As human persons, we often find it helpful to return frequently to the fundaments, whether of an athletic sport or a musical instrument, to keep us grounded and mindful of the basics which we can sometimes lose track of in the details. So, before delving directly into the topic of this paper, it would be prudent to first bring-to-mind some fundamental things about God and man, and the command to worship the one God, before selecting some elements of sacred worship in Mass which help to cultivate within us moral living.
God created man (and woman) in His image and likeness (Gen 1:26-28) as persons who are an intimate union of body and soul (Gen 2:7). In man’s very person there is a beautiful unity of the created world and the spiritual world (CCC 355). “From his conception, he is destined for eternal Beatitude” (CCC 1703). The Catechism says, “God created everything for man, but man in turn was created to serve and love God and to offer all creation back to Him” (CCC 357). With the powers of his soul man can reason: he was created to seek the truth, to come to understand the order of things, and to come to know and fully possess himself in his human nature. Through his soul, man also has the power of free will to direct himself toward His ultimate end (Beatitude) and to give himself in relationship with other persons. With these faculties of his soul, “[man] finds perfection “in seeking and loving what is true and good” (CCC 1704). The beautiful gift of freedom comes with great responsibility and consequences; either to act in accord with God’s moral law which is inscribed in our nature, and so to become more free and more ourselves than ever; or to abuse our freedom and attempt to remake ourselves and the moral order as though we were god, which leads to sin, slavery and a frustrated end.
Saint John Paul II in his encyclical letter Veritatis splendor reflects upon a fundamental meaning-of-life type question which a rich young man put to Jesus “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” (Mt 19:16). As Saint John Paul explains, this man has reasoned that there is indeed a connectedness between the way one lives and the destiny of eternal Beatitude for which God has created him. Jesus draws the man deeper into what exactly he is asking when He says “there is only One who is Good” (Mt 19:17). Saint John Paul remarks “the answer to the question… can only be found in turning one’s mind and heart to the “One” who is good: “No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18). Only God can answer the question about what is good, because He is the Good [Himself]” (VS 9). So, if man wishes to enter life eternal, he must orient the whole of his life (through his reason and will) to the God alone who is Good by first keeping the commandments (Mt 19:17). As we begin to focus upon the topic of this paper, let us turn then to God’s good command to man to worship Him.
It is Good for Man to Worship God
God has created us for Himself and we find in both the Decalogue, “you shall not have other gods beside me,” (Ex 20:3) and the teaching of Jesus Christ, “the Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve” (Mt 4:10), that men should only worship and serve the one triune God. In the Western world, immediately upon hearing this command, we may get a bit uncomfortable to this exorcize of authority over us, so we do well to give ourselves some proper context. Before God proclaims the Commandments, He said “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2). Through Moses,
God had just freed His People from seven-day-a-week slavery in Egypt, and as He prepares them to be restored to the Promised Land, God in charity orders His people to reorder their days and lives in worship to Him alone. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “the worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world” (CCC 2097). God has freed His people physically to now worship and serve Him alone with the whole integrity of their person. We see in the basic understanding of worship, that God’s law is not thrust upon man like a foreign and irrelevant law of heteronomy, nor can man in freedom turn in upon himself with the self-law of autonomy, but rather we find that God’s law is a freeing law of participated theonomy in God’s very life. God’s command to worship Him is a friendly-law which cultivates true freedom within man and his moral life, helps him to discover himself and to grow into his human nature, and orient his life toward his ultimate end of Beatitude.
In our liturgical adoration and worship of God, we work to confess with the whole of our person that there is one God, that it is not ourselves, and in justice to give Him alone primacy, submission in charity, and by living in right-relationship with Him and our redeemed nature through baptism. “Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God. Cult exists to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God” (Murphy 141). We find then that God’s loving and providential command to worship Him leads man to orient his life to God and to allow his worship and communion with
God to give form and order to how he lives his life toward his destiny. The Catechism expounds: “through the liturgy, Christ our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church… for it is in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, that Christ Jesus works in fullness for the transformation of men” (CCC 1069, 1074).
