of peace is “first of all pure” – because it sets its heart not in this world, and this world’s means of grasping after worldly success.

Where is God calling you to trust more deeply in him alone?

Religion of the Heart

our-lady-of-sorrows-05_0For whatever reason, the priest at the Mass I attended today left the feast out of the Liturgy of the Word.  He did the prayers for Our Lady of Sorrows, but for the Gospel, instead of either option listed in my Missal (either John 19, at the foot of the Cross, or Luke 2, the prophecy of Simeon), he just did the Gospel for Tuesday of this week, Luke 7:11-16.  He didn’t preach on it, but for me, it was a very happy coincidence.

The reading was the widow of Nain.  “When he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, there was carried out one that was dead, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and many people of the city were with her.  And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, ‘Weep not.’ . . . And he said, ‘Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.’”

It is a splendid Gospel for Our Lady of Sorrows.


Jesus has compassion on the heart of the mother.  The Greek word here for compassion is one of my favorites.  It’s the word for how Jesus felt when he saw they were like sheep without a shepherd, and when he wanted to feed the hungry thousands.  It’s the word for the lord in the parable who forgave his servant’s debt.  And it’s the word for what motivates both the good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son.  Nice.

Even better, it’s the verb form of the word in the Canticle of Zechariah when he says, “through the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

But to really understand this word, we need one ugly use of it.  When Peter is talking about replacing Judas at the beginning of Acts, he says, “Now this man obtained a field with the reward of his iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”

The word is splagchna, a delightfully splattery word for “guts.”  The pleasant way to translate it might be “viscera,” which we use in English mostly as “visceral.”  Something is “visceral” when you have an emotional reaction in your splagchna, your guts.  It’s deeper down than your heart – more visceral.  The liturgy is a bit too tender when it says “tender compassion.”  The words are “the guts of his mercy,” the visceral gut-wrenching of his compassion.


Christ’s reaction to the widow of Nain – as his reaction to us, his wandering sheep – is gut-wrenching.  He has a compassion that makes him sick.  “I am sick with love,” says the Bride in the Song of Songs.  It’s “langueo” in Latin: I languish, I’m dying.

The remarkable thing in the story of the widow of Nain is that she too is languishing with love.  Christ has compassion on the gut-wrenching pain of the mother for her son.  His heart is poured out for hers – just as his heart is poured out for Mary at the death of her son.  Heart speaks to heart.


Now, as I hope becomes clear as we focus on the compassion of Christ, the mystery here is really more about love than sorrow.  In our Italian parish, there seems to be a desire to portray Our Lady of Sorrows – she seems to be a favorite Italian image (I don’t know, I’m sure not Italian) – as overwhelmed with tears.  As I’ve said before, I prefer the tradition that insists that Mary stands at the Cross: she is strong in her sorrow.

And she is strong for the same reason she is sorrowful: because of love.  So too, the love of Jesus makes his guts churn, yes – but in a way that leads him to action: like the Good Samaritan (Jesus is the Good Samaritan) or the father who runs out to meet his son.

The point isn’t that they collapse in tears.  The point is that they are overwhelmed with love.


The heart – understood in this visceral way – is the heart of our religion.  Catholicism is profoundly personal.  (We have ritual, in fact, to create the space for truly personal encounter with Christ.)  The hearts of Jesus and Mary are essential to understanding who they are, and who we are meant to be.

Christ became flesh so that he could pour his heart out for us.  We who are flesh receive the love of God in our hearts to make them fleshy hearts, so that we will pour out our hearts for him.  Heart speaks to heart, splagchna to splagchna.


The first reading for today, it just so happened, was from Paul’s instruction on bishops, deacons, and their wives.  The place of the women here is a little awkward: their behavior matters (especially at a time when many bishops and deacons, the text makes obviously, were married).  But they are not in charge.

Ah, but there’s the point.  Our religion has nothing to do with being in charge.  Jesus is moved with compassion for the widow of Nain not because she is in charge, but because she loves, and he loves.  That love is everything.

That is the true lesson of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross.

Where do you experience the viscera of Jesus and Mary?  What moves your splagchna to mercy?


