October 23, 2011

Fuller Participation and Celebrations of the Word

The Holy Father ends the section of Verbum Domini titled “The Liturgy, Privileged Setting for the Word of God” with a list of seven “practical proposals for promoting fuller participation in the liturgy”. Now, the phrase “fuller participation” may get some hackles up. If it does, I suspect it's because the idea of “participation” in Mass has been misused to support unnecessary (and unauthorized) liturgical “innovations”. Certainly, Pope Benedict didn't spend 23,540 words, so far, on the Word of God only to suggest things, now, that will distract from it (and Him).

These seven proposals came from the Synod Fathers – the bishops that met from October 5-26, 2008 to discuss the Word of God. In what way does Pope Benedict see these promoting “fuller participation”? They will, hopefully, make “the People of God ever more familiar with the word of God in the context of liturgical actions [such as at Mass]...”

The first suggestion is the promotion of “celebrations of the word”. In this type of service, the faithful would receive the written word of God but not participate in the sacrifice.

In some parts of the world, people do not have access to a priest every Sunday and without a priest, there cannot be a Mass. When there can't be a Mass, a celebration of the word – the Word of God proclaimed, even if the Eucharist cannot be confected – is far better than nothing. The Holy Father is careful to note that a celebration of this sort is not an alternative to Mass. Verbum Domini cites Sacramentum Caritatis (specifically, section 75), which also clearly states the same: that there needs to be “adequate instruction about the difference between Mass and Sunday assemblies in the absence of a priest... care should be taken that these assemblies do not create confusion about the central role of the priest and the sacraments in the life of the Church.”

Both Sacramentum Caritatis and Verbum Domini suggest that those at such a celebration of the word pray particularly for vocations, “for God to send holy priests after his own heart.” That's an excellent suggestion not only for those parishes in need, but for all of us to pray for the needs of those brothers and sisters without easy access to the sacraments.

It's important to note, I think, that such “celebrations of the word” are not only suggested when a population can't have Mass. It is suggested as a supplement – an expression of popular piety, rather than a formal public liturgical act. The Holy Father notes that those bishops in the synod “also recommended celebrations of the word of God on pilgrimages, special feasts, popular missions, spiritual retreats and special days of penance, reparation or pardon.”

I'm oversimplifying, perhaps, but in essence: hearing the Word of God is not just for Mass. We can, and should, hear the Word of God proclaimed outside of Mass. Our Christian life and, therefore, our need for the Gospel, is not limited to an hour a week or even an hour a day. Christian life is 24x7.

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