Monday, June 7, 2010

Liturgy or Catechesis?

When one looks at the problems facing the liturgical reform, a certain argument normally springs up, typically by those who oppose (or even worse demean) anything that resembles a serious effort at reform. They will tell us “the real problem with the liturgical landscape today does not stem from the liturgical reform itself, but from Catechesis.” They are correct, but not in ways they anticipated.

They blame the lack of Eucharistic devotion and piety on a lack of understanding doctrinally the understanding of the Real Presence. To them, the entire crisis in the Church and her liturgy would be wiped away if more people just read the actual Church documents on the manner. In this they are completely naïve. This is not to say that reading official Church teaching is wrong, it is something we should all do. Yet if one needs to go to those documents to gain an acceptable knowledge, there is a problem.

There are those who like to call the approach taken before “modern times” taken by the Catholic Church as divorced from reality. Yet I submit we see a keen appreciation for human nature in their teachings and documents. They did not buy into the false dichotomy present in the minds of many Catholics today of a distinction between liturgy and catechesis. In their minds, liturgy was catechesis. When Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King, he recognized the job the liturgy would do in helping the understanding of the teaching:

That these blessings may be abundant and lasting in Christian society, it is necessary that the kingship of our Savior should be as widely as possible recognized and understood, and to the end nothing would serve better than the institution of a special feast in honor of the Kingship of Christ. For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year -- in fact, forever. The church's teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man's nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God's teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life. (Quas Primas, 21)

Think of the keen understanding of human nature by this statement. When the Pope notes that the official teachings of the church only reach a few and the intellectual class, he’s not insulting the “ordinary” Catholic. Many Catholics do not have time for rigorous intellectual pursuits. They are too busy raising families and trying to be saints in their own particular way. For others, such intellectual pursuits are not their vocation or gift from God. As effective as John Paul II’s Theology of the Body has been for example, it has probably permeated the lives of about 5% of Catholics. Amongst the youth in the Church, it may be 10%. At most, it will probably never be above 1 in 5. This isn’t to denigrate or say it is wrong to do these catechesis projects. It is just that ultimately, their scope is limited. They are a useful discipline when used in a targeted manner.

The liturgy is not hampered by these inherent limits. While not everyone is a scholar, every Catholic has to worship. The prayers during the liturgy are prayed out loud for our benefit, so we may learn from them. The symbolic actions that occur at the altar are meant to draw our hearts, minds, and souls to God. With everyone in Church, a priest can far more effectively reach his audience, putting the understanding of the official Church teaching in a more localized understanding during his homilies.

Most importantly, we must remember that Catholicism is not a religion of intellectual abstracts. We ultimately do not follow a dogma through which the entire world is interpreted. We follow a person, Jesus Christ, who allows us to see human nature as it really is. This involves more than just the intellect. The problem of many in the Church today is they act as if the faith were a mathematical equation. The liturgy engages the soul a way general audiences, encyclicals and catechisms could never hope to.

The issue is never “liturgy or catechesis.” This is one of the great false choices we have had in our Church nowadays. If we want to truly unleash the ability for Catholics to come to a robust understanding of our faith, we need to start looking at the liturgy in this manner.

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