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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.  

A Conversation About Masculinity

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

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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I was a bit flummoxed by Cardinal Burke’s recent interview at The New Emangelization. By now, most of us are aware of the interview’s highlights (or perhaps lowlights). Asked about how the crisis in masculinity has affected men in the Church, Cardinal Burke states:

The Church becomes very feminized. Women are wonderful, of course. They respond very naturally to the invitation to be active in the Church. Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women. The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and have become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.

Men are often reluctant to become active in the Church. The feminized environment and the lack of the Church’s effort to engage men has led many men to simply opt out.

As an example, it became politically incorrect to talk about the Knights of the Altar, an idea that is highly appealing to young men. The Knights of the Altar emphasize the idea that young men offer their chivalrous service at the altar to defend Christ in the sacred realities of the Church. This idea is not welcome in many places today.

The remedy to this crisis, as Burke offers, is a serious reconsideration of allowing female altar servers, of cultivating a robust devotional life among men, together with directed catechesis on the sacrifice of the Mass to men (not, of course, to the exclusion of women it should be said).

mass-mob-churchThe opposition to Cardinal Burke’s interview has been stout. Many have argued against the idea that the Church has been “feminized,” since men continue to hold the major offices of power within the Church. Others have pointed out that it seems that Cardinal Burke is blaming women for the problems that the Church has faced, including the vocations crisis. Critics of the interview have a point. That is, it is certainly the case that the decline of priestly and religious vocations in American Catholicism in the late 20th century is far more complicated than a “feminization” of the Church (whatever this means). Renewing a sense of “masculine” vigor could lead to an increase in vocations to the priesthood (it could also lead to highly clerical priests). It strikes me that the root of the vocation crisis is a strange elevation of sex to the very apotheosis of human flourishing, together with an abject fear of committing oneself to anything for life (hence a similar decline in marriage). But I digress.

At times, Cardinal Burke does seem to be promoting a somewhat thin notion of masculinity. That is, speaking about men as “Knights of the Altar,” who defend the Church against the secular world may be attractive to a particular group of men (and indeed it was in medieval, Eucharistic texts such as The Quest for the Holy Grail, which is actually an interesting literary work on the spiritual formation of the knights). Yet, as a married, male, lay theologian with a child who engages culture and the world on a daily basis (because I live in it), I find such language to be unnecessarily hostile, incorporating visions of masculinity founded in warfare and defense. In this case, a specific account of masculinity (one not shared by all men)  is employed to interpret the nature of the Church as a fortress in need of defense against the encroaching, hostile world. This vision of the Church does not quite capture the Eucharistic ecclesiology offered by figures like Joseph Ratzinger, Yves Congar, or Pope Francis.

It’s not that I am naive, believing that the Church’s preaching is always welcomed with open arms by the polis. But, I perceive my own vocation as preaching  the foolishness of the cross to the world; the reality that God is love and that the fullness of human flourishing may be found in the pilgrim, unworthiness of a  Church that is so human and yet still divine:

…the paradoxical figure of the Church, in which the divine so often presents itself in such unworthy hands, in which the divine is only ever present in the form of a ‘nevertheless,’ is to the faithful the sign of the ‘nevertheless’ of the ever greater love shown by God. The thrilling interplay of God’s loyalty and man’s disloyalty that characterizes the structure of the Church is the dramatic form of grace…through which the reality of grace as the pardoning of those who are in themselves unworthy continually becomes visibly present in history (Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 341-42).

For my money, this image of the Church is far more attractive to modern humanity than a sacred battlefield. The Church is not a place for defensive maneuvers but formation into the Eucharistic love of Christ. An entree into a beloved community that is on the way, whose leaders are fallible, whose members are a mixed bag, all of us on the way to becoming love itself.

Beyond these criticisms (and I think they’re significant), Cardinal Burke has a point that the Church needs to consider. Attending to another section of the interview (widely not reported upon), Cardinal Burke describes a crisis of masculinity within the domestic sphere:

The culture has become very materialistic and consumer-focused, the pursuit of which has led father, and often the mother, to work long hours. The consumer mentality has also led to the idea that children’s lives had to be filled with activity: school, sports and music and all kinds of activities every night of the week.

All those things are good in themselves, but there has been a loss of balance. The home life in which children spend adequate time with parents has been lost for many families. Families have stopped enjoying meals together. I remember how my father gave us lessons and taught us manners at the dinner table. To spend time talking with my parents was very important to my growing up. When I was a young priest, I was saddened that parents and children told me that fathers and children rarely talked and, when they did, it was only briefly.

GuylandThe broader point of Cardinal Burke’s interview is that men (as a whole) are malformed to live a Christian life within the home and world alike; to assume their vocations as husbands and fathers to children. The problem of “masculinity” (and what it means to live as a male within the world) is not one unique to Cardinal Burke or “conservative figures” seeking to dial back the advances made by women in the 20th century. In his book, Guyland, Michael Kimmel writes:

 Today…many young men, poised between adolescence and adulthood, are more likely to feel anxious and uncertain. In college, they party hard but are soft on studying. They slip through the academic cracks, another face in a large lecture hall, getting by with little effort and less commitment. After graduation, they drift aimlessly from one dead-end job to another, spend more time playing video games and gambling than they do on dates (and probably spend more money too), ‘hook up’ occasionally with a ‘friend with benefits,’ go out with their buddies, drink too much, and save too little. After college, they perpetuate that experience and move home or live in group apartments in major cities, with several other guys from their dorm or fraternity. They watch a lot of sports. They have grandiose visions for their futures and not a clue how to get from here to there. When they do try and articulate this amorphous uncertainty, they’re likely to paper over it with a simple ‘it’s all good.’ (Michael Kimmel, Guyland, 3).

