Central to Sacrosanctum concilium‘s mandate for the liturgy’s reform and renewal is the principle (fostered by the Liturgical Movement, Pius X, and others) that active participation by all enables the liturgy to form the church in its members. Indeed, SC asserts that the assembled faithful constitute one of the ways Christ is present in the liturgy. But the (practical-theoogical) interpretation of that notion of the assembly of the faithful — the gathered church — has comprised one of the dividing lines between the “traditionalist” and “progressive” extremes of implementation over these fifty years, with the majority of folks somewhere in between.
Should the gathering take place in silence, with each believer praying on bended knee or in reflective repose until the Mass begins? Or is the gathering a time for people to seek out friends to greet, warmly chat in the pews, wave to toddlers, “welcome strangers,” etc.? I would suppose that differences in understanding “assembling the faithful” or “forming community” are not unrelated to the assertions by some that the Mass of the Roman Rite should begin with its proper Entrance Antiphon, chanted in Latin or the vernacular, as opposed to a robust “gathering song” (that may or may not prove, in actual practice, to have much to do with the proper of seasons or the antiphon of the day). And then there is the custom, at least across US parishes and campus chapels, of the cantor inviting (exhorting? or does it even feel like requiring?) that everybody “stand and greet those around us” — a directive that may or may not come with a short explanation along the lines of “so that we might have no strangers in this community” or “so that all might feel welcomed, especially the visitors among us.”
What does this powerful symbol, “community,” entail or elicit among the faithful? And what might some theological reflection contribute to the question? The question for me was raised yesterday by reading the blog post of Ms. Renee Roden, a young US Catholic woman who had just moved to New York City from what she described as the “hot-bed of communal faith experiences” that is the liturgical life at her alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. She found herself, as well as fellow young alums with whom she’d been in contact, ambivalent about having to seek out a faith community with which to worship on Sunday, leading her to question the value and characteristics of the liturgical assembly. She offers the following insight:
Romano Guardini, in his beautiful Meditations Before Mass, defines a congregation as more than a group of people gathered together, a bunch of disparate parts existing in the same room.
“The true congregation is a gathering of those who belong to Christ, the holy people of God, united faith and love. Essentially, it is of His making, a piece of new creation.”
Community is not formed by fellowship, familiar faces, and coffee and doughnuts after Mass; community is formed when all of the congregation lifts up our hearts and voices in praise of God. That is the deep and timeless fellowship that the Mass offers to each of its participants. Through the action of the Mass, the strangers and saints gathered together at Mass become a community.
What thoughts does Ms. Roden’s comment here elicit for you? Myself, I heartily agree with her theological assertion, one that she develops further in terms of the ecclesial and cosmic dimensions of the liturgical assembly as a gathering with the saints, as well as the anticipatory witness to a new creation. But, introvert that I am, I also appreciate her reflections in a most practical way. I count myself among those — and I’ve met not a few over the years — who bristle at the widespread “stand and greet those around you” at the start of Sunday Mass. It all seems so forced and, really, a rather dishonest (if too strong a word, I apologize) or “failed” symbol. After all, I don’t “know” the strangers near me any more after that greeting or, for that matter, by the end of the entire Mass, than before I was asked to “meet” them through the short handshake or nodding smile. The problem, as I perceive it here, is not unrelated to the way US Catholics (at least) have almost universally come to practice the Sign of Peace during the Communion Rite (further fodder for discussion, no?). But to stay on this point: During my fifteen years in the Boston Archdiocese (helping most weekends at a couple of parishes), I observed so many people, not least the single young adults, arriving shortly or even several minutes after Mass started. I eventually starting asking a few people my age (then in my late 30s [sigh]) and younger about this. To a person, they answered along these lines: “I hate that greet-your-neighbor stuff and, so, time my arrival late.” I do not claim this to represent some majority here, but I did find their straightforward replies enlightening.
Following Ms. Roden’s lead, I would propose that the meet-and-greet sort of gesture inserted at the beginning of the Mass of the Roman Rite seems dissonant with the practical theology of the liturgy. Aidan Kavanagh, inspired by Alexander Schmemann, put it well years ago with his thesis that the liturgy is “the Church doing the world.” The assembly’s work in this regard is to be a symbol of the church and of the new creation, acknowledging God in praise, receiving the word of life, sharing (communio) in the body of Christ, departing in peace to “glorify the Lord by your life.” Yes, one may well know many of the other members assembled and enjoy their company. Yes, one might at times need to recognize in active communio that one needs reconciliation with some other(s) present. And all of this is, of course, to the good. But there is a grave danger in turning communio (crucial to the ecclesiology in the documents of Vatican II) or koinonia into a sort of clubby gathering or a like-minded 0r like-appearing cohort that functionally amounts to the antithesis of how one famous author described the church catholic: “Here comes everybody.”
I have long reflected on this, specifically with regard to my regular experience of not personally knowing many, even any, of the people with whom I’m assembled at the Sunday liturgy. I find that I deeply appreciate finding myself among such a disparate and, most often to me anonymous, group of people sharing the common bond of the faith they enact together as assembly. I recall moments when parents (sometimes single ones) struggling with little children (or calmly abiding their behaviors) have been genuine sacraments to me (embodied symbols of the divine, trinitarian love). I could go on, but my point is that precisely the ritual-character of us all assembled — in contrast to interpersonal, conversational sharing — bears symbolic power we’d be the poorer for losing.
I readily admit I have but sketched the questions and implications of a complex topic here. But I’ve done so for the sake of opening a conversation. You may enjoy reading Renee Roden’s entire essay, “You Are Not Alone in This.”