In my conversations with members of the parish, it is common to hear people express their desire to receive the Eucharist. It is certainly one of the great sufferings of our current circumstances that the faithful are deprived of the reception of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Holy Communion. But I have come to realize that it is not just the Eucharist that people are hungering for. I do not think that if we were to dispense the Eucharist to people as they drove by in their cars that the faithful would find that arrangement satisfying. There’s a reason that in ordinary circumstances the reception of the Eucharist takes place within the context of Mass. There is something lacking when we receive Communion outside of Mass – not in the Sacrament itself, of course. What is lacking is liturgy. The faithful are not just being deprived of the Eucharist right now, they also are being deprived of liturgy. And this is a terrible effect of the pandemic.
What is liturgy? We can define it as the public, official worship given by the Church, such as rites, ceremonies, and sacraments. Liturgical prayer is essentially different than devotional prayer like the Rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Those are good things to do, but they are not as important and necessary as liturgy. The religions of the pagans and the worship practices of the Jewish people in the Temple were highly liturgical, with priests who offered the standard prayers and performed the standard rituals which typically involved some type of sacrifice. In the fullness of time, the Lord Jesus – whom the Letter to the Hebrews describes as the “Eternal High Priest” – offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice by which we are redeemed, and He instituted the Sacraments as the ordinary means by which He shares His life with us. He also established the Church. St. Paul describes the Church as a kind of supernatural organic reality – a body with Christ as its head. The Church is the custodian of Christ’s Sacrifice and the Sacraments, and over the centuries it has developed authoritatively the official ceremonies, prayers, and symbols that make up the context in which the Sacrifice is made present again in our midst and the Sacraments are dispensed. Liturgy is not private prayer. It is public prayer by which, as the Church united to Christ, we enter into the eternal act of praise, glory, and love that is shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all of eternity.
There is a story from the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola that helps to illustrate what this means. Ignatius was travelling with his companions from the Society, and there was a man who travelled with them, having offered to carry their baggage. The man noticed that when the priests rested from their journey they went off to the side, knelt down and recollected themselves before God, and he joined them, doing what they did. Eventually, Ignatius asked the man what he did when he recollected himself in prayer with them, and he answered: “All I do is say: ‘Lord, these men are saints, and I am their packhorse. Whatever they do, I want to be doing too.’ And so that is what I offer up to God.” In a way, when we worship in the context of liturgy, we are like that man, for we unite ourselves as the Church to the perfect prayer of Christ Himself to the Father.
In the coming days and weeks I hope to write occasionally about the liturgy – what it is, what it does, and why it is so vital to our life with the Lord God.