Such concerns about masculinity are just as likely to appear in the pages of The Atlantic as they are in First Things. And one need not be a professional sociologist to notice the “crisis” among men. I overhear male students on campus at Notre Dame speaking about their weekend plans of “getting wasted” and convincing women to sleep with them by agreeing to watch Les Miserables. These same men seem incapable of asking anyone out on a date, partially because they spend hours at a time immersed in video games or watching sports. When not engaged in these pursuits, they may NaturalLightspend hours in front of a computer screen, trapped by pornographic images of beautiful bodies that do not exist in time and space. They are told  in film after film that as men they are supposed to be locked in delayed adolescence; that it is perfectly possible to find romance while smoking pot and drinking a lot and postponing emotional maturity until some later time in life. They don’t go on retreats in the same numbers as women, and when they do express their spiritual lives (at Sunday Mass), it is often in the presence of other men–the very same men with whom they participated with in a case race the evening before.

One can disagree with Cardinal Burke’s rhetoric, his genealogy of the problem of the “crisis in masculinity” within Catholicism, and his proposed solutions while recognizing that there is a very real problem among men facing the Church (and society alike). While it’s well enough to point out that men are in positions of power in the Church, it’s equally the case that most men baptized in the Church are not ordained and thus not in these positions of power (though I would say anyone baptized has far more power than they realize to exercise the universal priesthood, which can transfigure the created order…but again, I digress). They’re lawyers and doctors and accountants and barbers and salesmen and factory workers and the unemployed and the imprisoned. They’re husbands and brothers and boyfriends and fathers. They’re subjected to the same average preaching, the same average liturgical music, the same average that women must suffer with. It is just culturally acceptable for such men to not show up, leaving the work of religious formation to women. At least, until it becomes socially acceptable for women too to avoid such work.

Rather than propose a series of solutions to this problem, I suggest that we think of Cardinal Burke’s interview as an invitation toward a dialogue in the Church about the vocation(s) of the layman in the world. This dialogue must occur in such a way that it is infused with love, that it refuses to blame women for this “crisis of masculinity” (and I’m not quite sure that every moment of Burke’s interview blames women). It must be a dialogue that occurs by asking men (the fervent and the apathetic alike) what role religious practice has in their lives if any. And if there are men who refuse to darken the door of a church (and there are many), we should ask them why. And what would bring them to participate in the Church’s life. And we might have to be willing to take up new approaches to ministering to these men, which may lead us to a new emphasis on Catholic devotional life, theological education, single sex formation, etc.

Indeed, to me, this is one of several unfinished items of business from the Synod on the family. While extreme cases were dealt with thoroughly by the bishops present in Rome (and will be again this October), I felt that insufficient attention was given to those happily married husbands and fathers, those happily married wives and mothers, who are trying to figure out how to live out their identities within the modern world. Saints

The reality is that women and men throughout the life cycle continue to suffer a good deal under cultural assumptions about what it means to be female or male. Women and men must be in this conversation together, because in the end (that is the final end), it will be all of humanity that is gathered together in Christ. All of humanity, with none of our particularities erased, but elevated and transfigured through the generous love of the triune God. My identity as husband and father will not be erased into generic humanness but is precisely that which will capacitate (or hinder me) to gaze upon the face of God with love.

That’s a conversation that’s worth having.


Of Eunuchs, Emmaus, and Holy Water Fonts

Rick BeckerRichard Becker, RN, MS, MA

Associate Faculty, Bethel College, School of Nursing

Co-Director of Religious Education, St. Matthew Cathedral 

Editors’ note: This post first appeared on God-Haunted Lunatic.

Baptism is enough, it is sufficient to evangelize.
Pope Francis

Katharine made her First Holy Communion on May 4 – a momentous event, a holy moment! Naturally, she received some gifts to mark the occasion: A scapular (the plastic bothered her; I’ll get her a cloth one), a child’s Bible, and a beautiful ceramic holy water font. The font clearly caught her fancy, and she asked me that same evening how we could get the “special” water for it.

Fortunately,BoyAtHolyWaterFont-b I already had a small bottle of holy water in the house, so we hung up the font near her bed, filled the reservoir, and then dipped our fingers to bless ourselves. She went to bed very content – happy to have received Jesus in one Sacrament earlier in the day, and then encounter him again in that mini-Sacramental reminder just before sleep.

My guess is that she’s been using that font pretty regularly since then because of what happened soon after First Communion. After donning her PJs, Kath sought me out, holding up one hand very solemnly above the other. Without saying anything, she touched her wet fingers to my forehead, made the sign of the cross, and then headed off to bed. It was a blessed moment, come and gone so quickly, and so profound: My daughter, blessing me, and giving me such an intimate reminder of my baptismal dignity.

That profound encounter came to mind as I listened to the first reading on May 8 about St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. You remember: The seemingly chance encounter on the road; an explication of opaque biblical texts; an entreaty to linger followed by the administration of a sacrament; and finally, a miraculous disappearance that paved the way for an apostolic journey.

Then it dawned on me: I’d just heard the same basic story during Katharine’s First Communion Mass! Only then, it was Luke telling about the two disciples who ran into Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.

Cradle Catholics will have grown up hearing the Emmaus story as an image of the Mass: The Lord’s explaining the Scriptures parallels the Liturgy of the Word, and then, in Emmaus itself, there’s a meal that concludes with the breaking of bread in which the disciples “recognized the Lord” – an obvious parallel to the Liturgy of Jan_Wildens_Landscape_with_Christ_and_his_Disciples_on_the_Road_to_Emmausthe Eucharist.

The implications of those parallels are made plain in the sudden disappearance of Jesus precisely at the moment he was recognized – the moment, that is, when his bodily presence became almost redundant since he had become truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. In other words, those disciples in Emmaus had nothing on us: We have Jesus here today in our Tabernacles just as much as they did around that Emmaus dinner table!

But, back to Philip and the eunuch – the similarities with the Emmaus story are striking, and many scholars have commented on it. Besides, both stories were recorded by St. Luke – the Emmaus story in his Gospel, and the Ethiopian eunuch story in his Gospel sequel, the Book of Acts. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And, as I mentioned, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what Luke was intending in the Emmaus narrative, but what about the Ethiopian convert? And why the parallels?

