“Ecclesia de Eucharistia” and the Dignity of the Mass

Father Edward McNamara on John Paul II’s Vision for the Liturgy

ROME, MAY 31, 2003 (Zenit.org).- ZENIT this week presents a special analysis on the liturgical aspects outlined in John Paul II’s newest encyclical, “Ecclesia de Eucharistia.”

Legionary Father Edward McNamara is a professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome.

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The Dignity of the Eucharistic Celebration
By Father Edward McNamara, LC

In dealing with the dignity of the surroundings and decorum of the eucharistic celebration, the encyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia” takes its cue from several Gospel texts which complement and enhance our understanding of the simple, yet solemn moment of the sacrament’s institution.

Thus, the accounts of the anointing at Bethany (Matthew 26:8; Mark 14:4; John 12:4) “anticipate the honor which his body will continue to merit even after his death, indissolubly bound as it is to the mystery of his person” (“Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” No. 47).

The “careful” preparation of the Upper Room which would serve as a venue for the Last Supper (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12) also throw light on the care with which the early Church celebrated the Holy Sacrifice.

From this basis John Paul II boldly states that the “Church has feared no ‘extravagance'” in attending to all that surrounds the eucharistic celebration. “No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the ‘large upper room,’ she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery” (No. 48).

From this John Paul II moves to a consideration of the priority of the Eucharist’s sacrificial aspect over other aspects such as that of the Eucharist as a banquet, and only afterward returns to the outward forms of expressing this mystery in architecture, art and music.

At first sight the interjection of a theological reflection on the priority of the Eucharist as sacrifice in the midst of a consideration on liturgical architecture, art and sacred music might appear to be out of place, and yet, I would say that the Holy Father’s profound intuition is that theology is the key to understanding the purpose of the art and music surrounding the Eucharist, just as theology is at the heart of almost all questions regarding the human condition.

When the greatness of the eucharistic mystery is grasped in its vertical aspect as Christ’s gift to man, then it necessarily inspires an art, architecture and music which soars in response to the mystery. If, on the other hand, theological priority is given to horizontal concepts such as the Eucharist as shared meal, the artistic results are often flat, mediocre expressions in search of an illusory egalitarianism foreign to authentic Christianity.

This said, the encyclical, while extolling the artistic and musical splendors of earlier ages, does not endorse any particular style, nor does it recommend a revival of Gothic, Baroque or any other artistic school, and even contemplates the possibility of adaptation to different cultures (see No. 51). It insists, however, that we recover the sense of mystery that brought these earlier masterpieces into existence.

Form and function

Nothing in modern architecture prevents it from equaling, and indeed with the possibilities of modern materials and building techniques, even surpassing the works of earlier generations.

The axiom of modern architecture, “form follows function,” also applies to building and embellishing churches, provided “function” is not limited to the practical aspects of movability, restrooms and fire doors, but rightly understood as providing a worthy and splendid setting for the inestimable gift of the Eucharist. Thus it would appear that only an architect and an artist who is also a firm believer can truly do justice to the mystery.

If many modern church designs do not inspire, and much modern church artwork and furnishings leave us cold, then the reasons are first and foremost to be found in faulty theology, or no theology at all.

Another factor is perhaps a managerial mentality that emphasizes the “bottom line” and forgets that “the Church has feared no ‘extravagance.'” Yet, even a look at the recent past shows us how many splendid churches have been built with the pennies and perspiration of poor immigrants and farm laborers who, while lacking education, grasped the mystery that is the Eucharist and understood that Christ deserved the best.

The same can be said for liturgical music. The Church continues to recommend Gregorian chant and classic polyphonic works as eminently suitable for the Eucharist. At the same time, the liturgical reform has created a real need for new compositions capable of elevating the soul and witnessing to the faith.

Of the thousands of medieval Latin musical compositions known to exist, many were well intentioned, but musically and literarily poor and, like their authors, have been mercifully forgotten. In all probability a similar fate awaits much of what has been produced in recent years. This should not deter composers from seeking to express the mystery of salvation in a true spirit of service to divine worship, in the hope that at least some will eventually be numbered among the brightest and the best.

Chapter 5 of the encyclical continues on a less poetic note. The Holy Father is open to new forms of sacred art and architecture in areas of recent evangelization such as Asia and Africa. The eucharistic mystery however, is the treasure of the whole Church and thus the development of new styles cannot be dissociated from the Church’s tradition, and must be carried out with great care and in communion with the Holy See.

The liturgical books already provide ample scope for adaptation in some areas such as liturgical colors and language, but relatively little is prescribed in the universal law in the area of music and the arts. Thus the local Church acting in concert with the Holy See is more than a mere juridical requirement but expresses a genuine desire of finding its own voice, yet in harmony with the Church universal.

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