Gather Faithfully Together
Theological Underpinnings and Pastoral /Practical Implications
Gannon University, Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania
Cardinal Roger Mahony
Tuesday, November 3, 1998

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to Gannon University and to Bishop Donald Trautman for the invitation to address this gathering of leaders and people of the Diocese of Erie. I am not certain if you know how blessed you are in having a Bishop of such extraordinary pastoral leadership abilities, as well as such proven leadership in the Church’s Liturgy. Let me assure you that Bishop Donald Trautman is one of the most highly respected Bishops in our country, and he is committed fully to celebrating the Church’s Liturgy with all of the spiritual and pastoral power that Our Lord Jesus Christ entrusted to the Liturgy. And thank you for sharing him so generously with so many of us around the country!
It is gratifying to know that my Pastoral Letter to the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles,
"Gather Faithfully Together: Guide for Sunday Mass," is of some help to Catholics in different Dioceses and Archdioceses throughout the United States.

As many of you are aware, the Pastoral Letter has been the subject of a great deal of discussion. As a result, I have had the opportunity to reflect over and over again on its message. What I would like to do today is take two steps with you. First, I would like to articulate in seven points the theological insights that underpin the Pastoral Letter. In other words, I would like to answer the question: What is the theology of sacrament, Liturgy, and Church expressed in
"Gather Faithfully Together"? In the second part of this presentation – after a short break – I would like to spell out in eight points some of the pastoral/practical implications of the Pastoral Letter as a response to the question I have posed in the Letter: "What will it take to reclaim this day and its holiness?"

Since the appearance of
"Gather Faithfully Together," our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has provided such a rich resource to help us grow more deeply in understanding the centrality of the Eucharist in Catholic faith and life. In his Apostolic Letter, "Dies Domini" (On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy), issued July of this year, the Holy Father urges all of us to "rediscover Sunday," since "Sunday is at the very heart of the Christian life" (Dies Domini #7). "The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the very heart of the Church’s life" (CCC #2177). The crucial importance of the Lord’s Day cannot be overemphasized. Each Sunday of the year is to be properly understood in relationship to the One Great Sunday, Easter Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection of the Lord, the central mystery of our faith (Dies Domini #3). This is Christ’s mystery, the mystery of the Church, our mystery – the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ celebrated day by day, week by week, Sunday by Sunday.

It is my sincere hope that in our ongoing work together this afternoon, we might come to a fuller appreciation of the Liturgy, especially Sunday Mass, as the source and summit of our Catholic life (
Sacrosanctum Concilium #10).


  1. Liturgy, the celebration of Christ's presence in Word and Sacrament, is a response to God's initiative. Throughout the Pastoral there is a strong emphasis on the Liturgy as the work of the People of God, through which the Lord is praised and glorified. Indeed for good Liturgy, work, indeed hard work, is required, not simply desirable. But in the midst of all these Spirit-guided efforts, we must always be mindful that our work of glorifying God in the Liturgy is a response to the Lord's initiative.

Both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures are filled with many instances where God takes the initiative and calls forth our deepest and most graced response:

* We are introduced early to God’s initiative in the call of Abram, and then, Abraham (Genesis 12 through 17);

* Recall the story of the call of Moses in the Old Testament, how God calls him to come forward and liberate his people from Egypt (Exodus 3:3 et ff.);

* Recall how Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel and invited to participate so fully in our redemption through Jesus, a son to be born of her (Luke 1:27 et ff.);

* And the vivid account of how God enters the life of Paul and converts his energies to proclaiming the very faith he was persecuting (Acts 9:4 et ff.).

2. Liturgy is the action of Christ and of the Spirit. This is to say that Christology and Pneumatology underpin the entire Pastoral Letter. It is the Spirit who gathers us faithfully together to express and receive our identity as the Body of Christ in Word and Sacrament. In the Pastoral Letter, I emphasize the importance of gathering, beginning with rising and washing, feeding and clothing in preparation for Sunday Mass. This is itself the work of the Spirit, who summons us from sleep, from the darkness of slumber, and impels us to gather in the assembly of the faithful to partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord in Word and Sacrament. But the Spirit who summons, impels, and empowers is the Spirit of Christ, gathering us to be and become his Body ---- a sacrament in and to the world. Saint Augustine reminds us that in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ we become more fully what we are: The Body of Christ blessed, broken, and shared for the life of the world and the everlasting glory of the Father. About the Eucharist, Augustine writes to the community which gathers in the Body and Blood of Christ: "This is your mystery."

