The Purpose of Liturgy


FATHER ABBOT LOOKED AT ME. Mr Novice, Day Two. I had said something like, “yes, I can make the Daily Hours and Mass, and I see the Lectio Divina on the daily schedule, but when do I pray?” He asked what I meant. And I replied, “Usually I wake up and say these morning prayers, then I say these intercessions. I say a Rosary and a Jesus Psalter. I say certain prayers for my family…” Father held up one volume of our breviary. “That stuff doesn’t matter. You can do it whenever you want. This is your prayer.” I’m still digesting what he meant. I was taken aback: prayer doesn’t matter? Only Liturgy? (You see my failings… but ok.) Six years later, holding another breviary in an entirely different context, Deacon Totah said, “As you do this, your personal prayer becomes enfolded in the Church’s prayer.” He was responding to pretty much the same question asked, this time, by a member of my Deacon class. When a member of the Church is obligated to so much liturgy prayer might seem far away.

Still digesting…

Almost all pious devotions such as the Rosary and the Jesus Psalter are, exactly, liturgical prayer. We forget this. The Rosary, especially, was once called the layman’s Psalter. Its 150 beads replaced the 150 Psalms that the clergy sang in Church. A member of the laity, especially the illiterate, could thus pray these prayers without a book. The older, Dominican form of the Rosary is, very much, a lay office, recited antiphonally in a group – just like the Friars singing their Psalter. Even today, kneeling with a group of people in Church, fingering their beads, one can feel the full voice of the Church engaged in a fully liturgical act. It is really the Church’s prayer – not a pious devotion. This is even more true now, with the Rosary so widespread, that various members of the clergy and laity are as obligated to say the Rosary as they are to the Daily Office. For example, all of the thousands of members of the Dominican Family, Friars, Nuns, Sisters, and Laity, as well as the Rosary Confraternity, say the Rosary every day. This is literally a chain of Common Prayer. But – and here you can see my Protestant roots are showing – how is it prayer?

For an answer, we will start with the Catechism.

“Great is the mystery of the faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed (Part One) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three). This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer.

CCC ¶2558

Read it from the bottom up if any of the following is confusing.

Faith is a great mystery. The Church describes this mystery in her creeds, she celebrates this mystery in her sacraments to the end that all of us may be conformed to Christ. The Mystery of faith requires that the people of God both believe in something – that is, give their assent – and then do something with that belief. We are called to be living in a real, active, personal relationship with God. This relationship – in which we assent and respond to God in his Church – is prayer. Without it, we are not really Catholics. At all.

Prayer is not the words we recite (they are part of it) nor is prayer the things we do (they are part of it) but rather the entire relationship is prayer. Haec relatio est oratio. The Catechism then goes on to note parts and functions within prayer, but it all begins with the claim that Prayer is the relationship in which we live out the great Mystery of Faith. In this context, the idea that one’s personal prayers and petitions should be encompassed by liturgical prayer makes perfect sense: if one’s needs and wants cannot be expressed in the action of the Church then they needn’t be expressed (perhaps shouldn’t be expressed) at all.

In my Protestant background, something called prayer arises in the extemporaneous composition of the moment. One does not prepare something to say to God any more than one would prepare something to say to one’s spouse. Prepared texts are “praying out of a book” and don’t count or, at best, come a distant second. Yet anyone who has improvised a prayer out loud with others knows it’s really easy to fall into “The Prayer of the Just”. “Father, we just want to thank you for just everything that you have done in our lives. And Father, God, we just need to ask you…:

The Catholic idea of prayer is exactly the reverse, as the Catechism teaches: prayer (this relationship) is initiated by the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God (that is, Jesus, the Bible) experienced in the liturgy of the Church and responded to in the human heart. The Spirit gives this relationship to us mediated by the Church’s teaching and only then do we humans get to do something. And if you read further, our doings, our response, our entire side of the conversation is also the Holy Spirit acting in us and through us, mediated by our lives.

Our personal relationship with God can only be in Christ and, as such, can only be carried out through his Body, the Church. All real prayer is, therefore, liturgical: mediated through the Church. Like a wedding, it is the Sacramental Action that creates the root from which the relationship grows. It is to this liturgical action that our hearts must conform. Not the other way around.

