Worship and Liturgy

1. I am not a Catholic, but I am a Christian (Lutheran). Recently, I have been attending Catholic Mass. As a non-Catholic Christian, what should and should I not be doing? Can I take Communion? When is it appropriate to make the sign of the Cross? What is the gesture that Catholics do before the Gospel?

2. I went to Christmas Midnight Mass, and there was no wine for the congregation at Communion. Why not?

3. Why is the Profession of Faith is omitted during Sunday Mass at the Catholic Center?
(this question was submitted to me while I was pastor at the Catholic Center)

4. Is it appropriate for a non-catholic to receive communion at a Catholic Mass?

5. While I do not believe that God has a gender, I fail to see how the usual translations for the prayers at Mass exclude women and therefore require alteration. Should we freely alter passages in the Nicene Creed (i.e. "For us men and for our salvation...")? Is it wise to use texts that lack the approval of both the ICEL (International Committee for English in the Liturgy) and the Vatican?

6. You wrote, "Technical linguistic issues aside, the word "men", in practice, does not also include women," a statement which took me by surprise. Do you really think this is true? For example, I have always understood Armstrong's "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" to refer to humanity as a whole species. Does his famous sentence suggest to you that he only meant to say that males were making profound leaps forward?

7. Why don't Catholics celebrate Jewish holidays?

8. I guess what I don't understand is the fact that Jesus was Jewish and celebrated Jewish holidays, but as Catholic followers of Jesus we don't. Why are our beliefs different than Jesus' beliefs? That should have been my question the first go round.

9. I got into an argument with some friends about there being 12 days of Christmas. They were saying it's only one day-Dec 25th. I said it starts on Dec 25 and goes until Jan 6. Is that correct?

10. Do you really think it appropriate to deny a Catholic, celebrating the Mass, the Holy Eucharist simply because that Catholic prefers receiving the Eucharist in the same manner he did when he was an altar boy, namely on the tongue?

11. With the Pope on his deathbed, I was wondering what happens during the novem dialis. I am a graduate student and my wedding is planned for next Saturday. Can sacraments be celebrated during a period of mourning?
(this question was submitted days before John Paul II died)

12. Why do we have to have ecumenical services? I like to attend Catholic services.
(note: This question was submitted while I was the Catholic campus minister at USC, and was addressing that college experience. But the answer also has broader application)

13. I hadn't been to church in months, but had been meaning to make it to the Catholic Center. The priest who took your place delivered a homily that was so BORING! It was like all the homilies I hear each time I go to church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At an Advent homily, he spoke about how before we ask for an iPod for Christmas, we should think about those less fortunate than ourselves. Fine, but I've heard this homily so many times that now it sounds like gobble gobble. On top of that he addresses the college and graduate students as if they were little kids or young teenagers. This depressed me.

I'd been disillusioned with the Church in general already, but this was the icing on the cake. I honestly don't think I would have kept going to Church during college and even after, if it were not for your homilies. They gave me the feeling that things could change and that the church might one day reflect the values that I believe in. But his mass seemed like all the masses I attended in Tulsa before going to college--the priest afraid of speaking against even the most ridiculous traditions like denying priesthood to women. Now I'm not sure which church I should go to with the hope of getting anything anything out of it. But I'm trying not to be too pessimistic.

Q 1: I am not a Catholic, but I am a Christian (Lutheran). Recently, I have been attending Catholic Mass. As a non-Catholic Christian, what should and should I not be doing? Can I take Communion? When is it appropriate to make the sign of the Cross? What is the gesture that Catholics do before the Gospel?

A 1: As a Lutheran visitor to the Catholic Church you are in a unique position. Both the Catholic and Lutheran Churches are liturgical. Much of our worship is rooted deep within the history of the Christian Church, going back to the experience of the early Christians. Therefore, you may have noticed that there is a great similarity in our ways of worship. As a visitor, you are certainly welcome to join in all the prayers of the community, including the songs.

Technically, only Catholics are supposed to receive Communion at a Catholic Mass. The theological principle at work is unity. That unity is rooted in the writings of St. Paul whose great contribution to Eucharistic understanding centered on the unity that is ours in the Body of Christ--the Body of Christ being a symbol or model of the Church. Therefore, reception of Communion by a non-Catholic signifies a unity that does not at present exist among the Christian Churches. On the other hand, there is a competing theological principle: Every Christian by virtue of his/her baptism is entitled to approach the Eucharistic table. A strong argument can be made that when these two theological principles collide, precedence should be given to the primary principle of Baptismal right.