Here’s a few thoughts inspired by Kath’s holy water font.

First, Luke uses the eunuch story to teach us about baptism – that we’re all utterly unworthy of the divine life it transmits to us, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. It’s totally free – like Kath coming to me and bestowing her blessing that evening. Completely unexpected; a startlingly fresh gift. “Look, there is water,” the man asks Philip. “What is to prevent my being baptized?”

Apparently not anything! Not the brevity of his catechetical formation, not his pagan background, and not even the fact that he was mutilated and made impotent – something that would’ve prevented his being fully admitted to God’s family under Mosaic law. The adoption of this complete outsider into the body of believers marks the newfangled Way of Christ as radically open – extravagant, even. As extra(c) National Trust, Anglesey Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationvagant as God himself!

But there’s a responsibility that comes with the gift, and that leads to my second point – the disappearance. When Christ disappears in the Emmaus story we understand that to mean that the Lord had become present in the Eucharist. So, in the Acts narrative? When Philip vanishes? What else can Luke mean than that the apostolic authority has now become manifest in the newly baptized!

What? He can’t be serious! The foreigner had barely covered a rudimentary overview of the whole Judeo-Christian enterprise, and now we’re to see him on the same level as an Apostle appointed by Christ himself?

Yes, indeed. Luke records that the eunuch “continued on his way rejoicing.” And we, who also have been baptized, are called to that as well. And every single one of those cute little infants we baptize in our churches on Sunday mornings. They’re all called to be apostles – we’re all called – to spread the Gospel, to preach the Faith. Even the Pope says so:

Do we believe in this? That baptism is enough – sufficient to evangelize? [All of the baptized must] announce Jesus with our life, with our witness and with our words. When we do this, the church becomes a mother church that bears children. But when we don’t do it, the church becomes not a mother but a baby sitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep.

And that leads to my final point: The whole eunuch thing – what’s that all about, right? Very awkward. Like trying to talk to junior high boys about St. Paul’s teaching on circumcision. (NOTE: I’ve tried this – forget it. It’s impossible. If you ask me, just skip to the Parables and forget about circumcision until they get into college.)

Nevertheless, awkward or no, the eunuch must be dealt with. On a superficial level, Luke notes that the Ethiopian official is a eunuch simply because it was the case – it was noteworthy in Luke’s mind, perhaps as a way of identifying the actual individual in question. We have to keep in mind that the Ethiopian eunuch and other biblical characters aren’t just literary devices utilized by authors to make theological points. Although it’s true that Scripture doesn’t record events the same way the New York Times would today, those whom God inspired to compose Holy writ were still jotting down actual occurrearticle-2538097-1A97C26800000578-298_634x645nces involving actual people. It’s God who orchestrated events to reveal truths; the human writers just recorded and reflected on them.

That being the case, the fact that this early catechumen-turned-neophyte in Acts was a eunuch takes on a deeper meaning which Luke draws out. Obviously, a eunuch is infertile by definition, and yet, once baptized, this eunuch immediately sets out to proclaim the Gospel and plant seeds of faith. Tradition even goes so far as to associate this early convert with the foundation of the very ancient church in Ethiopia. The infertile transformed into the fertile  that should be me, too!

Ah, but there’s risk involved in being an apostle – a risk of humiliation and shunning, even a risk of death. It’s no accident, I think, that this story of the pagan Ethiopian convert shows up in Acts on the heels of Luke’s mention of the martyrdom of St. Stephen and its aftermath:

And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria.

Baptism is an infinite boon folded in with a dire warning: Beware! Danger ahead! And yet, new life as well. More life than you can possibly imagine! So much life that the risk of martyrdom will pale in comparison! The Catechism, quoting Vatican II, teaches us as much:

“Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.

Thus, when my daughter dips her fingers in the font to cross herself or me? It’s no small thing. It’s a reminder of baptismal grace, to be sure, but also a reminder of apostolic burden: Be a missionary; proclaim the Word; make Jesus present wherever you find yourself, no matter the cost!

Next time I dunk my own fingers in Kathy’s holy water font, I’ll think twice, and pray for strength – for both of us.

Triduum Mystagogy: A Primer

Dear friends,

As we approach Easter this year, we have an array of postings during this sacred season from our authors.  We also wanted to once again make available for our new and returning readers a series of reflections on the Triduum.  In the last year, I have used these postings in a variety of contexts, including R.C.I.A. retreats and theology classes on the Paschal Mystery.  They have proved fruitful.  Happy Holy Week.

Holy Thursday

The Gloria and the Triduum

Our Eucharistic Beginnings

The Footwashing as Eucharistic Act

The Eucharist and the Agony in the Garden

Good Friday

The Silence of the Cross

The Priesthood of the Suffering Servant:  The Vulnerability of Love

Intercessory Prayer and the Confidence of the Cross

Adoring the Tree of Life, Eating Its Fruits

Holy Saturday

A Liturgical Celebration of Possibility:  The Cosmic History of Christ’s Descent Into Hell

Easter Vigil

The Mystagogical Pedagogy of the Easter Vigil

Hearts Ablaze:  The Sacramental Proclamation of the Scriptures

The Long Sunrise of Easter

Anna AdamsAnna Adams

University of Notre Dame

Doctoral Student in Liturgical Studies

Contact Author

The following is a homily given to graduate students and faculty in theology
during an evening prayer service at Notre Dame.

