Beyond the Perpetual Discernment Mentality

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

MTS Student, History of Christianity, University of Notre Dame

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Many young Catholics today seem to exhibit a strong tendency toward what one might term “perpetual discernment syndrome.” I am certainly not an exception to this category, and it was in noticing such a tendency in some of my own decision-making processes that led me to recognition of it in others. There have been times, for example, when ‘let me pray on it’ or ‘I need to discern God’s will’ were simply an excuse to put off committing to a decision.

This tendency to over-discern every decision and every situation ad nauseam could be traced to any number of causes, and at times can even simply be a mask for a deeper fear of commitment (alluded to above).  But it seems to me that it can also derive from an underlying assumption that God has a very specific and meticulous plan and purpose for one’s life, and that every step, every moment, every decision is assigned a very specific place within that plan. With this assumption firmly in place, each decision in our lives becomes an occasion for renewed anxiety and fear of “messing up.” When presented with two doors, we cannot bring ourselves to enter Door A out of a fear that God has planned for us to choose Door B. Unsure of which is the correct path, which one is truly a part of the plan, we find ourselves ‘paralyzed by the possible’ (to borrow a phrase from Samuel Bellafiore’s September blog post); we stare blankly at both doors, telling ourselves and those around us that we cannot choose either because we need to “discern.” “Discernment,” in cases such as these, seems to be more aptly labeled “indecision.”Whats-behind-door-number-3Let me be clear: I am in no way opposed to engaging in healthy prayer and discernment, especially when it comes to big decisions in one’s life (one might even call this being “responsible”). I am not an advocate (my girlfriend can attest) of rushing headlong through life’s many doors, without taking an appropriate amount of time to prayerfully consider the options in order to hear God’s voice. I do believe that God has a plan and a purpose for our lives, and I do believe that each one of us has a vocation that the Lord is calling us to.

Nevertheless, there can also be a danger in the mentality that assumes every step and every moment of our lives to have been plotted, and the only thing left for us to do is keep our eyes on the road beneath us, taking care to step in the footprints that have already been perfectly laid out. winding roadOr, to use a more seasonally appropriate analogy, it can even be tempting to think of vocation as a kind of giant Easter Egg Hunt, with God’s will being contained in very small and limited objects hidden in the various brush and shrubbery that are the decisions we face throughout our lives. We have only to uncover the egg, and inside will be God’s specific and precise directive for that moment. It is this mentality that I want to challenge.

Perhaps this reflection from Hans Urs Von Balthasar (written in 1927 during a retreat before his entry into the Jesuit novitiate) can offer a way forward for us, then:

Even today, thirty years later, I could trace my steps back to that remote path in the Black Forest, not too far from Basel, and rediscover the tree under which I was struck, as if by lightning … and what suddenly entered my mind then was neither theology, nor the priesthood. It was simply this: you do not have to choose anything, you have been called! You will not serve, you will be taken into service. You do not have to make plans of any sort, you are only a pebble in a mosaic prepared long before. All that I had to do was simply leave everything behind and follow, without making plans, without desires or particular intuitions. I had only to remain there to see how I could be useful.

Sometimes I wonder if Christ knew the specifics of His mission. Did He ever concern Himself by worrying about Gethsemane, Jerusalem, the cross, the crown of thorns, Judas, or Pontius Pilate? Did he know that He was to be betrayed by Judas, crucified on a cross, between two criminals, on a Friday afternoon?jesus-in-garden-of-gethsemane Did he pause at every juncture, afraid to move forward from fear that his action will fail to realize the Father’s specific plan for His life? It is possible that He did. It is also possible, however, that His forty days in the desert, the forty days that we commemorated and participated in with our own practices this past Lent, were spent in preparation for a mission the specifics of which He knew not.

Perhaps Von Balthasar is in some ways urging us to cultivate a life that is grounded in the Incarnation, oriented toward Heaven, and attuned to His will. Within this framework, discerning God’s will becomes first and foremost a state, rather than an action.  If we realize, as Von Balthasar did, that we have simply to “leave everything behind and follow, without making plans,” then perhaps we will shed the timidity and insecurity that tends to characterize a perpetually discerning mentality, and instead blaze a trail with confidence, zeal and hope into the true heart of God’s will.

Plenitude of Reality

Renee RodenRenée Roden

AmeriCorps Volunteer



Indeed apostolic preaching with all its boldness, and passion would be unthinkable unless the witnesses had experienced a real encounter, coming to them from outside, with something entirely new and unforeseen. Only a real event of a radically new quality could possibly have given rise to the apostolic preaching, which cannot be explained on the basis of speculations or inner mystical experiences. In all its boldness and originality, it draws life from the impact of an event no one had invented, an event that surpassed all that could be imagined. (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pg. 275)

Recently, I was leading a group of seniors at our high school in a discussion of Fr. Jim Martin’s “Six Paths to God”, detailed in his The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. After briefly recapping what we had discussed the day before, the students’ assignment was for each of them to identify which path they were on, and to journal for several minutes about said path. Suddenly, I had a revolt on my hands.

From all corners of the room, complaints were volleyed at me: Ms. Roden, Ms. Roooodeeeennnnn, why do we have to do this? One student’s voice rose above the throng, protesting that this course was supposed to be a chance for the students to reflect on their own lives, and was not supposed to be “just another religion class.” According to my student, religion had absolutely no application to their story whatsoever, and it was an oppressive waste of their time to make them reflect on religion at all. “And I’m not the only one that thinks that; I’m just the only one that’s saying.”

In the (surprisingly fruitful) discussion that ensued, I found that my students’ attitude towards religion shed some light on my own attitude towards Resurrection.

In daily speech, I often find myself using the death and Resurrection DeathandResurrectionof Christ as symbols of sorts. “Death and Resurrection” is a template for our spiritual lives, it provides a lens through which to view the failures and triumphs of our lives. We see the pattern of death and resurrection stamped into the natural world all around us. They are a mystic blueprint through which I can understand my own story.

This is, perhaps, why the Paschal Triduum is so moving. Because they are not about the pattern of Death and Resurrection, but they are about a death of one man. The focus of the Triduum liturgies is the actual moment in history when Jesus was crucified. During this time, we address the fact that this story happened, to a particular person who was not us, in a particular moment that is not now. So, in this sense, my students are correct: this is a story that is not theirs. It is a concrete reality outside of their own experience.

The Triduum begins with this particularity: with the stories of the Passover meal, and then the horrible tragedy of crucifixion. These are images we can understand, we can grasp. We know what it is to share a meal with a community, we can watch a re-enactment of the Christ being scourged; we have all seen men and women in pain; we look at images of Jesus of Nazareth nailed to the cross every single day. These are images within the boundaries of our imagination.

When the Easter Vigil mass begins, however, we have entered a more mysterious realm. The Resurrection eludes the grasp of our comprehension; its relationship to history is not as simple as Jesus’ life and death. Pope Benedict XVI describes the Resurrection:

As something that breaks out of history and transcends it, the Resurrection nevertheless had its origin in history, and, up to a point, still belongs there. Perhaps we could put it this way: Jesus’ Resurrection points beyond history, but has left a footprint in history. Therefore, it can be attested by witnesses as an event of an entirely new  kind. (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, pg. 275)

What exactly is this event?

The Gospel narratives of the Resurrection indicate the novelty and mystery of this moment: the Resurrected Christ eats fish and breaks bread with them, and still bears the wounds of the Cross, yet He also walks through closed doors, and even His dearest friends and closest companions fail to recognize Him.

The Resurrection was not just a human being “coming back” from the dead, but a human being moving forward, past this life, past the end of this life, into a new life with God, as Sam Bellafiore touched upon in his article on Resurrection and Harry Potter: Resurrection means moving forward into new life, not just the old life returning. Benedict XVI describes it as an “ontological leap.” The Resurrection impacted the world in a way that Lazarus’ return to life did not. For Lazarus would die once again, but Christ will die no more.

