3 – Ministries

Notes and Study Guide for the Third Liturgy Presentation
Fr. Tom Welbers, Church of the Good Shepherd, Beverly Hills
August 4 & 6. 2012

Ministry: It’s All about Relationship and “Standing Small”

In the last two presentations we explored the background for our understanding of what our Sunday Eucharist is all about. We learned some lessons from Scripture, history and theology, which is at its heart, “faith seeking understanding.” We concentrated mostly on the question, “Why do we do what we do?”

In this session and the next, we will turn our attention to the question, “How?” Today we will first look at some of the tools that will help us move from understanding to action, from theory to practice . . . or even, since we are in the arena of relationship and communication, both divine and human, from script to performance and from concept to production.

1. Tools for Making Eucharist Happen

We don’t often think of concepts and principles as tools, but they are. As I pointed out in the conclusion of the last presentation, the Eucharist is fundamentally a sign according to the traditional definition of a sacrament — an outward sign of an inward grace. And it’s a particular kind of sign — symbol, which is a sign that points within itself to a deeper reality that it both signifies and contains. In this case, the Eucharist is a symbol — bread and wine in the setting of a ritual meal — that contains the deeper reality of Christ’s Real Presence by being substantially transformed into that Real Presence, all the while maintaining the physical properties of the food and the meal.

As you may have gathered from my previous presentations, I see an understanding of relationships as fundamental to our understanding of all aspects of God and us. The Trinity is God’s revealed way of enabling us to glimpse something of the dynamic relationship of distinct persons within the unity of the one God, insofar as God makes Godself present to us. The incarnation — the dual natures, fully God and fully human, united in the one person of Christ — means that Jesus Christ at once embodies within himself both the fullness of God’s self-communication to us and the totality of our human response to God. This mutual communication is at the heart of the concept of sacrifice — sacrifice being essentially Jesus’ perfect “yes” to God, and therefore embodying our imperfect “yes” as well — and the one and the same act of mutual communication is embodied in symbol in the Eucharist. Note that the Eucharist is not a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ, but transcends time as the continuing Presence of Christ — the whole Christ — under the form of symbol, throughout all times and all places. This is a very weak analogy, but the manifestation of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a little like electricity. which is always there in the socket, but available to you only when you plug something into it.

It’s important, then, to take the nature of symbolic communication seriously in our celebration of the liturgy. The liturgy before the Vatican II renewal, the so-called Tridentine Mass, was very attractive because it constituted a neat “package.” You could be sure you were attending something holy that did not depend on your active engagement in it. It could be personally spiritually satisfying and uplifting, and it emphasized the Real Presence of Christ in his sacrifice almost exclusively in the transsubstantiation of the bread and wine. But the Tridentine liturgy neglected to call forth any sense of the other dimensions of Christ’s presence. It left you at peace — an unreal peace, to be sure — not having to recognize Christ present in your neighbor as you attended Mass.

The goal of the Vatican II renewal was to encourage a style of celebration that acknowledges and integrates the more ancient tradition of the wholeness of the presence of Christ among his people, the members of the Body of Christ experiencing the many dimensions of the presence and activity of the Crucified and Risen Christ. That’s what the church means when it says over and over that the Eucharist is the summit and source of Christian life and mission. We bring everything that we are and do into the Eucharist, and we derive from the Eucharist everything that we are and do. That was the goal, unfortunately not always realized in our celebration since Vatican II, and a goal that we always have to work at in order to approach its fulfillment.

Let’s look at this dynamic, all-embracing process in terms of symbol. Remember the four modes or ways that Christ is present in the Eucharist with which we ended the last session? Christ is present first in the assembly that gathers, then in the person of the priest and other ministers, thirdly in his word, and fourth in the bread and wine transformed into his Body and Blood. The Eucharist cannot be reduced to any one of these in isolation from the others. For example, you cannot just say that the Eucharist is the consecrated bread and wine. St. Paul himself condemned that narrow view when he told the Corinthians that “whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord’s Supper without recognizing the Body (that is, the fellow members of the celebrating community who are members of the Body of Christ) eats and drinks judgment to himself” (1 Cor 11:29).