3. In accord with the Second Vatican Council, the Pastoral Letter emphasizes the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in light of the "manifold presence of Christ" in the Liturgy. Rather that obfuscate or mute the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist which the Church teaches in the doctrine of Transubstantiation (as some have suggested), it is altogether clear to me that this rich Conciliar insight about the manifold presence of Christ --- in the gathered assembly, in the priest/presider leading and forming the assembly at worship, in the Word of God proclaimed and heard, and in the Bread and Wine blessed broken/poured and shared --- enhances rather than diminishes the Real Presence of Christ communicated and authentically taught in the doctrine of Transubstantiation.

4. The theology of the Pastoral Letter rests on an understanding of Liturgy, Sacrament, and Church in which the seven Sacraments, but particularly the Sacrament of Baptism, bestows on the faithful the dignity of the children of God – as well as the grace to grow to full stature in Christ. In accord with the renewed ecclesiology articulated in "Lumen Gentium," all are called to the one same holiness, though they respond to that one call in different ways and in different walks of life. When the faithful assemble, they bring to the Liturgy an inherent dignity which is theirs by virtue of their incorporation into the Body of Christ by Baptism, and by the gift(s) of the Spirit sealed and strengthened in the sacrament of Confirmation. Liturgy should provide both invitation and challenge for each and every member of the worshipping community to put their gifts to the service of the Body, whether it be the Body of Christ at the Lord's Table, or His Body hungry and thirsty, broken and wounded, poor and uneducated, in the wider human community.

5. At the heart of the vision of the Liturgy expressed in the Pastoral Letter is a theology of the Church as a Sacrament in and to the world. This is a sacrament, above all, of unity, and "this unity becomes visible when Christians gather together" (Dies Domini #31).

* in parishes in which Sunday Eucharist is well prepared and joyfully celebrated, one does not find conflict, in-fighting, and other signs of the evil spirit;

* Eucharist calls us, brings about unity and harmony, gathers us into the one Body of Christ, and sends us forth to evangelize our families, neighborhoods, and communities;

* in parishes like Our Lady of the Angels one discovers a spirit that is so inviting that people are deeply attracted to this experience of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Unless we celebrate Christ's Mysteries well, we will not live them well.

But the opposite is just as true: When we participate in Christ's Mysteries well and fully, then we will live them well. The celebration of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ has profound implications for the way we live our lives. Among other things, the Eucharist is a Sacred Meal of Communion and Justice. Here I am referring to communion as a state of rightly-ordered relationships --- with self, another, others, and God. Justice is a virtue. In our Catholic tradition of ethics, a virtue is an act: We recognize the virtue of justice in the person who acts justly. In shorthand, in the Catholic tradition, justice is the activity of creating a world within which all may grow. That is to say, it is the activity of establishing and re-establishing rightly-ordered relationships. But following the mandate of Christ, this requires particular attention to the needs and requirements of the poor and the vulnerable, the wounded and the weak in society and in the Church. Indeed there are far-reaching ethical implications in each of the seven Sacraments celebrated, but the Eucharist comprises the heart and soul of a Catholic ethic of the Sacraments.

Beneath all the words of the Pastoral Letter, with its emphasis on doing the work of the people well – so that God might be glorified in a Holy People transformed through Word and Sacrament – there is a deep theology of Sabbath, of rest, repose, and of silence. Much in our culture is at cross-purposes with keeping the Lord’s Day, the Day of Rest and Resurrection, holy. "Socioeconomic conditions have often led to profound modifications of social behavior, and hence, of the character of Sunday (Dies Domini #4). We live in a culture in which "The Lord's Day" has become "My Day!" But "My Day" is a day on which I do what I want to do: Do the mall, do brunch and so on. Throughout the Letter, there is attention given to festivity and reverence, speaking and listening, proclaiming and hearing, sound and silence.

* Students: your approach to Sunday Eucharist, how you prepare, how you treat Sunday;

* Need for the entire Assembly to prepare for Sunday Eucharist, our shared responsibility for all the members of the Body of Christ.