This is an event beyond the realm of our imagination. I can picture the crucifixion, I am moved by the images that present themselves of the Suffering Servant. But images of the Resurrection lack that pathos, and they somehow fail to capture the glory of what it means to be a risen man–one who will die no more, who has passed to whatever lies on the other side of death. This new leap into the future, a new mode of being with God; a new mode of being alive baffles our imaginations.

ResurrectionBut, the Resurrection was not just a moment of glory for Christ alone. It is truly God’s triumph of love for the entire human race. God submitted to the bonds of death, which the human race imposed on each member through sin. But, through His love for us that feared no death, He broke a barrier, and opened a new way of being, of union with God. The mechanics of the Resurrection defeats my imagination and intellect, and I imagine it did the Apostles as well, but the potency of the event occurring has not diminished, even til today.

We are, most of us, all too familiar with the words of Paul that sprinkle the Easter liturgies: If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again. (Romans 6:8-9) And too often, I think of these words as a vague promise of life after death. The Resurrection of my own self seems to be in the future. But that is not what Paul is saying. He is proclaiming to the New Church that the lives they are living right now are transformed by Christ’s Resurrection. We, too, can live in this ontological leap forward, in this new union with God.

The entire world has been transformed, now that this new mode of being has opened up, now that Christ has opened up this life with God, all of us are invited into it here and now. The Apostles were essential in spreading not only the good news of Christ’s Resurrection, but in spreading, in fact, the Resurrection. Their role in the Resurrection is essential and irreplaceable. And so, too, is ours. Apostolic teaching in all its vigor was driven by their knowledge that the Resurrection, by necessity, has remade the whole world. It is not just that Christ’s Resurrection makes us impervious to death after death, it is that Christ’s Resurrection opens up to us a way of being that is Resurrection.

The entire point of Christ’s death and Resurrection is that so we might have life, and have it in abundance (John 10:10) right now. The Resurrection is not simply a prophecy of what we may inherit after death; it is an event that has drastically shaken the core of human existence.

Thus, as I suggested to my students, perhaps the stories outside of our own can shed light on the narrative of our lives. And, if we give these stories a chance, we may be shocked to discover that they are an essential part of our own story. The story of the Resurrection has a starting point: the third day, when Christ left behind an empty tomb, but there is no ending. We are living in the story right now. Each day, we are living in the Resurrection, and the Resurrection requires our participation, because the Messiah suffered these things so that not just he, but we, might enter into His glory (Luke 24:26).

Precarious Preaching: A Year at Oblation

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Samuel Bellafiore

Undergraduate Fellow

B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance

Three years ago I took my first writing-intensive class. Never before did I have to write regularly or at length. This made me worry. Writing at 3:30am in the library usually does.

Why is there such a gap between loving and writing about love? Where’s the line between meaning things and making them up? Do I believe what I’m writing or am I just writing because this is due when I wake up? How many times can you write about love before you know what it is?

On long library nights fueled by iced tea and Snickers (what was I thinking?), I first felt how precarious it is to write about faith. Conversing about my deepest-down thoughts wasn’t bad—spoken words fade fast. But these went on paper, stared me back in the face and got submitted. I teetered between loving and thinking about loving, between aching and faking, between lively urgency and deadline panic.

Most of all I wanted the precarious balanurlce of being authentic, whatever that may be: I imagined writing in some simple and beautiful unified procession of my thought onto paper. That never really happened.

I’ve learned a bit since then. First of all, most of these problems can be solved by outlining. Start essays before they’re due. The joy of reading amazing, life-changing books; school did in fact matter. When you’re working and need sleep you should go to sleep. Apparently there’s a reason college is four years—I can actually learn something in that time! And the most comforting and important thing I’ve ever read: love means turning and saying, “‘It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world!’” (Josef Pieper’s Faith Hope Love)

Time resolved a lot of my freshman questions but the precarious lingered.

My year at Oblation reminded me how precarious it is to believe and write about belief. Will I mean what I’m saying when I’m getting paid for it? How to write my ideas for someone else? Writing for an audience meant I couldn’t write for me; I had to consider people’s positions and preferences when I wrote. When an okay post got some less-than-lovely comments, I certainly felt the precariousness of writing for an audience.

I was precarious when learning how far I could push my deadline before exasperating the editors. (Last time: Sorry this is late, guys…) I had to balance between reviewing my writing later to improve it and the pride of gazing on my own words published…online!

I have loved working at Oblation because it embraces precariousness. Life’s precariousness means accommodating other people and publishing necessitates this. Weekly editorial meetings made me consider the difference between what I wanted to cover and needed to cover, how we wanted to publish and how the audience did.

When I was hired Oblation attracted me because it insisted on balancing. It resists the quick tendency to categorize and condemn, so easy when it comes to liturgy. It’s easy to kick your playmate off the see-saw for the security of knowing where the see-saw will land. But Oblation doesn’t do this. The answers aren’t always self-evident and the path forward isn’t always well lit. Church life is harder than platforms, parties, and ballots.

The Church is precarious. Chesterton describes the Church’s position as “the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic” p1474644018-5(Orthodoxy, ch. 3). The Church stretches and wavers between the human and divine, seeking out sheep and looking for the Face of God. The Gospel is precarious or rather it makes us precarious. The Word surprised and scared kings when it first came. The Gospel still unseats us. When our age’s highest good is autonomy the Gospel asks us to listen, trust and even to rest like a child in the arms of its mother.

The Church, precariously placed on this wild ride through the world’s story, finds a virtuous middle in her ministry of reconciliation. This reconciliation is Oblation’s greatest trait and the biggest reason I’ve loved working here. The Church brings people and God back toward each other.

At Oblation I’ve seen how real this really is in the way the blog constantly examines culture, places it near the Gospel, relates them and shows them how they bear on one another. The easiest thing in religious life today is to think Christ doesn’t bear on your existence. Oblation disrupts this myth without ever naming it. Proclaiming the Eternal Word, I saw this year, is important for every single moment of human life. Reconciling the Eternal Word and the right-now is what preaching is.

And preaching’s been on my mind during this pre-graduation precipice, wavering between college and the hereafter. Barring any thunderbolts, the other end of my precipice is St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, NY, where I’ll be studying in the fall as a seminarian for the Diocese of Albany, NY. Oblation has made me think harder about preaching. The year has shown me how hard it is squash my own preferences in favor of offering what people most need. But it’s also reminded me how much people want that one needful thing (Lk 10:42) and respond when they find it. Please keep me in your prayers; I’ll pray for you. And I will try not to lose the wild instability that is trusting and preaching Christ.

Rejoice, O Queen of Heaven

Danielle Peters-cropDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame

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She was allowed to hold her dead son in her lap one last time; she attended his burial and then endured the night after this fateful Friday. In her grief she pondered all that had happened. Life had ended so cruelly for Jesus. Not even a week ago, the crowds were hailing him as their king, spreading their cloaks and leafy branches on the road, and shouting their Hosannas! And then things changed so abruptly. On Monday, Mary of Bethany used costly perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus, which irritated Judas the Iscariot. Jesus calmly reprimanded his disciple, prophesying his burial. The drama reached a highpoint at the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his twelve closest friends. He had chosen each one; they had dropped everything to follow him. Yet, Jesus knew that among them there was one who would betray him and one who would deny him three times. He knew that Peter, James, and John would not be able to stay awake and pray with him during the night of his agony—and still: He washed the feet of all of them. He offered to each one his own Body and Blood. And then he faced the trial; he humbly and lovingly accepted the Cross, and carried it all the way up the hill to Golgotha.

Pietà by Daniele Crespi
Pietà by Daniele Crespi

By then, all but one of his apostles had disappeared. This did not weaken his love for them as he willingly let himself be crucified. In his final torment, he was consoled by the few who loyally had followed him. Among his last words and legacy was the entrustment of the beloved disciple to his mother, and of his mother to the beloved disciple. Thereupon everything was fulfilled.

On the following day, while she profoundly felt the wound of her own pierced heart, she could still thank her Son for his ultimate sacrifice. Yet along with her own sadness, she was deeply concerned about Jesus’ disciples. She sensed that the experiences of the previous days affected them to the core, and possibly also destabilized their belief in Jesus’ message. Moreover, their relationship to one another now lacked its uniting center. She was the only one whose faith was unbroken; she trusted his words: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again” (Lk 24:7). Just as at the Annunciation, she did not know how this would happen; but she held silent vigil and believed.