“Brothers and sisters,
are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We indeed were buried with him through baptism into death,
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life.
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his,
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
We know that our old self was crucified with him,
so that our sinful body might be done away with,
that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus.” —Romans 6:3-11

Liturgist Confessions #837: I’m always surprised at how long the Easter Season lasts. Not only are we still in the Easter season, this is early in Easter. I never know what to DO with all this Easter. Resurrection - GrünewaldAfter waiting all Lent for the return of the Alleluias and the Gloria, Easter Vigil overwhelms me with joy and beauty. Easter morning celebrating the resurrection only heightens my liturgical delight. But then, I look at my calendar on Easter Monday, and the acidic taste of panic pricks gurgles up in my throat: finals are coming. I am suddenly one of Paul’s unaware ones: “Are you unaware?” “Did you miss what just happened?” Paul asks. As I plug into my laptop, I start closing my academic blinds to Easter’s light. It’s ironic, since a theologian should be basking in and contemplating humanity’s ongoing encounter with the Triune God. There’s just no time for all this rejoicing; there’s work to be done — and besides all that, light causes a terrible glare on the computer screen.

Thankfully, mother Church, in her wisdom, demands of us a great fifty days of Easter to hold all the facets of resurrection up to the light like a prism, and see if our lives are colored any differently by Easter’s dawning glow. For those of us claiming to be theologians, perhaps this is the unintended gift of Easter’s yearly coincidence with what is, for many of us, the most stressful time of the year.

We’re prompted to ask: what does Easter have to do with academics? What’s different about what we read and write and argue and type by the first glimmers of Christ’s resurrection? If our task as baptized Christians is to grow into union with Christ through a death like his and also to share in his resurrection, then this includes not only our personal, but also our scholarly lives. Thus, those of us called to the task of theology share in profound responsibility inherent in our vocation as Christians: we must be transformed into Christ in every way—including the academic aspects of our lives. But how does that work on paper?

I suspect a complete answer  to that question only comes only after an entire life of prayer. But the question demands reflection none the less. And since many of us who are students are pretty newbie priests and theologians, compared to institutional and ecclesial memory, I propose we start simply:

What do the faith, hope, and love of the resurrection have to do with our exercise here as students and teachers of theology? 

Angel of the Resurrection1In this Romans text, Paul challenges us to faith: to “think of ourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” Faith demands that we hold constantly before our eyes the ultimate purpose of our work: Do we work from life for God in Christ Jesus? Or do we work for ourselves? This is, perhaps, the trickiest distinction: because when ferreting out truth and academic advancement often go hand in hand the distinction is not always obvious. But faithful scholarship in Christ it’s integral to hope and love as well, so beginning with the right end matters.

Doing theology as work of faith demands that our academic exercise also become a study in askesis: in limiting ourselves to work that builds up the kingdom of God rather than aggrandizing our scholarly reputation. I have a close friend who, when advising me on pursuing further academic work said, “Look, I’m not telling you to quit. But if you can do anything else: do it. Because if you choose to pursue a Ph.D., it will bring up every demon inside yourself, and you’ll wrestle with most of them in your head, alone.” And it’s true. Theology is often a work done in a mental desert- an exercise in askesis and asceticism. It is easy in this place to feel deep loneliness; to struggle with insecurity; to fight (and often in my case succumb to) work-a-holism. It is easy to desire notability, advancement, and praise. But if we do theology out of those desires we fundamentally pervert the theologian’s vocation. And we deny ourselves the opportunity to offer our unique contributions of thought to understanding the Life of God in Jesus Christ for the Church we serve. Resurrection scholarship begins in askesis: as we aim to die to self in an effort to find truth rather than simply showing off our own cleverness.

But the fact that askesis that grows from faith of life in Christ Jesus is a proclamation of hope.

Angel of the ResurrectionTheologians must proclaim hope. Paul tells us, “…if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” We, like our Holy Cross family who founded the University of Notre Dame, are a people with hope to bring.[1] We don’t just witness to the Resurrection’s dawn with what we study or teach, but how we study and teach.

Hope produces the humility to be healthy people: to recognize that we will not finish the task of understanding God in one night, in one paper, or term, or even dissertation. (I find this incredibly hopeful.) The hope of the resurrection reminds us that the salvation of the world hangs not on our cleverness, but upon the Cross. The hard work is done. And while the words and hours we pour into our scholarship therefore matter more than anything; they matter only in light of the work that has already been accomplished.

We work harder yet, because we have such weighty thoughts to sift! But our working is not toil. And we need not live in fear of failure any longer. When we die to self and live to Christ, the doing of our work and study can be a proclamation of hope (some might say of sanity) to an academy that grows increasingly frenetic with itself and its own ends. During a particularly difficult time in the Congregation of Holy Cross’ history, Basil Moreau wrote to his Holy Cross family around the world: “Be what you should be before God, and I can assure you of the future.”[2] Our work may be slow, or difficult, or mind numbing at times—we may get it wrong, we may even fail—but that isn’t the end of the story. We do not walk as those who trudge. We stride. Because we have the Hope of being also united with Him in the resurrection.[3]

Jesus, Thomas, and the ApostlesAnd to all this one thing is necessary: and that is love. The fundamental gift of life we received at baptism is the LOVE of Jesus liberating us from the power of death to newness in life. The animating principle of the faith and hope theologians offer is love. To quote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s opening to Deus Caritas Est:

We have come to believe in God’s love:
in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life.
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea,
but the encounter with an event, a person,
which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.[4]

Love changes everything. Now, don’t get me wrong. We need no more cheap charity that agrees with everything while saying nothing. If the theologian’s task is to seek truth in faith and pursue it with hope, it demands a much more costly and sturdy manner of love. Costly love calls us to seek Christ by any means possible in each book we read, class we attend, and argument we contest. Costly love is never indifferent to the truth, but neither can it abide indifference to the person with whom we disagree over the nature of truth. Costly love holds out hope for finding the Truth, which is magnificent enough to acknowledge the flaws in our own arguments as places for collaboration and revelation rather than weakness to be hidden from the “competition.” Costly love embraces faith, seeing reflected in the faces of our academic companions the first rays of the resurrection sunlight—even as it struggles to plumb the depths of truth through criticism.

At its most basic level, our work as theologians must be a work of love. We must ourselves be a contribution with our unique gifts to humanity’s ongoing encounter with Christ crucified and risen. As a people of faith, crucified with Christ, we think and converse not in the darkness, but by Easter’s first light. We have hope to bring because “We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. … He died to sin once and for all; as to his life, he lives for God.” Friends, we must not be caught unaware, for we “indeed were buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” We are, in fact, the workers of a long Easter indeed.