Here again, if we are to fully, consciously, and actively participate in Sunday Mass as a response to the divine initiative, then we must be both
hearers and doers of the Word. We must first be still, receptive, open, waiting, longing to be filled by Word and Sacrament. Such posture in the presence of Christ's mysteries requires periods of silence and recollection woven throughout the Liturgy, in the same way that our daily lives need periods of rest, recollection, and silence – or we run the risk of losing our focus on the things that really matter. Or, worse still, we confuse our work and efforts toward the realization of this or that goal with the Spirit-assisted response to God's presence and action in human life, the world, and the Church.

7. It will come as no surprise that all of the theological insights above are rooted in a vibrant ecclesiology. In the Pastoral Letter, I have set forth a vision of Liturgy and Sacrament which presupposes a lively community of faith, a people who share a vision, values, hopes, joys, and sufferings. The difficulties we face in putting the insights of the Letter into practice are in large part related to the fact that so many of our parishes seem more like loose affiliations or aggregates of Catholics-in-name-only who just happen to live within the same parish boundaries. But the Letter assumes that the People of God are active participants in Scripture study groups, in catechetical ministries, in social outreach, in the pastoral care of the sick, in our bereavement ministries, in various liturgical ministries at Sunday Mass, perhaps even in helping the pastor/priest in preparing his homily. There might even be some people involved in couple-to-couple guidance and support for maintaining the integrity of the sacrament of Christian marriage in these very difficult times.


All of this is to say that the Liturgy is the language in which our relationship to God in Christ is expressed in the presence and by the power of the Holy Spirit. This relationship is brought to speech, expressed, in the Word and the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord by which we become ever more fully what we celebrate: The Body of Christ. Thus we are transformed, not only in and through the Body of Christ celebrated and received in sacrament, but in our willingness to lay down our lives --- not only with and for those with whom we live and worship, but also for those who see in us the Body of Christ transfigured by the Light of the Spirit in our troubling times.

Questions and Answers on this Part


What are some of the pastoral/practical implications of the vision of Sunday Mass expressed in
"Gather Faithfully Together?" What would it take to realize the goal of enlivening Sunday Eucharist, of worshipping well so that we might participate more fully in Christ's mysteries celebrated in Liturgy? During this part of the presentation I shall focus on eight points.

1. I am suggesting in my Pastoral Letter that an important preparation for the joyous celebration of the Eucharist begins long before the people arrive at the Church. In fact, the preparation begins with a keen awareness of the spirit of heart, mind, soul and body that we must have to enter into the celebration of the Mysteries of our Redemption. As I noted in the Letter itself, "the true entrance procession of the Mass has been in full swing, sometimes calm, sometimes hectic, in our homes." Some are choosing to fast at home until the Eucharist, others delay television viewing and the Sunday newspapers until after returning from Mass. All of these efforts help us to focus more fully upon the coming assembly of believers and the celebration of the Eucharist together. (Par. 40)

2. In practice, it is possible to make much more of gathering as a crucial part of the assembly's prayer. Throughout the Pastoral Letter, I attend to the whole dynamic of readying for Sunday Mass as itself an act of the Holy Spirit. It is as if there are layers of gathering, moments of gathering that gradually unfold. However, a crucial moment of the gathering and assembling occurs as the faithful enter the Church. As a practice, I would recommend that various ministers, and the priest himself, gather at the Church entrance to greet those who are assembling ten minutes before the opening of liturgy. The gathering faithful should be invited to exchange words of greeting, even engage in small talk, in a lively spirit that is at once festive and reverent, so as to allow for the quiet reflective prayer of some. Small exchanges such as these may more clearly express and impress the connection between the assembly's worship and the rest of life.

* the whole notion of WELCOME!
* whom do you yourself welcome on Sunday? How many new members of the Assembly do you know, have you reached out to?
* recount the Stockton story of the young man and his feelings of not being welcome.

In the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, we will have a wonderful opportunity to highlight the act of gathering as a crucial element in liturgical celebration.

* new Plaza, gathering space, for all our people; main entrance to the Cathedral is from the Plaza, not from the street or sidewalk;

* I see the new Cathedral as a good model of welcome and of celebrating the Eucharist and the Church’s sacramental life.
In much the same way as the act of gathering itself allows for a fuller awareness of the Spirit's presence in the assembly, so too can the concluding rite, dismissal, and departure of the members of the assembly.