I. Some General Observations Before the Sacred Liturgy Begins
Before engaging directly how the sacred liturgy cultivates moral transformation in the members of the People of God, it is worthwhile to note a few things upon entering the physical church building and before the sacred liturgy begins. Sacrosanctum concilium reminds us “in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful comes to it with proper dispositions…” (SC 11). Traditionally, Catholic church buildings design their vestibules and the narthex to be places of transition within the building to aid Christians in leaving behind the secular world as they make their way to the church proper for the worship of God (Built of Living Stones 95). Upon entering the church one might notice the unique fragrance of incense which in Sacred Scripture is an expression of reverence and prayer (Ps 141:2, Rev 8:3-4), or be blessed to hear the other-worldliness of the sacred music of our Catholic heritage, or begin to be visually confronted with beautiful sacred art through which man is moved to contemplation of the supernatural.
Before the liturgy begins, our places of worship begin to open our senses, our very person, to the spiritual world which we perceive not as directly as the secular world, but which is very much present to us. One might see statues of angels, the Stations of the Cross, or beautiful stained-glass windows which visually recount important moments of Salvation History. There are also statues or icons of saints, those men and women of our church family who have gone before us in the story of Salvation, surrounding us as we arrive at the nave. These images of saints with “their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of moral truth, the martyrs and, in general, all the Church’s saints, light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense” (VS 93).
As Christians begin gathering quietly and reverently in the pews of the nave before Mass something very subtle is made manifest. At the sacred liturgy, the members of the Body of Christ through baptism sit together as members of the Mystical Body of equal dignity before God. There are no distinctions in seating for the members of the congregation. Men and women sit together with their children. The poor man just off the street takes a place in the pew next to the president of a Fortune 500 company. High school athletes of rival teams sit beside one another. Persons of all ethnic and social backgrounds sit together without division. Amidst all this sweeping diversity there is expressed a beautiful unity of the inherent dignity of the human person before God and regardless of the accidentals, or where they are on their journey of conversion to God, they uphold that God-given dignity of one another (CCC 1702).
Before holy Mass begins, Mother Church is at work in the created order of our church buildings, which God Himself has entered in the Incarnation, to begin to prepare and dispose our minds, hearts, bodies, and senses for worship and communion with God in the sacred liturgy. There are two remaining general items which should be discussed regarding overarching themes in our liturgical worship of God and the cultivation of man’s transfigured living in Him: our bodies and souls worshiping God in unity and truth and our physical orientation in Christ as Head and Body during holy Mass.
Worshipping God With Our Entire Person
Earlier, it was stated that the human person in an embodied spirit. Our worship of God in the sacred liturgy is not simply about showing up for Mass but about learning to worship and commune with God completely in the whole of our person. Sacrosanctum concilium teaches “the Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration” (SC 48). Pope Benedict XVI reflected upon this in Sacramentum Caritatis: “the liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. As Saint Bonaventure would say, in Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendor at their source. This is no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love” (SC 35).
God has so inspired the sacred liturgy in its organic development over time and places so to draw man out of himself and into an intimate exchange with God in the unity of the Body of Christ. Just as the triune God created us with five senses, so too He can come to meet and draw us through those senses in the liturgy and the sacraments. And, we can respond to His drawing in worship of God at Mass with our bodies and with our worship of Him in the way we live each moment of our lives. Sacrosanctum concilium teaches on active participation that “the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence” (SC 30). It should be said that the ultimate end of the liturgy is not for the members of the Body of Christ to be busy in their bodies about the parts of the Mass that are proper to them, but rather all of this is in service of bringing man out of himself and to be fully immersed in the mysterious encounter with the triune God before him in worship. As Pope Pius XII wrote in Mediator Dei “… the chief element of divine worship must be interior. For we must always live in Christ and give ourselves to Him completely, so that in Him, with Him and through Him the heavenly Father may be duly glorified” (MD 24). This experience of the unity of body and soul should deeply effect man and move him to live moral and righteous lives in worship of God outside the sacred liturgy because it is through his body he reveals himself and communions in charity with God and his neighbor.
