Tag Archives: Notre Dame

Holy Trigonometry

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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Christmas is a feast for families, beginning with the Holy Family. But is it also a feast of the Family of the Holy Trinity? The “Trigonometry” featured in this year’s display of Christmas crèches at the University of Notre Dame answers “yes” to this question.

Trigonometry (from Greek trigōnon, “triangle” and metron, “measure”) is a branch of mathematics investigating the relationships of lengths and angles in triangles. For many of us this science can be compared to the proverbial book with seven seals with which we have become acquainted while in High School. We may still remember that the sides of a right-angle triangle and the angles between those sides have fixed relationships. Provided we know at least the length of one side and the value of one angle, we can determine all other angles and lengths. Trigonometry and its functions are implemented for example in satellite navigation systems.

TrinityChristian iconography, too, avails itself of this science when portraying the Mystery of the Triune God in the form of a triangle. This depiction, as limited and fragmentary as it may be, can tell us something about the “Divine Trigonometry.” The triangle’s equilateral sides symbolize the coequal nature of the three divine persons (est), while the maximal separation of the vertices highlights their distinction (non est). Hence, the rapport within the communion of the Triune God is absolute communion and simultaneous free unfolding of the differences of the Persons and their attributes. Moreover, the Trinity’s modus of interaction in pursuit of the common plan and goal (creation, redemption, sanctification) enables us to better, though never completely, comprehend the Revelation about the Triune God! The Council of Florence explained this Trinitarian mode of being as follows:

Through this unity…the Father is completely in the Son and completely in the Holy Spirit;
the Son is completely in the Father and completely in the Holy Spirit;
he Holy Spirit is completely in the Father and completely in the Son
(DS 1331).

Hence, the three distinct divine Persons are the same Being, the same Life, the same God, and are united in a communion of Love. The reciprocal rapport unique to the Divine Trigonometry is described by the Greek Fathers as perichoresis (round dance) and by the Western Fathers as circumincessio (mutual indwelling). Taking our bearings from this tradition, we observe complete openness and receptiveness among the Persons of the Trinity to each other. In their Being each contains the others and is contained by them. Revelation permits us to define each of the three Persons exclusively on the basis of how they relate to the other two. In the words of St. John Paul II, “the Father is pure Paternity, the Son is pure Sonship, and the Holy Spirit is pure Nexus of Love of the two, so that the personal distinctions do not divide the same and unique divine nature of the three.”[1]

MoneyThe reverse of the current $1 bill shows an unfinished pyramid topped by the Eye of Providence within a triangle. This portrayal of God’s Eye discloses another dimension of the Divine Trigonometry. Dating back to the Middle-Ages, the triangle with a pointed top indicates the unique position of God Father within the Trinity.  St. Irenaeus speaks of the Father’s ‘two hands,’ the Son and the Spirit. The Father may be seen as the ultimate authority in his fatherly compassionate love which is the principle cause of God’s activity. The Father is the sender of the Son and the Holy Spirit, but does not himself go. Thus, the Divine Trigonometry has its origin in the Trinity’s eternal plan and extends from the ineffable communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The classic example of this divine economy is the Incarnation celebrated on March 25 and made visible nine months later on Christmas. Its dynamics is revealed through the Scriptures as a bonum diffusivum sui (good diffusive of itself). It is a love that does not remain closed in a perfect circle of light and glory but offered as a creative, self-gift. God’s Love proceeds from the Father to the Son who by his “departure” transmits to the Holy Spirit the new salvific self-giving of God. The Triune God, however, did not want to accomplish this plan without the cooperation of humanity.

Luke’s account of the Annunciation recounts the Trinity in dialogue with Mary of Nazareth. As a result of Mary’s free and loving cooperation with God’s plan the total gift of herself in undivided love is rewarded with God’s gift to her, manifest in her divine maternity, and culminating in their mutual Gift – Jesus Christ!

The Divine Trilogy provided that the eternal Son of God be born and sheltered in the love of a human family which hence becomes a mirror of God’s communion. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI expressed it this way, “The human family is, in a certain sense, the icon of the Trinity because of the love between its members and the fruitfulness of that love.”[2] In other words, the divine trigonometry seeks a continuation and reflection on earth.

TrigonometryAmong the 30 crèches exhibited presently on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, one conveys this holy trigonometry. The Swiss nativity set designed by Elizabeth Kuchen can be admired at the Morris Inn. Its foundation is a triangle-symbol of the Trinity- surrounded by daisies arranged in groups of three. Joseph, Mary and the manger with Baby Jesus form a triangle; the same holds true for the magi kings surrounding them. The A-framed shelter, complemented by its firm foundation is triangular and even the smoke—or is it a lightning rod?—on top of the roof resembles an open triangle. The idyllic scene radiating simplicity and harmony allows the onlooker to be drawn to the fruit of an existence founded in God’s Trigonometry. At the points of each triangle stands a person-free and autonomous-yet centered on the other, particularly on the Child in the manger.  Each one has a unique role and mission and therefore can complement the others. Above all, each figure is supported by the base—symbol for the triune communion—on which they are standing. For that reason, this holy trigonometry mirrors the Divine Trigonometry!

But there is still more! Did you notice the four figures (only two are visible in the above photo) standing in the background? Who are they? The answer is up to our imagination. Allow me to share my thoughts.  The number four alludes to a finite, transitional state which is perhaps the reason why they are placed on a lower level.  Could they be the representatives of those who approach and observe this Divine Mystery skeptically, yet longingly? The four figures are in need of a lift in order to become part of the harmony and peace of the Holy Trigonometry, lest they turn around and get lost in the darkness! Authentic holy trigonometry—a communion in which each is completely open to the other—moves towards the disenfranchised.  The Divine Child at the center of the crèche is the measuring stick for each one of us. From His Incarnation to His death He consumed himself by inviting all into the communion of the Divine Trigonometry. As his brothers and sisters we are invited to do likewise. The Father needs us to be His arms in the world today. Are you ready to be sent and to bring the Gift of the Father to our world in darkness? Then peace and joy will triumph and the Miracle of Love is celebrated in heaven and on earth!