A tradition in the Christian faith that Catholics have sustained throughout their history is the gesture of the Sign of the Cross. We make the Sign of the Cross before and after our prayers, reminding ourselves that what we pray is done in the name of the Trinity. For this same reason, many Catholics make the Sign of the Cross at the beginning and end of the day and at various times throughout the day. At Mass we make the Sign of the Cross primarily at the beginning and at the end of our service.

Just before the Gospel, many priests and members of the congregation make a small sign of the cross on their foreheads, lips and hearts. This accompanies the silent prayer of the priest: "May the Lord be in my mind, on my lips and in my heart as I proclaim his Holy Gospel."

Q 2: I went to Christmas Midnight Mass, and there was no wine for the congregation at Communion. Why not?

A 2: I cannot explain why a Church would not offer Communion under both forms: bread and wine. The Liturgical documents of the Church are clear about Communion, about the symbols used in our Eucharistic celebration, and about the full participation of the congregation. Some priests either have not read those documents, or are not sufficiently attuned to the importance of Catholic ritual and symbol. In the congregations I have served, I have offered Communion under both the forms of bread and wine.

Q 3: Why is the Profession of Faith is omitted during Sunday Mass at the Catholic Center?
(this question was submitted to me while I was pastor at the Catholic Center)

A 3: This is a more complicated question than would appear on the surface. Let me begin with a little history. The Profession of Faith, also known as the Nicene Creed, was promulgated at the Council of Nicea where the First Ecumenical Council was held to condemn Arianism. The Creed was further refined at the Council of Constantinople. What we tend to forget is that this period of human history predates the invention of the printing press. Consequently, most people were pre-literate. An important understanding of the Christian faith, the Nicene Creed needed to be learned, and that was by memorization. The most obvious time to learn was when the community gathered for worship on Sunday. We no longer live in a pre-literate world. We have many other means, e.g. books and classrooms, for people to learn the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

Secondly, when we gather for worship, although we hopefully continue to learn, the words we speak together are prayers. The traditional formula is that our prayers are offered to God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit. The creed is the only thing spoken by the congregation that is not a prayer. It is a statement to ourselves of what we believe. While it is important, the Mass is the not the proper place for such a proclamation. When it seems appropriate to reaffirm our creedal faith, we at the Catholic Center use the Renewal of Baptismal Promises, as called for on Easter Sunday. That seems more appropriate than the Profession of Faith.

At the same time, it is important that the Nicene be well known. Perhaps a better way of regularly exposing the congregation to the Nicene Creed would be to say it together before Mass begins, not unlike school children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at assembly before beginning classes.

Q 4: Is it appropriate for a non-catholic to receive communion at a Catholic Mass?

A 4: There is a simple answer and a more complex reflection. The simple answer is that, with very few exceptions, the Catholic Church does allow for intercommunion. The Catholic Bishops of the United States have tried to put the best face on this policy by recognizing the desire many have to share in Communion, but also acknowledging the sad fact that there is division among our churches, and that sharing in communion symbolizes a unity that just isn't there. We are not yet "one" and the very definition of the word "communion" means being "one with".

However, there is another competing theological principle. Baptism is the first of the sacraments. Through Baptism one enters into the Christian community. Although Confirmation and Communion complete the process of initiation, it is through Baptism that one approaches the rest of the sacraments. A baptized Christian has a right to approach the Eucharistic table--it is part of one's baptismal call. Division notwithstanding, it seems appropriate that a baptized Christian be admitted to the Eucharist, regardless of which Church he/she was baptized in.

There is no easy resolution to these competing theological principles. The position of the Catholic bishops is clear. Equally clear is the fact that many people, Catholics included, do not accept this position. Perhaps continued dialogue is what is needed most. Perhaps intercommunion will lead the way for us more clearly to see the path to unity.

Q 5: While I do not believe that God has a gender, I fail to see how the usual translations for the prayers at Mass exclude women and therefore require alteration. Should we freely alter passages in the Nicene Creed (i.e. "For us men and for our salvation...")? Is it wise to use texts that lack the approval of both the ICEL (International Committee for English in the Liturgy) and the Vatican?