The Eschatological Orientation of the Sacred Liturgy
Mindful of the unity of our body and soul, the communication between them and the wider world, and our immortality beyond this passing world, we turn to examine an ancient orientation of holy Mass toward the East (or liturgical East). In this time of history in the Latin Church, this eschatological orientation toward the east is maintained in continuity in the Extra Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Missal of Pope Saint John XXIII) and is allowed for in the celebration of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Missal of Blessed Pope Paul VI). This orientation toward the East has deep meaning us for as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explains in The Spirit of the Liturgy. Just as faithful Jews would gather for service in the synagogue and face toward Jerusalem so the Christian community together orients themselves to the East, to the return of Christ (Mt 24:27), symbolized in the rising of the sun. “The Lord’s Supper, because of its connection with the supper which the Lord took with his disciples on the eve of his Passion and because it anticipates the wedding feast of the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem” (CCC 1329). Cardinal Ratzinger goes onto reflect that this orientation “is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again” (Ratzinger 75). Christ the head in His priest, leading and prompting the members of His Body in the congregation to turn with the whole of their person to meet the Lord in the Sacrifice of praise to the Father means much for us in worship at holy Mass and in the worship we give our God in moral living.
The Most Reverend Robert C. Morlino wrote an article to his people in their diocesan newspaper entitled, “Let’s promote eschatological awareness”. In the brief article His Excellency reminds his flock of why God created us: “God made us to know, love, and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next” (Morlino). As human persons, we must never forget that this world is passing away. When we die, that is not the end but we will live on, and we need to be more mindful of that life after death. The bishop encourages his faithful to develop a healthy understanding and awareness of eschatology by keeping one eye on this world and one on the life to come. The common orientation of priest and congregation in worship, Bishop Morlino explains, “places the eschatological dimension’s front and center as we look together to the symbolic East” (Morlino).
This outward expression of the Body of Christ who has turned together toward the Lord, to the One who is to come, moves man if he is so disposed to go about the “ordering of [his] person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness” (VS 72). The orientation and every action of the Mass confronts man with the reality of the moral life and its teleological character “since it consists in the deliberate ordering of acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man… Clearly such an ordering must be rational and free, conscious and deliberate, by virtue of which man is “responsible” for his actions and subject to the judgment of God, the just and good judge who, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, rewards good and punishes evil: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10)” (VS 73).
A final note on eschatological awareness in the Mass regarding moral living. Sometimes in the context of a social discussion on Mass or service attendance, one might hear a lapsed Christian comment that the people they know who go to church are terrible sinners, and they don’t go because of those hypocrites. As human persons, we all love God and our neighbor imperfectly through sin and the Lord calls us to a life of continual conversion. We go to Mass as honest sinners, recognizing our need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and to allow our turning back to the Lord to give our existence right-direction and order. We come to Mass to turn in the whole of our person toward the God who is Truth and Goodness Himself and to turn away from our selfish and narrow-minded choices of sin and cheap love. In contrast, the Church teaches that in mortal sin, man chooses “to turn in on himself or to some created and finite reality, something contrary to the divine will (conversio ad creaturam)” (VS 70) and in this way, man has not “turned toward the Lord” to follow Him to Beatitude, but has looked solely to himself. A life of conversion is aided greatly by allowing ourselves to be confronted with the eschatological reality of the sacred liturgy: by remembering our destiny and ultimate end and that God’s very life and love which is stronger than our sin and death is made sacramentally present as our nourishment for Christian living. Now let us turn our attention to the Order of Mass and draw out some concrete aspects of the sacred liturgy which cultivate in man moral living.
II. The Celebration of the Sacred Liturgy
In the Introductory Rites, after the entrance chant (or suitable hymn) comes the sign of the cross. We who have gathered in worship of the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, trace over ourselves the very sign of our Redemption. We make the sign of the cross over a large portion of our bodies confessing the reality that our lives should be deeply marked and transformed by our incorporation into Christ crucified who is our Lord (Phil 2:5-11). As Veritatis splendor states “The crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; He lives fully in the total gift of Himself and calls his disciples to share in His freedom” (VS 85). Then comes the greeting by the priest celebrant: “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (RM 495) and the congregation responds “and with your spirit” (RM 496). In the greeting and response, we recognize in our midst the presence of Jesus Christ the Head of the Church and the congregation as the members of His Body (GIRM 50). The use of the word “communion of the Holy Spirit” speaks of the invitation to enter communion in the life of the Trinity as participants through faith and our moral living, as Saint Pope John Paull II said, “the Church is in fact a communion both of faith and of life; her rule of life is “faith working through love”” (VS 26).