[1] The Trinity’s Embrace – God’s Saving Plan. A Catechesis on Salvation History (Boston 2002), 183.

[2] Angelus, December 27, 2009.

Dwelling with Love Incarnate: Part 2

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

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Editor’s Note: This second of two posts is part of a lecture given to inaugurate the Institute for Church Life’s 2nd annual International Crèche Pilgrimage, Dwelling with Love Incarnate. 

Dwelling with Love Incarnate: Part 1

In the Bleak Mid-Winter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.


Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.


Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.


Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.


What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

This hymn, a text written by Christina Rossetti, rifts upon a number of the motifs that were implicit in O Magnum Mysterium. The silence of the bleak mid-winter is intensified through a placing of the Nativity in an English village, covered with snow. Worship is offered by the angels, yet the marvel of the Incarnation is upon display in Jesus’ drinking of milk from his mother’s bosom, worship being offered most fully through the tender kiss of a mother upon the cheek of her son. Yet, at the end, the hymn takes a turn common in devotional poetry of the time. The contemplation of the pastoral nativity demands some response by the poet and reader alike. A shepherd might bring a lamb, a Wise Man would bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but me—what is left but to give myself?

In this sense, Rossetti’s poetry functions almost Eucharistically. God’s action has unfolded in the Incarnation and what remains but the giving of oneself as a return-gift to the infant Son. And the icon of this return-gift is the blessed Virgin herself, who offers the kiss of love that the poet now desires to give to the Son. Such poetry is self-implicating, wooing one to participate in the gift of what takes place in the hidden indwelling of the God-man.

The liturgical poetry of Romanos the Melodist takes up this same perspective, where the reader of the poem, the singer of the hymn assumes a central role in the drama of salvation. In his hymn on the Nativity, Romanos invites the reader to assume the Marian role in the story:

“For I am not simply your mother, compassionate Savior;

it is not in vain that I suckle the giver of milk,

but for the sake of all I implore you.

You have made me the mouth and boast of all my race,

and your world has me,

as a mighty protection, a wall and a buttress.

They look to me, those who were cast out

of the Paradise of pleasure, for I bring them back.

May all things understand that, through me, you have been born

a little Child, God before the ages (The Nativity, 23).

While also reflecting upon the role of Mary in the drama of the Nativity, the hymn forms the reader to see him or herself as the Marian actor in the drama. In this age, as this hymn is sung, the Christian is also to become the place where Christ is born into the world.

Indeed, it is the very pedagogy of the crèche scene to invite us to participate within our own time in the Incarnation. The “Painted Houses” of South Africa uses tribal imagery to demonstrate how God’s dwelling among us might put an end to the hostility between rival factions.


The material of the banana tree of Paraguay incarnates the Christmas narrative into the agricultural milieu of that country.


Alaska’s own wintry background is now where the Savior of the world is born.


The crèche scenes are moments in which the story of Christmas is seen in its contemporaneity—the world grown weary through sin and death, now renewed through the glory of the Incarnate Word.

The family that keeps watch before the crèche participates in this drama of salvation. And indeed, this drama is unfolding even in the mundane world of family life. Cardinal Marc Ouellet writes, “…the love of Christian spouses and the richness of their family relationships become a sacred sign, a vehicle and sanctuary of a greater Love, the love of the Trinitarian, incarnate God, who enters into a humble and indissoluble bond with their community of life and love” (Divine Likeness, 53). The love of the Father poured out in his Son and then given over to women and men in history itself is still become manifest in the nuptial union. The family becomes an incarnate and inculturated sign of God’s love for the world to contemplate. Each of the families, in their own particularities, reveal something about the triune love of God made manifest in the Incarnation: the couple with a plurality of children, the elderly couple who now live alone, the family forced into migration, and the infertile couple who open their house to care for the poorest of the poor.

In this way, the nativity set can renew family life insofar as it reminds them that although domesticity is often mundane, it is in fact a participation in the drama of salvation in this time and place. It is a participation in a drama where there is not only joy but also signs of sorrow that mark the human condition. And the set invites us, just like the poetry of Christian Rossetti or Romanos the Melodist, to assume our role in the drama.

Born On a New Day

You are the new day.

Meekness, love, humility

Come down to us this day:

Christ, your birth has proved to me

You are the new day.


Quiet in a stall you lie,

Angels watching in the sky

Whisper to you from on high

“You are the new day”.


When our life is darkest night,

Hope has burned away;

Love, your ray of guiding light,

Show us the new day.


Love of all things great and small

Leaving none, embracing all,

Fold around me where I fall,

Bring in the new day.


This new day will be

A turning point for everyone.

If we let the Christ-child in, and

Reach for the new day.


Christ the Way, the Truth, the Life;

Healing sadness, ending strife;

You we welcome, Lord of life,

Born on a new day.

You are the new day.

A relatively modern carol, “Born On a New Day” is an adaptation of a secular song, one that promises the renewal of humanity through the burgeoning hope of love. The irony of the song, of course, is that the language of “new day” is fitting for the feast of Christmas. The hope of newness, of God’s renewal of the created order, is in fact at the font of the season of Advent itself, where we await the glad tidings of the Savior, who comes to renew all things.

And indeed, the crèche itself captures this newness through the presence of the Magi, who come from the ends of the world to greet the king whose power is made manifest in weakness. T.S. Eliot, in his “Journey of the Magi,” gives voice to these kings who have returned to their land:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

With the coming of this new day is a necessary death, a giving up of the old dispensation for the new. Can we participate in a world grown tired from the reign of sign and death, when we have gazed with wonder upon the king who dwells among us? Is this not the reign we long for?

The new day that we long for, that was supposed to be inaugurated through the birth and death and resurrection of the beloved Son, seems so far away. The tragedies in Paris, together with the suffering of the Syrian migrants now denied homes make this patently clear to us. Should we turn away from this weary world? Should we give up on the project of waiting altogether?