And then she heard the Good News: “We have seen the Lord! He is alive! Be happy, Mary, all is well again!” How much she rejoiced as she listened to the stories of the women and of the disciples: the removed rock, the empty tomb, the encounter in Emmaus! And again she treasured everything in her heart: the angel’s greeting to the women echoed her encounter with the messenger at the Annunciation: do not be afraid! Is anything impossible for God?

Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia.
The Son whom you merited to bear, alleluia.
Has risen, as He said, alleluia.
Pray for us to God, alleluia.
Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia.
For the Lord has truly risen, alleluia.

The Resurrected Christ Appears to the Virgin by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri)During the Easter season, this prayer—the Regina Coeli—takes the place of the Angelus, and it is also the Marian antiphon at the conclusion of the Church’s evening prayer. What an emotional roller coaster: in an instant, the Mother of Sorrows is transformed through the victory won by the risen Lord! Suffering and death do not have the last word; at the end of the dark tunnel rises the sun of a glorious Easter morning! “Death where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!” (Lk 1:46) Mary’s Magnificat takes on a fuller meaning now that she has witnessed “the great things” he has done for her and for all of us! This is the message Mary wants to teach us: all our mourning and sorrow will turn into joy and dancing!

Fittingly, Easter is celebrated amidst the blossoming of spring. The budding growth of nature resembles the new life we receive through baptism in Jesus Christ. In the power of the paschal mystery, we can rise above mediocrity and live in the freedom of the children of God. Like Mary, and through her intercession, we can endure the night of darkness, of broken relationships, and of mourning for—like her—we trust that there will be a new morning with new hope, a surprising encounter, and new life!

Liturgical Polarization: Clerical vs. Lay Power

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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PolarizationEditor’s note: This series on liturgical polarization was written to prepare for a gathering held at the University of Notre Dame on Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal on Monday, April 27, 2015.

Those who have experienced the strangeness of the academic job interview (especially at smaller schools) understand that it involves a series of high stress meetings with every faculty member in the department. These faculty ask you questions about your research plans, your teaching philosophy, and your planned lifetime commitment to the institution that you’re applying to. At one of these interviews, we began not with the usual chit-chat about teaching and research plans. Rather, this professor began immediately with “There are six sacraments for women. And seven for men. What do you think about that?”

In some ways, the question was to be expected. Every time that I have talked to someone on an airplane about my profession as a Catholic theologian, the question of women’s ordination surfaces. Yet, the inquiry at this interview was not really a question at all. It was a statement. One in which the presumption was that those refused ordination because of their sex are denied access to the full sacramental life of the Church. And that, indeed, the denial of this sacrament to everyone is a matter of clerical power. A job interviewee, I was not free to redefine the terms.

ClericalismOf course, there is such a thing as an abuse of power by clerics, what one rightly calls clericalism. Because of the sacrament of ordination, some deacons, priests, and bishops see themselves as lone rangers in rescuing the Church (especially us precarious lay people) from the perils of secularism. They see the rite of ordination as bestowing not simply the sacred power of representing Christ and the Church in the Eucharistic offering. They also believe that ordination has made them the premier expert in carrying out administration and financial work, legal matters, preaching, catechesis, theology, every aspect of living Christian life in the world, and anything else that can happen in a parish or diocese.  Of course, this kind of clericalism is not reserved solely for those ordained whether they are women or men (I’m 100% certain that Roman Catholicism is not the only group that suffers from clericalism). Receiving a master’s degree is often an invitation to a kind of “academic” clericalism, which elevates one above “those in the pews.” And those with doctorates are supremely good at being clerical, often far more expert at it than the clerics themselves.

This kind of reduction of the relationship between “lay” and “ordained” to the matter of power and prestige has a deleterious effect upon the worship of the Church. Priests can grow to see themselves as at the center of the Church’s life, creating a clerical culture in which we worship “Father So and So” or Bishop “X” and not Christ crucified. Yet, a similar approach to power can operate among those of us in the pews, who want to democratize liturgical action. “We should be able to do more in the liturgy, be able to participate in everything, because it’s our liturgy–we are the Church.” A theological statement may be true but can be said in the wrong way, becoming an expression of ideology not gift. We, all of us, are the Church. And this means that our identity is a gift from the crucified love of Christ, not setting “us” up against “them.”

Yet, how do we avoid this polarization of lay and ordained, played out frequently in the liturgical wars of the last twenty years? Can we move beyond power politics in our relationships, toward a relationship of mutual love and respect? In other words, can we be a Church, the family of God, Christ’s mystical body?

Healing Has Already Started…Some Time Ago

LogChapelSeveral weeks ago, I gathered for a baptism at the Log Chapel on Notre Dame’s campus. In that assembly, we had present four Holy Cross priests and a brother (one priest ordained the day before, who was serving as godfather and another who was presiding), two theologians with doctorates, five lay ministers and teachers with master’s degrees, and an accountant or two. A rarefied group, there was nonetheless no sense of prestige or ambition in the group that day. Fr. Aaron administered the sacrament of baptism because he was ordained to do so. But, he had a deep admiration and respect for those of us in that assembly, who live out the baptismal priesthood through caring for toddlers and educating in classrooms and loving our spouses.

DioceseofKnoxvilleIn reality, for many lay women and men, this is our experience of the priesthood. On numerous occasions, I have been asked to address groups of priests in dioceses on preaching and liturgical practice. Rarely has there been enmity expressed because I was a lay person telling ordained men how to do their job. At the same time, I have deep admiration for those men, who live out their ordained priesthood through transforming their lives into Eucharistic gifts. Fr. Pete McCormick, C.S.C. has taught me more how to care for my son than many parents insofar as I have watched him drop with joy all recreational plans to listen to a student in need. He misses football game after football game in order to preside at the wedding of a former student. He is a disciple, and there is something about his priesthood that makes him this in a way that inspires me on a daily basis.

My own deep admiration for the “set apart” quality of the priesthood is not unique among those my age. It is also not uncommon to encounter a generation of priests in the Diocese of Knoxville (my home diocese) or in the Congregation of Holy Cross, who see collaboration with lay Catholics to be not requirement but gift. There is a common mission that we are undertaking, one that we perform in our own particular way.

This Mission is the Eucharistization of the World

I often make it a practice to read interviews with seminarians who are currently in formation. Often, when asked to reflect on what they long for most, they note it is making available the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ each day for the assembly of the faithful. When reading these texts, I often think to myself, “Yes, that is the most important thing that you do.” But, I hope that you recognize what this means for both of us, lay and ordained.

In his work, The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit, Louis Bouyer writes:

Everything that [the layperson’s] activity encounters in this world–all human beings with whom it associates him, in any way; everything he does, on the personal, familial, professional, social, political, and cultural planes; and everything he becomes–must be made an occasion of giving thanks to God in the faith. This ‘eucharist’ of the faith becomes real only by being exercised in charity toward our brothers [and sisters] on all occasions, in all these paths. In this way the Christian extends in the world, in the life of every day, the royal priesthood whose fundamental exercise is his participation in the Eucharist, but which takes on its fullest meaning and reality only if his participation brings him consecration of his whole existence, preparing…for the consecration of the universe” (455).

Pope Francis (C) speaks during a mass at Tacloban's airport January 17, 2015. An emotional Pope Francis, wearing a plastic poncho over his vestments to protect him from the wind and rain on Saturday, comforted survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines' worst natural disaster that killed about 6,300 people 14 months ago.   REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (PHILIPPINES - Tags: RELIGION ENVIRONMENT)

The reason why I get along so well with so many priests is because we’re aware of our respective roles in this eucharistization of the world. The priest’s ministry, including his liturgical ministry, is oriented toward offering me the resources to transfigure the world through his preaching and bestowing of the sacraments. Yet, the activity that I perform in the sanctification of the mundane is not some lesser Eucharistic activity, a kind of “spiritual” offering (which is nice and pleasant but not really Eucharistic). It is really the “making eucharist” of the world, part of God’s salvific plan for reality. My “eucharist” is not more important than the offering made possible by the ordained priesthood. But, it is not less important. It is a mutual sharing of gift, of role, of vocation.