Therefore, all four ways that Christ is present together constitute the essential sacramental sign of the Eucharist. They are the symbolic components that make up the sacramental sign or symbol. If even one of them is not present, there is no valid Eucharist. If any are deficient, to that extent the Eucharist, though valid, is deficient. To take an extreme example, it is sometimes asked if it would work if a priest were to go into a bakery and say the “words of consecration.” The answer is no — the church would not have to buy up the day’s inventory and find good Catholics to consume the consecrated bread. It simply would not be consecrated because the formula for consecration is not a set of “magic words” that have an effect independent of the other symbolic elements that provide the whole context. On the other hand, may a priest validly “say Mass” alone without an assembly present and even without a server? The answer there is yes, although it would not be licit, according to liturgical law, except for “a just and reasonable cause” (see General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 254). The reason is that a priest is never ordained except in relation to a Christian community — a priest is always ordained for a diocese or a religious community. He is never ordained in a vacuum, and he always exercises his ministry in relation to the people he is ordained to serve. Thus, in a way, the community is at least “virtually” there; however, because the community is not really present to participate, one has to conclude that, while valid, celebration is deficient in an important way — it’s just not what it should be.

Because of the call of Vatican II for “full, conscious, and active participation,” a lot is left up to not only the priest but the various lay ministries in the Mass, and the members of the assembly themselves, to fully unfold the meaning and nature of the various components to make the celebration of the Mass all it can and should be within this particular assembly here and now.

The key and most important tool for doing this — for planning and celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy well — is to keep in mind the distinction between primary and secondary symbolic elements, and how they relate to one another and and to the whole.

The primary symbolic elements are the four modes or ways that Christ is present. We will be referring to this over and over as we go on. Thus, the assembly itself; the ministers and the exercise of their ministries focusing on, but not exclusive to, the ministry of the ordained priest presider; the word, both proclaimed and prayed; and the bread and wine in the context of the sacred meal of the Lord’s Supper — these are the primary symbols of the Eucharist. Or better, these are the components that together make up the sacramental sign or symbol. For this reason, they are absolutely primary.

All else is secondary. Everything. Objects, gestures, rituals, vestments, actions, images — everything we consider to be symbols “used” at the Mass — even music: all these things are secondary.

I hasten to add that secondary does not mean unimportant. Music, for example, has always been and continues to be an extremely important part of the celebration of the liturgy. However, it is secondary, which means that it has value only in relation to what is primary. Music in the liturgy exist to serve, to support, and to express the primary symbols. Music in the liturgy is never an end itself. In the celebration of liturgy, the primary symbols of assembly, ministry, word, and the sacred meal are ends in themselves. Everything else is in a relationship of service to them.

Why am I going into this stuff about the four modes of Christ’s presence, and the relationship of primary and secondary, as well as all the theology behind behind our celebration of the Eucharist? Is all this necessary for us to be good Catholics, to worship God, and to live good lives? No, not really, any more than it’s necessary to know about nutrition and food preparation to enjoy and benefit from a good meal. But knowing something of both the art and science of cooking, as well as the principles of good nutrition, will enable you to eat better and contribute to the enjoyment and health of not only yourself but others as well, especially those who have to eat what you cook. It’s the same thing with liturgy.

So, in the next segment, we will look more deeply at these four components of the of the sacramental symbol as primary, and consider how all the other elements of the Eucharistic celebration — the secondary symbols — relate to them.

2. Modes of Christ’s Presence in more detail

In this segment we will look more closely at the four ways or modes of Christ’s presence, examining how they work and how they fit together in our celebration of the Mass,

Before we begin, a little digression on terminology. You may have noticed that I have used the words “liturgy,” the Mass,” and ”Eucharist” pretty much interchangeably, without much distinction of meaning. Sometimes I have used “the Lord’s Supper” and “the Breaking of the Bread” as well. All these terms have their own variations of meaning, which could be the topic of a more in-depth study — but that’s not for now. Just a word on their origins: The Lord’s Supper and the Breaking of the Bread come from the New Testament, both St. Paul in First Corinthians and the Acts of the Apostles. A related, and beautiful, expression, “the Supper of the Lamb,” which the revised translation of the Roman Missal has restored in the invitation to Communion, is from the Book of Revelation, which as a whole has a profound Eucharistic meaning — but that too is the subject of another study. Eucharist is from the Greek word for “giving thanks,” and liturgy from the Greek word for “work of the people.” “Mass” is a horrible word, ugly in sound and unpleasant in connotations. It’s an English corruption of the Latin “Misa,” which means sent — a figure of speech called metonymy in which a part is used to denote the whole. In this case, strangely enough, the dismissal became the common word to describe the whole celebration. That quibble aside, we will still continue to call the Mass “the Mass.”