LambThe crèche, as one might imagine, serves as a kind of medicine against this hopelessness, this world weariness of those who await the Incarnate Word’s reign on earth. To put up a crèche each year, in the midst of a world that has grown callous to the life of the unborn, to the suffering of the migrant and immigrant, to the prisoner condemned to death is a supreme act of hope. It is akin to the role of the tabernacle lamp, described by Charles Peguy in his poetics of hope in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope:

One trembling flame has endured the weight of worlds.

One vacillating flame has endured the weight of time.

One anxious flame has endured the weight of nights.

Since the first time my grace flowed for the creation of the world.

Since my grace has been flowing forever for the preservation of the world.

Since the time that the blood of my son flowed for the salvation of the world.

A flame impossible to reach, impossible to extinguish with the breath of death (Peguy, 5).

The family who each year puts up the crèche scene is doing more than following the liturgical calendar. Rather, they are manifesting to the world a hope that cannot be defeated by a politics or culture of death. Hope is born anew in the heart of the child, who recognizes for the first time the fact that that little babe in the crèche scene is Savior of the world; hope is born anew as the family prays before this scene each evening before darkness descends upon the world; hope is born anew when the family becomes the love they receive in this crèche.

Indeed, the manner in which hope is kept alive in the hearth of the domestic church is the reason why something so small as setting up a crèche scene is integral to the new evangelization. Secularity will ultimately not be defeated by intellectual argument alone; individualism cannot be destroyed by building a philosophical case alone against the irrationality of the position; nor for that matter will the coldness of the human heart toward the suffering of the unborn be “fixed” through a really fine op-ed. Rather, the hope of the Incarnation is passed on as a living flame from family to family, each time that they place in the infant Christ as the center of their home, manifesting to the world once against the fact that God is love. This, in fact, is the new day.


The Christmas crèche is thus more than a nice tradition, whereby Christians throughout the world mark the arrival of the season, just as they put up lights upon their homes or drink coffee out of a red cup from Starbucks. Rather, it is an embodied practice of remembering what the Father has accomplished through the humility of the Son, who is Love made flesh; it is an invitation to participation in this narrative again and again, renewing each season the hope for salvation that comes from God alone. It is a practice that serves as a bastion against a practical atheism that lives as if God is not more. It is a practice that renews from year to year the memory of the story that makes sense of all other stories.

And perhaps, it is the simple practice of praying before and setting up this crèche in the context of the domestic church that might be a source of renewal for the world itself. For as Cardinal Ouellet writes:

Evangelizing the family’s various relationships in the image of the Trinity, cultivating its sacramental life and consciousness, and revealing to the family the divine missions in which it participates; all of this could have a planetary impact on the mission of the Church and the future of humanity (76).

For the family to gaze with love upon the crèche, to contemplate the wonderful mystery taking place, and to pledge to become this mystery for the world: in this way, even now, the possibility of a new day, a new world of love can come into being. For when we dwell with love incarnate, we may find (perhaps even against our wills) that we become this love that we abide with: “Jesus, immortal boy, let this your birth give/to us peace and joy” (Adam of St. Victor 5.11).

We’re Talking About Practice: The Launch of 3D Catholic

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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One summer in graduate school, I took a course in Syriac. Every day, I engaged in the practice of translating this language, whose characters are read from right to left. After a week of translating sentences from right to left, I suddenly found myself reading street signs in the same way that I read Syriac. STOP became POTS. CONSTRUCTION AHEAD became DAEHA NOITCURTSNOC. The practice of reading Syriac changed the way that I engaged in all modes of reading. Practice matters. It changes the way that we abide in the world.

The transformative nature of practice is behind a new initiative being launched through the efforts of the Institute for Church Life, together with undergraduates at the University of Notre Dame. 3D Catholic is a movement started on college campuses that unites Catholics in the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Everyday at noon, those who choose to participate in this movement, will pray the Angelus. 3D Catholics will abstain from meat every Friday. And 3D Catholics will perform one corporal work of mercy each week. The movement also has an app that enables the person to keep track of one’s progress, to pray for one another, and to see who in your immediate area also has the app. Think about it as YikYak for Catholic practice.

The goal of the movement, in the end, is to present a witness to the world that being Catholic matters; that being Catholic changes the way that one looks at the world. And the way to enter Catholicism, in the end, isn’t simply learning a series of doctrines or having some major, emotional religious experience everyday. Being Catholic is about the slow, transformative art of practice. Or as Allen Iverson reminded us not so long ago, “we’re talking about practice.”

For more on the movement, see this piece at Aleteia.

Dwelling with Love Incarnate (Part 1)

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

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Editor’s Note: This first of two posts is part of a lecture given to inaugurate the Institute for Church Life’s 2nd annual International Crèche Pilgrimage, Dwelling with Love Incarnate. 

This December, during the season of Advent, my wife and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. I say this not as an invitation for the wider internet community to bestow me with some gift to honor the occasion. Married in the midst of Advent, the most common gift that we received were nativity sets. All sorts. Nativity sets that were Christmas tree ornaments; small stand-alone sets from Mexico, Thailand, and Palestine; a large nativity set purchased by a group of friends (and now in the midst of being systematically destroyed by our son). Our marriage has unfolded in a home overflowing with crèches.

When asked to give this second annual lecture, I wanted to reflect a bit on what the crèche means for family life in general. In the heated debates that seemed to mark the recent Synod on the Family, it nonetheless became obvious that a robust spiritual vision of family life is necessary as we find ourselves immersed in the third millennium. That is, it is the family in particular in which the renewal of the Church will unfold. As Pope Francis noted in his homily delivered at the World Meeting of Families:

These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.

Thus, in this series, I would like to invite us to reflect on how the practice of keeping a crèche in the home is in fact one of these small acts of love, ultimately transformative of what it means for the family to dwell together in love incarnate. It is an occasion of evangelization, that is to quote Paul VI, “…bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new” (EN 18).

