When I was a young chap, I spent a great deal of time in Lourdes working with the sick and handicapped. These trips, sometimes twice a year, at Easter and summer, presented an opportunity for me, as I saw it, to put my faith into practice. Looking back on it, especially in the context of the study I have done since, I very much see this as part of my search for the true meaning of Christianity.
I am Christian by birth, but what does that mean in terms of assent? If I was not born Christian, would I choose Christ? If I did, what would draw me to dedicate my life to the Catholic Church? At the time, the best answer I could find was to give up my time, money, pursuit of my career, more worldly friendships, and follow Christ in the most vivid, practical way open to me. I saw this as inspired by St. Francis of Assisi's radical discipleship, the best model of Jesus' call (Mt 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 19:21; Mk 2:14; Lk 5:27). As a young man, these words of Jesus bothered me incessantly (albeit in a simplistic, literal, sense), because everyone who said they were followers of Him, did not seem to be following His most basic instructions.
Perhaps one reason it was a continual draw to me was that Jesus seems to repeat this message regularly throughout the Gospel:
Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” —Matthew 8:21He even explains it, perhaps in most detail in the dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man (Mt 19:16 ff). The young man says "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?". In Veritatis Splendor, Pope Saint John Paul II explains that this is not about what rules must be followed, but rather it is about the full meaning of life; the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action:
"the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion. This question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts us and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man's life."—VS 7.Perhaps I wasn't so naive to consider this calling at the heart of my early seeking? In any case, the contradiction I saw between the fundamental Gospel message and the mediocrity that surrounded me continued to frustrate me. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that so much of what I saw lacked the reality of a life lived in the heat and joy of the Gospel—of God's love experienced, known, understood. Later, it took a lot of study to intellectualise the fundamental questions about what being Christian actually meant. Reflecting on this now, I am still troubled by this dichotomy, not least where I evidence in my own life.
My experience in passing on the faith since teaches me that I was never alone in these questions. In a strange tautology, it seems that in order for us to be prepared to make a commitment to God which will change our lives, we need to know that such a commitment will truly be transformative. My main beef studying and understanding my faith better is best articulated as a huge frustration that the important truths of the faith seem not to be being communicated, and have not been for several decades. but this is nothing I have not said before.
My time in Lourdes affected my understanding of Mass (liturgy) to a great extent. This was because Mass at home was very boring, and Mass in Lourdes was very joyful. There was a definite charismatic sense to worship; one could gain a sense that everyone there was committed and doing what they were doing because they were following Him. I guess this just added to my frustration over all. I would feel very close to Christ while in Lourdes, but the Lourdes Buzz ™would soon fade away, faced with the mundane worship at my local Church, full of lacklustre music and an apparent lack of commitment from those present. Whether it actually meant anything more than them getting their children into the Catholic School or not I could not say, but it certainly appeared more of a chore than a joy.
I remember one particular trip to Lourdes where my friend John and I decided it would be much better to do away with the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist altogether, and simply have the sign of peace for an hour or so. If you are thinking that is utterly impossible, it is probably because you have not been to a Youth Mass in Lourdes before.