A 5: The question of inclusive language is a very sensitive one. Many people feel threatened about changing the language they are accustomed to using in prayer. We should probably begin with the acknowledgement that all language is limited, especially when it comes to identifying or even addressing God. God is, in fact, beyond gender identification. God is neither male nor female. At the same time our scriptures themselves indicate that God embraces both the masculine and the feminine as we read in the Book of Genesis: "So God created humankind in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27).

Most men do not appreciate the exclusion many women feel when only male words are used to express the community at worship--this, in spite of the fact that women have been expressing their alienation and frustration for years. Technical linguistic issues aside, the word "men", in practice does not also include women. In liturgical theology this is known as horizontal inclusive language. Vertical inclusive language refers to those words we use to address God. If all images and references to God are male, how do women identify with the God in whose image they, also, have been created?

As in many other churches, we recommend slight modifications to some of the congregational responses at Mass. This is not only wise it is essential to the development of a Liturgical theology that is truly "Catholic". Such changes, since they do not alter the meaning of the text, do not need approval from either the ICEL or the Vatican.

By the way, the change you wondered about in the Creed "For us men and for our salvation" has already been officially changed to read "For us and for our salvation." The official language of the church is moving forward, albeit at a slower pace than we.

Q 6: You wrote, "Technical linguistic issues aside, the word "men", in practice, does not also include women," a statement which took me by surprise. Do you really think this is true? For example, I have always understood Armstrong's "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" to refer to humanity as a whole species. Does his famous sentence suggest to you that he only meant to say that males were making profound leaps forward?

Regarding the terminology with which we refer to God, I would agree with you completely that God is without gender. But don’t you feel that eliminating gender-specific pronouns from our theological vocabulary has the potential to be troublesome? What are we do with the Sign of the Cross or the Lord's Prayer? And specifically, how do you feel about certain issues of Biblical translation? There is an inclusive-language translation effort in which all of Jesus' parables have been neutralized (i.e. Parable of the prodigal offspring, the person who was born blind, etc.), thereby divorcing many of the cultural associations we may have as a society with Scripture. As a musician involved deeply in scholarly work and examination of medieval texts, accuracy of translation is considered to be one of the most important aspects of one's work. It has always amazed me that freely changing the words of Scripture in the interests of furthering a political agenda is so easily accepted. Free translation for such goals in my field has a name: scholastic dishonesty.

A 6: I'm glad that you found my response somewhat helpful. Perhaps this will further clarify your concerns. You are correct in suggesting that the word "man" is generic of the human race and intends, etymologically, to include both men and women. And certainly when Armstrong issued his famous statement from the moon he did not intend to exclude women. However, we must remember that English is a living language, and like all language and other forms of human communication it is cultural and temporally limited. Although it may be difficult, I think men should try to see the problem through the eyes of women. As I mentioned before, women have been sharing their concerns about exclusion for many years, but men are still not listening. In a gender specific society such as ours, women do not feel included when only masculine language is used to identify the worshipping community. Furthermore, there are many creative and effective ways of using inclusive language. It would be a shame if we surrendered our ability to grow and become more creative in our communication to older customs of speech.

Not everything concern is easily resolved just because we choose to be sensitive and creative. The example you use of the Sign of the Cross and the Lord's Prayer are cases in point. On the other hand, the opening greeting I use at every mass is an example of a simple and effective modification: "The grace of Our Lord Jesus, the love of God, our Father and Mother, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all." Actually, now that I think of it, the word "fellowship" could just as easily be rendered "communion" without doing any injustice to the intention or meaning of the greeting.

As for translations of the Scripture, some attempts have clearly been over the top and fully unsatisfying, like the parable example you cited. Still, there is a difference between translation and transliteration. What you suggest is more transliteration. Translation, on the other hand, is meant to communicate an idea, not necessarily every word. In terms of the Bible, part of the problem is how people understand the book. The Bible does not contain the words of God. It is the WORD of God. That is not a semantic distinction. As I have often said in the past, I learned a wonderful phrase from a biblical scholar: "The Bible is the Word of God in the words of the men and women who wrote it." Although fundamentalists might have a problem with that statement, it is a profound expression of the understanding of the Catholic Church and most of the mainline Christian Churches. The purpose of translating the Scriptures into the languages of our world is so that people can read/hear revelation proclaimed in their culture leading to a deeper and more profound understanding of God's Word. This is the reason we no longer use translations that were historically and culturally conditioned, e.g. the traditional King James Bible. Perhaps what we need is a combined effort of Scripture Scholars, linguists, liturgists and feminist theologians all working on the project together.