Yet, it seems right in examining family life through the lens of the crèche that we adopt the same aesthetic pedagogy of the crèches themselves. Thus, this series will unfold in three parts, each beginning with a piece of music related to the nativity of Christ. Through these pieces of music, we will explore three ways that the crèche provides a way of renewing the domestic Church in particular:

1) Forming us to see domestic life as a locus for the enfleshment of God’s love.

2) Inviting us to participate in the Incarnation through the drama of history.

3) Seeing the family as an icon of the new evangelization, one in which the practice of keeping a crèche manifests the Church’s memory in history.

O Magnum Mysterium

O magnum mysterium,

et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

jacentem in praesepio!

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera

meruerunt portare

Dominum Christum.


O great mystery,

and wonderful sacrament,

that animals should see the new-born Lord,

lying in a manger!

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb

was worthy to bear

Christ the Lord.


The irony of the nativity of Jesus Christ is that its prevalence within various forms of artistic media, including our nativity sets, has perhaps led us to no longer be filled with awe at the wonderful event taking place in the manger. We see a mother and a father. A collection of angels, singing songs of joy at the birth of Jesus. Three kings, offerings gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A cast of animals, perhaps even overly interested in the birth of this human child.

Yet, the setting of O Magnum Mysterium (a text sung by monks at the rising of the sun on Christmas morning) invites us to look anew at the iconic mystery unfolding in these crèches. O great mystery, O wonderful sacrament that these animals in particular are the ones, who see the Lord born of a Virgin. What is this mystery, this sacred sign? And what’s the deal with the animals?

For some time, I imagined that I would want to return to being an infant. I considered a world in which I no longer had to be awake for significant periods of times; a world in which my every hunger was met by someone when I made the smallest cry; a world in which although immobile, everyone seemed to delight in moving me about. Yet, as I watched my son in the earliest days of his life, I came to the realization that infancy is in fact a rather humiliating period of life. The infant has thoughts that he or she cannot communicate to anyone, being reduced to making desires known through tears alone. The infant must rely on those around him or her for food, for shelter, for cleanliness, for comfort in the midst of sorrows. The infant is subject to the powers of the world, unable to even really recognize threats against his or her welfare.

Thus, the great mystery, the wonderful sacrament of the Nativity is the fact that God became fully human as an infant. Divine love was poured out from the bosom of the Father through the Son, a love that makes God radically vulnerable. The very Word that orders creation, that gives meaning to all of human life, that gazes with love upon the Father in the Godhead, becomes flesh pro nobis, for us. Augustine of Hippo, commenting on this fact, preaches:

He lies in a manger, but he holds the whole world in his hands: he sucks his mother’s breasts, but feeds the angels; he is swaddled in rags, but clothes us in immortality; he is suckled, but also worshiped; he could find no room in the inn, but makes a temple for himself in the hearts of believers. It was in order, you see, that weakness might become strong, that strength became weak (Augustine, s. 190.4).

IconNativityIconography of the nativity unfolds the radical vulnerability in God in particular ways. The newborn son is depicted wrapped in swaddling clothes, a sign already of the burial clothes that will clothe Mary’s son in the tomb on Good Friday. These icons depict the first bath of the Word made flesh, an image of God’s radical solidarity with the human condition. The crèche scene functions as an icon of the kenosis of the Son, the radical self-emptying love that is the source of the world’s very renewal.

Which brings us to the animals gathered around the crèche? For, perhaps the greatest scandal of the Incarnation, of the enfleshment of the Word, is the hiddenness of the birth of the Son in the first place. He is not born in a palace, a place where the power of the world could be exercised. He is born among the beasts of the field, unable to comprehend the marvel taking place.  As Benedict XVI notes about the hiddenness of this birth:

From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in wordly terms. Yet it is this unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Volume 3, 67).

In the birth of the first born Son in the silence of the evening, we have an image of what it now means to be fully human. The fullness of our humanity is exercised through the powerlessness of love.

Thus, the wonderful mystery of Christ’s birth is that the renewal of humanity already has begun through the nativity of the Lord. As Ephrem the Syrian notes in Hymn 3 on the Nativity:

            Glory to Him, Who never needs us to thank Him.

Yet He [became] need for He loves us, and He thirsted for He cherishes us.

And He asks us to give to Him so that He may give us even more.

His Fruit was mingled with our human nature

to draw us toward Him Who bent down to us (3.17).

As God becomes human, the horizon of humanity opens up so that every aspect of the human condition has the possibility of being drawn into divine life.

For this reason, perhaps, it is most appropriate that the crèche finds pride in place in the home itself. The sacrament of marriage is that taking up of what is most human, most mundane, the domesticity of love, into divine life: “In the union of husband and wife/you give a sign of Christ’s loving gift of grace,/so that the Sacrament we celebrate/might draw us back more deeply/into the wondrous design of your love” (Eucharistic Prayer, For the Celebration of Marriage, B). Yet, there is nothing stunning about this love, as any married couple might note. The love of marriage is lived out through those hidden practices of tenderness that mark married life. With the birth of children, the powerlessness of this love becomes even more evident. Salvation unfolds in the context of the Christian family as it did in the manger: without anyone powerful aware of the mystery taking place.

The crèche, then, forms the family to see its own life as the hidden manifestation of divine love. It reminds the family to expect the unfolding of salvation not simply through signs and wonders but first and foremost in the tender compassion we learn to show one another. In this way, in a world that often devalues such a hidden life, the crèche restores the family to its proper place as the dramatic locale for salvation in the world; as itself a great mystery of divine love.

Combating Soulmates: A Yearly Renewal of Vows

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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A powerful moment at the diocesan Chrism Mass is the renewal of priestly promises. On a yearly basis, those in attendance (if the diocese cares enough to truly make it a diocesan event rather than a chance to pick up the annual supply of oil) have an occasion to reflect upon the gift of the priesthood. And priests, likewise, are invited again to consider their own service to the People of God, rededicating themselves anew to the Eucharistic sacrifice that is at the heart of their priestly identity. While priests can do this everyday through their practice of ministry at the altar and in the parish, the public nature of the renewal becomes a source of witness to the whole Church.