Twenty-fourth Sunday: Trust

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 50:5-9a; PS 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; JAS 2:14-18; MK 8:27-35

This Sunday’s reading from our tour through James has another great Catholic apologetics line: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”

But once again, that we’re-better-than-you line ends up being a real challenge to Catholics ourselves.


The trouble is most direct in the Gospel.  “Who do people say that I am?”  “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter says, “You are the Christ.”


We Catholics have a double triumph here.  First, we are right and everyone else is wrong about faith.  Hurrah, us!

And if, as I have argued, John’s Gospel is a kind of theological commentary on the other Gospels, John reinterprets this scene in terms of the Eucharist.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we can say, “we are right about who Christ really is!”  (Deepest down, this is what Catholic devotion to Mary is about: maintaining the truth about Christ.)  In John, we find that the ultimate confession, the one that separates the true from the false disciples, is in the Eucharist.  And we are right about that, too!

And then on another level, this is about Petrine primacy.  In Matthew’s version of the story, this is where Jesus proclaims Peter the “rock” upon which he will build his church.

We could call this “Catholic triumphalism Sunday”: no faith without works, Mary (and the true profession of Christ), the Eucharist, and the Pope, all in two New Testament readings!


But now the trouble sets in.  Peter himself, in his moment of triumph, immediately falls: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him” – to rebuke Jesus . . . – “At this he [Jesus] turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’”  Hmm.

The problem is especially rich in Mark’s Gospel.  The early Church all agreed that Matthew’s Gospel was written first, with Mark obviously based on it; and that Mark was the disciple of Peter himself.  This is Peter’s version of the Gospel.

And nowhere does Peter’s version more heavily edit Matthew’s than here.  In Matthew, it seems so easy: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”  Hurrah!

But in Peter’s version, Mark leaves some of that out, tones it down.  Peter only says “You are the Christ.”  Not till Jesus dies on the Cross can anyone truly say, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39).

The reason Peter tones down the story is because, even if he said “Lord, Lord” with his lips – even if he did say Jesus was the Son of God – he denied it with his actions.

And he denied it by denying the Cross.  Immediately – even in Matthew’s version – Jesus says he must suffer greatly and be rejected and be killed.  That’s unthinkable to Peter, at that point in the story, despite his correct profession of faith.

And immediately after that, he says that we must die, too: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

It’s not enough to be “right” about faith and works, Marian Christology, the Pope, and the Eucharist, unless we embrace the Cross.  In fact – how wonderful! – it is precisely the Cross to which all those things call us.


James goes on – just as papal teaching goes on (though many of us who proclaim our allegiance to the papacy quickly disavow the popes when they all remind us of this) – to again and again tell us of the poor.  “How I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor,” says Francis.  (And we all proclaim: that wasn’t infallible!)

James is talking about “the necessities of the body,” actual physical action – real works.  Do we go there?  Or like Peter before Pentecost, do we rebuke anyone who makes our faith in Christ uncomfortable?  (And does anything make us more uncomfortable than true poverty?)


But if James calls us to embrace Christ on the Cross by being “for the poor,” our reading from Isaiah calls us to embrace him by being poor ourselves.

And it’s the worst part of poverty: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield.”

And then, in the second half of our reading from Isaiah, is the key to all our readings this week: “The Lord God is my help . . . .  He is near who upholds my right. . . .  See, the Lord God is my help.”

It is one thing to proclaim orthodoxy.  It is a deeper thing, the real heart of all those doctrinal triumphs, to let God be our all in all.  Only then can we embrace the Cross, and be truly poor and for the poor.

Where do you find yourself shrinking away from the suffering Christ?  Is it a lack of faith in God our help?

Twenty-Third Sunday: The Preferential Option for the Poor

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 35:4-7a; PS 146: 7, 8-9, 9-10; JAS 2:1-5; MK 7:31-37

I have been thinking about writing a little something, as non-partisan as possible, about the Black Lives Matter movement.  This Sunday’s readings do it better than I could have.

To the call, “Black Lives Matter,” American conservatives (and even the socialist Bernie Sanders, at first) respond, “All Lives Matter.”  True.