[1] Congregation of Holy Cross, Constitution 8, Constitutions.

[2] Bl. Basil Moreau, Circular Letter, 1847.

[3] Congregation of Holy Cross, Constitution 8, Constitutions.

[4] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1.

Liturgy: The moving image of That image (part 3)

Christy MaChristy Ma, a Chinese Orthodox, an independent scholar, has received graduate degrees from evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox theological institutions

Also in this series:
Liturgy: The moving image of That image (part 2)
Liturgy: The moving image of That image (part 1)

Liturgy as Theophany: The Manifestation of God
Jesus Christ, the new Covenant, was declared out of water and the Spirit.  He was baptized not because He was sinful and needed to be cleansed through baptism, but that He might cleanse and sanctify all waters of the river Jordan through His presence.  Baptism of the LordWater was viewed as a sign of chaos and death in the Old Testament, but through the divine presence of Christ, it becomes the source for entry into eternal life. “Today the streams of Jordan are changed into healing waters by the presence of the Lord. Today we are redeemed from darkness and illuminated by the light of the knowledge of God.”[1] In the Baptism of the Lord, we celebrate God manifest as the Trinity: the Father proclaims Jesus Christ to be His beloved Son, and the Spirit confirms their relationship.

Christ continues to reveal his self-emptying love of the Father through the Spirit in the sacraments of the Church. The unworthy are deemed as His beloved in baptism.  The heavenly Father becomes ‘Our Father.’ The faithful are united with God and become members of His mystical Body. The manifestation of the presence of the Triune God is termed as ‘mystery’[2] in the Christian East and ‘sacrament[3] in the Latin West.  Liturgy serves the sacraments of the Church, which unveil on the one hand the manifold ecclesial realization of the one mystery of redemption, and the ongoing salvific acts of God on the other.

Liturgy is the ongoing redemptive act of God
Liturgy in a thick sense is the visible continuation of the very ministry and redemptive action of Jesus Christ in form. The Church—the new people of God—is called out and assembled in the name of Jesus Christ, the new name of “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). They are “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28). They have been baptized into Christ and have clothed themselves with Christ.  They have been incorporated into His life and sealed[4] with the Cross as the mark of this covenant—a pledge to the fulfillment of the glory to come.  Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the ultimate redemptive act.  The Church as the Body of Christ is the mysterious presence of God in the world, a divine-human reality.  “The liturgy of the Church is the earthly prolongation of His historical acts of salvation, recorded in Scripture and still life-giving, and the visibility of Christ’s high priesthood in heaven.”[5]  The triune God is active in the liturgy.

Liturgy in a cultic sense is a service, a religious rite[6], a ritual or a cultic system of an ecclesial gathering in which the Church is doing what she supposed to do. All faithful, both the living and the deceased, celebrate a common mystery together with Christ as the co-protagonists of this Paschal Mystery.  The structure or the movement of the celebration reveals the ongoing salvific activity of the Triune God:

“The first is a movement from God the Father to the world, while the second is a movement from the world to God the Father.  This direction of movement in the liturgy reveals that the Father gives His Son in and by the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of the Father.  The Father gives His Spirit an assignment, as it were; namely, to effect, illumine, clarify and arrange everything in such a way that the Son be known and that all who believe in Him might live their lives entirely from the Son’s life.”[7]

Rublev - Icon of the TrinityThe Trinitarian form revealed is the concrete motion of the Triune God.  It is the kenotic, self-emptying act of the Trinity in which the Father gives Himself to the world “concretely and specifically in the giving of His Son, a Son at every moment accompanied by the action and work of the Holy Spirit.”[8]  This motion is termed as perichoresis in Greek and circumincessio in Latin.  It is the interpenetrative participation of Life in the communion of the Trinity.  This coming and emptying is the whole Trinitarian act which manifests the sacrificial love poured from the Father, demonstrated through the Son, continuously working in the Spirit.

Thus: “Liturgy is the Trinity’s perichoresis kenotically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification. It is the prolongation of the Son’s agapic descent to simultaneously enable humanity’s eucharistic ascent.”[9]  The Eucharistic prayer is called anaphora in the East to emphasize this up-lifting movement.  The ritual moment experienced by the faithful is the divine-human encounter that becomes the basic stance of every other moment of human life.  The reality celebrated becomes the transformed mind of the community; it is the formation tool which shapes the community towards the perfection of that very reality.  This is why the Second Vatican Council made the significant claim that, through the liturgy, “the work of our redemption is accomplished,”[10] because liturgy is the privileged ground of this ongoing salvific encounter between God and man.

Liturgy is never simply human artifact, dependent on any individual’s brilliant mind and logic to ‘design’ its form and ‘decide’ its matters. Rather, it is the Theophany, the appearance of God, through which we encounter with the Trinity and are thus made godly.  It transforms our existence and for this reason is named the ‘divine’ liturgy in the East.  People are transfigured when they encounter the presence of God.  This is the unceasing work of the Spirit through the Son present in the sacramental encounter. Thus, “the purpose of Liturgy is not to change ‘bread and wine’ but to change ‘you and me.’”[11]

Christian Liturgy is the continuation of the visible form of the very ministry of Christ.  It is “what the Church perceives as the continuing act of God, just as the Bible is the word of God.”[12]  “Quod itaque Redemptoris nostril conspicuum fuit, in sacramenta transivit” — “That which was visible in our redeemer has passed over into liturgy.”[13]  The only difference is the mode of presence.  Christ is the sacrament of the Father’s love for the redemption of humanity.  His presence in the past is historical, visible in the God-man Jesus.  Now He is hidden in the form of sacrament.  His real presence is in His absence. [14]

[1] From the Service of the Sanctification of the Waters, celebrated in the Greek Orthodox Church on the feast of Theophany, or Epiphany, which refers to the Baptism of the Lord (unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which celebrates the visitation of the Magi on Epiphany).

