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Analysis of
Gather Faithfully Together: A Guide for Sunday Mass

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Since Cardinal Roger Mahony published his pastoral letter on the Sunday Liturgy, September 4, 1997, it has provoked widespread discussion throughout the country. This is not surprising, because the document both symbolizes the liturgical conflicts in the Catholic Church and raises issues that touch on the foundations of historic Christianity.

It is not my purpose here to go into a detailed analysis of the pastoral letter. I will only deal with one fundamental question, and do my best to answer it: What is the overriding impression of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist which this document leaves on an enlightened Catholic reader?

My answer is: The impression which this pastoral letter leaves is of a Real Presence which Pope Paul VI declared would undermine the liturgical renewal envisioned by the Second Vatican Council.

Specifically, he identified two principal errors that had just begun to penetrate Catholic thought in 1965, when Paul VI published the encyclical Mysterium Fidei.

The first error he condemned was that of transignification. Transignification is the erroneous view of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist which claims that only the meaning or significance of the bread and wine is changed by the words of consecration. The consecrated elements are said to signify all that Christians associate with the Last Supper; they have a higher value than merely food for the body.

The second error is that of transfinalization. It is very similar to the false theory of transignification. But here it is claimed that Christ is not really present in the Eucharist. Rather, the purpose or finality of the bread and wine is changed by the words of consecration. They are said to serve a new function as sacred elements that arouse the faith of the people in the mystery of Christ’s redemptive love.

Both transignification and transfinalization have deeply penetrated the theological literature used by priests and the laity in the Western world.

What have been the consequences of these errors? Pope Paul VI foresaw great harm for the Church. He wrote this judgment thirty years ago. Since then, the damage to the Eucharistic faith and devotion of millions of once believing Catholics has been enormous. It can safely be said that this is the root cause of the widespread apostasy in one so-called developed country after another.

Concept of the Eucharist in Gather Faithfully Together

Throughout the pastoral letter, the stress is on identifying the Eucharist as the gathering of all the faithful.

When we say eucharist, we mean this whole action of presider and assembly. That is the eucharist whose grace and powerful mystery can transform us and, in us, the world.
The presider chants most of the prayer and the refrains are the same most Sundays of the year, sung to music capable of carrying the liturgy week after week. The exchange between presider and assembly is seamless, as proclamation and acclamation are woven together. The prayer takes only four or five minutes, but in its intensity it is clearly the center of this Sunday gathering. As was said long ago, the church makes the eucharist and the eucharist makes the church. And that is what we take part in on a Sunday morning. No wonder that when the great Amen is concluded, one can sense a collective sigh, a deep breath.

Throughout the pastoral letter, the repeated emphasis is on the “eucharist” as the assembly of the people united among themselves in their common love of Jesus Christ.

The prevailing theme is that the whole gathering of the people in the liturgy is both the “eucharist” and the means by which the “eucharist” takes place. On these terms, what is the role of the ordained priest, whom the pastoral letter regularly identifies as “presider”? His role is to represent the bishop.

The best floor plans manifest the entire assembly as the body enacting this liturgy, so that the ministers come from the assembly rather than sit as a separate group. Many of us remember living with an understanding that the liturgy was simply the work of a priest. Now we have begun to grasp in what way the assembled church, the body of Christ, celebrates the liturgy together with the presider. What, then, is the ministry of the ordained priest at Sunday Mass?
In our Catholic tradition, the one who is called by the church to the order of priest is to be in the local parish community as the presence of the bishop. The bishop remains always for us in a direct relationship with every parish of the diocese. He is also our bond with the Catholic Church through the world and the church of all the ages. But the bishop, since the early centuries of the church, has laid hands on other worthy members of the church and sent them to be his presence with the scattered communities. On Sunday, the one who presides, the ordained priest, comes not only as other ministers do, from the assembly, but comes as the one who “orders” this assembly, who relates this assembly to the bishop and to the larger church. True to our Catholic soul, we understand our church bonds to be more flesh and blood than theory and theology. Here, in this human being, is our bond with the bishop and with the other communities throughout the world and the centuries.

The recurrent understanding is that, “Remember we are always the body of Christ, always in communion with one another.” For this you should always give thanks.

For too long has the presider “claimed the liturgy as his own and made the assembly an audience. This ends any possibility of a church enacting its liturgy in this sacred space.” The priest at the altar is merely the presider. That is why, “All presiders need to be within an assembly led by a priest who has achieved the art of trusting the church to do its liturgy. What a good thing it is when the ‘audience’ mentality has disappeared both in presider and assembly!” Emphatically, the people “need to know how this liturgy is celebrated Sunday after Sunday by this assembly.” What we should not say is that the priest at the altar is ordained to change bread and wine into the living Jesus Christ. It is the people who are “celebrating” the liturgy. The priest is there to preside.

The Symbolism of the Eucharist

In the light of the foregoing, it is not surprising that the Eucharistic liturgy is identified as symbolism.

The symbolic deed done with power and reverence is fundamental. At Sunday eucharist, there is reverence for the body of Christ when we have eaten bread that is bread to all the senses and we habitually have enough wine for the cup to be shared by every communicant. Do not deprive these symbols—bread, wine, eating, drinking—of their power.

At this point, the pastoral letter goes on at great length to quote from St. Augustine. One short paragraph illustrates the focus of Augustine’s quotation.

If, then, you wish to understand the body of Christ, listen to the apostle as he says to the faithful, “You are the body of Christ, and His members” (1 Cor. 12:27). If, therefore, you are the body of Christ and His members, your mystery has been placed on the Lord’s table, you receive your mystery. You reply “Amen” to that which you are, and by replying you consent. For you hear “The body of Christ,” and you reply “Amen.” Be a member of the body of Christ so that your “Amen” may be true.

As said before, the central focus of the pastoral letter is on the body of Christ, indeed, but on the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church. Prophetically, the late Pope Pius XII anticipated this misunderstanding of associating, to the point of identifying, the Holy Eucharist with the Mystical Body of Christ.

Given the length of Gathering Faithfully Together, it is impossible to give here a full analysis of its theological orientation. One thing, however, may be said. This pastoral letter is misleading.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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