But the Catholic idea of a “preferential option for the poor” (clearly articulated over and over long before that phrase was coined in the 1960s) means that in order to show that all lives matter, you have to take special concern for the most vulnerable.  In order to treat all people the same, you need to treat the poor especially well.

Why?  First, because what it means to be rich and powerful is that you can take care of yourself; what it means to be poor and vulnerable is that you need help.  (This is not the place for a discussion of race, but that is the claim of “Black Lives Matter”: yes, all lives matter, but some are more vulnerable than others, and they want that to be recognized.)  The poor – and the marginalized – should get preferential treatment because they need it.

Second, because we are not inclined to give it to them.  To be poor also means having nothing to offer in return.  We are all inclined to favor those who will favor us.  Our faith calls us to favor those who cannot favor us, to go where we are not inclined to go.


This Sunday’s reading from James says precisely that.  He begins, “show no partiality” – “all lives matter”!  And then everything else he says is about a preferential option for the poor.  “Did not God chose those who are poor in the world” – well now, that almost sounds like God does “show partiality,” preferential treatment.

But James’s point, which is obvious enough (and obviously all over the Bible, the lives of the saints, and Church teaching), is that we are inclined to make the “poor person in shabby clothes” stand aside while we focus on the rich.  My friends . . . don’t get me started on the Church in America.

How often we claim that the powerful are more worthy of our attention than the poor, because of their supposed influence.  How often we trust in kings, and long for earthly treasures.


A deeper aspect of this teaching is in this Sunday’s Gospel.

The main story is “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!”  “And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.”

But the deeper story is in the first sentence: “Again Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.”  Mark doesn’t waste words.  Why this geography?

The first thing to know is that the people of Tyre and Sidon were Phoenicians, not Jews; that the Decapolis was Greek, not Israelite; and that the Sea of Galilee, in between, is where Jesus is from.  He passed from one mission territory, right past his home, to another mission territory.

The other thing to know is that the Lectionary skips the uncomfortable story of the Syrophoenician woman, whom Jesus tells, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.” There are better things for dogs, like supplements, you can learn more in this Terraman Pro review or at least that’s what labradoodle michigan breeders recommend.

In the story before that, which we read last week, Jesus’s people are complaining that he doesn’t keep the rules.  Then he goes to the Phoenicians, expresses some reluctance, some love of his own people – and then gives them a miracle.  Then this week another miracle to other Gentiles – though with a Hebrew word: ephphatha.

Jesus is going on mission to “the dogs”: the poorest among the pagans.


The pagans of the Decapolis “were exceedingly astonished and they said, ‘He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”

Mark is a good writer.  He quotes words that sound Biblical.  It sounds like they are quoting a prophecy.  But they are not.  They don’t know the Bible, and their words aren’t anywhere else in it.  What they do know is that this man’s miracles of mercy commend him.

Our first reading, from Isaiah (the Biblical prophet), says similar things: “He comes to save you.  Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

The thing is, these miracles – miracles of compassion for the poor – are not things only the Biblically literate, privileged class can appreciate.  They are things that even the pagan dogs, and the poorest among them, can recognize.

Let Christ shine forth in our lives so that all will recognize him – by our preferential option for the poor.

Where do you think Christians prefer the rich and powerful?  How do you think that affects their witness?



Cardinal Sarah, Part Four: The Hermeneutic of Continuity

Today we read the final section of Cardinal Sarah’s article on liturgy.  Here he discusses Pope Benedict’s grand idea of “the hermeneutic of continuity.”  A hermeneutic is how you read things, the assumptions you bring to a text.  Too often both conservatives and liberals bring to Vatican II a “hermeneutic of rupture,” an assumption that it was a break with the past, not a rediscovery of the tradition. 

But even worse, and more common today, both conservatives and liberals bring this “hermeneutic of rupture” to the liturgical reform Vatican II gave us (derisively labeled Novus Ordo, to make it sound Masonic) – something that Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict always warned us to avoid.   

At the service of true participation, the Council called for better understanding of the rites.  Cardinal Sarah glosses this with the idea that true understanding has always been the understanding of faith and love.