Interesting then to read this week that the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship has announced a desire for a more restrained sign of peace at Mass. Of course, this is nothing new; the Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritas of 2007 states:
By its nature the Eucharist is the sacrament of peace. At Mass this dimension of the eucharistic mystery finds specific expression in the sign of peace. Certainly this sign has great value (cf. Jn 14:27). In our times, fraught with fear and conflict, this gesture has become particularly eloquent, as the Church has become increasingly conscious of her responsibility to pray insistently for the gift of peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family. Certainly there is an irrepressible desire for peace present in every heart. The Church gives voice to the hope for peace and reconciliation rising up from every man and woman of good will, directing it towards the one who "is our peace" (Eph 2:14) and who can bring peace to individuals and peoples when all human efforts fail. We can thus understand the emotion so often felt during the sign of peace at a liturgical celebration. Even so, during the Synod of Bishops there was discussion about the appropriateness of greater restraint in this gesture, which can be exaggerated and cause a certain distraction in the assembly just before the reception of Communion. It should be kept in mind that nothing is lost when the sign of peace is marked by a sobriety which preserves the proper spirit of the celebration, as, for example, when it is restricted to one's immediate neighbours.Fr. Jose Maria Gil Tamayo, secretary general of the Spanish bishops' conference stated:
“I have asked the competent curial offices to study the possibility of moving the sign of peace to another place, such as before the presentation of the gifts at the altar … taking into account ancient and venerable customs and the wishes expressed by the Synod Fathers.”An inspiration for the suggested change was Christ's exhortation, at Mt. 5:23, that “if you remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your offering before the altar, and go be reconciled first.” It would also have brought the Roman rite into conformity, in that respect, with the Ambrosian rite, celebrated in Milan. The Neo-Catechumenal Way, a lay movement in the Church, has already displaced the sign of peace, in its celebration of the Roman rite, to before the presentation of the gifts, although the CDW announced that the placement of the sign of peace within Mass will not change, it did suggest several ways the rite could be performed with greater dignity. The CDW said that there are several abuses of the rite which are to be stopped: the introduction of a “song of peace,” which does not exist in the Roman rite; the faithful moving from their place to exchange the sign; the priest leaving the altar to exchange the sign with the faithful; and when, at occasions such as weddings or funerals, it becomes an occasion for congratulations or condolences. It doesn't specifically mention Masses at or post Lourdes, but I should imagine the rule would be extended to those as well.
So are you wondering why? Well, I have to say that the CDW's explanation is hard to follow:
According to CNA, The Congregation for Divine Worship said it would “offer some practical measures to better express the meaning of the sign of peace and to moderate excesses, which create confusion in the liturgical assembly just prior to Communion.”
“If the faithful do not understand and do not show, in their ritual gestures, the true significance of the right of peace, they are weakened in the Christian concept of peace, and their fruitful participation in the Eucharist is negatively affected.”
On this basis, the congregation offered four suggestions which are to form the “nucleus” of catechesis on the sign of peace.
First, while confirming the importance of the rite, it emphasised that “it is completely legitimate to affirm that it is not necessary to invite 'mechanistically' to exchange (the sign of) peace.” The rite is optional, the congregation reminded, and there certainly are times and places where it is not fitting.
Its second recommendation was that as translations are made of the third typical edition of the Roman Missal, bishops' conference should consider “changing the way in which the exchange of peace is made.” It suggested in particular that “familiar and worldly gestures of greeting” should be substituted with “other, more appropriate gestures.” I'm not sure what the former, or the latter are there!
The CDW's final exhortation was that episcopal conferences prepare liturgical catechesis on the significance of the rite of peace, and its correct observation.
“The intimate relation between 'lex orandi' and 'lex credendi' should obviously be extended to 'lex vivendi',” the congregation's letter concluded. This means what we pray is what we believe and should mean that is how we live.
“That Catholics are today faced with the grave commitment to build a more just and peaceful world, implies a more profound understanding of the Christian meaning of peace and of its expression in liturgical celebration.”
So what does that mean? Well, fundamentally, the idea of the Sign of Peace introduced into the novus ordo Mass after The Second Vatican Council is that we prepare to eat and drink at the Lord’s table with those words taught us by Jesus: “Give us this day our daily bread, / and forgive us our trespasses, / as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Keenly aware that communion (the word means “union with”) is the sign and source of our reconciliation and union with God and with one another, we make a gesture of union and forgiveness with those around us and offer them a sign of peace. However, many have long criticised this introduction as a form of archaeologism which is typical of the reforms after the council. That is because it is an attempt to return to antiquity whilst completely refusing to understand the reasons why, under providence (not thanks so some know-it-all committee), change happened, gradually, over the course of the centuries. Dr. Joseph Shaw explains what has happened like this:
...yes everyone did exchange the kiss of peace in antiquity. The reformers saw that this took place earlier, at the Offertory, in the Gallican Rite, and there was a widespread idea (see the scholars Gregory Dix and Josef Jungmann) that the Roman Rite moved the Pax from that position to its current one before Communion, at some point prior to a famous letter on the subject written by Pope Innocent I in 416. This is an example of scholarship getting ahead of itself, however: there is not a scrap of evidence that it ever took place at the Offertory in the Roman Rite (or in the closely associated African liturgical practice).
