Favorites reads of 2012

Best book I read during 2012: The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement, by Miriam Pawel  (Bloomsbury, 2010).

This book tells the story of Chavez and the United Farm Workers organization from the point of view of those who worked closest with Chavez. It offers a more nuanced view than much of the material that has long been available about Chavez and the events in which he played such a central role. The light shed on Chavez and his personality is often but not always positive. What results is an image of him that is more realistic and more human, but just as admirable, perhaps not so much in spite of but because of that fact.

Other big favorites from 2012 reading:

If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice, by Maureen O’Connell (Liturgical Press, 2012)

The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology, edited by Daniel G. Groody (University of Notre Dame, 2007).

(Having been working through much of this year on finishing up my own book, Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching, most of the reading I did focused on topics related to social justice and Catholic social teaching.)

Favorite novel of 2012: Fragile, by Lisa Unger (2010)

Martyrdom and the Mass: a fascinating connection

The January 2013 issue of the journal Worship includes an article by Maxwell Johnson that offers some fascinating thinking about the eucharistic prayer that we hear recited Sunday after Sunday at Mass and how a crucial piece of it got there in the first place.

‘Words of Consecration’

The eucharistic prayer is at the heart of the Mass, “the center and summit of the entire celebration” (as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal puts it).  One important part of it is the institution narrative. Addressing God the Father, the priest recites briefly the story of the Last Supper. It goes this way, for example, in Eucharistic Prayer II:

At the time he was betrayed and entered willingly into his Passion, he took bread and, giving thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: ‘Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my Body which will be given up for you.’

In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took the chalice and, once more giving thanks, hegave it to his disciples, saying: ‘Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new andeternal covenant, which will bepoured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in memory of me.’

This has long played a crucial and — it was long understood — essential role in the eucharistic prayer. Catholics (for several centuries) have understood it to be the moment in which the sacrament was “confected,” when the body and blood of Jesus truly became present, and without which no sacrament happened. Those words of Jesus as recited by the priest are still often called “the words of consecration.”

So it’s a little amazing that it was almost certainly absent from the eucharistic prayers used in the first three centuries of the life of the Church. There is now nearly a consensus among the liturgical historians about this. Generations of Christians celebrated the Eucharist without ever mentioning those words of Jesus or recounting the story of his leading the the Last Supper.

Indeed, even today the Eucharist is celebrated without the “words of consecration” by the faithful of the Assyrian Church of the East, which uses a eucharistic prayer that dates from the early days of the Church and so does not include an institution narrative. The Catholic Church formally acknowledges the validity of this Eucharist and permits Catholics of the Chaldean rite to participate in it. (What a strong reminder that we must be very cautious about what we take to be “orthodox” Catholic faith and what we reject as not.)

‘The Cessation of Martyrdom’

All of this is the context, not the point, of Maxwell Johnson’s article in January’s Worship. Johnson (a professor of liturgical studies at Notre Dame) tries to identify one possible reason that the institution narrative came to be included in the eucharistic prayer when it did. He suggests that what brought this development about might well have been the end of the period of severe persecutions of the early Church — the end of the age of martyrdom.

During those early centuries, Johnson explains, the Church’s eucharistic prayers focused a great deal on the nourishment, life, and even immortality that the eucharist provides to Christians. When martyrdom was common, Christians did not need to be reminded that their faith meant sacrifice, even of their very lives. It was all too clear. But by the mid-third century, as the persecutions stopped and Christianity became widely accepted in society, to be a Christian was not so dangerous or demanding; on the contrary, it came to be more an expectation, a matter of course. And, as in our own day (in the western world, anyway), bishops and priests might well have judged that Christians needed to be challenged to take their faith more seriously and live it more fully.