The Council called for the liturgy to be an instrument of evangelization – but that does not mean dumbing it down, it means lifting it up.  Non-Christians should not feel at home in the liturgy – they should feel called to discover our true heavenly home, in which the liturgy participates.

Finally, Benedict famously allowed a freer use of the usus antiquior, the Mass as it was before Vatican II.  But again, conservatives and traditionalists have overwhelmingly betrayed Benedict’s insight by reading this move with a “hermeneutic of rupture,” as if the point is to pit one form of the Mass against the other.  Cardinal Sarah warns both sides against this rupture.  

Rather, we must rediscover the one Roman Rite, brilliantly renewed by the call of the Council.  To this end he suggests one more fine practical detail – perhaps in the future the revised rite will allow an option for the penitential rite or the offertory as they were before the Council: these are the two parts of the Mass that were most changed.  The point is, the revised prayers are not in opposition to the old; they go together.


Cardinal Sarah:


406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003The liturgy is a fundamentally mystical and contemplative reality, and thus beyond the reach of our human action; even participatio is a grace from God. It presupposes on our part openness to the mystery being celebrated. For this reason the Constitution encourages full understanding of the rites (cf. §34) and at the same time prescribes that “the faithful…be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (§54).


In reality, an understanding of the rites is not achieved by human reason left to itself, as if it could grasp everything, understand everything, master everything. An understanding of the sacred rites is the fruit of the sensus fidei, which exercises living faith through symbol and understands more by affinity than by concept. Such understanding presupposes that one draws near to the mystery with humility.


But will we have the courage to follow the Council all the way to this point? Yet it is only such a reading, illumined by faith, which constitutes the foundation for evangelization. Indeed, “the liturgy… shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations, under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together” (§2).


It must cease to be a place of disobedience to the prescriptions of the Church. More specifically, the liturgy cannot be an occasion for divisions among Christians. Dialectical readings of Sacrosanctum Concilium, or the hermeneutics of rupture in one sense or another, are not the fruit of a spirit of faith.


The Council did not intend to break from the liturgical forms inherited from tradition – indeed, it desired to deepen them. The Constitution establishes that “any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (§23). In this sense, it is necessary that those who celebrate according to the usus antiquior do so without a spirit of opposition, and thus in the spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium.


By the same token, it would be a mistake to consider the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite as deriving from a different theology than that of the reformed liturgy. And one could hope that a future edition of the Missal might include the penitential rite and the offertory of the usus antiquior, so as to underscore the fact that the two liturgical forms shed light one upon the other, in continuity and without opposition.


If we live in this spirit, the liturgy will cease to be the locus of rivalries and criticisms, and we will be brought at last to participate actively in that liturgy “which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle” (§8).



12 June 2015

Cardinal Sarah, Part Three: on Keeping the Liturgy Sacred

Today we read the third, penultimate section of Cardinal Sarah’s wonderful article on the liturgy. 

Again he calls us to hear the true teaching of Vatican II, according to which liturgy is “above all things the worship of the divine majesty.”  What does it mean to worship?  Cardinal Sarah gives a fine encapsulation of Ratzinger’s teaching on the golden calf: the problem was not just the idol, but the people’s insistence that liturgy revolve around their interests, rather than worship of God. 

The Cardinal adds some concrete ideas on preaching (let it talk about God, not just about us), the sanctuary (let it look holy in the first place, and let its holiness be preserved by the way we approach it), and readers (let them be dressed as if they were performing a sacred function).  But always, he keeps these practical issues subject to the bigger liturgical vision of true participation in the liturgy.

Here’s Cardinal Sarah:


406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations, falling into the temptation of the Israelites in the desert. They sought to create a cult of worship limited to their own measure and reach, and let us not forget that they ended up prostrate before the idol of the golden calf.


The hour has come to listen to the Council. The liturgy is “above all things the worship of the divine majesty” (§33). It can form and teach us only insofar as it is completely ordered to divine worship and the glorification of God. The liturgy truly places us in the presence of divine transcendence. True participation means the renewal in us of that “amazement” that St. John Paul II held in such high regard (cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §6). This sacred amazement, this joyous reverence, requires our silence before the divine majesty. We often forget that sacred silence is one of the means indicated by the Council to foster participation.