Perhaps, it is this theology of the lay priesthood (and the gift of the ordained priesthood to this lay life), which still remains far too unknown following the Second Vatican Council.  The option in the Church isn’t between professional cleric (who cares about faith) and lay person, whose only responsibility is to receive the Eucharist every Sunday. Rather, it is two forms of priesthood, mutually co-adhering. Two forms of priesthood that make possible a world of self-giving love.

Clericalization in the Liturgy is Both “Liberal” and “Traditional”

It does seem important to emphasize that there remains approaches to liturgy that are clerical (in the bad sense of that term). And such liturgical styles are not simply reserved for so-called traditionalists. The priest may change the texts of the liturgy, making clear that he is the ultimate creator of the text. The priest may insert editorial comments into each liturgical action, refusing to give those of us gathered an occasion to offer the depths of our hearts to the triune God. The liturgical actions of the priest (or the way that he speaks certain words) may draw attention not to Christ but to himself. His preaching on Sunday mornings can become an occasion for him to engage in public forms of therapy or preaching on the social or cultural issues that he is most concerned about. He may only seek to cultivate liturgical ministry among men, who may one day be ordained to the priesthood.

Yet, it is equally the case that a similar form of clericalism can exist among those who do treat rubrics or the beauty of the liturgy itself as an idol. An ordained minister who wants to direct every moment of activity rather than forming lay women and men who have unconscious competence relative to their own activity in the liturgy. A priest or bishop who sees the liturgy as the place to express his personal vision of the Christian life. Parishes shows signs of such clericalism when they change their entire liturgical style based upon the arrival of every new pastor. As Bishop Peter Elliots, a good liturgical celebrant “…draws his collaborators into his own ars celebrandi by requiring high standards based on training to develop skills and to correct errors. He should expect dedication and never settle for less. Nevertheless he does not play the ‘sacristy priest,’ because he delegates liturgical training and formation to those he has already formed in the wider ars celebrandi” (“Ars Celebrandi in the Sacred Liturgy” in Sacred Liturgy: The Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church, 79).

In a course that I have taught this year on liturgy, theology, and aesthetics, many of my students attended a Ukrainian Catholic liturgy, one in which the priest prayed the Eucharistic Prayer facing the same direction as the people (ad orientem). In their description of this rite, they commented upon how “un-clerical” it was for the priest and lay person to face the same direction in their prayer. That our prayer is a common one, performed together. And it is a prayer that neither of us own but receive as gift from the Church. Perhaps, there is more wisdom (than simply some return to an archaic practice), something deeply formative about an ad orientem posture in Eucharistic praying, one that is not simply about the ordained excluding the lay from prayer.

Christ is the Powerful One

The last suggestion, implicit all along, is that the problem with many approaches to liturgical prayer (and why people see it as polarizing) is that everything is immediately reduced to the question of power. Why does Rome have all the power? Why does the priest have all the power? Why do “we” not have more power?

While power may work well as a sociological category in assessing how institutions function, the reduction of all liturgical activity in the Church to power is a de-sacramentalizing one. The Church exists not because of its own power but because the Church gathers around the only one who has power to begin with, the powerless one, Jesus Christ. The one who did not claim “power” over the Father but emptied himself. The one who learned the power of obedience, even unto death. The one who was raised up from the dead through the power of God.

PopeFrancisTo analyze lay and clerical liturgical action according to “power” is, in some ways, to simply perpetuate the polarization that can be present in the Church today. Both lay and ordained are to exercise power but a power that comes first and foremost from the crucified God, Jesus Christ. This point is emphasized by Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium: 

The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the Church, functions “do not favour the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others”. Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops. Even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered “hierarchical”, it must be remembered that “it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members”. Its key and axis is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God’s people. This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life (EG 104)


This series on liturgical polarization began with a claim that polarization, the creation of an “us” vs. “them” in liturgical worship is a problem for ecclesial unity. This statement remains true. But, it must be emphasized at the conclusion of the series that liturgical polarization in parish life is not the normative reality. That most of our parishes are places where human beings participate in Christ’s own life from birth to death. And while parish structure is changing, while attendance (at some parishes, those not in the South) may be dropping, the unity of the Church is performed week-after-week in these buildings.

I learned the possibility of divine love in my local parish. It was a parish that sang hymns, which I didn’t always want sung. It was a parish in which there were real arguments over liturgical space. It was a parish in which I’ve seen political conservatives and liberals argue over the demands of the Gospels. But, it was a parish in which we dined at the Supper of the Lamb. A parish in which God’s glory was made manifest among us. A parish in which wounds were healed through the sign of peace, through learning to recognize the presence of the Word made flesh dwelling in our midst. That we gathered around a truth that we ourselves did not create, a truth that is traditioned by the Church itself. A truth spoken in love.

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world, happy are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.  

Practicing Easter: Building the Church

Hope BoettnerHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

Springtime means a number of things. It means the smell of freshly cut grass, the return of thunderstorms, and the bane of allergies. But this springtime through this reflection brings together two of my favorite things in a new way. It brings together a) baseball and b) a concrete example of a way that theological thought—the way we think about and grow in our faith—truly does impact our daily lives.

field-of-dreams-poster-artwork-kevin-costner-amy-madigan-james-earl-jonesThe connection here is a little more subtle than a church softball league, so I will explain. In the baseball movie classic Field of Dreams, a down-on-his-luck Iowa farmer begins (without really understanding why) building a baseball diamond in his cornfields. He is prompted to do this by a few rather mystical experiences, including the whispered, repeated phrase, “If you build it, he will come.”

My home diocese, the Diocese of Knoxville in Tennessee,  isn’t building a baseball diamond. But she is embarking on a building adventure of her own. This past weekend, members from all corners of the diocese (along with leaders of the wider Church) came together to celebrate the groundbreaking of the building project for a new Cathedral. Originally, when Pope John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988 by splitting it from Nashville, the already existing Sacred Heart Parish was chosen because of its size and central location to serve as the Cathedral parish. But the diocese has grown and changed in the last twenty-five years, and with it, the Cathedral parish demographics have increased and changed dramatically. In deciding to build a Cathedral, Catholics of East Tennessee are coming together to build; we are remembering and honoring the past and (short) history of our diocese and we are getting ready for the future, for a new chapter in which we will stand more on our own feet as a maturing diocese.

From left, Father David Boettner Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam, Governor Bill Haslam, Bishop Richard Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Cardinal William Levada participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.   (SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)
From left, Father David Boettner Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam, Governor Bill Haslam, Bishop Richard Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Cardinal William Levada participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

Although I was privileged to go home for the weekend and participate in the events associated with the groundbreaking, I have mostly been watching this entire process unfold from afar. My home diocese has been my home in many ways for nearly my whole life. As a daughter of the Diocese who loves her home, while living (in happy exile) away from home and majoring in Theology at Notre Dame, I have been geeking out quite a bit as it all transpires.

I am watching my home Church come together, work together, and learn together about why and how we think about our sacred spaces in the way that we do. I am seeing tutorials on the meaning behind church architecture reach people; I am watching as people transition from hesitancy about the need for a new Cathedral to excitement, pride, and willingness to go the distance and to be a part of this effort. I am seeing a countless number of individuals devote their time, their talents, and their efforts in order to make all of this happen. And most importantly, I am seeing first-hand the way that physically building a new Cathedral church is teaching, forming, and building up the Body of Christ in East Tennessee.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, greets guests at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.   (SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, greets guests at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

This weekend, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people work together and come together for this moment. (Apparently the final count was 1200 local folks, 12 bishops, 3 cardinals, a governor, and two mayors.) This time in Knoxville diocesan history clearly has become a teaching and formational moment. It has taught and re-taught us about our need to worship God rightly so that we may live rightly, not just as the parish of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but as the entire diocese and all of her members. The tagline of the Cathedral campaign itself packs a theological punch about this rightly ordered way of looking at church building: “Home, Where We Worship, Teach, and Serve.”Home-Campaign-Logo_RGB

Thinking about building, thinking about the seasons of life, and deciding to build has helped all of us who call ourselves a part of the diocese of Knoxville to realize that the Mass, the liturgy, and the life of the Church (both local and universal) is not simply about “we the people.” The Church is actually about the Trinity; the Church only exists because the love of the Trinity overflowed and continues to overflow to creation. God’s overflowing, self-giving, and ever-expanding love explains the basic fact of why we are here. But reflecting on God’s love also helps us understand the fitting priority list for our lives and that if we don’t worship rightly we cannot live rightly—and this is why I’m so proud of the “Worship, Teach, Serve” tagline.