A related word, which is not used synonymously but is sometimes the source of confusion is “Communion.” The Latin origins of the word simply mean an intense union. We strangely use the expression “receiving Communion” (or worse and gratingly, “taking Communion”) as if Communion were a “thing.” The word expresses not a thing but persons in relationship to one another. Communion properly refers to the union with Christ and with one another in Christ that is expressed and intensified in the act of eating and drinking together his sacrificed body and blood in the Eucharist.

Communion is actually a good word to begin our exploration of the four modes of Christ’s presence because Christ is first present in the communion that the members of the assembly share with one another and with Christ when they gather for the liturgy. And of course, communion, referring to the act of eating and drinking the sacrificial meal together is the culmination of the four modes of Christ’s presence.

It is not by accident that the official post-Vatican II documents place the presence of Christ in the assembly first, because the other ways he is present depend on it. Even the priest’s power to consecrate is not given in a vacuum, but only in relation to the whole Christ, both head and members. The priest’s relationship to you as members of Christ’s Body does not depend on whether or not you like him — or would vote for him if pastors were elected — but it does depend on your identity as members of the whole Christ. The sacramental seal of ordination puts him in a special relationship with Christ as Head of His Body, but a head cannot be a head without a body, can it? While the priest’s power to represent Christ as Head is not something you as his members have the power to give him — like a democratic election — but it is still inseparable from your identity as members of Christ’s body. After all, Christ cannot be divided.

So, if the first way Christ is present in the Mass is in the Assembly, our first question needs to be: what do we do about it? Certainly things like environment, order, hospitality and welcome are involved here. But the focus is on more than just making people feel comfortable and fulfilling their wants or expectations. The purpose of the assembly is not merely to pray or even to worship or to fulfill an obligation or to “do something holy.” Nor is the purpose of ministry at this point to make people do what they are supposed to do at Mass. Our goal is not make Christ present in the Assembly. We have have to start with the conviction that Christ is present when we gather as the liturgical assembly to celebrate the Eucharist. He is there because we are gathering as members of his body, living with his life and doing his work. As St. Leo the Great said in his famous Christmas sermon, “Christian, realize your dignity!” We have to first and foremost realize who and what we are, and then what we do about it flows from that realization. That is the origin of all ministry!

Ushers, for example, do more than just guide people to their seats, take up collection, form the Communion processions, and hand out bulletins. They are ministers of the good order of the assembly. They are the first who represent Christ to the members of the Body of Christ who gather. What it means to represent Christ to the his members should always be uppermost in their minds. Greeting and welcome, real not perfunctory or superficial, is an essential component of this ministry, as is attending to the needs of the people as they gather. Sometimes ushers are called upon to be first responders in case of emergencies, and they should have training to handle such emergencies. Above all, ushers need to show by their own behavior that they are more than volunteers performing a task, but that they are truly acting on behalf of Christ as servants to his Body.

One question that comes up often is what kind of atmosphere should characterize the gathering before the beginning of the Mass. These moments of preparation are vitally important, but also the subject of sometimes intense disagreement. Many will argue that a respectful and prayerful silence should prevail in the gathering space. However, it is not fitting that members of the body of Christ ignore one another, but rather should freely greet and welcome each other. On the other hand, this time is not for socializing and catching up on the latest gossip, and the need to quiet one’s own personal space and focus one’s inner thoughts on the mystery about to be celebrated should be recognized too. The most important thing that all ministers, including, or rather beginning with, presiders, can do is prepare themselves and their tasks in such a way as to avoid last minute feverish and disruptive activity. And, while greeting one another and brief expressions of friendly concern are appropriate, care must be taken that these interchanges not become loud or prolonged. The criterion really should be, “Am I acknowledging the presence of the Lord here? Am I showing concern for my brothers and sisters?”