If the liturgy is the work of Christ, is it necessary for the celebrant to interject his own comments? We must remember that when the Missal authorizes commentary, this must not become a worldly, human discourse, a more or less subtle pronouncement on current events, or a banal greeting to those present, but rather a very brief exhortation to enter into the mystery (cf. General Introduction of the Roman Missal, §50).


As for the homily, it too is a liturgical act which has its own rules. The participatio actuosa in the work of Christ presupposes that one leaves behind the profane world in order to enter into “sacred action surpassing all others” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §7). In fact, “we claim somewhat arrogantly to remain in the human sphere so as to enter into the divine” (Robert Sarah, God or Nothing, Ignatius Press, Chapter IV).


In this sense it is deplorable that the sanctuary in our churches is not strictly reserved for divine worship, that people enter it in worldly garb, that the sacred space is not clearly delineated by the architecture. And since, as the Council teaches, Christ is present in his word when it is proclaimed, it is equally harmful when readers are not dressed in a way that shows they are pronouncing not human words, but the Word of God.


Cardinal Sarah, Part Two: on Facing the Lord

ad orientemToday we continue our reading of Cardinal Sarah’s explanation of the liturgy.  In this second part of his article, the Cardinal continues his discussion of true “participation” in the liturgy by discussing the direction we face.  This is the finest thing I’ve read on an important topic.

Liturgy fans like to talk about “ad orientem” liturgy: when the priest, perhaps with his “back toward the people,” faces the same direction as the people.  This is an important issues, but there are many confusions.  First is the question of building churches that face east, also an important issue, but a different one; the priest can face the same direction as the people, or face the people, whether or not the Church faces east.   Second is the distinction of different parts of the Mass.  Sometimes it is appropriate for the priest to face the people: Vatican II did not “turn the altars” around, but one of its most important insights is that the ambo, from which Scripture is read, did need to be turned toward the people. Ratzinger is strong on this point, but Cardinal Sarah’s brief statement here is even stronger.

Finally, there is the question of the goal.  Ultimately, liturgy is not primarily about externals; sometimes we get so caught up arguing which direction the priest faces that we forget to lift up our hearts to the Lord.  Again, Cardinal Sarah’s formulation is fabulous: face-to-face leads to tete-a-tete leads to heart-to-heart.  Externals matter – when they help us internally.  And so this section concludes with a fine quotation from Thomas Merton, not on liturgy wars, but on recollection.

Here’s Cardinal Sarah:


406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003Liturgical participatio must therefore be understood as a grace from Christ who “always associates the Church with himself” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). It is he who takes the initiative, who has primacy. The Church “calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father” (§7).

The priest must thus become this instrument that allows Christ to shine through. As our Holy Father Pope Francis recently recalled, the celebrant is not the host of a show, he must not seek the affirmation of the assembly, standing before them as if they were called to enter into dialogue primarily with him. To enter into the spirit of the Council means—on the contrary—to efface oneself, to renounce the spotlight.

Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution—indeed, it is entirely fitting—for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East during the penitential rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations, and the Eucharistic prayer, in order to express the desire to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ. This practice could well be established in cathedrals, where liturgical life must be exemplary (cf. §41).

Of course it is understood that there are other parts of the Mass in which the priest, acting in persona Christi Capitis, enters into nuptial dialogue with the assembly. But this face-to-face has no other purpose than to lead to a tete-à-tete with God, which, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, will become a heart-to-heart. The Council thus proposes additional means to favor participation: “acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as…actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes” (§30).

A hasty and all-too-human reading of the Constitution has led to the conclusion that the faithful must be kept constantly busy. The contemporary Western way of thinking, shaped by technology and dazzled by the media, has wished to turn the liturgy into a lucrative production. In this spirit, many have tried to make the celebrations festive. Prompted by pastoral motives, liturgical ministers sometimes stage celebrations into which elements of worldly entertainment are introduced. Have we not witnessed a proliferation of testimonials, acts, and applause? It is imagined that this will foster the participation of the faithful, when in fact it reduces the liturgy to a human plaything.