[2] The Greek word mysterion refers to the entire ministry of Christ, especially His salvific Passion, Death, Resurrection and glorification, through which He reconciles man to God.

[3] The Latin word sacramentum is derived from sacrum facere, ‘to make holy.’ Used primarily for the oath taken by Roman soldiers upon enlisting in the army, this term was later applied to baptism by Tertullian, who interpreted the act as the Christian’s enlistment into Christ’s army.  Since then, it has been applied to all essential acts of the Church on behalf of Christ’s saving act.

[4]  Sphragis, the seal of the Cross on the head of the neophyte, carries the meaning of ownership or protection by the Lord. Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 54-69.

[5] David Fagerberg, ‘Liturgical Theology’ in forthcoming T & T Clark Companion to Liturgy.

[6] All liturgy is ritual but not all rituals are liturgy.

[7] Jeremy Driscoll, What Happens at Mass, (Chicago; Leominster, Herefordshire: Liturgy Training publication; Gracewing), 11.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Professor David Fagerberg’s working definition on ‘Liturgy’.

[10] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium introduction section 2.

[11] Patrick Reagan, ‘Pneumatological and Eschatological Aspects of Liturgical Celebration,’ quoted in Taft, Beyond East and West, 255.

[12] A phrase borrowed from the lecture notes of Professor Robert Taft, S.J.

[13] Leo the Great, Sermon 74.

[14] Cf. Robert Taft, ‘What is a Christian Feast? A Reflection,’ Worship 83 (2009), 15.

Reflections on the Creed: Part 8

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

This is the eighth in a series of articles first printed in “Today’s Catholic.”
We are grateful for the permission of the editorial staff to republish them here.

Previous articles in this series:
Reflections on the Creed: Part 1
Reflections on the Creed: Part 2
Reflections on the Creed: Part 3
Reflections on the Creed: Part 4
Reflections on the Creed: Part 5
Reflections on the Creed: Part 6
Reflections on the Creed: Part 7

“I believe in the Holy Spirit…”

Gratitude is easy to forget. A newlywed couple as the early days of marriage pass into the quotidian nature of married life may cease to see their lives with one another as gift. A teacher, once in awe of the opportunity to cultivate wisdom among her students, soon sees her work as an onerous task to be completed. A child growing up in a household suffused with loving kindness may gradually become blinded to the mundane beauty of such an existence. The expectation that love is owed to us, rather than received as a free gift, slowly moves us away from a posture of gratitude.

In some sense, our belief in the Holy Spirit suffers from the gradual fall from gratitude that is often a consequence of maturation in the Christian life. The Christian life inscribes us in the order of gift, of grace, of the Triune God who is love. The Father begets the Son before time itself, revealing to us that God’s very identity is self-gift. The Son offers Himself completely to the Father, an offering manifested in Jesus who loves unto the end in obedience to the will of the Father. And this self-gift, this order of love, is the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit moves upon the waters in creation, overshadowing the whole created order in the love of the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit dwells with Israel as she pilgrims through the desert, immersing the nation in God’s pedagogy of grace, inscribing His law of love upon tablets of stone, as well as the heart. The Spirit descends upon the prophets, whose vision is transfigured to see each breach of the covenant (no matter how small) as a spousal transgression against the God who first loved Israel into existence.

This same Spirit enacts this love in the course of world history, such that even in the darkest moments of exile, God’s gift of love is a light to the nations, a promise that all humanity will be transfigured through the energetic work of God in the concrete structures of the world. The hope for the Messiah, pervading the writings of the prophets, is fanned by the Spirit.

The Spirit who dwelt with Israel in the desert now overshadows Mary. She is conceived without sin through the power of the Spirit, precisely that her very life might be inscribed in the logic of gratitude, of self-gift that is the Triune God. Her speech in the Gospel of Luke, her willingness to enter into God’s very history of salvation, is itself a gift from the Holy Spirit received in love and then offered back to the Father in her love of the Son.

This transformation of our humanity begun in Mary is completed in Jesus the Christ, the one anointed with the Spirit. Everything that is human is taken up into divine life through the Word made flesh. His deeds and His words are a breathing forth of the Holy Spirit for the life of the world, the reorientation of our humanity as an instrument for divine mercy. Yet Christ does not give the fullness of the Spirit in the Gospel of John until He is raised up on the Cross. Why?   Precisely because the Holy Spirit is nothing less than the completeness of divine love manifested on the Cross. It is the total gift of the Son to the Father, and the Father’s acceptance of this sacrificial love made evident in the Resurrection of the Son. And when Christ encounters His disciples as resurrected, He breathes forth the Spirit upon the humanity of the Apostles. The Apostles and the whole Church through Baptism are now taken up into the mission of the Triune God through the life of the Church.

Therefore in Baptism, the Christian receives the Holy Spirit and is inscribed into the gratuitous love of the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit. Our whole lives can be conceived now as grace. Not because we have reached the perfection of love on our own, grasping it as an individual achievement, a merit badge of Christian discipleship. Nor because all that we see in the world is a gift of God, a response of gratitude; facets of the world remained entrenched in the darkness of sin.

Instead, as the Christian enters more deeply into the Church, into the body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit, our lives become grace. Our memories and imaginations are so taken over by the narrative of salvation that we cannot help but perceive our own experience, our existence as a participation in the unfolding work of the Spirit.

The desire to pray, even in mutilated words of love, is a gift of the Spirit stirring up our heart. Any act of justice we perform, any deed of love no matter how small, is a manifestation of this Spirit for the world to behold. All that we have is a gift bestowed by the Spirit to be offered to the Father in love, in faithful imitation of the obedience of the Son.