The next movement of the Introductory Rites, the Penitential Act, warrants some longer analysis. In the Penitential Act, the words of the celebrant quickly confront us with something difficult and initially uncomfortable: “brethren, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries” (RM 497). Recalling early dialogues in the book of Genesis after the committal of sin, God invites the sinner back to the truth by prompting a confession. God asks Adam after the Fall, “where are you?” (Gen 3:9) and God asks Cain after he has killed his brother Abel “where is your brother Abel?” (Gen 4:9). The God who is rich in mercy desires to move us from a posture of shame and self-isolation in sin back into the truth through an acknowledgement of that sin. “While bearing witness to the evil he has done, it also reminds him of his need, with the help of God’s grace, to ask forgiveness…” (VS 61). Through this prompting of our conscience to acknowledge our sin, the sacred liturgy works to develop within the Christian a good and spiritually healthy habit of examination of conscience so he can be more free to enter the worship of God in holy Mass and with his life.
It is worth noting that in the Confiteor of the Penitential Act, Mother Church unfolds for the Christian that sin comes in different forms. We pray: “…that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do” (RM 497). This prayer imploring God’s mercy for sin reminds and pricks our conscience as to the various kinds of sin. We can sin in thought by being angry with others (Mt 5:22), in cultivating impure and lustful thoughts (Mt 5:27-28), or by the judging of other persons and forgetting my own sin (Mt 7:1-3). We commit sin also of course through our words by gossip or slander (2 Cor 12:20), insulting other persons (Mt 5:22), and lying (Col 3:9). Saint Paul reminds us in typical fashion of the sins we can commit in the flesh: “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outburst of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like” (Gal 5:19-21). Lastly and sometimes not properly considered for discernment, are those acts of charity, justice, mercy and Christian living which, in Christ, we are morally obliged to practice, but we have chosen otherwise: sins of omission (Col 3:12-17).
Sin at its very core, but in differing degrees, is a rejection of the love and law of the Blessed Trinity, thus we pray in the Confiteor three times “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” (RM 497) to beseech the triune God’s mercy. Sin stands in the way of our worship and life with God. The closer we draw to Him the more aware we become of our sin. This prayer of the Mass helps us to grow in God’s love and His law through conversion because “the true worshippers of God must thus worship him “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23): in this worship they become free” (VS 87).
Now that we have gone about our sorrow and contrition for sin in the Penitential Act, we are more perfectly oriented toward God so that we might rightly sing with all the angels and saints a litany of praise and acclamations to Him in the Gloria. Then follows the Collect of the Mass where “the character of the celebration is expressed” (GIRM 54) and to which the people include their petitions and intercessions to God. The Introductory Rites together serve to prepare the Christian to join with the other members of the Body of Christ for worship and to “dispose themselves to listen properly to God’s Word and to celebrate the Eucharist worthily” (GIRM 46).
The Liturgy of the Word
The parts of the Liturgy of the Word which will be reflected upon together are the First Reading, the Psalm Response, Second Reading, the Alleluia, the proclamation of the holy Gospel and the homily. The Church believes that God and men under the Inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are dual-authors of Sacred Scripture (CCC 105-106). Scripture is a written record of the Word of God in Revelation which “firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to confide to the Sacred Scriptures” (CCC 107). The flow and outward signs of the First, Second, and Gospel Readings at Mass are expressive of a conversation: for it is “in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them” (DV 21). As God’s children by baptismal adoption, we respond to God in this conversation with the very words He places on our lips through Sacred Scripture in the Psalm Response and Alleluia. This entire conversation in the Liturgy of the Word is centered around God’s Revelation, which we call Divine or Positive Law, and the very mystery of our Salvation and Redemption as recorded in the Scriptures. It is necessary now to speak briefly about Divine law before relating it to the Liturgy of the Word and moral living.
