Saturday, February 14, 2015

Jesus Opens Our Mouths

February 14, 2015
Saturday of week 5 in Ordinary Time
(Saints Cyril, monk, and Methodius, Bishop)

Memorial Mass in Honor of St Charles Lwanga and the Ugandan Martyrs 


Jesus Opens Our Mouths
“How many loaves do you have?”

When Adam and Eve sinned, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so made loincloths for themselves….” They were no longer free, open and spontaneous with each other. They were “clothed” in reserve.

Jesus came to reverse this; to free us from our fear of expressing ourselves.

If we let him do it, one of the first things we will see is a new enthusiasm at Mass. If the Mass drives people away instead of attracting them, it is because people are hiding their faith, their love for God and each other, and any devotion or joy they might feel. To focus on one detail, the real reason some won’t sing at Mass is that they are afraid of “letting go,” of getting involved in communal enthusiasm, of revealing too much of themselves in a crowd.

Mass shouldn’t be a crowd. It should be a community, a “common unity” of shared belief, shared ideals, shared hopes and joy. And it can be if these are expressed. But too often we won’t express them because we are afraid to be vulnerable. We don’t know what others really believe, what Christian ideals they have personally embraced, what they actually feel about Jesus or about the rest of the congregation. Or about us. So we play it safe. We just blend into the crowd. We say and do only what everyone else does, and in a way that won’t be noticed. If we do start to feel any emotion, any enthusiasm, we hold it in.

Jesus can nourish us at Mass the same way he nourished the group that followed him out into the desert. Those at Mass depend on everyone’s sharing if they are not going to “go away hungry to their homes” and daily lives, and “collapse on the way.” If everyone just shares the little bit of faith, the little bit of enthusiasm they have, Jesus will multiply it like the seven loaves. Then all will “eat and be satisfied.” Mass is an experience of mutual giving. Jesus wants us to experience being loved and fed by one another, not just by himself.

This is consistent with God’s way of saving the world. God the Son became a human in Jesus so that the human race would be saved “by one like themselves.” And he continues to give human beings a role in saving one another. His “great commandment” to those in pastoral ministry is, “If you love me, feed my sheep” (John 21:16).

Divine life is shared by being made visible, by being expressed in physical, human words and actions. If we are afraid to give expression to the faith, the hope, and above all to the love in our hearts, we make Mass a cold, impersonal routine.

The “liturgy” can actually encourage this if not properly understood. It is “ritual,” not spontaneous self-expression. We are Catholics, not “holy-rollers.”

“Ritual” is defined in the Microsoft dictionary as “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed.”

If we don’t take care, ritual can become robotic. “Robotic” is defined, when used of a person, as “mechanical, stiff, or unemotional.” The word was coined in the 1920’s from the Czech, robota, meaning “forced labor.” This is an accurate description of the way many Catholic congregations comes across at Mass: “mechanical, stiff, unemotional.” 

If improperly trained, priests will preside at Eucharist like robots. I know. I am a priest. That is the way I was trained. And my generation was not an exception. Just read the General Instruction of the Roman Missal for the “general impression” it gives.

True: no one ever said we should be “stiff or unemotional.” But “mechanical,” yes: the “type of behavior” required, even insisted on for the presider at Mass is “a series of actions regularly and invariably followed.” Priests must read every word in the “Roman Missal” exactly as it is written, not changing or adding anything, and perform every gesture just as it is described in the “rubrics” (from rubeus, the “red print” instructions that accompany the text).

Even Vatican II’s decree On the Liturgy (no. 3) says:. “Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” Taken literally (which the bishops did not mean it to be), this says priests should celebrate like robots—which is a contradiction in terms.

Before ordination each of us had to pass an individual qualifying exam by celebrating a “dummy Mass” with a professor. My coach was a world-renowned Scripture scholar with books in various languages, an inspiringly spiritual man. But others warned me before the exercise that he would focus only on details: I had better get every word and every movement right. As predicted, that was all I was judged on.

But presiders should judge themselves, first of all, by what is clearly expressed in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

3. In the celebration of Mass the wondrous mystery of the Lord’s real presence is proclaimed … by that interior disposition and outward expression of supreme reverence and adoration in which the Eucharistic Liturgy is carried out.

The instructions call for presiders to insert some comments. And many priests, by their voice inflection and body language, inject personal feeling and devotion into the Mass. But those who are “mechanical, stiff, unemotional,” are never corrected by their bishops.

In “law and order” dioceses, it is allowed to be an animated robot, but a robot you have to be. In 2012 Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, forbade all exercise of priestly ministry to Father William Rowe, a seventy-one-year-old priest who had been the devoted and faithful pastor of St. Mary’s parish for 17 years. Father Rowe’s only offense was that, in an effort to make the liturgy more relevant to his people, he refused to stick slavishly to the precise words of the liturgical text, and specifically to the new “Roman-English” travesty-translation of 2011. His bishop said not to be a robot was to be a rebel. Because of this kind of attitude, too many priests choose to be robots. It doesn’t even occur to them to change one word in what they read. In every Easter preface, for example, they proclaim repeatedly to mystified Americans,  “It is truly right… to laud you.” And on the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, they dutifully clarify to the theologians in the congregation that we “profess her, on account of… prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin.”

Priests like this insulate themselves from the congregation in a “prevenient cloud” of ritual that excludes awareness of human communication.

But theologically, it is the robots who are disobedient to the Church. Vatican II, “On the Sacred Liturgy” insists (no. 11):

In order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects… something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is [pastors’] duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.
This calls—and empowers—priests to go beyond the “robot rules,” and to make whatever adaptations are necessary (with moderation and fidelity to the meaning and intent of the liturgy) to ensure “full, conscious, active” participation by each particular congregation.

The laity are as responsible as the priests for enlivening the liturgy. It is Catholic doctrine that every Christian becomes a priest by Baptism. And all are supposed to exercise that priesthood during Mass through “full, active, conscious participation” in the celebration. This requires every person present to totally involved. To sing! To recite the “responses” and other parts spoken by the laity (e.g. Gloria, Profession of Faith, the Sanctus or “Holy, holy, holy…”) with as much reverence, enthusiasm and personal feeling as the presiding priest should display. It is just as much a sin (yes, let’s call it what it is) for the priests in the pews not to sing as it would be for the priest behind the altar to simply omit parts of the Mass he doesn’t like to say. All present are priests. All have a role. The effect and fruitfulness of the celebration depends on how everyone celebrates.

But for this we have to dare to be vulnerable. And Jesus shows us how. Jesus did not restore the primitive nakedness of Eden. In a world where sin exists, it is na├»ve to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Instead, Jesus gave us the white robe of the wedding dress: a garment one puts on as a pledge to take it off: a promise to become naked to another in heart and mind and soul.

Jesus was naked on the cross; and, predictably, we stabbed him. But instead of closing up, he left his heart open until the end of time. He showed, and still shows us, the way. Do we choose to follow it?

Do I choose to let Jesus open my lips and my heart?


Pray the prayer of the sinner (Psalm 51): “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”

Practice: Sing at Mass. If you already do, sing louder.


Discuss: How can we have reverent ritual without excluding personal self-expression?

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