Among those who are married, there are not the same public occasions for renewing one’s commitment. Many dioceses seem to offer such opportunities for couples celebrating twenty-five or fifty years of married life. But as one member of a couple entering my tenth year of marriage, I have come to see the wisdom of having a more frequent renewal of one’s wedding vows not simply for the couple but the entire Church.

When first vowing myself to “love you and honor you all the days of my life,” I didn’t have a sense of what this love and honor would consist of. I imagined that such love and honoring would be easy precisely because on that day I “loved” Kara so much. But over the years, this vow has become for me a kind of examination of conscience. To love and honor my wife is to be at home in time so that I can take care of our son while dinner is being finished. It is to ungrudgingly bathe my son in the evenings so that Kara can have a few hours without a toddler yelling at her every fifteen seconds. It is to plan evenings out where Kara and I can once again delight in being in each other’s presence as adult human beings capable of consuming a meal without food being thrown across the room. I don’t always adequately perform these offerings of love. I am not always grateful for the presence of Kara in my life. And I need at least a yearly encounter with these vows to remind myself of the depths of love that I have promised to Kara, to renew the gratitude that is at the heart of our married lives.

But, it’s not just the individual couple that needs this yearly reminder. Rather, marriage within Catholicism is experiencing a rapid decline. In 1965, with 48.5 million Catholics in the United States, there were 352,458 marriages. In 2014, with 66.6 million Catholics in the US, there were 154,450 marriages. This decline is reflective of broader trends in which only 25% of Millennials are at this point married. This decline in marriage in at least partially (there are many other reasons for this) indicative of the nearly impossible standards by which many find themselves discerning a spouse. Think, for example, about the show How I Met Your Mother. The entire sitcom is based on the assumption that marriage is something that one only does after finding your soul mate. If after six weeks of dating, if Ted doesn’t “feel anything,” then that person is not his soulmate. The series finale of the program (much maligned) has Ted marrying after a relationship of some seven years his long awaited soulmate.

Having couples yearly renew their vows (perhaps in the Easter season) in front of the assembly of believers is perhaps medicine against this notion of the soulmate. Here are couples, well aware that marriage is fundamentally a matter of the transformed will and less some sort of “magical finding of a soulmate.” Here are couples who have remained married despite the difficulties encounters. For these couples, marriage is a matter of self-gift over time, of bodies worn by age and love alike, becoming sacred signs to the community of the gift of marriage to the world. It would be an annual moment for children to remember that their parents are most capable of being parents insofar as they have been taken up into the gift of divine love that is the sacrament of marriage. For children to recognize, with reverence, the gift of divine love that has made possible the love that they encounter in their families.

It’s a small idea. But, I think the Synod on Marriage and Family should set aside this time throughout the Church for each married couple to renew their vows in the public assembly once a year. Holding up the gift and ideal of marriage on a yearly basis might do more to stemming the decline in marriage than we would imagine. And it would be an in-road to holding up marriage as the “priestly” and “prophetic” vocation it is in the modern world.




The View of an Outsider

Molly DailyMolly Daily, ND ’14

Intern, Washington University & Webster University Catholic Student Center Campus Ministry

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I have been the “odd one out” since my graduation from the University of Notre Dame, in widely varying situations. For the first year after my graduation, I worked in the Office of the Illinois Governor. There, I was the baby – the youngest person by far, minus maybe one person, and one of very few people in the office who came in straight from graduation. And interestingly enough, though I worked for six months under a Democratic administration and six months under a Republican one, I was one of a handful of practicing Catholics. While at the Governor’s Office, I learned to see my experience through the realm of being the different one – the token Catholic girl, the baby of the office.

WashingtonUniversityNewmanThough I left the Governor’s Office in July, I have once again found myself in that position – the one who answers the questions; the one whose experience is not the same. Working as a Campus Ministry Intern at Washington University and Webster University means I am surrounded by young people, Catholics, people like me. And yet once again, I am different. After all, my students have yet to go into the “real world” and hold a full-time job. Even among my work colleagues, I’m the only one who has worked in politics. And so, again, I find myself on the outside.

I could take this begrudgingly and complain that I just want to be with people who understand me, but I am far too lucky and surrounded by far too many wonderful people for that complaint. Rather, this “outside” living has provided me with a unique theological opportunity, allowing me to see, seek, and explore the needs and wants of college students and young adults, particularly in regards to what the Church can and should offer them. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I was one of them – I felt their fears, apprehensions, and desires, and then I left and experienced that  which they now look forward. Having left the safety net of a Catholic college, I am removed enough to see what they cannot yet see, to understand life after college in a way that they simply cannot yet – but I have returned, just a year later, and I see myself in them, see what I wanted and thought I needed and truly did need. I am one of them and yet not, and I see the urgency of their questions and their desires perhaps even more clearly because of it.

SantaRosaIt strikes me that what these students crave – indeed, what I myself craved – is, for the most part, exactly what they are going to need. They may not understand why they want what they want in the church, but the Spirit moves them to demand that which they will need most when they leave this place. My students demand more than lukewarm religion teachers and emotionally-centered praise sessions of their high school years. They see right through the façade of uncaring adults who blow them off with half-hearted attempts to appease them or make church “cool” so they will want to leave. My students crave truth – they are smarter, more perceptive, more driven than we give them credit for. In universities filled with study and argument, they demand truth – they know the faith is intellectual in nature, and they want to understand and articulate that intellect just as they would any other course they take – though here, the stakes are much higher. What they don’t yet understand is how important that knowledge and truth will be when they leave – how the ability to constantly remind themselves of the truth, to articulate their faith to those who challenge it, and to apply that knowledge when weekly bible studies and student-centered homilies now abound. They crave – and need – us to take their thirst for knowledge seriously, to value it, and to encourage it to continue for the rest of their lives.

