Intercom June 2012
June 2012 issue
The End of the Mass for the Masses?
Secularism as a Challenge to Celebrating the Eucharist
By Joris Geldhof
There seems to be a gap between what the Church says about the Eucharist in official documents and corresponding theologies on the one hand and Eucharistic practice of many ordinary Catholics on the other hand. Vatican II famously said that ‘the Eucharistic sacrifice is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life’ (Lumen gentium, 11). Elsewhere, the Council applies the same Latin terminology of fons and culmen to the liturgy in general. It considers the liturgy ‘the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed’ and ‘the font from which all her power flows’ (Sacrosanctum concilium, 10). These statements imply at least two things. First, the Eucharist occupies a peculiar place in the (liturgical) life of Christians. Second, the life of the faithful has something intrinsically to do with actions performed by the Church. It is very questionable, however, whether these implications somehow correspond with reality.
One could argue about the nature of similar official statements promulgated by ecclesiastical authorities. And indeed, it is not their purpose to describe reality as it is. Instead, one could also underline the many beautiful examples where the Eucharist actually constitutes the centre of the lives of a community’s members. Nevertheless, I take it that it is not untrue that there is something deeply problematic with regard to the relationship between high theological ideas about the Eucharist and the real role it plays in the life of many Christian believers. I think, moreover, that this is particularly the case in Western countries. Maybe it is no coincidence that this is precisely the region where secularism is generally assumed to have taken on its sharpest shape. Therefore, if we are to think about the nature and the future of the Eucharistic celebration in the West, we have no choice but to intensively deal with secularism.
Secularism is usually connected with the emergence of modernity. In its own turn, modernity is the result of intellectual and cultural developments in fifteenth-century Europe. Science, politics, religion, art, society, and culture changed drastically. The religious symbiosis which had held together all these domains definitively broke asunder. This was an evolution which literally took hundreds of years and scholars disagree on whether it has already come to an end or not. Be that as it may, secularism can be defined as the ‘space’ in life and culture which distanced (or alienated) itself from faith and religion. This distancing can be done in an aggressive way, but also patiently, indifferently, unconsciously and even frivolously. Without any doubt, secularism has been a phenomenon with many different faces, each of which are valued and evaluated in many different ways. In addition, it penetrated deeply into the flesh and bones of religious people and religious institutions. It is not as if the latter remained untouched by secularisation. Therefore, it is a big problem that there are Church leaders and theologians who do not see or do not want to see this or, worse, blatantly ignore it.
Today we probably stand at a decisive turning point. On the one hand, it has become clear that secularism is not only irreversible but also possibly positive. It is simply part of Western culture. On the other hand, it has turned out that the much-debated secularisation hypothesis is incorrect. It is not true that continuing processes of modernisation and secularisation cause religion(s) to disappear. The underlying idea that the more one is ‘modern’ the less one becomes ‘religious’, rests on false presumptions. Hence, also the rhetoric that one should become more secular to finally leave religion behind or that one should abandon religion if one wants to adapt to modern life has shown its very limits. As a matter of fact, the insight that religion is not primitive, faith not stupid, rites not obsolete, and worship not meaningless carries an important liberating potential. If one thoroughly realizes this, then it makes no sense to combat modernity and secularism by virtue or in name of one’s religious convictions. The time has come to deal differently with modern societies and secular cultures. In any case, there is no reason to be nervous, mistrustful, cautious, unsure, or whatsoever, let alone to be hostile. Christian faith and secularism can be each other’s complements and must not be mutually exclusive.
What Christians ought to do, however, is truly testify of the joy the Eucharist gives. If its celebration is really the source of everything they undertake as well as the highest thing they (can) do and long for, then they have to give evidence of this. Christians should not deplore the fact that others don’t go to mass but bear witness of the fact how much the celebration of the Eucharist affects and inspires them in everything they do and think. Such an attitude requires that we dare to move from a traditional sacramental minimalism to a liturgical maximalism. We must not first try to demonstrate that our convictions about the Eucharist are true but live our liturgies in such a way that they radiate the power and the joy of the Risen Christ. For it his body that, through receiving it in the Eucharist, makes us into Church. All we need is the courage not to be disappointed by what surrounds us and what happened in the past. Rather, Christians should adopt a profoundly Eucharistic, future-oriented and hope-filled vision and, in accordance with it, radically change the situation of their faith in secular cultures. Secularism is not a threat but a given and a challenge. Christians are called not to fight against but to transform the secular both around and within them. Maybe, in that sense, we are not facing the end but a new beginning of the mass for the masses.
Intercom is a pastoral and liturgical resource magazine published by Veritas, an agency of the Irish Catholic Bishops Commission on Communications.
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