It has been my experience that music most often can enhance the right atmosphere of gathering before the actual beginning of Mass, and music ministers would do well to see it as an important part of their ministry to avoid the last-minute hustle and bustle of set-up and preparation, and see their liturgical ministry beginning ten minutes or so before the actual start of Mass by playing music conducive to hospitality and gathering. A pleasant background contributes a lot.

All the elements of the Entrance Rite should serve the members of the assembly to acknowledge their identity in Christ and assist them to prepare to hear the Word fruitfully, respond with Christ in prayer, and enter into the Mystery of the Eucharist. We’ll have more to say about this in the next presentation.

The second mode of Christ’s presence is in the person of the ministers. Here we must first remember that all ministers in the liturgy, including the ordained, are signs of Christ specifically as Servant, not as Master. All ministers must develop their own spirituality focusing on the meaning of servanthood, embodying the servanthood of Jesus Christ on behalf of his people.

It is most important to bear in mind that ministry is not just performing certain tasks, that it is fundamentally based on a relationship. All ministry is relational. In fact, the word itself, if you go way back to its roots, comes from the Latin “minus,” which means “small,” and “stare”, which means “to stand.” Ministry, therefore, first and foremost means “to stand small” in relation to the other. Think about it for a moment. What does it mean to intentionally stand small in relation to the other? It’s not “putting oneself down,” or having a poor self-image or an inferiority complex. Quite the contrary, only a person who is in possession of himself or herself, only a person with a good self-image, and with a healthy ego, can intentionally make him- or herself small in order to build up the other. It’s not an imposed relationship, like inferior status in a family or in society. It’s a freely chosen subordinate position for the service of the other, in order to lift up the other.

If you pay attention to what both Jesus and St. Paul say about the Kingdom of God, which is a metaphor for what God intends humankind to be, it’s a state in which everyone without exception places oneself beneath the other — every other without exception, even those we consider unworthy, whom Jesus calls the “least of his brethren,” even our enemies.

Can you imagine a world in which everyone actually did that? That is the world which God intends to bring about, and for which God seeks our cooperation by actually embodying in our lives the pattern of the ministry of Jesus himself — being small in relation to the other, self-emptying. Now, the Eucharist, as summit and source of Christian life and mission, is the microcosm in which, for a moment at least, this self-emptying of Christ is made present for us all to join.

That is why it is important for everyone who has a ministerial role in the liturgy, to strive, as far as possible, to truly “stand small” in order to build up the Body of Christ.

There are a couple of corollaries to this. One is that it is wrong to make people liturgical ministers just to give them something to do or to make them “feel good.” It’s also wrong to use a perceived “shortage” of ministers as an excuse to recruit the anybody regardless of their ability to actually serve in the ministry. The most important criterion for exercising a liturgy ministry is the ability to do the job in a way that genuinely serves the assembly. Nobody has a right to a ministry, nor is it an honor or a privilege in any conventional sense, any more than the most basic and humbling servitude can be considered an honor or a privilege. If you truly love and are dedicated totally to the people you serve, it can certainly be seen as an honor or privilege in an authentic way, because in serving the other you are ultimately serving Christ. Be careful, however, not to romanticize “serving Christ.” (I once had a person who, after doing me a favor, when I thanked him. said “Oh, I didn’t do it for you. I don’t even like you. I did it for Christ.”) I think, he was in love with his own holiness. By the same token, there is no such thing as a “solo” ministry. Jesus never sent the apostles out alone, always at least in pairs. One always serves within a community of ministers, and is responsible to them, as well as co-responsible with them, for the service of others. And, one does not serve out of one’s own need to be of service. You may get some pleasure and satisfaction out of being of service –that’s natural and good — but you have to be very careful that your own need to serve in your way does not become your motive. A wise mentor of mine once said, “God help the person who becomes the victim of someone else’s need to be of service!”

This concept of the true meaning of ministry should raise a lot of questions. So it’s an appropriate time for a break to see what questions and reflections you may have.