Thus, the Holy Spirit processes from the love of the Father and the Son. The Spirit processes into the Church, which is the Body of Christ, into the individual hearts of believers. This same Spirit processes through our very bones, our whole souls, so that we begin to perceive our lives as gifts to be offered to the Father. This procession of love transfigures our humanity, making us into saints, visible icons of divine love for the world. This work of the Spirit is total gift, the work of grace itself in the concrete historical milieu of men and women throughout time. Not a work that we think up, that we engineer on our own, but a work that the Triune God performs through the mediation of our humanity, however inadequate it is.

The more grateful we are, the more we are inscribed into the logic of self-giving love that is the Cross and Resurrection, the more our hearts are opened to receive and to breathe forth the Spirit for the life of the world. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of Thy love.

A Letter to the Neophytes (and those of us now changed by your presence…)

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

Dear neophytes,

Welcome to the Church.  Last Saturday night, you were plunged into the waters of the Jordan River, you were sealed with the chrism of the Spirit, and you tasted the sweetness of the bread of heaven. Your eating of Christ’ body and blood in the Eucharist is an action you will perform again and again.  Or more accurately, an action that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit will perform upon you.  Let every time you eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ, bring you back to this night.

Now for some membership details.  When you join a club, it’s best to present the “obligations” of membership at the beginning.  And indeed, we did.  Practice self-giving love unto death.  But now that you have tasted the full gift of this love in the sacraments, perhaps it would be helpful to expand upon this prescription for the benefit of our newer members (and of course, for those of us, who tend to forget our single, salvific prescription).

For as we learned over the course of the Triduum, the Church is not actually a club.  It’s not common-minded folks, gathering together out of a sense of greater purpose.  We’re not the Lyons Club, the Varsity Club, the Country Club (though sometimes we’re tempted to imitate all three).  We’re an experiment, initiated by the Triune God, intended to transform humanity through the suasive pull of divine love.  A love that has been revealed to us in creation; in the covenant; in our worship at the temple; in the caustic though salutary words of the prophets; in our tears on the banks of the Babylonian rivers;, in our hope that we might see the fullness of the land, the glory of the temple restored through your care.  And of course, in the fullness of time, this love took our shape, our form–in the crib at Bethlehem, in the ministry at Galilee and trans-Jordan, on the cross.

And in the Resurrection, we have seen the first fruits of this experiment.  Christ, fully human and fully divine, has risen from the dead.  The loneliness and sorrows and death-dealing nature of the human condition (represented by the wounds still marking his body) are now bathed in resurrected light.  Violence, warfare, power, prestige, and might are not the ultimate meaning of a human life.  Love alone is.

And now, because of our encounter with the resurrected Christ, you might be getting a sense of what you just joined.  We are not a community of the righteous, the powerful, the prestigious, the self-important.  From time-to-time, we’ll forget this, and when we do, your job as our younger brothers and sisters in Christ (at least in terms of baptism), is to remind us of this fact.  In fact, your very presence does this.

How so?  Because, we know something that you can only learn through years of practicing Christianity.  On Easter night, as we cheered and clapped and sent up a volley at your entrance into our midst, we were not delighting in the increase of our size, our stature.  We were overjoyed because what the Triune God has done in you.  And through you, through your presence in offices, in schools, in factories, in firehouses, in public service, in raising families and in classrooms, the very resurrected light of Christ will shine into the darkest places.  The Church you joined is the aftershocks of the Resurrection, moving out from the tomb of baptism into the world.  And you’re the newest sign to us that these aftershocks aren’t over.  That the Resurrected Christ lives anew through you.

Now, you might finally be getting a sense of our only membership obligation.  You have been baptized into Christ Jesus.  You have been a priest, a prophet, a royal figure.  But your priesthood, your prophecy, your “highness” receives its character from the one who died upon the tree.  From the one who loved unto the end.  So, you are to become this love for the life of the world.  That’s all.  Become total, self-giving love, unto the end (by the way, we call this sainthood).

A hard obligation.  Happily, it’s not ours to achieve, akin to the way that a Boy Scout achieves the Eagle Rank.  Rather, it’s a result of taking very, very, very seriously the experiment that the Triune God is still performing through the Church.

Consider again the Eucharist that we all received at the Vigil.  We brought forward gifts, which were fruits of creation, given to us by God.  We offered prayers that were not our own, but given to us through the tradition of the Church.  Through faith alone, we perceived a transformation of the elements, one possible solely through the gift of the Spirit.  And we “received” these elements, these gifts, these sacred offerings, and they become apart of us.  We consumed the Body and Blood of Christ, and we ourselves were consumed by his love.

In this simple act, carried out every day in the Church, we discover the only way to practice self-giving love.  The only way to fulfill our membership requirement.  Receive Christ himself that you might give.  Let your body become his body.  Become the sacrifice you receive.

That’s the genius of Christianity.  It isn’t about inheriting some future eternal life.  It isn’t about wrapping up salvation in the process of a late night baptism.    Instead, Christian salvation is supposal (to borrow a term from a friend):  suppose you lived as if your life was a total gift; suppose you let your will enter entirely into the divine will–a will so peaceful that your individuality is transformed, never destroyed; suppose you desired to be a saint.

So, let me re-iterate the membership requirement:  total self-giving love in imitation of the very life of God.  Last night, you received the first fruits of eternal life.  The first fruits of total love.  The rest of your days on this earth will be giving this love away.  Prodigally.  Foolishly.  Stupidly.  As if this love wasn’t yours to begin with.  Of course, such love never is–that’s precisely what makes our life together in the Church such a gift.  Happy Easter.


The Freedom of the Exodus: A Pedagogy of Love

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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An essential aspect of being fully human, dear friends, is freedom.  The freedom that comes to a young child, who for the first time, stands upon her own two feet capable of exploring a world once out of reach.  The freedom that comes with having a job, one that allows us to care for our families and act creatively in the world.  The freedom that comes to those who approach death, not with fear, not with trepidation, but out of a deep sense of gratitude for that life, which soon will pass away.

