What does Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’s new encyclical on human fraternity and social friendship, tell us about the liturgy?
On the surface, not much. Francis does not talk about liturgical issues or questions. There is no section on the liturgical dimension of fraternity, nor is there an appeal to the liturgy as a remedy for the social ills Francis so vividly describes. This is understandable, of course, because the encyclical is addressed to all people of good will and Francis is attempting to reach hearers from all backgrounds, including those who stand outside the visible boundaries of the church. Yet I would contend that liturgists, informed by the pope’s teaching on human fraternity, have both a duty and an opportunity to bring this teaching to bear on liturgical questions and challenges.
Let’s be clear. Our challenge today is similar to the one that Virgil Michel, OSB, faced in the first half of the twentieth century. It is the challenge of grasping how the liturgy is connected to social regeneration. Michel taught indefatigably that the two can be strongly linked. He drew his inspiration from papal teachings and the scriptures, as well as the witness of the early church. Consider these challenging words:
What the early Christians thus did at the altar of God, in the central act of Christian worship, they also lived out in their daily lives. They understood fully that the common action of worship was to be the inspiration of all their actions. They knew well that their common giving of themselves to God and to the brethren of Christ was in fact a solemn promise made to God that they would live their lives in this same love of God and of God’s children, their brethren in Christ, throughout all the day. Unless they did that, their action before God would be at best lip-service, a lie before God. (“The Cooperative Movement and the Liturgical Movement,” Orate Fratres Vol. XIV, Feb. 1940, p. 156)
Virgil Michel was right. The fact of the matter is that issues concerning social friendship are deeply enmeshed in our fundamental liturgical structures. We cannot go about our liturgical lives as if human fraternity does not matter. What does it say if we claim that the Eucharist, a sharing in one loaf and one cup, is the center of our life, yet we lose sight of the imperative to commit ourselves to the common good? If we fail to connect social friendship with liturgy it means our liturgy and our life will become incoherent. When our commitment to the human family falters, our liturgical practice may sadly become what Virgil Michel called “lip-service, a lie before God.”
In light of Pope Francis’s encyclical, perhaps we can also ask ourselves some very concrete questions about our liturgical praxis. For example, Francis discusses the problem of individualism. We might ask ourselves today: how does our liturgy cater to this distortion of individualism? For instance, does our persistent pattern of using separate hosts in the Eucharist, rather than having a significant liturgical experience of the breaking of the bread, obscure the Eucharistic symbolism of sharing in one loaf—a social symbolism?
This is not a new question, but is a question that does not go away. Liturgical theologian Goffredo Boselli, in his book The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy, pointed out that we find in the Didache that Eucharist is referred to simply as klásma, “broken.” He goes on to explain that this expression, along with assertions about the Eucharist in the writings of St. Paul, makes it clear that
The sharing of the one bread is the central reality of the Eucharist. It is not only as bread (substance) but as bread broken and shared (relation) that the Eucharistic bread fully realizes its essence and the truth of the Eucharist. (Boselli, The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy, 186)
The question of the one loaf is critical, but there are other aspects of this problem too. What attitudes of individualism do we bring into liturgy? At some level we all know that we are supposed to be in this together, yet it remains all too easy to ignore the social dimension of the liturgical action, and to see other people as irrelevant or even as a distraction.
Here is another liturgical issue relevant to our central symbols: Before the pandemic caused us to suspend Communion under both forms, many people declined to receive from the common cup and some parishes don’t even offer it. When the pandemic is over, we may wish to revisit this practice in light of Francis’s vision of human fraternity. The common cup, after all, is an outstanding sign of social solidarity. What does it say when we abandon or downplay it under normal circumstances (I am not talking about exceptional cases)?
The doctrine of concomitance does not answer every question. Our bedrock liturgical theology claims that Christ’s blood was spilled so that we could become one, restoring the unity of the human family with God and with one another. This is human fraternity writ large. And we are intended to ritualize it in the liturgy: The Precious Blood, which Jesus poured out on the cross, is shared in a common cup. Yet, for many, the response has been: no, it’s not important. Or: what does it matter? It’s a liturgical option, a detail.