Reflecting on worship and on what it means to build a fitting space for the “home base” of the Diocese (the baseball jokes continue) also means something else. It means that we realize our lives of faith mean more than the sense of community or feeling of belonging that we encounter when we gather for the liturgy. In the Mass and in other liturgies, we (the people of God) participate and pray in hope and in confidence of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.

But we ourselves, though we are the people and the assembly of God, are not actually the main focus of the liturgy. The Mass and the liturgical life of the Church is not meant to inspire and entertain us, so that we come back next time for more. The liturgical life of the Church is meant to take all of us up into the love of the Trinity, so that we glorify our Creator and are strengthened by the sacraments in order that we may then go out and participate in the work of the Trinity. We do this by helping to sanctify the world with Christ’s love and Christ’s beauty. Paraphrasing Mother Teresa, we make something beautiful for God by our lives and our loves.

Design of the interior of the Cathedral
Design of the interior of the Cathedral

There’s a pertinent phrase in liturgical theology “lex orandi, lex credendi” that can help us think about this. It means that the law of prayer is the law of belief, or more colloquially, what we say in prayer reflects what we truly believe. Building decisions with churches and with this cathedral extends this “lex orandi, lex credendi” to “lex aedificandi, lex credendi.”  Aedificandi means build, and so what we build and the way we build it reflects what we believe, too. In his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis McNamara says that “architecture is the built form of ideas; church architecture is the built form of theology. As go the ideas, so goes the architecture . . . all architectural decisions are theological decisions.”

Actually, the self-gift (kenosis) of Christ on the Cross forever changed the way that we see our lives and think about beauty. Because Christ’s gift of Himself to the point of death transformed even the worst suffering into the opportunity to give and in that giving to become something beautiful for God, everything in our lives can be transformed by Christ’s work on our behalf. Here and now, in our local churches, we have a chance to give of ourselves, in our daily life. This occurs for Christians all over the world in a significant way through the celebration of the liturgy. By investing prayer, thought, time, energy, and our own personal resources into the building of our local churches (both physically and metaphorically) we also participate in another way in that mystery of self-gift and self-emptying in order to help build the Kingdom of God in new ways.**

In the book Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer, this theological understanding that what we build and the way we build it says something about what we believe is inferred from the title itself. Kieckhefer also makes the comment that

“art in a religious setting can serve as a sacrament of grace, and the capacity to see oneself as worthy of beauty is one dimension of recognizing oneself as by grace made worthy for grace—the sole condition for beginning to receive it” (99).

New Dome 041415(1)Our churches should be fitting, beautiful places for God to be housed, where we can enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Faith so that we can recognize that we are called to be where God is—because God is worthy of the beautiful. And since God is the author and source of all beauty, and since our ultimate call is to become more like God, we are worthy to sit and contemplate God’s love and God’s beauty in beautiful places so that in better understanding God’s beauty we can go into the world and share that beauty.

So how is a building project or thinking about building up and supporting a local church practicing Easter?

Many of our first readings in the Lectionary this time of the year are drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the stories of the early Church growing and building, coming together to break bread and to hear the Word of God. In East Tennessee, we are building and re-building our growing local church, so that we may have a place to come together as an entire diocese. Like the members of the early Church, we do this so that we may hear the Word of God in the Scriptures and break bread together in the Eucharist. The book of Ecclesiastes helps us think about this in another way highlighting tbe seasonal, liturgical factor of life.  There is a season for everything. The season of spring is baseball season, like I mentioned earlier. But in East Tennessee this year, spring is also church-building season. It is a stone-moving season, and a planting season for the seeds of faith.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Eccl 3:1–5a)

1397951614000-ghostfieldAt the end of his own season of building in Field of Dreams,  Ray Kinsella realizes that his baseball diamond building project was not about the baseball players who came, or the field for its own sake. Instead, it was actually about re-building his relationship with his own father, through a simple coming together in playing a game of catch.  At the end of Field of Dreams, Ray is asked by his father, “Is this heaven?” Ray responds by stammering out, “…This.. it’s… it’s Iowa…”

In the movie Field of Dreams, because of his building project, Ray experiences the healing and growth of relationships in his life, including his father. The comparison with the Cathedral project in Knoxville wasn’t meant to be trite. Because in the building and completion of a Cathedral for the Church in East Tennessee (or anywhere where the people of God continue to build) we see a closer glimpse into the call of our eternal relationships with our Heavenly Father and with each other.  Our Father in Heaven wants much more than the time spent in a game of catch with us; He wants time with us for  all of eternity. The glimpses of that heavenly call  show us little glances of the beauty of God’s image for the world in His new, restored creation made possible for us by Christ’s defeat of death and promise of eternal life.

East Tennessee isn’t heaven. But I swear,  sometimes, it is pretty close. And I do think that the new Cathedral, upon its completion, will be a little bit like a glimpse into heaven.




**We obviously do this too by the way we serve the wider people of God. The website for the campaign,, puts it this way: “While we aspire to glorify God through our worship, we plan to continue our work to help the poor. The Diocese of Knoxville provides over $6 million in ongoing charitable services to the poor and marginalized every year. Over the next 5 years, we will have spent more on charitable initiatives than we will have spent on the building of the cathedral.”


For more information, visit:

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus website:

Diocescan Website: ; also

McCrery Architects:


Liturgical Polarization: Is All Beauty Subjective?

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

In our series thus far on liturgical polarization, we have dealt both with the diagnosis of the problem (the applying of a political ideology to liturgical practice), together with a reasonable assessment of the translation of the Roman Missal (refusing to elevate the process of translation to perfection, while also recognizing the many fruits of the translation in the life of the Church). The hope, thus far, is that I have avoided falling into ideology, a temptation that Pope Francis himself bemoans in politics, social life, and the Church itself.

But, the question of what constitutes “beauty” in liturgy raises the stakes relative to liturgical polarization. Indeed, the problem of judging the beautiful  is not unique to the liturgy. The humanities themselves seems to have given up on the project as a whole.  As Roger Scruton writes:

“It is true…that people no longer see works of art as objects of judgement or as expressions of the moral life: increasingly many teachers of the humanities agree with their incoming students, that there is no distinction between good and bad taste, but only between your taste and mine” (Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, 84).

DuChampIn liturgical art, this means that anything is potentially beautiful and thus acceptable for worship if there is some group of people, who find the piece of art beautiful. All liturgical music that is published is potentially beautiful as long as the liturgy or music director says that it is (and people enjoy singing it). All liturgical architecture is beautiful if there are members of the assembly who experience a space as beautiful.

Yet, the dilemma of assessing liturgical beauty is not merely a matter of the subjective turn in aesthetic taste. Rather, an additional source of polarization is an argument over form and function. That churches exist solely for the sake of liturgical action, and thus their “sacredness” is dependent upon the activity of the People of God. A space or piece of music should be “beautiful” but the measure of what makes such a space or piece of music “beautiful” is the quality of worship that is facilitated among those gathered. Thus, every church should be made in a circle insofar as it facilitates the act of singing. Every hymn should be sung by everyone, which means that a certain repertoire of music no longer is appropriate for worship (Palestrina, William Byrd, and even James MacMillan). Any architecture used, any musical style employed is necessarily sacred. And implicitly, the closer that this style is to daily life, to what we experience on the radio or in work, the better.

