During my many summers as a student, I maintained a vision that my teachers and professors somehow disappeared…perhaps morphed into a state of semi-existence during the hiatus of the summer months. This fantasy lasted even through graduate school; I distinctly recall my shock at seeing a liturgy professor shopping for groceries in July. Now, on the other side of the classroom, I know that teachers do, indeed, exist outside of class and regularly buy groceries. I also know that the main task for college teachers during the summertime is not only taking advantage of that long-awaited respite for research, but conference-going.
I’ve been to two conferences over the past week, the College Theology Society’s (CTS) annual meeting, in Kansas City, MO, and the Association of Franciscan Colleges and Universities’ (AFCU) bi-annual meeting, held in Indianapolis, IN this year. The audience for each conference is quite different: the CTS is attended almost exclusively by teachers of theology and religious studies, while the AFCU attendees comprise a much more diverse set of administrators, staff, and faculty. Yet, in each setting, I’ve run into several repeating themes pertinent for Catholic, and Christian, theology. First, theology courses are often considered a “burden” by students at undergraduate institutions. In fact, a recurring mantra amongst students is “I didn’t hate theology as much as I expected.” Second, many institutions have watched the sad, slow decline of many of our historic religious orders, particularly of women religious, and seem to be accepting this loss as fact. Third, and finally, Catholics are obsessed with Mass.
While each of these threads is fascinating, it’s the last—this Catholic “Mass obsession”—I’d like to consider. The theme for the aforementioned CTS conference was “Liturgy + Power”—a purposely ambiguous title which might invite, and did invite, a multiplicity of interpretations. How much is the liturgy an “arena” for power? Whose power is it? Does one stratum of the People of God have more “power” than another? Or, is the liturgy a symbolic system which invites us to celebrate and identify God’s power?
One of the more interesting twists, in my opinion, is the “powerful” place which the Eucharistic celebration of the Mass holds for Roman Catholics. As our CTS plenary speaker, Bruce Morrill, SJ, aptly described, “If it’s not the Mass, it doesn’t matter.” That is to say, Catholics look to the Mass, and the Eucharist, as the heart of their faith life, as opposed to any devotional practice, and that they prefer attendance at Mass to any other parish-sponsored prayer activity.
My first thought was, “Good! Look how the liturgical movement succeeded!” First fueled by Pope St. Pius X and his call for frequent communion (Sacra Tridentina 1903), the celebration of the Mass, intimate knowledge of the prayers and lectionary cycle, and full, active and conscious participation catapulted the Mass to the pinnacle—or should I say summit—of the faithful’s Catholic life. Identifying this sacramental experience at the heart (or source) of the Body of Christ makes a great amount of sense. The Mass has more “power” than the stations of the cross, my rosary, or even Eucharistic adoration.
At the same time, the powerful, centripetal force afforded to the Mass, which drew the faithful’s liturgical-devotional attention into it, has also left a vacuum. While the Mass might be the most powerful location of sacramental experience in the journey of Christian life, it is not the only one. And yet, at both conferences I attended, the pursuance of a wider and more varied set of worship experiences seems to be routinely neglected by Catholics, as well as by Catholic institutions who regularly provide worship opportunities for their campus communities.
This monolithic attention to “the Mass” does not match up with liturgical renewal, of course. For example, a quick review of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy turns up an entire chapter devoted to the Divine Office, daily prayer fueled by psalms and canticles, which is described as a “duty of the Church” which is also her “greatest honor,” offering “praises to God” unceasingly (SC 83-85). Particularly on more solemn feasts, the faithful are encouraged to come “in common” to church to celebrate Vespers (SC 100). So, too, are services of the Word recommended, likewise on these more solemn feast days, or during weekdays in Advent and Lent. Such services are particularly suitable when no priest is available, and call for a deacon, or other person authorized by his or her bishop (perhaps a lay ecclesial minister), to lead (SC 35).
Lest we assume that a vision for a more holistic liturgical life was a pipe dream designed for Roman Catholics alone, I have been reflecting about how these same calls for liturgical prayer and contemplation of Scripture are appropriate for a much wider Christian context: ecumenical worship services. In the midst of the scandal of division, the Directory on Ecumenism (1993) notes that prayer in common is itself “a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity” and expresses the “ties which still bind Catholics” to other Christians (Directory 108). The Liturgy of the Hours provides one such structure for common prayer. Likewise, reading of Scripture, in translations mutually acceptable to all Christians gathered, emphasizes the spiritual life “shared by all Christian people” (111). Even further, sharing of resources, from a common heritage of hymns (111), to a utilization of common space (103) emphasize a real “if imperfect” communion amongst the Christian churches (104).
Yet, in my experience of Catholic institutions of higher learning, whenever two or three are gathered, then ye must have Mass. The lack of daily prayer in the Catholic tradition, and of services of the Word, result in a double loss: not only do Catholics continue to dwell in a limited understanding of their own liturgical traditions, but Christians from other denominations are not involved in the source and summit of the liturgical life at their college campus.
Perhaps particularly for institutions with a Catholic identity who have a large body of other Christian denominations (as many of my AFCU conference colleagues are experiencing), Roman Catholic liturgical services which have the possibility of ecumenical participation have a powerful potential for cultivating unity in the midst of Christian diversity. This is not to say that a Catholic campus is not blessed to have adoration regularly, daily Mass, and confession. Nonetheless, the possibility of a liturgical life which is both authentically Catholic and yet non-exclusive is not sufficiently realized for many Catholic institutions. The Mass is not and should not be about power—or about emphasizing exclusion. Perhaps enriching our liturgical life with multiple forms of liturgical expression would “empower” Christians to walk towards Christ’s hope, that all might be one.