This coming Sunday is the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, and it was with a quote from the Secret Prayer of this Mass that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council began their discussion of the Sacred Liturgy. They wrote that it is the liturgy of the Church through which, as the prayer says, “the work of our redemption is performed.”
If we took this teaching seriously, we would never allow ourselves to be convinced that discussions of the liturgy are in any way secondary to the works of mercy, peripheral to the Christian life, needless bickering over mere externals, or a waste of time. The passion of those who take part in these discussions on all sides is, when charitable, appropriate. An indifferent apathy is inexcusable.
The liturgy is the work of Christ for our redemption in and through His Body, and all our works, however mighty, must pale in significance before His work. As the Council says, “[E]very liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.”
What we can do of ourselves is nothing; what we can do through Christ who strengthens us is limitless; but what Christ wills to do through us in the sacred liturgy is more than we can possibly imagine.
Indeed, it is from and towards the sacred liturgy that all of the other activity of the Church flows. Again in the words of the Council, “[T]he liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper.”
Worship is the end, not the means, of our apostolate, our works of mercy. If the word “Mass” carries with it the note of sending forth, it is that we are sent forth in order to return again, bringing with us yet more souls to join in Christ’s prayer of praise and sacrifice to the Father as members of His Mystical Body. It is in corporate worship that we are given a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem, and in the heavenly Jerusalem we will be forever engaged in an act of corporate worship.
Indeed, worship, especially liturgical worship, must always be a paramount concern of Christians, even in the face of what appear to be more urgent difficulties, for no problem is more pressing than a soul that does not hunger to sing the praise of God.
Hagiography is replete with examples of this attitude among even the martyrs. For instance, the heroic Jesuits who, in spite of real danger of death, returned to Elizabethan England to minister to recusant households were consumed with zeal for the house of the Lord, however humble they found it.
The journal of one of these men, I think it was of Fr. Robert Persons, S.J., recalls his careful attention to the worthy appointment of the home chapels of the nobles who harbored them, which had often been cared for negligently by half-hearted chaplains, and to procuring vestments of suitable quality for the sacrifice. As he saw it, the celebration of the sacred liturgy as worthily as possible, even in such trying times, was of paramount importance to putting the spiritual life of the recusant nobles back in order.
Or think of Bl. Titus Brandsma, who, imprisoned by the Nazis, recited the prayers of the Mass and much of the Divine Office each day, fashioning for himself a kind of religious life even under such difficult circumstances. Perhaps more telling, as his captivity wore on, it was this life of prayer and praise, rather than the political concerns of the outside world, that consumed ever more of his energy and attention.
As he writes in his letter of January 28, 1942, in which he details his rigorous daily routine, “At ten o’clock I start writing. During the first days I was occupied in writing an answer to the question Why do the Dutch people, especially the Catholics, resist the National Socialist Movement? I tried to give an answer in eight pages like this one. Now I am trying during my hours of writing, to fix my impressions of the time spent here; furthermore, I am writing the life of Saint Teresa. . .”
I find it fascinating that a man imprisoned for speaking out loudly against a political ideology could, so quickly it seems, lose all interest in writing and thinking about politics, becoming totally immersed in a hidden life with our Lord.
Strengthened by such an inward life, even the greatest suffering can be made sweet. As he wrote the previous day, “Blessed solitude! I am already quite at home in this small cell. I have not yet got bored here, just the contrary. I am alone, certainly, but never was Our Lord so near to me. I could shout for joy because he made me find him again entirely, without me being able to go to see people, nor people me. Now he is my only refuge, and I feel secure and happy. I would stay here for ever, if he so disposed. Seldom have I been so happy and content.”
And these lines, I think, throw the whole question into very sharp relief. If a hungry, sick, poor captive could write such things, if the love of God can make even imprisonment in Nazi Germany sweet, what becomes of the works of mercy? Even though we understand and emphasize the importance of the works of mercy, we do not, I think, often have a clear sense of their goal. If we are to be servant Church to the world in need, why?
One answer to that is perhaps that the whole world is not Bl. Titus Brandsma, but it should be.
In light of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s teaching on the apostolate and its relationship to liturgy, I think that all of the world’s problems could be summed up quite concisely thus: Souls do not burn to praise their Maker. And it is in response to this problem that the Christian is to act in the world:
Wherever burning hunger and thrist burn more strongly than the fire of divine Love, we are to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.
Wherever the biting cold puts out that fire, we are to clothe the naked.
Wherever souls feel alone and unloved by God and by others, we are to harbor the harborless.
Wherever suffering and pain cause souls to forget the goodness of God, we are to visit the sick.
Wherever souls are despairing in chains, wherever by force or intimidation their faith is threatened, we are to ransom the captive.
And when a soul departs this life, we are to bury the body and pray that she may join with the angels and saints in praising God without end.
In short, wherever the trials of this life present a stumbling block for souls, an obstacle to their praising God, the Christian must be there to relieve, refresh, and invite that soul to renewed love of God.
Our goal as Christians can never be a full tummy, a wet whistle, new threads, nice digs, health, freedom, or earthly life itself, not for ourselves, and not for others. We will each lose all of these, in the end, no less than did Bl. Titus, one by one. Rather, our goal is gratitude, love, worship – communion with one another and with Our Lord, both here and hereafter. When we take our place in liturgical prayer, we have one foot in heaven already, and we should take that opportunity to keep our eye on the prize.
An old Folk Mass favorite puts this thought remarkably well,
…and unless there is, we should pray
that soon there may be one true brotherhood,
and we’ll all join in and sing:
Here we are, all together as we sing our song joyfully,
Here we are, joined together as we pray we’ll always be.