Q 7: Why don't Catholics celebrate Jewish holidays?

A 7: The Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur are part of the ritual calendar of the Jewish faith. Similarly, holidays or feasts such as Christmas are part of our ritual or liturgical calendar. Some of the ideas expressed in the Jewish holidays are similar to our own. But we have a different faith, and we have our own calendar for celebrating that faith. As a secular comparison, New Year is a good example. Around the globe we have different calendars and as such New Year falls on different dates. In some instances, those secular dates for New Year are also religious.

Q 8: I guess what I don't understand is the fact that Jesus was Jewish and celebrated Jewish holidays, but as Catholic followers of Jesus we don't. Why are our beliefs different than Jesus' beliefs? That should have been my question the first go round.

A 8: Yes, Jesus was a Jew. As such he worshipped in the Synagogue and Temple, and celebrated the Jewish holidays. We are not Jews. We believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Jews do not. More specifically, Judaism is primarily an ethnic religion. In the early Church, the first followers of Jesus were Jews, and for some time they saw no contradiction in worshipping as Jews on Saturday and then worshipping as Christians on Sunday.

Eventually, conflict arose between the Jews who believed in Jesus and those who did not. In fact, the Jewish-Christians were expelled from the synagogue. That situation was compounded by the fact that as the Gospel of Jesus Christ began to be proclaimed throughout the Mediterranean region, many non-Jews began to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah or Savior, and also became his followers. The early Church decided that faith in Jesus transcended cultural or ethnic concerns and practices, and that it was not necessary for one to become a Jew in order to believe in Jesus and enter the Christian Church.

Because of our belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior, the events surrounding the life of Jesus, namely, his birth, death and resurrection, became the principal feasts of the Christian Community.

Q 9: I got into an argument with some friends about there being 12 days of Christmas. They were saying it's only one day-Dec 25th. I said it starts on Dec 25 and goes until Jan 6. Is that correct?

A 9: You are correct. Traditionally, there are twelve days to the celebration of Christmas. These days reflect the events surrounding Jesus' birth, e.g. the announcement to the Angels and subsequent arrival at the manger. The twelve days end with arrival of the Magi on January 6th (Feast of the Epiphany). It is worth noting that this understanding goes all the way back to the early Church. In the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, Christmas was actually celebrated on January 6th. Some years ago, these Churches, with the exception of the Armenian Orthodox Church, all moved the celebration to December 25th. The Armenians still celebrate Christmas on January 6th and even exchange gifts on that day. For all the ancient Churches--Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, Orthodox, and in more recent centuries the mainline Protestant Churches, there are twelve days to Christmas. Incidentally, that time line was the origin of the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." In the actual liturgical season, there are even more days in the Christmas Season. The liturgical season ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is usually about a week after the Epiphany.

Q 10: Do you really think it appropriate to deny a Catholic, celebrating the Mass, the Holy Eucharist simply because that Catholic prefers receiving the Eucharist in the same manner he did when he was an altar boy, namely on the tongue?

A 10: I do not know for sure, but I suspect that the practice of receiving Communion was never fully explained to you in the context of the meal that Jesus invites us to share.

When the Church changed the practice of receiving Communion from the tongue to the hand, an exception was made. That exception was for elderly people who do not always find it easy to change. Virtually all people today learn at the time of their First Communion to receive on the hand. As the US Catholic Bishops stated in their paper on Communion, "Only infants and the infirm are fed by others." As we grow and learn to feed ourselves, that is what we do in all aspects of our lives. Another thing the bishops emphasize is that Jesus says "Take and eat", "Take and drink" and we respond to that by reaching out our hands to receive the gift of his body. We do the same thing with the cup that holds his blood.