And so, in time, as our hearts become more conformed to the Liturgy, we can express our desires and intentions freely – because our intentions are conformed to Christ already. We, as Sons and Daughters in the Son, can act as boldly as he does, reaching out to his Father and our Father. Liturgical prayer becomes the way that our personal needs are expressed to the Father, as we open our hearts more fully to the prompting of the Spirit, we will find liturgical actions holding, containing, our deepest thoughts, the cries of our hearts, “for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26) This interweaving of our personal voice with liturgical prayer can happen in the Rosary, in the Daily Office, and in the Mass. It becomes our continual Lectio Divina.

But it begins in humble submission to the words the Church put in our mouths. The liturgy is our only prayer until all our prayer becomes liturgy.

We are all beginners here.

3 Rules that Always Apply


This is the text of a presentation on ¶1789 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. These are just notes, but the talk was good!

My paragraph comes in the section of the catechism dealing with the human conscience.

Very briefly – for the sake of this presentation – the conscience is that part of you which – in the moment of choice – tells you which choice is right and which choice is wrong.

This paragraph, 1789 is asking (or answering) When things are not so clearly black and white how can I make a choice? Prayer and consultation with wise friends are suggested and then this paragraph gives us three rules that apply in every case.

These are practices but you should follow always when asking questions of your conscience. But they are rules that apply to all parts of our Christian life and, for us as men who want to be teachers of the faith, they apply to our preaching.

The first rule is very solid.

One may never do evil so that good may result from it;

Catholic teaching is clear: the ends do not justify the means. It is never acceptable to do something evil in order that a good result might happen. This plays out differently than you might expect. While it is never possible to kill someone in order good things might happen (Grandpa is sick and suffering, let’s kill him to put him out of his misery). But then in her meditation on the idea of a Just War the Church has discerned that sometimes it may be that killing the enemy is not an evil thing, but a class of Good, that a greater Good may arise.

The second rule turns inward: the Golden Rule: Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.

This is common teaching in many religions and philosophies around the world. In your heart of hearts, you know how you would want to be treated in a given situation and so, in a way, you know how to treat others in that same situation.

But then comes the third rule which turns outward. Choices of my conscience are never just about me.

The rule of charity. This goes all the way back to the prologue and ¶25: without charity everything else is useless. And ¶1827 The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which “binds everything together in perfect harmony”; Charity is the form of the virtues.

In this ¶1789 charity is manifested by one of my favorite sayings from Saint Paul: do not cause the weaker brother to stumble.

The choice of your conscience cannot cause another person to stumble. What does that mean? This is where this paragraph opens up in application to our Christian lives and to our teaching of the faith.

These rules, especially #3, are really the heart of how Christianity is intended to be lived.

Look in the Book of Acts for the times when the good news is being shared with folks who are not yet Christian. For the Gentiles, the Council of Jerusalem lays aside the onerous burdens of circumcision and keeping kosher. Saint Paul and the other evangelists are gentle with the heathens.

In addressing pagans in the marketplace of Athens St. Paul does not call them idolaters. Rather he compliments them for their various religious practices and says let me show you a better way. When Saint Philip is addressing the Ethiopian eunuch he offers to explain a confusing scripture that is being read. Over and over again, evangelism walks non-believers forward from where they are to where the gospel can be received.

Throughout the New Testament, the strong words addressing sins and failures are spoken to Christians, to those already schooled in the faith.

For the contrary point, think of a Street Preacher yelling at people walking by and accusing them of various sins. Which one of these two methods of preaching do you think would least cause someone to stumble?

I think of a fight I had with a co-worker back in the 90s. We were both liberal, mainline protestants – worshipping in the same parish. We were arguing over religion at work: we worked in a Christian bookstore. And she used a few words that pushed a few of my buttons and I hauled off and use a word to make a point that I regret to this day, which actually made her cry.

We made up, we’re friends still to this day. But that’s making the weaker sister stumble. the choices in our faith, in our preaching or teaching, should never hit someone else like a punch to the gut. that’s not acting in charity.

You’re making a choice in your conscience you can never let it hurt someone else that’s rule 1. Rule two shows you how best not to hurt others. You know inside.

Then rule 3 shows you the deeper meaning. This rule assumes everyone is being drawn forward to God. If you make a choice or say something that makes someone stumble in their forward motion, you’ve hindered their salvation.

This stumble, this hindering, becomes “the evil we do in order that good may come out of it.”

As my pastor, Fr Michael Hurley, says on his weekly YouTube this week, we should be “not shouting at error, but inviting it to come to the truth of the Gospel”.

I will leave you with one thought to explore applications: making people stumble seems to be our Prime political tool.