In his Summa Theologica Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks in a general way of law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by Him who has care of the community…” (Rice 49-50) and he goes onto explain the four kinds of law. Charles Rice, in his book 50 Questions on the Natural Law gives a good summary from Saint Thomas on the four kinds of law. Eternal law is objective, universal, and God’s loving and providential intention for everything in the created order. As human persons in this world, we do not have direct access to Eternal Law; rather, it is expressed for us in three other laws: natural, human/civil, and Divine or positive law. Natural law guides man through his use of natural reason to understand his created nature, faculties, to know his final end – the Beatific vision – and to live and behave in accord with that end. God governs indirectly through human laws, by which society organizes itself and provides ways for men to know and live the common good so all can flourish. Divine law is God’s personal disclosure to His creation in Revelation, to supernaturally enlighten man’s reason, as this law “complements the natural law as well as the human law” (Rice 55). This loving gift of God in Divine law is in service of helping man to know clearly and with certainly the natural law (what is good and what is to be avoided in accord with man’s nature) so that he can fulfill the law in a virtuous manor, and grow fully alive in his human nature toward his ultimate end: Beatitude. Veritatis splendor explains that the “morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards it end: this eternal law is known both by man’s natural reason, and – in an integral and perfect way – by God’s supernatural revelation” (VS 72).
Saint Thomas Aquinas writes of Divine law in two distinctions, the Old Law and the New Law (ST 1-11, Q91 a5). In this article, Saint Thomas explains that these two laws are not distinct from one another in the way of a radical difference; like two different species of animals. Rather the Old and New Laws are distinct in the way of perfection, with the New Law being full and mature. Aquinas uses the example of a young boy and a man – the boy is imperfect and the man is perfect. So too the Old Law and New Law are of the same type but in two degrees regarding the way of perfection. Thomas explains that the Old Law helped to order man in the common good and to his natural end by being made into God’s people and witnesses on earth.
The New Law further developed this by Christ calling all men to a heavenly kingdom. The Old Law is unfolded and matured in the New Law by way of righteous action, teaching man to be mindful of his intentions for moral decision making because not only should the action be good but the intention must be virtuous. Lastly, the Old Law moved man to be faithful to the commandments out of fear, but the New Law guides man to righteous living through true love of God and love of neighbor.
In the book of Psalms, we pray with King David, “Lord, teach me the way of your statues; I shall keep them with care. Give me understanding to keep your law, to observe it with all my heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for that is my delight” (Ps 118:33-35). The outward conversation during holy Mass in the Liturgy of the Word from both the Old
Testament (Old Law) and the New Testament with the Holy Gospel (New Law) is precisely the Lord God teaching us not only His law but enlightening us to live fully in our human nature and to delight entirely in His law of love. It is in these moments especially of the sacred liturgy that God works to cultivate man’s conscience, where he “discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey… ever calling him to love and to what is good and to avoid evil” (CCC 1776). Listening attentively to our Father who speaks to us from the Scriptures during the liturgy helps to inform our conscience “according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator” (CCC 1783) so despite our selfish desires and temptation to sin, our entire lives may be guided by a conscience in tune with natural law and made resolute by Divine law.
Since Scripture for Catholics has never been the sole rule of faith, after the readings come a time of instruction and guided reflection in the homily. The Church charges her clerics, especially on Sundays and festive days, to bring to bear the whole of Revelation, from Sacred Tradition and with the guidance and official teaching of the Magisterium, to explain and break open the written Word for the encouragement of Christian living and building up of the Kingdom
(GIRM 65-66). Mindful that God inspired men in the heart of their particular culture to write the Scriptures, it is helpful for the faithful to receive explanation on the historical or religious landscape or the meaning of a particular word or phrase during the time it was written, to better serve to educate and form the minds and hearts of men of the present age with the inerrant truth. The Scripture readings and the homily then are all in service of growing (with the data of Revelation) and developing our conscience for moral living in both act and intention. In the homily “the Church, to whom Christ the Lord entrusted the deposit of faith so that, assisted by the Holy Spirit, it might reverently safeguard revealed truth, more closely examine it and faithfully proclaim and expound it, has the innate duty and right to preach the gospel to all nations… to announce moral principles, and to make judgements on any human affairs to the extent that they are require by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls” (CCL 747).