SchwarzIn recent years, there has been a reaction against functionalism and the elimination of the category of the sacred in liturgical art. Duncan Stroik in his “Ten Myths of Contemporary Sacred Architecture” writes:

From the beginning of time, God has chosen to meet his people in sacred places. The ‘holy ground’ of Mount Sinai became translated into the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem. With the advent of Christianity, believers constructed buildings specifically for the divine liturgy which would reflect the heavenly temple, the upper room, and other holy places…As a place set apart for the reception of the sacraments, the church itself becomes sacramental, having as its focus the sanctuary, which means ‘a holy place.’ Just as the ceremonies, elements such as the altar and the ambo, and the art are all referred to as ‘sacred,’ so are the buildings designed for them. Therefore, to seek to remove the distinction of the church as a sacred place for sacred activity is to diminish our reverence of God, which the building should help to engender (The Church Building as a Sacred Place, 64).

That is, it is not enough to say that the People of God is the source of splendor within the Church. Instead, matter itself is integral to worship, to fostering the disposition of reverence. Human beings within the Church are beautiful but so also are stones, crosses, sound, space, and color (to name a few). And there are ways of organizing such matter in artistic form that are not simply to be sloughed off in the name of the avant-garde.  To say that it is those within the Church who are the source of beauty, to deny that styles and forms of art are part and parcel of the tradition of the Church, is to ultimately deny that matter and history, well, matters.

But, of course, we have wandered into yet another area of polarization. That is, perhaps the real problem with liturgical aesthetics is that it is impossible to celebrate beautifully within the context of the reformed rites. That the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council destroyed traditions; and the only thing to do is to return to an exclusive celebration of the Extraordinary Form. Only then will the rich tradition of liturgical beauty be restored to the Church.

Thus, the possibility for polarization within liturgical prayer relative to beauty is three-fold.

  1. Beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder, and thus there is no way to have a reasonable conversation about what constitutes beauty in worship. What I like, I like. What you like, so be it.

  2. What really matters in liturgical beauty is not outdated categories like the sacred. Instead, the source of beauty in any act of worship may be found exclusively in the people who are gathered in the assembly. The category of the “sacred” should be done away with.

  3. The Extraordinary Form alone can restore the beauty of the Church. Liturgical ugliness results from the reformed rites.

Transcending polarization will necessitate some sort of response to these three “potentially” polarizing assumptions.

A Non-Polarized Liturgical Aesthetics

1. Beauty Is Objective…We Learn to See It in Christ

Within the framework of the Catholic liturgical and sacramental imagination, it is problematic to simply say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder for two reasons. First, there is an objective source of revelation in Catholicism, the beauty of Jesus Christ. Second, the tradition of art within the Church is not simply to be dismissed insofar as it presents to us an incarnate account of what constitutes salvific beautiful.

Jesus Christ is the source of all conversations about beauty within Catholicism. What is revealed is the total, agapic and erotic, love of God. It is a form of love that humanity could not construct upon its own. The crucifixes within our churches are not intended to make us feel guilt for the suffering of the Son. Instead, they manifest to us a new way of perceiving the entirety of creation itself. As Hans ur von Balthasar writes:

…the paradoxical events with which God ‘shocks’ sinful man are seen as an invitation and stimulus to overleap the bounds of a closed world of finite ideas and to share in God’s self-manifestation and openness, something to which the creaturely condition itself points, though unable to attain it (“Revelation and the Beautiful,” 114).

An objective (and new) sense of beauty now orders the world. The beauty of a body given over in the totality of love. A beauty that is never simply a judgement subject to culturally-inscribed taste. God’s total self-giving love is the origin of all that is beautiful. And now the beauty of the created world itself can only be understood in light of Christ’s self-giving love. As I have written elsewhere, “A Christian notion of beauty is not an idea or an abstraction. It is a deeper immersion into the particularities of the mystery of divine love enshrined in salvation history…” (Liturgy and the New Evangelization, 118).

ArtAnd this objective sense of beauty has itself taken flesh in art, which is inscribed in specific cultures. The problem with the plainness of so many churches today, of the less than poetic images of the hymns that we sing, of presiding styles that put more emphasis upon the prelate’s own self than Christ, is that it detracts from what is revealed in Christ. The tradition of liturgical art is valuable in that it enshrines for us the Church’s centuries own reflection upon this beauty. The aesthetics of liturgical practice (the structure of Eucharistic prayers and the rituals performed), incarnate in the rites of the Church, also form us to see this beauty.

Thus, not only is there is an objective sense of beauty within Catholicism. But, we can learn to see such beauty through the artistic tradition of the Church. To reject these traditions because we perceive them as “too old,” “antiquated,” not sufficient for expressing our sense of beauty today is as dangerous as denying that the specific language of Christian doctrine matters. We will lose some aspect of our capacity to contemplate the beautiful One when we get rid of Romanesque and Baroque churches, crosses that present the beauty of the crucified one, altar pieces that provide grist for the imagination, and music that gifts us with the ability to see how time itself is taken up into the transcendent.

2. The Sacred Matters

Though related to the previous point, it is essential to recognize that the category of the sacred cannot be done away without denying the  graced orientation of creation itself. “Natural” religion reveals something about what human beings need in order to worship. There are moments of our lives, which necessarily stand apart from others. We are born, we make a life time commitment, we have a child, we experience illness, we retire from our career, and we approach death. “Sacred” spaces, spaces apart, are not contrary to the intimate union of love made possible through the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, nature itself is lifted up and transformed in the process.

NewYorkSaintPatricksIn this way, the various possibilities of religious experience must be employed if art is to be beautiful. Contemporary liturgical art too often reduces human experience only to the intimate, to music that does not strike one with awe, to art that is folksy. Our churches are small in size. They have walls that recall not a grand basilica or a mighty cathedral but a quiet, sleepy office building. The music is not an icon, an experience of participating in heavenly worship, but feels more like a protest song on a city street. There are spaces for this form of music. But the reduction of religious experience to this one mode reduces what it means to be human before God.

Perhaps, it is this reason that natural religion still (at least for now) interrupts when young women and men want to get married in “traditionally” beautiful churches. And even those who are not interested in being married within such spaces still want to choose landscapes in which the drama of the commitment unfolds (beaches, mountain peaks, etc.).

For this reason, relative to liturgical beauty, it is acceptable to acknowledge the existence of the sacred, of that which “gives meaning to” the ordinariness of life. This does not mean that every piece of liturgical art must be expensive or comprehensible  only to the artistically literate. It simply means that we find things beautiful that are set apart, which enable us to have the variety of human experiences that are part and parcel of the religious life.

The total elimination of chant, of polyphony, of certain architectural motifs and sacred art from parishes, of the use of an organ, etc. is not simply a rejection of all art that has come before. Rather, it seems to say that the religious experience enshrined into ancient hymns and practices of chant and altarpieces and the use of incense and stained glass…well, it’s not authentic religious experience. Sacred art is sacred because it’s set apart; it’s beloved because it reveals to us something about what it means to be human in Christ.

3. The Aesthetics of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Form

It is simply untrue (and ecclesiologically problematic) to say that only the Extraordinary Form offers a legitimate experience of beauty in liturgical prayer. It is often the case that those who celebrate the Ordinary Form of the Mass experience a less than beautiful event. The music is often poorly done, the preaching is aesthetically (and theologically) repugnant, and the space feels more like a living room.


Yet, the young adults whom I have taught this semester at Notre Dame (in a course on liturgy and aesthetics nonetheless) have made it clear that they find ample beauty in the worship of the Church today. They see the benefit of intimate gatherings in dorm chapels; massive spaces with professional choirs for the celebration of the Triduum; architecture that reflects the rich diversity of Catholic experience. They want the old. They want the new. They want both. Can we have both in the Church today? If we do, can we have them without leading to the other being perceived as “more authentic” than the other?

Liturgy is beautiful insofar as it is contemplative. That is, beauty is never simply a matter of “sensation.” It is not pleasure alone. We can gaze into the face of an elderly couple, holding hands while sitting in a park, and see beauty. The beauty that we perceive is not their wrinkled flesh. Rather, to see an old couple still holding hands is to encounter the beauty of a love that has lasted. Yet, if we move so quickly through the world that we cannot gaze upon this couple, that we cannot take a step back and contemplate this love, then we will not see the beauty.