“Silence is not a virtue, noise is not a sin, it is true,” says Thomas Merton, “but the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society [or of some African Eucharistic liturgies] are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins—its godlessness, its despair. A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter, is a world without anything to live for…. Mass becomes racket and confusion; prayers—an exterior or interior noise” (Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas [San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1953, 1981], passim).


Introducing Cardinal Sarah

406-4515-cardinal-sarah-003A student recently brought to my attention a fabulous article published in June in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, by Cardinal Robert Sarah.

In the next few days I will repost it here in full.  I share this article first of all to share the best short piece I have ever read on the liturgy.  This is phenomenal, and key to the vision we are trying to cultivate on this web page.

I share it also to bring your attention to Robert Cardinal Sarah.  As Benedict’s point man for Catholic charities, he did important things to cultivate the union of faith and action that is so fundamental to true Catholicism – and in so much need of recovery.  At last year’s Synod he was one of the most powerful and thoughtful voices in witness of Christian marriage.  And now as Pope Francis’s appointee to oversee the liturgy, he gives us the very best on that topic.

Above all, we should try to live this vision of the liturgy.  But we might also pray that this great African pastor may be our next Holy Father – perhaps as Gregory XVII?


Part One: Vatican II on True Participation

The first thing I love about this article is Cardinal Sarah’s insistence that we actually read Vatican II’s fabulous Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which liberals and conservatives alike ignore based on wrong assumptions. 

In this first section, Cardinal Sarah explains that Vatican II, far from just naming a couple things we should do, above all gives an authoritative teaching on the nature of the liturgy.  At the heart of that teaching is actuosa participatio, “active participation.”  Vatican II says of its liturgical reforms, “In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.”  But Vatican II’s vision of active participation is not about the secularized activity we so often experience.  True active participation, as Cardinal Sarah says, means “entering into the action of Christ.”



Cardinal Sarah on Vatican II on True Participation

FIFTY YEARS AFTER its promulgation by Pope Paul VI, will the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy finally be read? Sacrosanctum Concilium is not in fact a simple catalogue of “recipes” for reform, but a true and proper Magna Carta for all liturgical action. In that Constitution, the Ecumenical Council gives us a masterful lesson in methodology. Far from contenting itself with a disciplinary and external approach to the liturgy, the Council summons us to contemplate the liturgy in its essence. The Church’s practice always flows from what she receives and contemplates from Revelation. Pastoral practice cannot be divorced from doctrine.


ad orientemIn the Church, “action is directed to contemplation” (cf. §2). The conciliar Constitution invites us to rediscover the Trinitarian origin of the work of the liturgy. Indeed, the Council affirms continuity between the mission of Christ the Redeemer and the liturgical mission of the Church. “Just as Christ was sent by the Father, so also he sent the apostles,” so that “by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves” they might “accomplish the work of salvation” (§6).


The liturgy in action is thus none other than the work of Christ in action. The liturgy is in its essence actio Christi: “the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God” (§5). He is the high priest, the true subject, the true protagonist of the liturgy (cf. §7). If this vital principle is not embraced in faith, one risks reducing the liturgy to a human action, to the community’s celebration of itself.


On the contrary, the true work of the Church consists in entering into the action of Christ, participating intimately in the mission he has received from the Father. Thus “the fullness of divine worship was given to us,” because “his humanity, united with the person of the Word, was the instrument of our salvation” (§5). The Church, the Body of Christ, must in turn become an instrument in the hands of the Word.


This is the ultimate meaning of the key concept of the conciliar Constitution, participatio actuosa. For the Church, this participation consists in becoming an instrument of Christ the Priest, so as to participate in his Trinitarian mission. The Church participates actively in the liturgical work of Christ insofar as she is his instrument. In this sense, language about the “celebrating community” can carry a degree of ambiguity requiring true caution (cf. the Instruction Redemptoris sacramentum, §42). Participatio actuosa must not be understood, therefore, as the need to do something. On this point the teaching of the Council has often been distorted. It is a question, rather, of allowing Christ to take hold of us and to associate us with his sacrifice.