Weekday Celebrations for the Christian Community
In the world of ideas today we often hear people encouraging us to ‘think outside the box’. In other words to take a blank canvas and to create something new free from the inhibitions of a closed way of approaching issues and tasks. I propose that we do just that tonight. With the power of God’s Spirit working within us let us begin the journey together to explore ways in which the Christian community, in the absence of an ordained priest, can worship together other than through participation in the celebration of the Eucharist. We begin with a consideration of the Word of God itself the Sacred Scriptures.
At the Second Vatican Council there was an increased emphasis placed on the Word of God. In the revised Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation, for example, the use a short piece of scripture is encouraged even in the celebrations of individual confession in the box. In the Mass there was increased stress placed on the worthy celebration of the Word of God particularly in the vernacular. In fact when we now talk about the presence of Christ in the Mass we talk of a four fold presence – in the assembly, in the priest, in the Word and in the Eucharist. In relation to the Word of God the Second Vatican Council in the document Verbum Dei (Word of God) stated:
The Church has always venerated the divine Scripture as she venerated the Body of the Lord, in so far as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ’.
Let’s look at that concept – the one table of ‘the Word of God and the Body of Christ’. We have been brought up to reverence the presence of Jesus in the tabernacle and Jesus made present on the altar of sacrifice. For many people the Liturgy of the Word is a prelude to the main act – the Consecration. We think nothing of ushering people up the Church during the readings in a way that we would not during the Consecration. If you go to the National Concert Hall and you arrive late you will not be allowed enter until there is a break. Imagine if we tried to adopt that attitude in Church during the readings. There would be mutiny and a lack of understanding. So perhaps that is where we might begin our move towards preparing liturgies for the Christian community in the absence of a priest. If we truly celebrate the Liturgy of the Word with the same reverence, devotion and attention we will sow the seeds for the future by opening up the minds of people to the richness of that precious gift – the Word of God.
Father John Columba McCann OSB produced a very useful book entitled ‘Weekday Celebrations for the Christian Community’ which I recommend to all of you. In the first chapter he speaks about the practice of holding Communion Services in the absence of a priest as the only way to worship as a community. He offers alternatives such as the Liturgy of the Hours or a Liturgy of the Word as models for community gatherings on weekdays. He thinks that this is too limiting to confine the liturgical celebrations in the absence of an ordained priest to Communion Services.
‘One might even go as far as to say that a parish community that is unable to worship in this way is liturgically malnourished.’
When we are undernourished we build ourselves up with what is good for us. So let’s explore that way of building up our parishes as communities of prayer using in the first instance the Word of God. We will learn to build a liturgy around the scriptures and to create celebrations that will touch the hearts and loves of those who gather. However before we start from scratch let us look at how we celebrate the Word of God each Sunday by way of initial exploration and then look at the liturgy of the Hours which is an ancient Christian tradition rooted in the Psalms.
The Liturgy of the Word
How is the Liturgy of the Word celebrated in your community each Sunday? To help you focus I have supplementary questions:
- Are there Ministers of the Word?
- Can you hear the readings?
- Is there a loop system for those with hearing difficulties?
- Do ministers read from missalettes or from the Lectionary?
- Do ministers show understanding of what they are reading?
- Is the psalm sung?
- Is the Psalm Response led by a cantor from the front?
- Is the Gospel Acclamation sung?
- Is there a procession with the Book of the Gospels?
- Are candles used in the procession?
- Is the dialogue between priest and people sung at the Gospel?
- Is incense used to honour the Book of the Gospels?
- Is the homily relevant to the congregation?
- Does the homily sound as if it is well prepared?
- Is the homily from a printed collection?
- Are there Intercessions read by the people?
- Do collections interfere with the flow of the Liturgy of the Word?
- Are there pauses for the Word to sink in?
- Is there regular training or reflection for Ministers of the Word?
- Are there opportunities for priests to develop their homily skills?
Prepare a service for interested people such as a Liturgy Group which is a celebration of the following Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word.