In closing reflection on the Liturgy of the Word to better teach and form our conscience to the Truth for moral decision making, the encyclical of Pope Pius XII Mediator Dei explains: “when the Church teaches us our Catholic faith and exhorts us to obey the commandments of Christ…; she disposes us… for more serious meditation on the life of the divine Redeemer and guides us to profounder knowledge of the mysteries of faith where we may draw the supernatural sustenance, strength and vitality that enable us to progress safely, through Christ, towards a more perfect life (MD 34). Thus, we see the Liturgy of the Word as a time in holy Mass which unfolds for us Eternal Law, through the loving lens of Divine Law, so that we might better live in keeping with our nature; so that creation might flourish; and so that we move through our every moral decision more toward our ultimate end in the triune God.
Liturgy of the Eucharist
There is much that could be said on the Liturgy of the Eucharist regarding the cultivation of moral living, principally in being able to feast on the Lord of Life Himself in holy
Communion, but this paper will briefly touch on two aspects which may sometimes go forgotten or misunderstood: the Presentation of Gifts and the reception of holy Communion. The Offertory Presentation of the Gifts may be too casually reduced by the faithful as a nice transition point from feasting on the written Word of God in the Liturgy of the Word to focusing upon the Altar and the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the offering of bread and wine: staples of human life, enjoyment, and gladness in the Scriptures, the faithful show their desire to part with some of the good gifts God has given to them, and offer them back to Him in the sacrifice. In the early Church, the faithful would even offer goods made in their home or home-grown produce to offer and share with the Christian community.
Although this is no longer done in the sacred liturgy, this leads us more deeply to see in the Offertory procession that we are to give of ourselves in the sacrifice at the Altar during the Eucharistic Liturgy. This is confirmed in the Liturgy of the Eucharist after the gifts have been offered to God and the priest celebrant turns to the people and says “pray brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father” (RM 513). Sacramentum Caritatis reflects further on this unitive and sacrificial dimension: “in the bread and wine that we bring to the altar, all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to the Father… It enables us to appreciate how God invites man to participate in bringing to fulfilment his handiwork, and in so doing, gives human labor its authentic meaning, since, through the celebration of the Eucharist, it is united to the redemptive sacrifice of Christ” (SC 47). Growing in Christian moral living is all about the transformation of the whole person by looking to Jesus, because “the Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom” (VS 85).
Saint Paul wrote to the Romans “… offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2). Man thus is prompted in worship to offer his whole and entire self to God for union with the singular sacrifice of Jesus Christ and for transformation by becoming active participants in the Lord’s Paschal Mystery in the ongoing redemption of the world (CCC 1067).
The other element which ought to be properly reflected on is the significance of a Catholic presenting himself for holy Communion. Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book God is Near Us makes an important distinction regarding participating in the banquet of holy Communion: “the Eucharist is not itself the sacrament of reconciliation… it is the sacrament of the reconciled, to which the Lord invites all those who have become one with him; who certainly still remain weak sinners, but yet have given their hand to him and have become part of his family” (Ratzinger 60). Thus, the Church requires each Catholic to discern if they are in a state of grace, and therefore able to receive holy Communion (RS 81). For a Christian to present himself for the sacrament he makes a statement that he is indeed in union with Christ and His Church by being in the state of grace. This teaching of the Church is very much rooted in the clear teaching of Saint Paul (1 Cor 11:27-32) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1415). For mortal sin, “the act by which man freely and consciously rejects God, His law, the covenant of love that God offers” (VS 70) the sacrament of Penance is the sure and certain means to receive God’s mercy and healing before one presents himself for holy Communion.
Some in our day and age may be bothered by the Church’s perennial teaching on the personal state and disposition required to validly receive holy Communion. Pope Benedict XVI in Sacramentum caritatis recognizes that “the faithful are surrounded by a culture that tends to eliminate the sense of sin and to promote a superficial approach that overlooks the need to be in a state of grace to approach sacramental communion worthily” (SC 20). Some view this rule as a carrot and stick approach by the Church to keep the members of the body in line. Not to mention it is very tempting when the pew-by-pew communion procession begins to “go with the flow” because almost everyone appears to go forward. Mother Church in true charity for her children, desires to form the Christian conscience to the truth, especially when it comes to examining oneself for the reception of holy Communion. The Catechism states: “conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed. If man commits evil, the just judgement of conscience can remain within him as the witness to the universal truth of the good, at the same time as the evil of his particular choice… In attesting to the fault committed, it calls to mind the forgiveness that must be asked…” (CCC 1781).
