By F. K. Bartels
31 July 2012
In the sacred, earthly liturgy the work of our redemption is accomplished as we participate in the fullness of divine worship, consume the Risen Lord, and receive a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy celebrated in the holy City of God (cf. SC 1, 2, 8, 47).
Data from the Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life indicates that only 33% of Catholics attend the Liturgy of the Mass or divine liturgy (generically termed “religious services” by the Pew Forum) on a weekly basis—a percentage which has remained fairly constant for over a decade.Benedict XVI elevates the consecrated host during the divine liturgy.
While these tragic numbers are of little surprise to Catholics who are attentive to the effects of an increasingly secularized America, they are nonetheless greatly disturbing. All we need do is recall these words of our Lord in order to understand that our fidelity to God is of the highest priority: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:13-14).
There are not only Catholics who hold a diminished view of “religious services,” but other Christians as well. Evangelical and Mainline Protestant weekly attendance is even less, at 28% and 26% respectively. Setting aside a comparison of Protestant religious services with the divine liturgy of the Catholic Church, Christians in America often fail to recognize the importance of public worship given to God in any form.
In the 1950s the level of Catholics who weekly attended the Liturgy of the Mass was at about 80%, but by the 1960s adherence to the Third Commandment—interpreted in the New Covenant in Christ as “remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day”—began to drop off significantly. While there are a number of apparent causes for this problem, the continued moral decline of America is generally to blame. A society that increasingly fails to recognize the seriousness of sin and the obligation to adhere to the natural moral law, advances a disordered view of human autonomy in which public worship to God is perceived as something of little or no value. Stated another way, the less important fidelity to Christ is in our life, the less we feel impelled to give him his due worship. Consequently, justice toward God, which is called the “virtue of religion” (CCC 1807), continues to evaporate.
There is also the issue of lack of sound catechesis. If more Catholics truly understood what the divine liturgy is, if they were more aware of the incomparable graces that flow from heaven and infuse the faithful who participate in it with divine life, we would find our churches overflowing during the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. Vatican IIs Sacrosanctum Concilium was about the nature of the divine liturgy, and taught that “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (SC 14). The nature of the liturgy is that it is an “action of Christ the priest” and of his body, the Church (SC 7 § 4) who offers adoration and praise to the Father. The liturgy is therefore the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” and is “the font from which all her power flows” (SC 10).
The divine liturgy, then, is the apex of the Christian life, and participating in it is the greatest honor bestowed upon the disciples of Christ, for through it an indescribably intimate encounter with Christ occurs in reception of the Eucharist, the highest of the sacraments in which Christ’s body, blood, soul and divinity is consumed. Those who eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood receive supernatural life (Jn 6:54), which raises human nature beyond what it formerly was, as it is transformed, elevated and perfected by the Risen Lord’s real, true, and whole Presence. Thus, in the reception of this sacrament of indescribable love, our “mind is filled with grace,” and we are given a “pledge of future glory” (SC 47). It is clear that living the Christian life to its fullest is inseparably bound up with the divine liturgy. That is why holy mother Church requires her children to participate in it on each Sunday and other Holy Days of obligation.
While the divine liturgy is the life-blood of the Christian, seeing it with clarity, however, is not simply a matter of catechesis only, just as understanding the organic reality of the Church with the eyes of faith cannot be attributed merely to fruit borne from an intellectual argument. Something more is needed, something which only God can supply: the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Although these are free gifts received in virtue of the sacrament of Baptism, we must do our part to sustain and nourish them by giving ourselves over entirely to Christ, responding fully to the impulses of the Spirit, and living in fidelity to the will of the Father. These things are not easy. They require serious commitment. A tepid faith, a life more concerned with the mundane, a self-centered existence focused on individualistic desires, is not conducive to seeing into the mind of God who, by his indwelling Spirit, enables us to grasp the invisible realities of the divine liturgy.