The practice of receiving Communion on the tongue originated in an era in which there was a corrupted theology that suggested that lay people were not worthy to touch the Eucharist. That theology has, of course, been discredited. The church proclaims a more holistic understanding today. It coincides with a deeper theology that the primary presence of Jesus at the Mass is in the community. The Eucharist happens not through magic, but through the faith and prayer of the community and the power of the Spirit.

Q 11: With the Pope on his deathbed, I was wondering what happens during the novem dialis. I am a graduate student and my wedding is planned for next Saturday. Can sacraments be celebrated during a period of mourning?
(this question was submitted days before John Paul II died)

A 11: Yes indeed the Sacraments can and should be celebrated during a period of mourning--even for the pope. The nine days of mass do not change the fundamental sacramental and liturgical life of the Church.

Q 12: Why do we have to have ecumenical services? I like to attend Catholic services.
(note: This question was submitted while I was the Catholic campus minister at USC, and was addressing that college experience. But the answer also has broader application)

A 12: Ecumenical services can be divided into at least two different types:

a) services, such as "Thanksgiving" that have no particular denominational structure. These services can bring together people not only of different Christian denominations, but also entirely different faiths, so as to share in a common expression of faith in God. These kinds of services can help us appreciate each other’s religious cultures as well as the common elements of our social culture and faith in God.

b) services such as Ash Wednesday, which do have specific rubrical guidelines but which are common to different Christian denominations.

It appears that your concern centers on the second type of ecumenical service, which is what we experienced here at USC this past year, and which we plan to continue.

Most Christians, certainly mainline denominations like Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutheran, have a shared concern for Christian unity. Pope John Paul II made this a particular pursuit of the Catholic Church as we approached the new millennium. It reflects Jesus' prayer for unity and the annual Christian Unity Week, celebrated by each of our churches.

Shared liturgical celebrations, when possible, help to break down the misunderstandings that have developed over 400 years of division. There were two reasons for choosing Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as joint services last year. First of all, it was an opportunity to witness to our shared faith in Jesus Christ. Second, these two services are nearly identical in each of our churches. By the way, since you indicated that you would like to attend Catholic services, we did, in fact, use the Catholic ritual for each of these services.

As Christians, we all claim to be followers of Jesus. Our best witness to that faith is unity. St. Paul makes a strong call to unity in his First Letter to the Corinthians and the subsequent development of his great theology of the Body of Christ.

The three local bishops, Cardinal Mahony of the Catholic Church, Bishop Borsch of the Episcopal Church and Bishop Egertson of the Lutheran Church, all signed the document “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: A Covenant among The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – Southwest California Synod and The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles”). That document committed our churches to work, minister and pray together in a variety of situations. We were trying to give flesh to that document at USC.

Q 13: I hadn't been to church in months, but had been meaning to make it to the Catholic Center. The priest who took your place delivered a homily that was so BORING! It was like all the homilies I hear each time I go to church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At an Advent homily, he spoke about how before we ask for an iPod for Christmas, we should think about those less fortunate than ourselves. Fine, but I've heard this homily so many times that now it sounds like gobble gobble. On top of that he addresses the college and graduate students as if they were little kids or young teenagers. This depressed me.

I'd been disillusioned with the Church in general already, but this was the icing on the cake. I honestly don't think I would have kept going to Church during college and even after, if it were not for your homilies. They gave me the feeling that things could change and that the church might one day reflect the values that I believe in. But his mass seemed like all the masses I attended in Tulsa before going to college--the priest afraid of speaking against even the most ridiculous traditions like denying priesthood to women. Now I'm not sure which church I should go to with the hope of getting anything anything out of it. But I'm trying not to be too pessimistic.

A 13: Thank you for the compliment and strong voice of support. I hardly know where to begin. I don't think it is my place to criticize my successor. Aside from being less than objective, I think it would be arrogant even counter-productive to his ministry. Perhaps he just needs time to settle in and be more comfortable with the reality of college life and the level of maturity that reflects students at a major research university.

I do know that many of the priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese have been well trained in homiletic (preaching). I also know that some are less adept or skilled at this particular part of ministry in spite of their training. Others, on the other hand are quite skilled in preaching, even if they do not challenge some of the current disciplines of Church life.

I would recommend not giving up too easily, but rather seeking out a parish where you will be able to experience challenging and thought-provoking homilies. I would also note that there are periods in our lives when religion ebbs and flows, and this might be one of those times in your own life.