Johnson suggests that this factor may have played an important role in how and why the institution narrative — with Jesus speaking of his followers partaking of his body to be given up and his blood to be shed — worked its way into the eucharistic prayer. He writes:

The sacrifical connotations and implications of adding the narrative of institution to the eucharistic prayer may well be directly related also to the cessation of martyrdom, by emphasizing the very cost of discipleship implied by sharing the cup of Christ in the Eucharist, that is, both the public liturgy [martyrdom] and reception in holy communion of the body and blood of Christ sacrificed!

Making the argument more compelling, Johnson points out that scholars already recognize the end of the age of martyrdom as having had a similar effect on the Church’s practice and theology of baptism. For the first several centuries, baptism was understood primarily as a spiritual re-birth, as a singular moment of becoming a child of God. The primary scriptural passages associated with the sacrament during that time were the accounts of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan (with the words of the Father coming from heaven, “This is my beloved son”), along with John 3:5. It was only later, in the fourth century, that Romans 6, featuring Paul’s theology of baptism as a dying and rising with Christ, became a key reference for understanding the meaning of the sacrament, probably because the faithful needed reminding that being a Christian was (supposed to be) serious business.

Johnson’s article is titled “Martyrs and the Mass: The Interpolation of the Narrative of Institution into the Anaphora.” It provides more supporting argumentation than I note here. It also offers some fascinating background information about the place that devotion to the martyrs played in the early Church that alone makes the article well worth the time.

For ongoing nourishment in liturgical history and theology, there’s no better place to go than the journal Worship.

A hell of a story: John Courtney Murray

It was 52 years ago this week — December 12, 1960that Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. (The cover article is here.) He was in the midst of living a story that is both fascinating and dramatic.

Murray had, over the previous decade and a half, found himself advocating a theological approach to religious freedom that was quite different from what he called “the received opinion” within the Church. But what he called the received opinion was seen by many influential Catholic figures as simply the teaching of the Catholic Church and so not to be questioned by one of its own theologians (particularly during the decade of the 1950s).

This had culminated, in 1955, in Murray being silenced, forbidden by his superiors within the Jesuit order, under pressure from Rome, to write or publish on the topic. “You may write poetry,” Murray’s superior had told him when Murray asked about the boundaries of the order. (He was able, however, to publish in 1960 a collection of previously published essays not specifically on the topic of religious freedom. This became the landmark book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, which garnered him the Time coverage.)

But the reigning pope, Pius XII, had died in 1958, and his successor, Pope John XXIII, had already, by the time of the Time cover, announced his intention to convoke the Second Vatican Council. While history records the Council as the moment of Murray’s stunning vindication, neither he nor anyone else within the Church of the time knew it yet in December 1960.

Nor could they have reasonably suspected it. When the Council opened in October 1962, many highly regarded theologians were there as periti (theological experts and advisors) of the bishops who gathered, and many of them would have a powerful influence on the Council’s work. Among the periti was Fr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, who had since 1948 nearly made a career of criticizing Murray’s work on religious freedom. Fenton was called to Vatican II as peritus to one of the most powerful men in Rome, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office (known today as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Murray, on the other hand, was not even invited and stayed home.

How Murray eventually ended up at the Council (a full year later), and how that Council ultimately resulted in the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, is another fascinating part of the story and (it is probably not an exaggeration to say) an epochal moment in Church history.

The upshot is that Murray’s work was not only not (in the judgement of the Council) contrary to Catholic teaching — as Fenton and Ottaviani insisted it was — but accepted as an authentic development of the tradition that was both faithful to what had come before and attentive to modern understandings of personhood, freedom, and rights.  That this could or would be the case was, on December 12, 1960, when Murray’s face appeared on the cover of Time, still far from clear to many watching or participating in this controversy.

I’m working on a book on John Courtney Murray these days, to be published, se Dio vuole, in spring 2014. The more I go about my research, digging into archives, perusing personal letters and diaries of Murray, Fenton, and others, and uncovering for myself some of the nearly unknown historical record on all this, the more I find it all to be, quite frankly, a hell of a story. More here, I’m sure, in the months ahead.