Yet, the problem with freedom is that it is often difficult, it often dangerous.  It needs to be learned.  The young child, who begins to walk, is now capable of placing her hand upon the stove.  The job, which is supposed to allow us to be creative, to give ourselves more fully to family life, can easily become an end unto itself:  we work to work.  To approach death with gratitude requires that we have to allow our grudges, our sense of incompleteness, our desire to stay alive no matter the cost to also die.  True freedom, in this instance, means that we are no longer “free” to hold onto these things.

Dear friends, these reflections upon freedom are essential to perceiving the mystery presented in the liberation of Israel from Egypt.  Moses, called by God from his own captivity (in hiding, having murdered an Egyptian for his treatment of a fellow Israelite) leads his people out of Egypt through the Red Sea.  Treated violently, as slaves, expendable labor who were not even free to have children without permission from Pharaoh, pass freely through the waters.  The Egyptians, the source of Israel’s slavery, also walk freely into the Red Sea, though not out.  Imagine for a moment that you are one of those rescued slaves.  What seemed so impossible is now your reality.  You’re not just “free,” but the very source of your slavery is dead:  the bodies of Egyptians covering the floor of the Red Sea become signs of your liberation.  Indeed, there is a horror to seeing the bodies crushed by the waters.  But, the Egyptians were not forced to follow; rather, it was their own captivity, their incapacity to listen to God’s word, the hardness of their own heart, that found them in the waters.  But looking upon them, you know that they have become a sign of your freedom:  there is no one left to take you back into Egypt.

But, freedom dear friends is a funny thing.  It’s harder than captivity.  Think of the prisoner, released from jail, who immediately finds trouble again—not because they want to, but because they have come to love captivity.  Israel wandering for three days, begin to thirst, complaining that there was nothing to drink.  Israel wandering further and complaining, “Would that we had died at the LORD’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread!  But you had to lead us into this desert and make the whole community die of famine!” (16:3).  So used to their captivity that they cannot trust the God who rescued them from Egypt, who worked marvels and wonderful deeds.  They wanted nothing else but freedom to be back in the land where they had bread and meat but not freedom.  God has given them the greatest thing possible, the chance to be truly free.

The Church, in its earliest days, have seen in this parable of freedom a sign of baptism.  Indeed we pass through the waters, and when we’re out on the other side, we can look back and see our own dead Egyptians, our life of sin, our captivity taken captive.  We don’t have to sin.  We’re free.  Paul addresses this, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.  The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.  Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.  For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.”  Yet this is a difficult teaching.  It’s difficult to be totally free, when you’re used to captivity.  To make of your bodies a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God (Rm. 12:1).

This is the great call not only of Lent but the entire Christian life.  We walk with the catechumen preparing for baptism, but we do so knowing that the real work comes after baptism, when we enter into the pedagogy of the Church, a school of freedom.  For, in this school, we learn the true meaning of freedom:  it is Christ’s gift of self upon the cross.  It is our own self-giving love.  To be truly free for the Christian is to be able to give out of ourselves to God, to another.  And this is the most radical form of freedom.  But, we’re free to do so, we’re free to choose love.  The love of our neighbor in need, the love of a God who stretches us out, reconfigures our imaginations, our capacities to love in the first place.  We’re free, leave behind that which imprisons us.  So, during this Easter, let us join in Miriam’s song, let us sing to the Lord, who is gloriously triumphant, let us sing with our lives, our consciences, our prayer, our work.



Put On Superman: Baptism and Halloween

Isaac Garcia

Director of Religious Education

St. Mark’s Catholic Church, Vienna, VA

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This article originally appeared on St. Mark’s blog for religious education.  

At the end of October, children across the country venture out into neighborhoods donning Superhero attire, Angel outfits, and all other sorts of costumes.  As a child I always looked forward to Halloween, the day I would march around in my homemade Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume (as Donatello, of course) and walk from door to door trick-or-treating.  A funny thing would happen when I wore this costume — I changed.  While in costume, everyone expected me to take on the persona and the behavior of Donatello and I happily obliged with “Cowabungas”, “Dudes”, and attempts at athletic jump kicks.  I had put on Donatello and the outside changed my very thoughts, words and actions.  I was a “little Donatello” for a night, realizing a lifelong dream of being a “hero in a half-shell.”

In baptism, we hope for a similar transformation.


Paul writes, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Gal 3:27).  Symbolized with a white garment, the newly baptized are clothed with Christ.  Unlike the Donatello outfit, when we “put on” Christ, it is once for all.  He does not come off.  We never dry off from our baptism.  Instead, we are continually challenged and strengthened by the Sacrament to take on the very persona and behavior of Jesus Christ.  Like the Donatello costume, what happens on the outside is meant to change our very thoughts, words and actions.  The goal, then, of putting on Christ is for the inside to match the outside, so that our very identity becomes who we outwardly claim to be in baptism.  For those of us who were baptized as babies, we spend our entire Christian lives trying to grow into the infant-sized baptismal garment.  We strain to join our voices with Paul’s in proclaiming that “it is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

We return to the image of the “little Donatello.”  After the shell came off the effects quickly withered away.  Once the costume was boxed up for the year, once there was no big event to look forward to, I forgot about the whole thing.  With no continual reinforcement, I returned back to my usually quiet six-year-old self.

This too is a danger for us all — forgetting our new identity in baptism.  “Every Christian is to become a little Christ,” C.S. Lewis writes.  “The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”  We are continually challenged to appropriate our identity as “little Christs”, to grow in faith, hope, and love.  This becomes especially difficult when there is no big “faith event” on the horizon to look forward to.  In a world that pulls us in a million different directions at once, we need constant reminders and help to be “little Christs”; we need the parish community and our family to ensure we notice and live into our baptismal clothes.  We both support and challenge each other to be who we claim to be in baptism.

This Halloween, as we see the “little superheroes”, “little angels”, and “little monsters” parading from house to house, may they serve as a reminder to baptism.  May the automatic taking on of personalities by the trick-or-treaters inspire us to take on the personality of Christ.  And may we support each other in our journey, no matter where we are in our faith.