Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
On becoming the Body of Christ
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Nov. 15, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Beyond doubt, the hallmark of the liturgy constitution of Vatican II was the recovery of the principle that the whole Church celebrates the liturgy. Previous to Vatican II this principle was not all that evident. What was obviously missing was the full participation of all in the assembly. Even receiving Communion, which we would all agree is the most critical part of participation, was not something Catholics did weekly until the start of the last century. In centuries previous to that, Catholics would normally receive the Eucharist only a few times a year, perhaps at Easter and Christmas.
Even when frequent Communion became more popular in the 20th century, the reception of Communion was easily divorced from the liturgy of the Mass itself. Thus in the first half of the last century, Communion would not only be distributed at Communion time, but perhaps also at the beginning of the liturgy and at the end of the liturgy - depending on what might be most convenient for people. Prior to Vatican II the liturgy was also celebrated in Latin, a language which virtually no one understood, and it was not until 1947 that people were allowed to participate with spoken Latin responses to the words of the priest.
Vatican II not only called for an active and conscious participation by all in the liturgy, but it recovered and restated the Church’s deepest conviction about the nature of the Eucharist, a conviction that had not entirely disappeared, but that had certainly been eclipsed by an understanding of the liturgy which focused almost exclusively on the role of the priest. The theological principle operative here was expressed in 1947 by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter Mediator Dei: the liturgy is the worship offered to the Father by the whole Christ, Head and members. So while the liturgy may be a matter of individual believers fulfilling the wholesome duties of religion, of a group of believers celebrating their faith and love, it is always something more. It is an act of the Church as the Body of Christ.
It is not always easy to think of ourselves as the Body of Christ, the place where Christ dwells. Some Catholics mistakenly focus solely on the Eucharistic presence of Christ, as if there were no other ways that the Risen Christ is present. But, as the Vatican’s rules for the celebration of the liturgy remind us, “Christ is really present in the assembly gathered in his name; he is present in the person of the minister, in his own word, and indeed substantially and permanently under the Eucharistic elements.”
The people gathered for the liturgy, the rules point out, “are a holy people, a chosen people, a royal priesthood ... They should endeavor to make this clear by their deep sense of reverence for God and their charity toward brothers and sisters who share with them in the celebration. They therefore are to shun any appearance of individualism or division, keeping before their eyes that they have one Father in heaven and therefore are all brothers and sisters to each other. They should become one body, whether by hearing the word of God, or joining in prayers and liturgical song, or above all by offering the sacrifice together and sharing together in the Lord’s table. There is a beautiful expression of this unity when the faithful maintain uniformity in their gestures and postures.”
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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