This is important for the meaning of the ceremony. At the Offertory, the key to it is the reconciliation of the Community, an idea which appealed to Bugnini and his gang in the 1960s. But in the Roman Rite, while this idea is not absent, there is something else which sets it into a bigger context.
The Peace is on the Altar.
Christ, the Prince of Peace, has come down upon the Altar, and it is His peace which is imparted in the Kiss. So it is not just exchanged between members of the congregation: it is given to them from Christ. The celebrant kisses the Altar next to the Consecrated Host, and it is this kiss, exchanged with Christ, which is passed on, one by one, to the rest of those present.This explains how my opinion about the Sign of Peace has changed over the years. Now I consider myself entering into the most sacred part of the Mass when the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins. To have that focus and prayer broken by what can be a rather disruptive ceremony is rather disconcerting. We move from the focus on Christ made present on the altar, to each other.
I suppose that we must consider that, if our focus is on God as Trinity, our focus is community. Our sharing the peace of Christ with each other is indicative of our communion with each other and our love of our brothers and sisters in Christ. So it has enormous value. But, as the CDW states, “If the faithful do not understand and do not show, in their ritual gestures, the true significance of the right of peace, they are weakened in the Christian concept of peace, and their fruitful participation in the Eucharist is negatively affected.”
Part of my disillusionment when I was young was with the lack of commitment and the lack of seriousness displayed by people who said they believed Jesus Christ is God and that Jesus Christ is really and truly present on the altar at Mass, confected by the priest. There seemed to be a huge disconnection between what was being said and the way people were acting that I found hugely confusing. As Clare Short blogged here:
One day I went into the Church with a Muslim friend. I was showing him the Church and people were coming and going in front of the tabernacle to do various tasks. My friend turned to me and said ‘You know Sam, this is why I could never believe what you believe; that God is present in that gold box at the back of the Church’. I said to him, ‘why not?’, and he turned to me and said ‘because if I believed God was truly present in front of me, I would be crawling on my hands and knees.’
The feast of the Body and Blood of Christ is one of the most precious feasts in the life of the Church. It is a gentle reminder of all our saviour has given us. The word Eucharist itself means ‘Thanksgiving’. It is the most incredible gift we have ever been given.
Sadly, at this point in the Churches history, the Eucharist is often taken for granted. Many claim the ‘right’ to it without preparing themselves through confession. The truth is that none of us have the ‘right’ – It is a gift.
Horrifically, the Body and Blood of Christ is often referred to as ‘the bread’ or ‘the wine’. It is the actual Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Each spec, each small particle contains within it the equal dignity and rank of the eternal Godhead, something so precious, countless martyrs and saints have shed their blood for it before us. We can never understand what the Eucharist is fully, but we can express our gratitude and respect in the way we approach and receive this incredible gift.Consistency is vital if we are going to pass on the faith (we are talking about an Apostolic faith after all). Consistency between word and deed. We need to live this and in order to live it, we need to understand it. To maintain the fracture we currently endure is to embrace the relativism which is destroying the faith. It is this relativism that makes us capitulate before mediocrity, to accept that it is OK not to act with reverence before the Blessed Sacrament, after all, Jesus will understand, right? Perhaps He will, but it is the proper attitude which propagates the faith. Other's see how much it means to us and they recognise its importance. The proper attitude is also (more importantly) indicative of love. The way we treat each other—if we do something special—shows how much we care in more than just words. How would it be if we said about our husbands and wives, 'it doesn't matter how I dress/ how I act/ how I speak to them, because they know I love them'. Errr no, sorry sunshine, in reality that just doesn't cut the mustard!
You may also find this synopsis of the story from the Vatican that prompted this blog useful.