In holding this position, the Church does not desire to hold the mortal sin before our eyes, but Christ through His Church provides a way for us to be touched by the grace of conversion in recognizing through our conscience the state of our soul before God. Thus, as the selection from Ratzinger quoted earlier reminds us, holy Communion is the sacrament of the reconciled it is not the sacrament of reconciliation. Saint John Paul II wrote “the Christian, thanks to God’s Revelation and to faith, is aware of the “newness” which characterizes the morality of his actions: these actions are called to show either consistency or inconsistency with that dignity and vocation which have been bestowed on him by grace… he lives out his fidelity or infidelity to the gift of the Spirit, and he opens or closes himself to enteral life, to the communion of vision, love and happiness” (VS 73). In closing, then, this sometimes-difficult teaching of the Church on being in the state of grace to Communicate is there to remind us of our way of life as Christians, to examine the reality of our lives, and if there is not a straight path for which the Lord to come to us, then we must as John the Baptizer said, “make straight the way of the Lord” (Jn 1:23) by first celebrating God’s mercy in the sacrament of Penance so we do not lie, give scandal, and receive holy Communion unworthily.
The Concluding Rites
Although this paper has not done a thorough analysis of all the parts of the sacred liturgy, those who attend Mass know how abruptly the liturgy concludes after holy Communion.
Within a minute or two is prayed the Prayer after Communion, the Blessing, and the Dismissal. The priest or deacon can select one of several dismissal formularies from the Roman Missal: “Go forth, the Mass is ended”; Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord”; or “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life” (RM 657). Each option in its own way communicates something important to the faithful who joined themselves to be nourished in God’s Revelation, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and feasted on His very Body and Blood in holy Communion. At the quick close of the Mass, Christ sends us out into the world to proclaim with our lives what we have heard and to be witnesses of the Paschal Mystery of which we have been made participants. We are to go forth into the world to continue our worship and glory of God, by allowing the Lord’s light and radiance to be manifested in our lives.
For Christians, we are not to limit our worship of God to what we do in church, for that worship is to spill over and give form to the way we live: as some men are still slaves to sin who have yet to hear the holy Gospel or experience God’s love and mercy. Saint Paul tells us “whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31), thus every moment of our lives is an opportunity to give God worship and glory with the whole of our being: in true charity toward God and our neighbor. As Sacramentum caritatis says “Christians, in all their actions, are called to offer true worship to God…The Eucharist, since it embraces the concrete, everyday existence of the believer, makes possible, day by day, the progressive transfiguration of all those called by grace to reflect the image of the Son of God. There is nothing authentically human – our thoughts and affections, our words and deeds – that does not find in the sacrament of the Eucharist the form it needs to be lived to the full” (SC 71).
Although this paper has been far from an exhaustive reflection on how the liturgy cultivates the moral life, and little was said directly about the fruit of the Eucharist as “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324), it is clear the Lord is at work in all aspects of our worship to help lead us to freedom, fulfillment and peace in Him alone and toward life Eternal. The beginning of the sacred liturgy helps us to remember the Christian life is bound to the cross, it can only be lived in the truth with God by acknowledging our sin and turning back to God before we can rightly worship Him. In the Liturgy of the Word God fills us with His truth through the Scriptures and the homily so that we can order our lives according to our faith. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist God reminds us of our destiny in the eschatological orientation of our worship and He gives us nothing less than Himself in holy Communion to preserve us for the Promised Land of Heaven. But, until that time comes, the concluding rite sends us back out into the world to continue His work of redemption, beginning with our own unique reflection of a life in Christ – a life that is true, beautiful, fulfilling and which begins in this world Eternal life.
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- Mr. Brian McCauley has been married to his beautiful wife Gina for three years and lives in Lancaster, Ohio. He earned his Master of Arts in Theology degree from Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio and serves at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Lancaster as the Director of Religious Education.
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