A perhaps less articulated need for students, and much less explored, is the parish identity and the simple process of finding – and staying with – a parish. This was one of the needs I hardly recognized in myself as a student, and one I only see in my students in passing. They mention their concern about leaving the Catholic Student Center, or they casually say that they know no other church will be like this place. What they don’t yet know is how valuable it will be to process these needs, to understand parish life before they leave. This need didn’t strike me until I was well established in a parish in Chicago. I had a wonderful home with a vibrant, young parish in my neighborhood, but I was struck one evening while attending a young adult event by a very striking, unsettling knowledge – “This isn’t my parish.” Although I had been attending Mass and events regularly for over six months, I still understood myself as a visitor. I was a registered parishioner, but I hadn’t made connections, outside the young adult group, to become a real part of this place. This process of relationship building, of connection is one that is taken for granted in college, and one we hardly mention to our students. We don’t talk to them enough about what happens when they leave – and chances are they don’t even think about it until it’s too late. We owe them our knowledge and our experience.

I’m still not too far out, and I’ve only been at my new job for a month – but so far, I’d say being an outsider has its advantages.

Drinking and the Culture of Sexual Assault

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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Editors’ note: This is the first of a series that we will be doing on examining the culture that makes possible sex assault not only at Notre Dame but throughout the United States. 

Editors’ note 2.0 (September 1, 2015): This piece offers one narrative-based perspective on the culture of sexual assault that permeates college campuses. It is directed fundamentally to men, inviting them to recognize their own culpability is fostering a culture in which assault is possible. Future posts, occurring throughout the fall of 2015, will attend more to the situations that foster this culture. These pieces, presently being assembled through dialogue among Notre Dame undergraduates and those involved in residence life both here and beyond will deal with power dynamics among men and women; the role of pornography in misshaping sexual desire; the problems of the hook-up and party culture in forming assumptions about sexual activity among undergraduates that leave women in particular vulnerable to assault; and, what it means to discuss “healing” in terms of these assaults.  

Some classes had yet to meet twice when those of us at the University of Notre Dame received the first email of the year reporting an alleged sexual assault in a campus residence hall.  Two days later, another email arrived, this time announcing two possible crimes at once: one was described as “non-consensual sexual contact” and the other was the second reported assault of the week.  To be honest, I sort of forgot about emails like this over the course of the summer.  Even still, when I opened the first one I wasn’t immediately shocked because, for better or worse, the email looked quite a lot like all the other ones I received last year regarding similar incidences.  It has almost become standard in a college environment like ours to exchange these emails every few weeks, sometimes with campus or local news stories to follow, and sometimes not.  If not for an unclear decision made under the influence of alcohol more than 15 years ago, I could have been the reason for a similar report.

I was a freshman living in an undergraduate residence hall at the very same institution at which I now teach.  On some weekend night in the middle of the unending winter months, some of my Zahm Hall dorm-mates were hosting a party in the 1A section.  These guys were very good friends with a group of girls that all the rest of us thought were incredibly attractive (we used different language then).  I don’t remember what we drank that night, but I do know that we consumed plenty.  I was drunk but still had some of my wits about me, while Mandy (not her real name) was probably less aware of herself than I was.

I don’t know how or why I ended up back in my own room—148 Zahm Hall—in the B-section of the first floor while the A-section party was still going strong, but I do know that Mandy ended up back in there with me.  I remember sitting next to each other on the floor next, in between our cheap couch and our cheap TV, and I remember the surprise that, despite what I would have expected, Mandy was coming on to me.

The reason I know that I still had some of my wits about me is because I remember that very moment in clear and vivid terms.  I remember what I felt and what she looked like—that is, I remember that she was as stunning as she ever even as I was dimly aware that she was not fully herself.  Noticing that about her made me feel some kind of inner pause or some stir of conscience or maybe just fleeting fear.  All the same, I also felt excitement.  This was the kind of moment with the sort of young woman that, in some unspoken manner, I wanted to find myself in.  And there I was, and there she was; we were in my room and she was willing, or at least it seemed so.  And then something happened.  I really don’t know if or how I made this decision, but instead of responding in kind to what I perceived as her advance, I took her to her friends and I went back to mine.

I want to be clear about this: though my memory of that encounter is clear, whatever decision I made or instinct I followed was not at all clear to me.  It was not a conscious act of virtue.  It was also not the first time I had been drunk with a girl who was also drunk, but it may have been the first time I noticed the difference in how we were functioning, cognizant of the situational power differential between us.

I want to be clear about something else, too: though I probably went in to that night vaguely or maybe even actively hoping that, by some turn of luck, I would find myself in a situation very much like the one I found myself in, I know for certain that I had no intention of taking advantage of anyone.  I don’t think that thought has ever crossed my mind, thanks be to God.  All the same, had I acted otherwise, I would have had a very hard time convincing myself that I had not taken advantage of her in that situation.  This is the realm of sexual assault, or at least “non-consensual sexual contact.”

I don’t know why I didn’t act otherwise: all the momentum was going in that direction. And yet some momentary flash of recognition passed before me, and for some reason I didn’t ignore it.  But for that, I might have been the reason for one of those emails I received this week.  (The story of my moral growth since then is another story.)

I have observed that when the “issue” of sexual assault on college campuses bubbles up because of some new incident or report or set of statistics, some will point to alcohol and the culture that builds up around it, while others will say that predators are predators and alcohol isn’t the reason they act the way they do.  While research does support the claim that the majority of assaults are perpetrated by a small group of (mostly) men, the environment that makes many of these assaults possible is just the sort of environment my friends and I created at that dorm party.  If only I had had a couple more shots or if only someone who wouldn’t respond to that flash of recognition the way I had was in that room with Mandy instead of me, the night could have ended very differently.

This isn’t only about alcohol impairing my judgment and it certainly doesn’t mean that Mandy was responsible for the situation we found ourselves in—what it means is that that entire night carried the implicit danger of what almost happened.  The line between implicit and explicit in that case was an unwilled thought in the mind of a drunken 19 year-old freshman guy.  It is still hard for me to believe I responded to that thought rather than to what I at least perceived to be Mandy’s invitation.

Here’s my point: those who persist in trying to separate the sexual assault “issue” on college campuses from the alcohol issue are dead wrong.  If this were an academic article, I would try to veil my opinion in some jargon that we academics are trained to assume so that I could back-peddle a bit if need be to give those who disagree with me some room to operate—that’s just part of the game.  Well, this isn’t an academic issue and nothing about this is a game.