3. Above all, let us take the Roman Rite with utmost seriousness. The vision of Liturgy, Sacrament, and Church articulated in the Pastoral Letter is none other than what is expressed in the Rites of the Catholic Church. In our worship, what often occurs is that we do not pay sufficient attention to what the Rites themselves express. Insofar as we are not altogether familiar with the Rites, their letter and spirit, we work at cross-purposes with ourselves. A simple example: When a cantor or music leader calls the assembly to prayer at the beginning of Mass by saying --- "Let us now stand and greet our celebrant Father Smith," the fundamental mystery of the assembly as a celebrating community participating in Christ's mysteries is inadvertently muted. This centrality of the assembly as so beautifully described in "Dies Domini" when the Holy Father refers to the Eucharistic assembly itself as the "Heart of Sunday" (Dies Domini, Chapter III, Dies Ecclesiae: "The Eucharistic Assembly: Heart of Sunday"). In affirming the centrality of the celebrating assembly, I am in no way compromising the essential and necessary place of the ordained priest in celebrating the Eucharist. I am merely suggesting that, quite practically, there are other ways, more in keeping with the Rite itself, to greet and to welcome as the assembly begins to worship.

4. The Liturgy of Word requires fuller attention than it is usually given. It is helpful to remember that "in every Eucharistic celebration, the Risen Lord is encountered in the Sunday assembly at the twofold table of the word and the Bread of Life" (Dies Domini #39). It may also be useful to recall that in the Conciliar documents, the first task of the priest is to preach the Gospel. Further, in step with the spirit of the council, Liturgy and Sacrament are properly understood within the context of crucial place of the Word. Christ's mysteries are celebrated both in Word and in Sacrament. This calls for much greater attention to the importance of both remote and immediate preparation on the part of each and every member of the assembly, but especially lectors and the preacher. In practice this calls for providing all members of the assembly access to the lectionary readings for the following Sunday's Mass, as well as encouraging and assisting them in prayerfully preparing themselves to receive the good news in the Sunday proclamation. I would encourage the assembly to study and reflect on the Sunday’s Scriptures at home. It would be helpful to the parishioners if each Sunday in the Parish Bulletin the Bible citations for the Sunday’s Scriptures are included in a small box within the Bulletin.

I propose the threefold structure of listening, reflecting, and responding as the guiding dynamic of the Liturgy of the Word. This means that there must be periods of silence following the readings, the responsorial, the homily, and perhaps even after the proclamation of the Gospel. I am also suggesting that, in practice, this should be the structure for remote and immediate preparation for lectors and for the preacher. Finally, if this threefold structure is observed, a structure in which listening to the Word is key, then quite practically this may mean that only those who absolutely need the missalettes should be encouraged to use them.

5. My fifth recommendation for implementing the vision of the Pastoral Letter is related to the fourth. "It should be borne in mind that the liturgical proclamation of the word of God, especially in the Eucharisitic assembly, is not so much a time for meditation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his People, a dialogue in which the wonders of salvation are proclaimed and the demands of the Covenant are continually restated" (Dies Domini, #41). All gathered here are well aware of the great hunger in our Catholic people for good preaching. "Gather Faithfully Together" invites the preacher to welcome prayerful participation from members of the assembly in the preparation of Sunday's homily. Such participation allows for the "dialogical" nature of preaching, referred to in "Dies Domini" #41 to be manifest even more clearly. Those the preacher consults, however, should themselves be actively engaged in listening, reflecting, and responding to the Word.

The preacher has an unusually difficult task. He must address the assembly "where they're at." Indeed the homily should "speak to their experience."
But the preacher must always attend to the Word beneath and beyond all his words. His words are in service of the living Word of God. If the homilist is aloof and abstract, he may err in one direction. But if he peppers his homily with too much of his own experience and "personal sharing," he errs in the other direction. The homily is not an arena of self disclosure. Nor is it primarily an arena of moral exhortation. It is an occasion for the living Word of God beneath and beyond all our words to stand forth --- inviting us into loving communion, to authentic participation in The Great Dialogue, correcting and challenging us to move ahead in our Spirit-guided efforts to bring about the fullness of the Reign of God.

Having your priests and deacons properly prepare for homilies requires that all of you, the People of God, free up your priests for the important task of preaching. You need to assume more of the ordinary, routine responsibilities in a parish that swamp so many of our priests and parish leaders. You need to answer this difficult question: How much time do I give my parish priest/priests to lighten their burdens so that they might nourish our community more fully?