The danger of the Ordinary Form of the Rite is that every space for contemplation is taken away by the choir, the presider, the announcements, etc. No space is given to perceive the beauty that unfolds in the silence of the heart. Every verse of every hymn must be sung by everyone (and if the liturgical action is not finished, the hymn must begin again). The words of the hymns themselves seem to say everything, leaving little room for mystical silence (as one finds in the great liturgical poetry of the tradition). If the Extraordinary Form has anything to “teach” us who practice the Ordinary Form, it is to make room for this contemplative silence. The kind of silence that Aidan Kavanagh notes:

“…is not the embarrassed, barren, uncontrolled lack of sound which occurs when things break down and no one knows what to say or do. Liturgical silence is purposeful, pregnant, and controlled–the thunderous quiet of people communicating that which escapes being put into mere words” (Elements of Rite, 51).

That being said, the pedagogical dialectic will go both ways. The gift of the Ordinary Form (when done well) infuses the beauty of ordinary life into the liturgical celebration. Of families bringing up gifts to the altar. Of men and women offering their voices to the living God in hymns of praise. Of a community of disciples gathered together to participate in the breaking of the bread.

These are not mutually exclusive visions within Catholicism. In fact, anyone who says that only one offers the proper vision, the proper sense of what it means to be Catholic, has failed to see the most frustrating reality of Catholicism: that there are often multiple goods, which seem contradictory, but must be perceived together.

This last point will bring us to our final column in our series on liturgical polarization: priesthood and laity.

Practicing Easter: Almsgiving

Samuel BellafioreScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.43.20 PM

Undergraduate Fellow

B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance


What better way to celebrate Easter than to think about Lent? On Lent’s second day the Office of Readings shares this from Leo the Great: “What the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion.” If in Lent we do more eagerly the things we should always do, how much more eagerly should we do them in Easter? Almsgiving is as important to Easter as it is to Lent.

Lenten fasting reveals man can in fact live without as much bread as he normally eats. When you’re fasting perhaps you don’t think you can make it, but afterward you realize it’s quite possible. In Easter, we can examine ourselves: What do I really need? Lent primes us to realize the only thing we really need is God. We see this but find it so easy to return to what we don’t need. In Easter doesn’t this excess still belong to the poor who do need it?

In Easter, God reveals more and more of His Trinitarian life. He startles us with the mystery and promise of Resurrection in Jesus Christ, who then ascends to the Father and pours out the Spirit. Will we live more of this life? Will we pour out any of what God constantly pours on us? The Resurrection should press us to imitate Christ more fully. This should drive us toward the poor.

Jesus’ Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection clarify human life, especially poverty and suffering. God’s love for His impoverished, suffering people drives Him to take flesh. For all time He illuminates ways-to-help-the-poorHis presence in people, which was already emblazoned there since creation. He dwells in people, especially the poor and pained, since He has known poverty and pain. They dwell in Him because He has dwelt with them.

Christ becomes poor because He loves the poor. Yet His coming and conquering do not end immediate suffering. Jesus’ life on earth instead simply endears the poor to Him more. And He shows us where to find Him. Perhaps the statements “The poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26:11) and “I will be with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20) belong together.

Jesus’ Resurrection drives home that He lives in the flesh, as a person. When we seek Him we should seek Him in people. In our neighbor. We should seek Him out even where we’d prefer not to find a neighbor. Like the women on Easter, we should go in search of His body. And we can find Him, in the bodies of our friends starving, reeking, and begging. These people too were created for the Resurrection.

We might not expect to find Him there. But there was no reason to expect to find Him when He first came to earth. “He had neither beauty, nor majesty, nothing to attract our eyes” (Is 53:2). There was no reason except Mary’s desperate hope to think He would come again, this time from the dead. Again He comes. Would that we were already ablaze with charity.

But God can show Himself to us, just as He did to the incredulous disciples, though He doesn’t always point where we expect. This may be clearest in Peter’s post-Resurrection confession of faith. He reverses his threefold denial of Christ by saying three times, “You know that I love you” (Jn 21:15–17). Christ’s response to Peter’s love is: “Feed my sheep.”

Maybe Peter thinks his love for Christ can be a simple two-way street. But Jesus is clear: if you love me, it’s going to involve other people. If you love me, feed them. And somehow this “them” is also “Him”: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). The Easter encounter does not let us cling to Christ when we find Him. He sends us to those who need to find Him. He sends us to the hungry.

Feeding the hungry is, perhaps more than anything else, God’s work. The Psalms say it: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” (Ps 81:11). Mary says it: “You have filled the hungry with good things” (Lk 1:53). surrender-hands_1And Christ says it: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger” (Jn 6:35). As people, we are fundamentally starved. We are not entirely starved, but at our core is the desire to be filled and satisfied. Because we are God’s creatures, this hunger is for nothing other than Him.

God recognizes this desire and answers it recklessly. He even gives Himself as food, since we’re hungry for Him in the first place. The Resurrection and Eucharist remind us: Christ is alive and with us always.

This is wonderful but disconcerting: if we need to be fed, this means we’re weak. People who need a Father’s hand to feed them aren’t the autonomous adults we like to think we are. “As once for the disciples, so now for us, he opens the Scriptures and breaks the bread” (Masses for Various Needs, Roman Missal). What we can provide—our understanding, our bread—is not enough to satisfy our hunger.

If we realize our weakness, “the poor” become less scary. “The poor” are not someone else. We are poor. There is nothing that should keep us away from the poor. God sees our hunger and feeds us. In this Paschal time, why should we do anything else?

Liturgical Polarization: The Roman Missal (2011)

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author





PolarizationEditor’s note: This series on liturgical polarization is being written to prepare for a gathering being held at the University of Notre Dame on Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal on Monday, April 27, 2015. A live feed of this event will be available

Part 1: A Diagnosis

Not everyone loves the recent English translation of the Roman Missal. Among those involved in liturgical scholarship, teaching, and ministry, the reception of the translation has often been frigid. Not simply because these scholars, teachers, and pastoral ministers have objections to the poetics or translation principles of the text. In her June 30, 2011 article assessing the translation in Commonweal, Rita Ferrone proposes what she sees as the root problem with the Missal:

Beneath the words of the new translation, one senses a drive to minimize the practical effects of Vatican II. The reforms of Vatican II prized clarity and intelligibility in the liturgy; they gave priority to the work of ecumenism and evangelization; they respected the local work of bishops conferences; they invited aggiornamento and engagement with the world. This vital heritage is being eclipsed by another agenda. We are seeing a wooden loyalty to the Latin text at the price of clarity and intelligibility. We are seeing a retreat from advances already made in ecumenism. We are seeing the proper role of local bishops and bishops conferences increasingly taken over by the authorities in Rome. We are seeing the liturgy reimagined as an event taking place in some sacral space outside of our world, rather than the beating heart of a world made new.

TheRomanMissalFerrone is not alone in her less than positive assessment of the Missal. Fr. Gerald O’Collins, S.J. in The Tablet has asked the English-speaking bishops to consider adopting the 1998 Sacramentary, translated before the promulgation of Liturgiam authenticam, a document that set forth the principles used in translating the 2011 Roman Missal. The website, Misguided Missal, assembles many of these concerns in one place. A summary of the objections that one hears relative to the adoption of the Missal include:

  • Prayer texts, which too often sound clunky not simply to the presiding minister but to those assembled that day in prayer.
  • A process of translation and editing, which did not widely consult beyond bishops and priests, one that further resulted in additional edits after the bishops had approved certain texts. That is, there seems to have been some secrecy and not enough consultation, which in this instance is too much secrecy and too little consultation alike.
  • Inattention to the ecumenical implications of adopting translations not used by Protestant churches.
  • The adoption of what is perceived as overly sacral vocabulary including the words oblation, consubstantial, chalice, in addition to the use of repetition (this sacrifice, this oblation, this offering).