3. Ministry: Word and Sacrament

The third way Christ is present when we celebrate the Eucharist is in his word. We’ve already discussed that the concept of “word” implies two way communication: God takes the initiative in communicating with us, and we respond in prayer and obedience. Both directions of this communication are embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. That’s why our faith in the incarnation is so important. As fully God, he embodies the fullness of God’s eternal Word in the language of humanity that can be received by us, and at the same time, as fully human, by the “yes” of his sacrifice, he embodies our perfect response to God’s initiative of loving communication.

Thus, every word in the Mass, both spoken and sung, is part of this dialogue. When scripture is proclaimed in the readings or opened up in the homily, it is Christ who is speaking the Word of God to his people. When the assembly is praying, or the priest is articulating the prayer of the people, it is Christ who is praying.

This places a particular burden on both the members of the assembly and the ministers of the word — lectors, deacons, and priests.

God is speaking and the assembly must listen. This is not the time to follow along with a printed text. More than forty years ago, when the post Vatican II liturgy was introduced, someone had the bright idea of printing everything in cheap, throwaway newsprint booklets, which they called “Missalettes,” as a temporary accommodation to help people get used to “the new Mass.” Unfortunately, what was intended as temporary became permanent, and even expected. And Missalettes became a substitute for the kind of “full, conscious, and active participation” that the Vatican Council called for, rather than a means to enable it.

To listen in a way that allows the living word to penetrate one’s mind and heart, and to grow and bear fruit, takes effort and preparation. Mass is not a time for Bible study or an exercise in reading comprehension. It is the time to be immersed in the Word of God that comes alive in our midst. An important part of the ministry of members of the assembly for one another is to prepare during the week to hear the Word of God on Sunday. The quality of each one’s attentiveness to the living word helps create an atmosphere in which everyone’s faith in this living word is encouraged and supported. This is why we dedicate a whole page of each Sunday’s bulletin to the “Banquet of the Word,” a commentary which can help you to prepare and study during the week. This is also why we encourage people to purchase their own missal or popular periodicals with devotional and study resources, such as “Magnificat” or “Give Us This Day.”

Of course, the members of the assembly can listen and hear and take the living Word to heart only if the it is properly presented to them. It is the burden of everyone who has a “speaking role” in the Mass to prepare and speak not only in a way that can be understood, but in a way that actually engages the attention of everyone present. As a lector, you are not merely speaking words that are on a printed page, you are communicating what you must already have engraved in your heart.

Engaging the assembly attentively in the word has to be the goal of all lector formation. A lector who thinks it’s enough just to “get the words right.” or even “to read well,” should never be allowed to read at Mass. A conversion of heart is needed, a conversion that manifests itself in attentive and prayerful preparation, both alone and in the community of fellow ministers — yes, that means rehearsal sessions should be mandatory. Mastering all the techniques of effective oral communication, including projection and microphone use, should go without saying.

Priests, as much or even more than lectors, need to pay attention to how our communication skills and attentiveness affect and engage the assembly. In addition to being heard and understood, it is important that we love and attend to our people in the liturgy. Our words and gestures must engage and attract. It’s not necessary to do a lot of folksy improvisation at the liturgy, it is necessary to say the words of the text as if they are truly our own, and a precious treasure that we are grateful to share. How easy it is for a priest to say “Lord be with you” while looking at the book rather than the assembly! How often we say “Let us pray” while flipping pages, and then don’t allow enough quiet for people to do what we have just invited them to do! The texts of the new revised translation pose some challenges, but if we wrestle with them in preparation, we can also be faithful to them in a meaningful way that not only communicates but also invites the members of the assembly to make the prayer their own. Actually, as much as lectors, we priests need coaching as well.

The fourth way Christ is present in the liturgy is in the transformed bread and wine of the sacred, sacrificial meal. As with the other modes of Christ’s presence, this has to be understood primarily in terms of relationship and action that follows upon the relationship.

In our fourth and final presentation in this series, we will walk through the Mass, step by step, but will focus primarily on this fourth mode of Christ’s presence, in the consecrated bread and wine of the sacrificial meal, and explore its implications for all of us in our ministries and in our lives.

(You can download and print these notes here.)

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