6. A sixth practical suggestion I offer pertains to music. I personally am not a musician. Perhaps this comes through in my Pastoral Letter. One gentle criticism of the Letter is that while it is a bit long in some regards, it is short in its treatment of music. Let me just say here that the crucial role of music in liturgy has been made often and well by so many others. "Care must be taken to ensure the quality, both of the texts and of the melodies so that what is proposed today as new and creative will conform to liturgical requirements and be worthy of the Church’s tradition which, in the field of sacred music, boasts a priceless heritage" (Dies Domini, #50).

My very practical suggestion is that the assembly be given the opportunity to learn a limited repertoire of songs, responses, acclamations, and to learn them well --- indeed by heart --- so that they become a bit like anthems of the assembly. As I have already acknowledged, I am not a musician. Perhaps because of that fact, I do know that there is value in being able to recognize a tune and join in. Consider the enormous influence and staying power of the Taizé hymns and chants by Jacques Bérthier. Again, a limited repertoire, perhaps a small repertoire of a half dozen songs --- good music, easily sung by a range of voices, and theologically sound ---for each of the liturgical seasons. This seems to me to be a very modest and achievable goal.

7. My seventh suggestion is regarding the Communion Rite. In accord with the guidelines governing sound liturgical practice, communion for all gathered should be in both kinds. Taking consecrated hosts from the tabernacle for distribution during Communion should be avoided if at all possible. Bread and wine consecrated during the Mass is to be the communion in the Body and blood of the Lord at the same Mass.

Let me say a bit more about the Communion Rite, and try to make a few points by raising some questions with you. In the practical order, far more attention can be given to the Communion Procession. The members of the assembly come forward to partake of communion in the Body and Blood of the Lord. This is a bold act. They are not only "receiving communion," but moving forward to the Table of the Lord to participate in His Paschal Mystery, to lay down their lives with and for one another in the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection – for the life of the Church, and to continue Christ's redeeming mission in the world. "For the faithful who have understood the meaning of what they have done, the Eucharistic celebration does not stop at the church door" (
Dies Domini, # 45). Do we process in a way that communicates the boldness of this witness? Who is in the procession? In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, we must constantly raise the question: What are the colors, languages, and "citizenship papers" of those in the procession? Is the Body of Christ in all its fullness standing up, moving forward, and then moving in procession from Mass to mission ? This may not be a pressing issue in Erie, Pennsylvania. I simply do not know. Perhaps your question is: Where are the handicapped, the elderly, the marginalized? Who from the assembly is being commissioned to bring the Eucharist to the infirm, the shut-in, the hopeless? Finally, we all can ask: Are the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist called forth from the assembly to minister the Sacred Body and Blood to their brothers and sisters, or are they separated from the assembly from the start of the Liturgy to its closing.
8. Finally, as in Part One of this presentation, my final point is the crucial one. All that has been said above rests on a proper understanding of Sunday as the Lord's Day: The first Day, the Sabbath, the Day of the New Creation. All other Eucharistic celebrations are related to the Sunday, "the paradigm for other Eucharistic celebrations" (Dies Domini, #34). In our culture, the meaning of the day on which we gather may be lost on a great number of us. Too often, "Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of the ‘weekend’" (Dies Domini, #4). Very practically, what is needed is what I might call Education for the Sunday. And it is altogether appropriate that some of this take place within the homily. Concrete steps need to be taken so that we can recover and retrieve the significance of leisure as a spiritual need. We must know how to recognize the distinction between ordinary time and sacred time, and learn once again how to set specific times and days aside for the purpose of praise and thanksgiving, for lamentation and petition. By Educating for the Sunday we will grow in the realization that it is both in Sunday Liturgy and daily living that we together become a continual doxology to the glory of the Triune God.


My intention in these remarks has been to share with you some of the theological underpinnings and practical implications of my Pastoral Letter, "Gather Faithfully Together". It has been a cause of great delight for me to welcome the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter, "Dies Domine" (On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy), which so beautifully describes the Eucharistic Mystery and the Eucharistic Assembly as the "Heart of Sunday." It is my sincere hope and fervent prayer that together we will come to a fuller appreciation of depth and breadth of Christ’s mysteries celebrated day by day, week by week, Sunday by Sunday, Day of the Lord, Day of the Church.
(Cardinal Roger Mahony is Archbishop of Los Angeles, California)