Spend time over the readings. Use the Lectio Divina method to work with the Scriptures. Use a commentary such as Scripture in Church to help understand the context of the readings
Allow space between readings and use music to assist with reflection.
Let the Word be proclaimed with dignity and respect such as using pause and reverence.
Be attentive to the use of the senses other than hearing – gesture, light, incense etc.
Research a slide or image that might help with the reflection.
Encourage participation by way of sharing in prayer.
Review the process and if happy with the experience offer it to another group in the community.
Liturgy of the Hours
In the early church, the Christian community followed the ancient Jewish practice of praying at different times or hours of the day. What developed from that custom is what we called the Liturgy of the Hours – a way of praying particularly with Psalms at certain times during the day. Morning, Evening and Night Prayer are the three main hours that are still celebrated today among religious in particular. However the reforms of Vatican II clearly indicate that this ancient liturgical practice is part of the heritage of all Christian people. At a gathering of Italian liturgists in 1970 the following statement was made:
‘It is well to recall that the priest would be fulfilling his responsibility only partially if he were to limit himself to nurturing only his personal devotion on the prayer of the hours and did not try to bring the Christian people to share in it. No step should be left untried toward restoring at least the more important hours, like morning prayer and evening prayer, to a place in the practice of the parish community, of youth groups, and of souls better trained in liturgical devotion; this is in fact being done with good results in many churches and communities.’
Several parishes and communities celebrate Morning and Evening Prayer on a regular basis while others do so during key seasons such as Advent or Lent. They often precede Mass and in this way many people, if they don’t actually attend themselves, are at least aware of the practice. This should help a community address the possibility of celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours when there is no ordained priest available to celebrate the Eucharist.
The structure of the Liturgy of the Hours can appear a little daunting for those not familiar with it. However it is possible to use the basic structure and to adapt the prayer for particular circumstances or communities. In John McCann’s book he offers different models for Morning and Evening Prayer for use in communities. These can be taken and further adapted to address the prayer needs of individual communities. What was in the recent past a preserve of priests and religious is now encouraged as the valid prayer of all the Christian community. The late Father Brian Magee in his introduction to John McCann’s book offers an important quote from an address of Pope John Paul II in 1998 on the role of lay people in the leadership of prayer:
‘Today, the Holy Spirit is spurring the Church to promote the vocation and mission of the lay faithful. Their participation and co-responsibility in the life of the Christian community and the many forms of their apostolate and service in society give us reason, at the dawn of the third millennium, to await with hope a mature and ‘fruitful’ epiphany of the laity.’
We have looked at possible structures and ways of praying as a community but we have not addressed the important role of leadership. Lay people are slowly but surely assuming the important role of leaders of prayer. This requires training so that the potential leader will be confident in assuming a role that has to this time been that of an ordained minister. The appropriate skills need to be honed in advance so that any progressive project on offering alternative forms of community prayer will not fail because of lack of preparation. Another preparation need is that of the wider community who may resist one of their own in such a position of leadership. A remark that is sometimes offered half in earnest to those involved in parish ministry such as ‘you are only short of celebrating Mass’ can be offensive to one who is sensitive and only beginning to step forward in front of the community. That’s why it is vital that priests and people in parish pastoral councils and liturgy groups work together in the preparation of any new initiatives on prayer that ill effect the wider community.
The person leading this service should not use any distinctive vestments (such as an alb or stole) or use the presidential chair to avoid confusion with the role of the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist. The taking of the Holy Communion from the tabernacle in this kind of service should be an unusual occurrence. In other words at a celebration of the Eucharist only bread consecrated at that celebration should be used and not taken from the tabernacle as a general principle. This is what sometimes causes confusion in people who can’t see the difference between the Communion Service and the Mass.
Outline of Service
Sign of the Cross
Liturgy of the Word
Reading, Psalm, Gospel Acclamation, Gospel, Intercessions
Procession from Tabernacle
The Lord’s Prayer
Sign of Peace
Invitation to receive