Liturgy and Civic Strife

May the Sacrament of your Son, which we have received,

increase our strength, we pray, O Lord,

that from this mystery of unity

we may drink deeply of love’s power

and everywhere promote your peace.

Through Christ our Lord.

The lines above are from the Prayer after Communion in the Ritual Mass for Reconciliation in the Roman Missal.  Along with the prayer composed by Teresa Berger , they strike me as particularly apt for these days, whether we are talking about Dallas or Baton Rouge, Orlando or San Bernardino.  Or Nigeria or Yemen.  Or Bangladesh or Iraq.

I do not want to suggest here that if only we have more / enough Ritual Masses for Reconciliation (or prayer services or Masses in time of civil disturbance, etc.,), then tensions over race and religion and culture will abate.  But if our prayers and homilies and rituals never name or confront harmful ideologies about race, religion, and culture then we deprive the liturgy of a part of its lifeblood—which is our blood, sweat, and tears (tears of joy, yes, but also tears of anguish).  Liturgy becomes disincarnate, as though Christians worship a docetic Jesus who floated serenely above life’s trials and tribulations.  We send the message that the paschal mystery, the core of Christian belief and liturgical practice, has after all nothing to say about real bloodshed in the world.

Apart from the prayer of the faithful, I do not recall any time in the past year when any part of a liturgy I attended addressed terrorism or racism.  However, in the wake of the attacks of September 2001, I heard a homilist preach on God as shepherd: “We say to our shepherd: Find us!”  Those impassioned words remain with me still.  I invite readers to share their experiences of liturgies that did or did not address these large issues of our day.

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6 comments

  1. I did not expect to be disappointed, and I was not disappointed. Briefly put, our homilist (pastor) shared a story from his childhood. His father was a cop, and he recalled a time when he was young and taken to task for saying/doing the wrong thing around a person of color. He did not realize that his dad overheard it all. Very moving. He also spoke of how his very gentle father, who was both very tough and very gentle, instructed him that if he got hit, that he should hit back and harder. He then drew (as he as done before with that particular anecdote) talked about following our own way and following Christ.

    Most moving to me was the Universal Prayer, which I typically assemble for the parish. He had rewritten it more powerfully and beautifully. He made clear and direct reference to the events, and named Alston Sterling and Philando Castile by name, and we also prayed for the officers in Dallas.

    Our pastor is not one to use a bully pulpit, but he never fails to address the very real and challenging events of our time into his homilies and into our liturgies, without ever getting or being ideological, divisive, or political. He reminds us that we are all – starting with himself – are called to ongoing conversion and change. That is a great way for us to be church, and I would say that the majority of us are grateful.

    1. @Fran Rossi Szpylczyn:
      Thanks for sharing. As a life-long Catholic for several decades, I’ve been increasingly sharing Eucharist and fellowship with an Episcopal parish each weekend (along with attending Mass at a mainstream or “alternative” Catholic parish). After the Orlando massacre – and after this week’s tragedies in Dallas – as well as in Baton Rouge and Minnesota – it was only in the Episcopal parish where the sermons and intercessory prayers explicitly referenced these tragedies, the victims and the underlying causes. In the Catholic communities I attended, these events were referenced, but in more indirect and muted ways. I was also unaware of any archdiocesan (public) communiques to our parishes on appropriate responses to these tragedies. However, I was aware of an official statement by the Episcopal Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, that appeared on social media, offering reflections and liturgical resources for parish responses to these events. Of course, at this Episcopal parish, the priest is a native of a Caribbean island, whose family migrated to the US when he was a teenager. He shared his positive experiences with police back home (some of whom were kinfolk) – and how when they came to the US, they were subjected to varied experiences of racial profiling. His sermon was “real” in terms of the personal struggles and faith issues involved in all these sad incidents. It was also not bully pulpit – but powerfully and affectively unpacked all the implications of the “Good Samaritan” parable for all sides involved in these tragedies.

  2. Thank you for raising this crucial issue, Timothy. I had been waiting for someone on PrayTell to attend to this. In fact, I had begun to draft a post in my mind on the inadequacy of words (my own prayer included) in response to the tragedies and violence we witnessed last week. It seemed as if a barrage of words immediately followed a barrage of bullets… I was desperate to find something else that could speak: an image, a symbol, a ritual gesture. (The new icon of “Our Lady, Mother of Ferguson and of all Victims of Gun Violence” helped for a moment; you can see the image here, for example: https://www.facebook.com/BlackCatholicsOfNewOrleansNola/posts/566968060139724). But the long and short is that I simply could not face any more words (not even liturgical and homiletic depth) on Sunday. So I practiced mass abstinence (yes, I confess it) and in the late afternoon went to a convent nearby for Vespers with a community that had just lost their foundress, who died during the liturgy for her diamond jubilee, having just renewed her vows. I paid my respects to her, at her open casket, and was struck by how this was a death that was, simply, extraordinarily peaceful and beautiful. It gave me renewed energy to live in this world and struggle against all these tragic, violent, heart-breaking, early deaths…

  3. This past Sunday was our mission appeal Sunday, so we had missionaries preach. Of course that was scheduled long before anyone knew what would be reported in newscasts the past week. Our missionary speakers didn’t address current American events or use the words “race” or “racism”. They did talk about the good work their mission is doing in Liberia. Perhaps there is a connection or a juxtaposition there, between interracial relations in the US and the same elsewhere – if there is, it’s left to those of us who attended the masses to make the connection ourselves.

    Racism, however it manifests itself in our local community and American society, will still be with us in coming weeks, and there will be other opportunities for preachers to address it explicitly, if they believe the confluence of current events and liturgical texts take them in that direction. “Racism is bad” surely isn’t a worse theme for a homily than “abortion is bad”, and as a topic of preaching, I daresay we’ve had more of the latter over the years than the former. Not that any of our preachers talk about abortion all the time; in fact, it’s hardly mentioned at all, a gap that occasions some grumbling from some of our respect-life advocates. But it’s mentioned more from the pulpit than racism is.

  4. This was the sermon I heard on Sunday at Mass:

    My friend Sally tells a story about growing up—growing up in the 1950’s on a farm in the deep south, a farm far outside of town—the sort of place where you only see the folks in your family, and the folks who live on the farm, and the folks who come occasionally to visit. Sally made friends among the folks that were around—and her best friend was another little boy just a couple of years older called Frank who lived on the farm, too. When Sally was about five and Frank was seven, they’d spend hours running through the cotton fields together and pulling one another around in a wooden red wagon along the dusty roads of the farm. They were the best of friends—until Sally started school, and she noticed that Frank didn’t go to the same school as she did. And as she got older she noticed that she never saw Frank at the same places she went in town—the soda fountain, the doctor’s office, even the movie theater. And finally, when she was older, and she invited friends over to the farm for picnics or dinners in the dining room, she learned that her best friend Frank wasn’t welcome to join.

    You see, Sally is white, and Frank is black. And somewhere along the way Sally learned that it wasn’t okay for them to be friends. That Frank wasn’t welcome as an equal in her world. And what a perversion of the message of the incarnation that lesson was—a lesson she still grieves today. Sixty years later, it feels as though the divisions caused by racism should be healing, that we all know that black lives matter, that we all can get along. And yet in the last week we’ve felt the fabric of our country torn apart by the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa—deaths that have highlighted once again the scourge that gun violence, that the proliferation of deadly weapons, has brought on our nation. But our nation has been torn apart, too, by racial inequality—by the question of what role…

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