If one only attends to the voices of those who have objected to the Missal, then one might surmise that the translation of the Missal is the most polarizing liturgical issue of our day. But, at least to those who participate weekly in the Eucharistic worship of the Church, it does not seem to be the case that these translations are quite the breaking point that liturgical theologians and practitioners have surmised. Summarizing the results of a survey by CARA out of Georgetown University, the editors of America Magazine note:

While it may do little to end disagreements among liturgists over recent changes to the Roman Missal, a survey conducted in September, nearly a year after controversial revisions of the English language Mass took effect, found that seven in 10 Catholics agree that the new translation of the Mass “is a good thing” (20 percent agree “strongly”). Nearly a quarter of the Catholics surveyed (23 percent) disagreed, however, and an additional 7 percent “strongly” disagree with the view that the changes were for the better.

Catholics who attend Mass weekly were the most likely to be satisfied with the new translation, according to a report prepared for the Catholic University of America by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Eighty-four percent said that the revised Mass was a “good thing.” Just over 60 percent of self-identified Catholics who rarely or never attend Mass, however, were not positive about the changes. The new survey also found that regular Mass attendance levels remained the same, compared with a similar study conducted in 2011. Both polls estimated that about a quarter of adult Catholics attend Mass weekly or more often. Last year’s survey reported that only one in four adult Catholics were aware of the then-impending changes to the English-language liturgy, which began to be used during Advent 2011. This is part of the reason why this year’s apparent level of general satisfaction is of interest.

What then is one to believe? Is the Missal a poetic disaster and a radical abuse of power, dialing back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council? Is it what will lead men and women away from Eucharistic participation? Or has the Church become so used to mediocrity in liturgical aesthetics that no one even notices the poverty of the present texts?

A Via Media

NewRomanMissalIn reality, the truth about the Missal is most likely somewhere in the middle of total wonder at its poetic genius (and doctrinal fidelity) and an abject failure, which was nothing more than a covert war upon the principles of the Second Vatican Council. There are texts in the Missal, which are not exemplary of good poetry, whose syntax is far too complex:

O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin

prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son,

grant, we pray,

that, as you preserved her from every stain

by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw,

so, through her intercession,

we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence.

At the same time, there are also texts, which have already become dear to those who pray them. The Contifeor is not a reflection upon the total depravity of the human condition (as some charged when it is introduced). It is an occasion to recognize that my sin is not anyone’s fault but my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. The Eucharistic Prayers are poetic. For example, the repetition in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) is not ultimately distracting but an invitation toward contemplation: this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim…. Repetition is beautiful and attractive to the ear as poets diverse as Christina Rossetti, Robert Southwell, SJ, and Charles Peguy have demonstrated in their art.

Thus, is there a way forward where we can offer an objective (and at times critical) assessment of the Missal, while also recognizing that its promulgation has in fact been fruitful? I think so.

First, the process of translation itself may benefit from closer attention to how English itself functions as a poetic language. Now, it must be emphasized that liturgical prayers are not English poems (though some poems can become prayers). But, it is also the case that there is a power and beauty in the Latin text that one must “translate” into English. For example, when I am looking for a very literal translation of Augustine’s Confessions (which is more than readable), I turn to Frank Sheed’s. On the other hand, when I teach the Confessions, seeking to immerse the students into the vitality of Latin as a language, I read Maria Boulding’s. The latter is not always the most literal translation; but it most often communicates the aesthetic and theological sense of Augustine’s text. Are there ways that some of the genius of the English language itself might inform future translation projects?

ConsubstantialIt should be said that this is not an invitation to “update” our technical vocabulary for the modern world. The word “consubstantial” (derided by many) in the Creed is a term that guards the mystery of the Son’s sharing in the divine nature of the Father. The one who is born in Bethlehem, preaches in Galilee, and dies upon Calvary as a human being is consubstantial with the Father. Really, really, God. To have a term like consubstantial that can be passed on from age-to-age, guarding the mystery of the Christ’s divinity, is worth hanging onto.

Second, the actual process of releasing the text as it presently functions (from ICEL down to the bishops back to Rome back to the bishops back to Rome, while the English-speaking Church waits) needs to be reformed. There is no particularly good reason why the translation of liturgical texts needs to occur as some entirely secretive process. Texts can be tried out in local assemblies, and if found wanting for good reason, then an adaptation of the translation can occur. One recognizes that there are various dialects of English spoken throughout the world and that there will always be conflict and dislike (that is ultimately the problem with translation to begin with). But, the more open the process, the better.

Third, it also must be admitted that the present translation is better than the previous one and many in the Church do find the translation a source of beauty. The latter is less about the necessary poetic genius of the text (which there is much to admire), and the fact that liturgical texts are used in offering our very humanity to the Father. These texts are the ones that we have not simply assessed as written objects. But, we in the Church have prayed with the opening collect of Advent, longing to run forth to greet Christ. We have let our imagination be taken up with gratitude for the Spirit that falls like dewfall upon bread and wine. We have participated in the song of the angelic host, which heaps praise upon the triune God: we praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks. To simply get rid of the present Missal will lead to discord not from those who object to the text; but those of us, who have learned to love it.

EcumenismFourth, there are ecumenical implications of the new Missal, which have not presently been explored. We should reflect on why Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists were not invited into a dialogue with the Church about this new translation. But, it may go too far to say that ecumenism is dead because we do not pray the same texts from week-to-week. I don’t pray the same texts as Orthodox Christians from week-to-week. I don’t even pray the same words as Spanish speaking Christians at Mass. My toddler son prays no words at all. But, I do long to be one. I do long to be one with Anglicans and Lutherans and Methodists alike. I long to be one with all of humanity for that is what Christ promises in the Church. Perhaps, the Missal rather than serve as an obstacle to ecumenism can open new avenues for common dialogue and prayer alike. A recognition of difference need not forestall a desire for unity; it can jump start it.

Fifth (and lastly), too often those involved in liturgical and sacramental theology and ministry have taken on the habit of dismissing the Missal as an abject failure. As a grasp for clerical control and power. Such language, while reflecting a specific experience of liturgical reform, could lead to even deeper polarization in the Church. For, it is often assumed in such circles that reasonable persons will all agree that the present Missal is a failed project, nothing but a display of raw, clerical power. But for those who have learned to pray this Missal, to encounter Christ as mediated through these words, such statements are polarizing. They function in such a way that the one who encounters these assessments of the Church (yet disagrees) is the one who is placed on the outside. A line is drawn, and such a student or parishioner (who loves the Missal) learns that there is an “us” and a “them” (and I belong to the group of “thems”) An us, who is right. And a them, who is deadly wrong (and selfish and power-hungry and clerical).

Perhaps, it is then fair to say that the new translation of the Missal is the greatest source of polarization in the Church today. But it is not the Missal itself that polarizes. Instead, it is “we” who polarize.

  • We who dismiss anyone who has a problem with aspects of the Missal as some “liberal, heretic” rather than someone who has an ear for what proper poetry might sound like or a concern for openness in the Church or an ecumenical spirit.
  • We who dismiss anyone who loves the Missal as some arch-conservative, who seeks to dial back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
  • We who dismiss those in the pews, who just continue to do their prayer and celebrate the ritual, not yet aware of how “dreadful” the text is.

In each case, perhaps it is the prayer of the Eucharist itself that can be healing for us (I know, ironic):

Humbly we pray

that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ,

we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.

A Liturgical Hymn to the Bacon-Wrapped Date

Esther TerryEsther Terry

Program Director, Camino

STEP, Institute for Church Life

Editor’s Note: On this cold spring morning in South Bend, we have been seeking ways to escape the drudgery. Esther Terry, program coordinator for Camino (online theology in Spanish) offered us this hymn for contemplation. 

When I found this forgotten delicacy in my fridge this morning, the muse struck. With all due respect to St. Augustine and the Chalcedonian Fathers… 

Hymn to a Bacon-wrapped Date

Oh bacon! Oh date!

Late have I discovered you,

Beauty ever ancient,

Ever new.

Two in nature,

Yet in essence one.

Unity in duality,

Truly salty, truly sweet,

Undivided, unconfused.


Not-so-glorious in appearance,

Yet majestic in flavor.

I open my lips

And receive you with joy!


Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life

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