So, with all due respect to those who think that sexual assaults and alcohol are separate issues, it has come to the point where all of us involved in higher education are responsible for this culture where section parties in campus residence halls become the occasions for potential or actual sexual assaults.  Even when there is not an outright party, this is still a matter of underage or heavy drinking, or both, on campus and off campus.  I do not lay this at the feet of the administration: we all bear responsibility.  Faculty and staff bear the responsibility for addressing this issue head on, along with the administration, rather than letting it fall back out of view in between emails or academic terms.  Students bear the responsibility of cultivating the kind of environment for themselves and their peers where the likelihood of such acts is dramatically reduced.  That means taking alcohol out of the equation.  This does not just pertain to the partiers; it also pertains to those of us who allow this culture to continue.

In the most direct terms, however, the greatest responsibility belongs to those who continue to create, actively contribute to, or engage in the parties and other events that are the occasions for these crimes against the law and against human dignity.  To those students who think they can manage this issue, I say that while it may very well be true that you can hold your liquor, that you would not assault anyone, and that you stand against sexual assault, it is also true that you have a responsibility to take away the most common conditions in which these assaults occur, as do I.  You have a responsibility to the community of which you are a part and to the students who may otherwise become victims or perpetrators or something in between because of the culture you endorse.  Cutting against that particular culture will certainly cost you some really fun nights.  So be it.

Now in my mid-thirties, I would absolutely choose four years of okay college nights for my younger self if it meant avoiding one really fun night where I contributed to an environment that made a sexual assault more likely.

The Gift of Millennials: Some Addenda

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

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Patheos recently invited me to offer some reflections on the future of the American Catholic Church. As one who has begun to think culturally and theologically about the place of millennials in American Catholicism, I suggested that many of the best formed millennial Catholics (recognizing that this is not everyone) may serve as “signs” of an integral Catholicism that has no interest in conforming itself to liberal and conservative ideologies drawn from the political sphere (see article from the National Catholic Register further taking up this line of thought).

Yet, in a short piece, not every argument could be made, and I wanted to offer a couple of addenda for readers of Oblation:

The creation of local movements not a top-down approach:

I have noted ironically in the past that while attending both academic theological conferences and national ecclesial gatherings that the word millennial is most frequently uttered either in the context of blame or befuddlement. They are blamed because they don’t show up or when they do show up, they are “too conservative.” That is, they participate in Eucharistic adoration or don’t have a desire to deconstruct hierarchical blunders. Befuddlement arises because so many of those who run these organizations have themselves not been in contact with anyone below the age of fifty for a while. In fact, they have created organizational structures in which leadership is something bestowed only to those who “serve the party faithfully” for a significant quantity of time.

FrancisofAssisiFor this reason, millennials will transform the Church most effectively not through national-level ecclesial organizations (or academic ones) but local movements. The Church has perpetually been renewed throughout her history by such local movements. The Holy See in Rome does not create St. Francis’ or Dorothy Days. The Franciscans arose in Assisi. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker came about through a house of hospitality in New York.

Such a local approach is not simply a proper reflection of the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. After all, the Council did not create a “House of Lay People” to stand alongside the “Senate of Bishops.” Rather, it noted that the Church gathered in a local place is the universal Church, carrying out her mission in the world. This approach may in fact be appealing to certain millennials, who are easily taken in by forms of advertising that appeal to the “organic” and “local” philosophy to food production, craft brewing, etc. We need national level organizations and the USCCB, of course, for good reasons. But, the renewal of the Church takes place in local communities within parishes. Institutional change only occurs when the rest of the Church begins to recognize the genius of the local movements for the flourishing of the Church’s mission in the world.

The more diversity of local movements, the better

I have been to Franciscan University at Steubenville on two separate occasions (once for a conference, another time for a site visit for strategic planning). Universally, those I talked to would introduce me to the Household Life that pervades campus. Households are various ways to organize spiritual life on campus not through formal programming through an Office of Campus Ministry but through the students’ own initiative. Households may gather around the Blessed Virgin Mary, Eucharistic devotion, lay evangelization, etc. At present, there are 50 Households of campus, all of whom have a unique charism.

FranciscanThe genius of the household system (if one can call it a system) is that it creates a space in which a particular charism is both honored, yet in held in tension next to other charisms. To exist as a household within a system of households is necessarily to acknowledge that your charism is not an exclusive charism. In this way, the more households, the better! And when the household has ceased to address the needs of the students, when members are no longer interested in joining, then it is time to let that household end.

It strikes me that with millennials, if local movements are a necessary good, then we need to make sure that such movements are as diverse as the Church herself is intended to be. There will be local movements concerned with Eucharistic devotion, with service to the poor, with care for creation, with working to end abortion and support those in crisis pregnancies, and on and on.

The problem with contemporary parish life (or approaches to formation) is that it tends to want less diversity within the parish. It tends to argue that every liturgy within the parish on a weekend should be exactly the same (no distinctions in music, etc.). It tends to form organizations within the parish that are congruent with the spiritual and theological presumptions of the particular parish staff.

Yet, if we are serious about local movements within the Church, then we have to recognize that the more, the better. The work of the parish staff is not to run programming in such instances. Rather, it is to offer a coherent narrative of identity in Christ that is possible in the midst of the diversity. It is forming the local movements to recognize that the Catholics who participate in the weekly Latin Mass are not some virus in your midst (and vice versa). That those who are seeking greater knowledge of Ignatian spiritual practice and not daily Eucharistic adoration are not heretics among us. In other words, the diversity of movements requires us to recognize what actually constitutes the Church, even at the parish level.

I see this diversity as attractive to millennials. When I speak to my undergraduates about post-graduate plans, they want formation. But they don’t want a formation that will reduce them to being the same as everyone else. They don’t want a formation that means giving up every aspect of their identities to become just another cog in the machine. Parish life often requires precisely this. A diversity of movements could be a gift to the Church.

