It is Thursday, and regular readers of the blog know that means it is Liturgy Day. We are going through the Mass each week here, with an eye to showing how each little bit of the Mass, besides being part of the perfect act of worship of Christ to his Father into which we enter by grace, is also a catechesis on Christian discipleship.
Last time we were here we had finally reached the anaphora, the great Eucharistic Prayer. I am using the Roman Canon (aka Eucharistic Prayer I) on the grounds of its antiquity and the fact that it was for over a millennium the only prayer used in the Latin Church.
As so we come to today’s text, in which we offer the gifts of bread and wine “firstly for your holy catholic Church. Be pleased to grant her peace, to guard, unite and govern her throughout the whole world, together with your servant N. our Pope and N. our Bishop, and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.”
Right away, at the very outset of the prayer (unlike the other anaphoras in use in the Western Church now which place this after the consecration), we acknowledge the presence of the larger Church. We are not simply offering this act of worship and intercession as our little group, St. Whatsit’s parish or wherever we happen to be. ‘Madonna House’, offering its Mass to God.
No! It is the Church, the whole Church, the Church extended throughout the world Who offers this worship to God. And so we begin by praying for this Church, its peace and unity, its conformity to God’s holy will in all regards. Special mention is made of the Pope and of the local ordinary bishop.
This is not simply because these two guys have a really tough job and we should be praying for them.
That may be true (it certainly is true!), but that’s not exactly why they’re mentioned here. The Pope is the safeguard, if you will, or the great effector of our unity with the Church universal. By our communion with him, we are vouchsafed not simply a unity in charity and spirit with all other Catholics (we can enjoy that kind of unity with all men and women of good will, and hopefully do), but an external visible unity with the entire catholica, the whole Body of Christ in the world. And our unity with our diocesan bishop (in my case, Most Rev. Michael Mulhall), vouchsafes our visible unity as a particular church, a local expression of the Body of Christ in (for me) the diocese of Pembroke, ON.
Well, this matters greatly, in terms of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. It is a matter of Catholic faith—a dogmatic non-negotiable—that the Lord Jesus Himself established the Church on earth and constituted it as a hierarchical structure to be governed by the apostles and their successors, with a particular ministry exercised by Peter and his successors. If you truly do not believe the above sentence (as opposed to, say, struggling with it or finding it a hard one to understand or live out, all of which is perfectly normal and fine), I hate to break it to you, but you are actually not Catholic.
Jesus is the Savior of the world, but the means by which He saves us is by gathering us together into a body, into a communion that is not only with Himself but with one another, not only invisible and mystical but a visible union, which necessarily implies structure and organization.
This is why the saying ‘no salvation outside of the Church’ is, in fact, still binding Catholic doctrine. We do understand in our current development of that doctrine that there can be ways of being incorporated into the Church that are invisible and mysterious, but nonetheless membership in the Church is the form of salvation in Christ—he saves us by making us members of His Body, and if we are not members of that Body, we are not saved.
While this is a matter of great mystery for those who are outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church, for those of us who are Catholic, it is perhaps no less mysterious, but at the same time the implications are obvious. We have to safeguard our unity with the Pope and with our local bishop. We have to strive greatly for our own unity of mind with them in matters of faith and morals. I am profoundly aware that this can be a matter of great struggle for many people, but at the very least it should be a struggle we are engaging in.
To simply say, rather casually and flippantly, “Oh, the Pope doesn’t know what he’s talking about! Who cares what he thinks?” is not a Catholic attitude, not in the slightest. To bridle at every statement that comes from the Vatican or from one’s own bishop, to have a reflexive posture of opposition, resentment, rebellion, hostility (truly adolescent in its reactivity) to the men occupying these positions of authority—all of this signals something gravely amiss spiritually in us. All of this seriously impedes our ability to live as disciples of Jesus Christ who establishes His Church on earth in this way, with these structures of authority.
It is fine to struggle with this teaching or that. It is fine to struggle with the human personalities of the men who occupy the Chair of Peter and the cathedra of the local cathedral. It is fine to wrestle mightily with God and with man, Jacob-like, in our own poor efforts to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.
What is not fine is snark, cynicism, reflexive hostility, hermeneutics of suspicion and flat outright rejection of the teaching authority of the Church. And this is, alas, all too common in the Church today on all sides of the theological spectrum. All of this is many things, but the one thing it is not, is being a disciple of Jesus Christ. So let’s try to be what we are called to be, and understand the centrality of our visible communion in and with the Church in that call.