Given the nature of the divine liturgy, Catholics should zealously share its value and importance with other Christians. There are numerous Protestant and other non-Catholics who, residing in imperfect communion with Christ’s Bride, are only a small step away from entering fully into the heart of the Church and assisting in the divine liturgy, and therefore are very near to becoming one in unity with the body of Christ who participate in that sacred action “surpassing all others” (SC 7 § 4). Our Lord instituted the Eucharist and planted the seeds of the divine liturgy at the Last Supper, then died on the cross and poured out his own blood in the supreme sacrifice of all time, giving to Christians the potential to have abundant life (Jn 10:10). Through the divine liturgy of the Church, in which “we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem” (SC 8), Christians enter into a profound degree of unity, with each other and with Christ, as they are swept up into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. And yet, tragically, that unity intended for all Christians remains this moment in time an unfulfilled prayer of Christ (see Jn 17:20). In a word, we are not yet one. This is due in large part to a failure to adequately perceive the reality of the liturgy.
The wounds of the Reformation and those days preceding it, the ongoing and widespread disunity in Christendom, the continued insistence on an individualistic and subjective interpretation of the Bible and of Christianity in general, the rejection or disregard of the authority Christ gave to his visible Church (Mt. 16:17-19; 18:15-18), including the shortcomings of Catholics themselves, sin, and so forth, all factor into this truly tragic equation in which the reality of God’s gift to humankind is not yet fully known even among reputed Christians.
There are many other people, of course, who have not yet been baptized; they yet remain unexposed to the wondrous, life-giving truth of the Gospel as it is presented in all its fullness by the Catholic Church; they have not yet had the privilege of assisting at the Sunday Liturgy, the highest form of Christian prayer and the greatest event of all time, an action of God “through which the work of our redemption is accomplished” (SC 1). Considering the importance of encountering Christ along with the value and incomparable worth of the divine liturgy, the serious nature of evangelization becomes apparent.
Given what has been said thus far, these questions often surface: why does not God simply enlighten everyone? Why is the truth often such a struggle for man? Why is it so difficult for us to perceive more of the reality of the liturgy?
Here we encounter mystery, even what seems a paradox, inseparably bound up with the gift of human free will and its abuse. For, while the Father wills all people into the bosom of his Son’s Church (CCC 759), that they may hear the words of truth and receive the sacraments of life, raising those who believe in Christ to the status of adopted sons and daughters of God (Eph. 1:5), there are many millions who apparently do not recognize or accept the meaning of God’s wondrous call even when it is presented to them with what appears to be an adequate level of clarity. Others reject it, for they find created objects, personal ambitions, and dreams of a pleasure-filled life in the evanescent world more appealing than the possession of that eternal and lasting, ancient and burning Love who is Life Itself. As Scripture affirms, the Incarnate Word of God came in to the world, the very world that “was made through him, yet the world knew him not”; Christ, the light of humanity, “came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (Jn 1:10-11).
But Catholics must be mindful of the fact that they are instruments of the Spirit whose unceasing love is directed at revealing Christ, his Church, and the heavenly reality of the divine liturgy. There are many millions of people, Christian or otherwise, whose lives will be forever changed upon hearing a few of our meager and insufficient words in loving commitment to the sacrifice of the Mass, for it is the Spirit who will fulfill our work according to the Father’s plan of glory. That we are called, then, to participate in God’s salvific action in reconciling the world to himself is true. While Christ is the first cause of this most precious and vital work, as the one Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5), he has graced us with the opportunity to share in his own mission: bringing humankind to the Father.
No one hears of Christ, the Gospel, or the life-giving nature of the divine liturgy in isolation. It is the community of the Church, the People of God, who, aided by the Spirit, bring the truths of everlasting life to all people and all nations. In a word, Christ is brought to others through the Church.
One thing is certain: our capacity to perceive God, our ability to look beyond the visible world into the eternal, is severely diminished by sin, by our tepid faith, by our desire to surround ourselves with fleeting pleasures, and by our failure to love God above all else. What is needed, is an encounter with Christ, one which is deep in humility, urgent in sincere repentance, and complete in self-gift. We must pray with total conviction: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit” (Liturgy of The Hours, Night Prayer Responsory). It is through full, conscious and active participation in the divine liturgy that we receive the grace necessary to live out the Christian life and walk the path of perfection:
“The liturgy in its turn moves the faithful, filled with the paschal sacraments, to be one in holiness; it prays that they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by their faith; the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire. From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way” (SC 10 § 2).
This essay was first published on Catholic Online.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.