For those who reflect mystagogically on the liturgy, however, it is so much more. One of my favorite quotes from the Synod on the Eucharist (2005) is from Father Barry Fischer, CPPS, moderator of the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood:
The communion achieved in the reconciling Blood of Christ empowers us to be bridge-builders, truth-tellers, and the healers of wounds. Our ‘amen’ when receiving communion affirms not only the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; it invites us to be bread broken and blood poured out, life given, for the life of the world. We become, as it were, ‘living chalices’ carrying the Precious Blood of Christ, that sacred balm, to those who are in need of healing in their brokenness, to those wounded by poverty, to those left half-dead by the wayside, scorned and scarred by prejudice, racism, and war.
Preachers and catechists certainly have a role in making connections between the message of Fratelli Tutti and the shape of our liturgical rites. But the way we celebrate liturgy gives them something concrete to reflect upon. Pope Francis uses the parable of the Good Samaritan as the lynchpin of his exposition of the challenges we face in responding as brothers and sisters to those we encounter on the road of life. How better to return constantly to this mystery of our bond with all those who suffer, than by sharing the common cup?
Another avenue of exploration that Fratelli Tutti opens up, I believe, is the question of penance and reconciliation. It is time to question our serious lack of an adequate penitential discipline in the church today. Sin is real. We fall short on many measures of human solidarity, over and over again. We need to bring this reality to communal prayer in order to receive God’s forgiveness, and to derive the strength, and accept the grace, to do better. But here is the challenge: It is inadequate to rely solely upon individual confession as the vehicle for awakening repentance and fostering reconciliation. Individual confession and absolution will always have its place, but the neglect of communal penance services and the practical lack of penitential practices that go beyond the opening rites of Mass is a serious shortcoming. Our tradition is rich in this regard, but we are living on crumbs. We don’t really like to think about the fact that we are sinners!
The Lenten Scrutinies – which are meant to benefit not only the elect but the whole assembly — offer a fresh start; we need to take them more seriously now, in light of Fratelli Tutti. We also need to revisit traditions of penitential asceticism, such as fasting, and use prayer forms such as litanies to awaken the conscience and lend communal support to our efforts for social change. Pope Francis has a vigorous appreciation of the cult of the saints as an inspiration to repentance and reform. We can access this resource liturgically too.
The one loaf, the common cup, our penitential discipline – these are but a few examples of how liturgy intersects with Fratelli Tutti. A multitude of other challenges concerning how we conduct our liturgical life likewise lie within the scope of this encyclical. Here are some other suggestions (you may want to add your own):
- It is worthwhile to reflect on how we respond to living in a “throwaway world.” This is a malady Francis has decried before, and which appears again in Fratelli Tutti. It should prompt us to ask ourselves some questions about those throwaway worship resources!
- Thinking about human fraternity might also prompt us to ask what provisions we make for persons with disabilities in worship. Integral human development includes opportunities for everyone to worship with whatever assistance they need.
- How do we include those who because of language or culture, ethnic origin or age group, find it difficult to participate in our liturgies? If we don’t find ways to accommodate them, and therefore they don’t come, does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy: out of sight, out of mind?
- Are we serious about mentoring newcomers into our communities and welcoming migrants and foreigners? Is the “other” perceived only as a threat, or is there a genuine openness to the other as gift? Parishes can be clannish; we might as well admit it. Even within the smallest groups, turf wars and insider-outsider dynamics can flourish. There are limitless ways to undermine charity, and faith communities are surprisingly good at it! We need to break the cycle.
Love and social friendship must find expression in the liturgy. They can and must become significant aspects of how we gather and how we are sent out. By modeling fraternal attitudes in our liturgical life, we have the potential to change the outlook of a whole local community—and this can ultimately change the world.
At the end of the day, what matters most is how our liturgical practice lives, breathes, and proclaims the good news of Jesus. This imperative is expressed by Francis in Fratelli Tutti most beautifully by using the metaphor of music:
… Christians are very much aware that “if the music of the Gospel ceases to resonate in our very being, we will lose the joy born of compassion, the tender love born of trust, the capacity for reconciliation that has its source in our knowledge that we have been forgiven and sent forth. If the music of the Gospel ceases to sound in our homes, our public squares, our workplaces, our political and financial life, then we will no longer hear the strains that challenge us to defend the dignity of every man and woman.” (FT 277)
Our liturgies must resonate with “the music of the Gospel.” This worthy and hope-filled challenge in Fratelli Tutti can indeed touch everyone who is called to liturgical service