Millennials Also Need To Be Evangelized

The fact remains that only a smattering of millennials are actually engaged in the life of the Church in any significant manner. 10% of emerging adults (18-23 year olds) will attend Mass once a month (this is now considered an active Catholic). It’s just as likely to meet a millennial who has no commitment to institutional religion, beyond infant baptism and first communion.  Numbers of those asking for infant baptism itself, together with marriage, have dropped significantly over the last ten years.

Millennials thus are not simply responsible for transforming theTheologyonTap Church. Rather, they require their own evangelization. Millennials need to perceive again the value of a sacramental and institutional religious faith, grounded in the incarnation. They need to see alternative forms of human flourishing, which are not linked to market economies. They need to encounter an understanding of marriage in which commitment is perceived as gift rather than something to be run away from. Parishes are presently set up not so much as missions to those on the margins but as locations where it is expected that you come to the parish if you’re interested. Parishes need to experiment with ways of inviting millennials into parish life not through the structures of parish life alone but through person-to-person evangelization in the context of work and social life alike.  If parishes continue to wait around for millennials to show up, it is likely that millennials will become (at least among church-goers) the lost generation.


Liturgical Polarization: The Roman Missal (2011)

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 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.

Liturgical Polarization: A Diagnosis

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 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

Growing up in East Tennessee, I had never heard the terms “conservative” or “liberal” ascribed to liturgical practice. In my own parish as a member of a minority religious community, we would hold hands during the Our Father; celebrate Stations of the Cross and Benediction on Fridays during Lent; use incense on feast days; sing Wesleyan hymns, Catholic chant, and even occasionally we’d dip into the repertoire of Praise and Worship. We were just Catholic, and the way that we prayed reflected this fact. Yet, when I arrived on the campus of Notre Dame as an undergraduate seminarian, I quickly learned which of the liturgical practices that I presumed as normative were in fact on the “left” and on the “right.”

  • “Holding hands during the Our Father is a liberal practice that distracts from the act of communion and should be disallowed.”
  • “Any form of Eucharistic worship outside of Mass detracts from communion and is evidence of a dialing back of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.”
  • “The use of incense necessarily outs you as a conservative; or an Anglican.”
  • “If you want to see chant/hymns/praise and worship, you want to destroy the liturgy.”

Being eighteen years old at the time, I remember entering into PoliticalSpectrumconversation after conversation with others, attempting to figure out whether I was liberal or conservative. Because I did not mind singing hymns during the celebration of Mass and had no particular problem with aspects of horizontal inclusive language, I decided I was a liturgical liberal. Except I also found Eucharistic adoration a gift, loved singing liturgical Latin chant, and wanted to kneel before I received the Eucharist. So I guess, I was a liturgical conservative with liberal tendencies. Or a liberally conservative liturgist.

Of course, it never occurred to me at the time that the problem was not with my own liturgical prayer but with the discourse of conservative and liberal within the grammar of liturgical practice in Catholicism at all. In the years since, I have come to realize that polarization in liturgical practice (evident in the desire to ascribe political categories to such prayer) is a temptation to de-Catholicize the Church. To decide who is an “authentic” Catholic and who is a CINO (a Catholic-in-name-only). Who is in the Church and who is outside the Church. Liturgical polarization is not ultimately a debate about style, or even about the proper implementation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. It is an ecclesiological heresy whereby we re-create the boundaries of the Church according to our own image and likeness. Augustine dealt with this in Donatism, and perhaps because of the present political climate in the United States, this is the great heresy of our time.

AdOrientamIn the years since my undergraduate seminary days, I have seen this ecclesiological heresy grow like a weed in the verdant field of the Church. I have encountered those who practice the Extraordinary Form speak with derision at conferences of the liturgical reforms brought about at the Second Vatican Council (and those who pray according to the reformed ritual including myself). I have heard prominent liturgical scholars and musicians speak with their own dislike of those who read and find wisdom in the works of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (this also includes myself); or who engage in “practices” that might be perceived as traditional. In both cases, the bounds of charity are broken–a far more serious offense than singing either Lord of the Dance or wearing lace albs. The reality is that all of us who engage in acts of liturgical polarization desire to shrink the size of the Church to those who think and act and pray just like us. Although the liturgical rites of Catholicism do include rubrics, although there is an ordo, the genius of Catholicism remains the plurality of ways that one might pray.

There are signs that this form of liturgical polarization is coming to an end. The students whom I teach at Notre Dame are not quite infected by the same desire to draw boundaries between those on the inside and those on the outside. They do perceive in liturgical practice today in their own parishes violence against the beautiful. Music that is ironically both flat and sharp at the same time. Liturgical spaces in which ideology imposed itself upon theology, tradition, and artistry alike. Homilies that either condemn or are mere wisps of the Gospel.

Dorm Mass in Lyons HallBut these students (many who write for this blog) are just as likely to sing Palestrina on Sunday mornings, sign up to spend a summer serving the poor in India, participate in Vespers at the Basilica, join in an evening dorm Mass where they sing We Are Called, and conclude the week with perpetual Eucharistic adoration. The concern of these students is not in deciding who gets to be in the Church and who is outside of the Church. Rather, it is living a Eucharistic life. It is living in such a way that the gift received in the liturgy is offered to a world craving love. And any liturgical practice that forms them in this way of love is considered gift, considered within the bounds of Catholicism.

These students are for a me a constant reminder that the polarization fostered around the liturgy is not something intrinsic to the life of the Church. That such polarization, albeit the result of real wounds inflicted by bishops and priests and laity who have failed to love at times, need not be the norm. That we, as the Church, are called to something more. To a life that has become a gift because of the God, who first loved us. The liturgy remains for these students (and for the entire Church) a way to experience this gift, this form of self-sacrificial love.

In additional columns to prepare for the conference on polarization taking place at Notre Dame, I will next treat three liturgical (and thus ecclesiological) issues that are perhaps the greatest source of polarization today: the recent translation of the Missal into English, beauty in the liturgy, and the relationship between “priest” and “laity.”