The working document, or instrumentum laboris, for the World Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist that meets this month in Rome begins with a beautiful reflection on the symbolic meaning of bread for the life of the world. This reflects the grave concern expressed by readers of an early draft about the scandal of hunger as it endures and worsens in many parts of the world. Further, here and throughout the document a very strong link between Eucharist and social justice underscores the fact that the eucharistic celebration shapes the mission of the church. “The Eucharist moves Christians to a commitment for justice in today’s world: The Eucharist not only provides the interior strength needed for this mission, but is also—in some places—its plan. For the Eucharist is a mode of being, which passes from Jesus into each Christian, through whose testimony it is meant to spread throughout society and culture” (No. 78).
In liturgical circles this idea is summarized by the tag Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Prayer (lex orandi), particularly liturgical prayer, has a primary role in shaping belief (lex credendi) and in the authentic living out of the Gospel (lex vivendi). “In a culture of death, the Eucharist is the culture of life. In an atmosphere of individual and societal selfishness, the Eucharist reaffirms total self-giving. Where there is hate and terrorism, the Eucharist places love. In response to scientific positivism, the Eucharist proclaims mystery. In desperate times, the Eucharist teaches a sure hope of a blessed eternity” (No. 10). Though Jesus’ words “Take and eat” primarily signify the gift of himself to us, this gift in turn leads to the fellowship of the table, the unity of the church community and the commitment to share bread with the needy. In the Greek tradition Eucharist, called hagia koinonia, means both holy Communion and holy community. The working text stresses this point: “The gifts of bread and wine refer to the great gift of love, the Eucharist, which spurs charity toward the poorest and all in need” (No. 48).
As the bishops meet to discuss the Eucharist, they will surely address the bond between the Eucharist and the church’s mission for social justice. I hope that as they do so they will also consider the closing rites of the liturgy. Understood as a ritual dismissal, the closing rites intend to send us forth into the world to live out the mission we have received in the Eucharist. Yet in their current abbreviated form, the closing rites do not fully achieve this goal. If the proper connection between liturgy and life is to be perceived, care needs to be used in shaping these closing rites.
What’s in a Name?
There are many different names for the celebration of the Eucharist: The Lord’s Supper, the Supper of the Marriage of the Lamb, the Breaking of the Bread, Memorial of the Passion and Resurrection, Holy Sacrifice, Divine Liturgy, Sacred Mysteries, Most Blessed Sacrament. One very common name, but somewhat unusual, is Mass. The word comes from the Latin mittere, “to send,” and appears in the dismissal rite. The Latin dismissal, “Ite, missa est,” which was originally a juridical formula with no religious meaning, is somewhat difficult to translate. The basic idea is, “The meeting is concluded,” or “Go. You are sent.”
The instrumentum laboris draws attention to this, suggesting that it is perfect for developing the idea of mission. “The words at the end of the celebration of the Eucharist, Ite, missa est, bring to mind the missionary mandate of the Risen Lord to his disciples before his Ascension into heaven: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19). In fact, the conclusion of every Mass is immediately linked to being sent forth in mission, a task involving all the baptized, each according to his proper vocation in the People of God: bishops, priests, deacons, those in the consecrated life, members of the ecclesial movements and the laity. Bearing witness is essential in fulfilling this mission; it is the first duty of every Christian sent forth into the world” (No. 88).
The closing rites of the liturgy are meant to provide that sense of being missioned. But in their current form the rites are overly spare. In 1995 Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Belgium, during a visit to the University of Notre Dame on the occasion of the silver anniversary of the Center for Pastoral Liturgy, addressed the possibility and need of further liturgical reforms. He identified as a particular issue the lack of symmetry in the opening and closing rites of the Mass. The opening rites tend to be bulky and awkward, while the closing rites are abbreviated.
Regarding the opening rites, much has already been written; some critics have compared them to a cluttered vestibule in need of a cleaning. But the closing rites as well still require attention. In Cardinal Daneels’s opinion, the abrupt ending of the Eucharist represents a lack of respect for the Eucharist. People are not given the time to appropriate the great mystery after reception of Communion. It is symptomatic in our fast food society that we simply eat and run, if we do not actually eat on the run.
Shaping the Closing Rites
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal lists the following elements of the closing rites:
• Brief announcements, if they are necessary;
• The priest’s greeting and blessing, which on certain days and occasions is enriched and expressed in the prayer over the people or another more solemn formula;
• The dismissal of the people by the deacon or priest so that each may go out to do good works, praising and blessing God;
• The kissing of the altar by the priest and the deacon, followed by a profound bow to the altar by the priest, the deacon and the other ministers.
The first issue that needs to be addressed is the announcements. Often they are perfunctory at best and superfluous at worst, particularly when there is a printed bulletin. Crafted carefully, however, the announcements can be a ritual tool that proclaims to the parish and the world at large how this group of Christians individually and collectively is living out the mission to which they are called in baptism and nourished in the Eucharist.
The more elaborate formula of blessing, which was introduced at the Second Vatican Council, is also in need of attention. Inspired by the ancient Gallican episcopal blessings, the tripartite formula calls for three Amens in response from the assembly, followed by the usual Trinitarian blessing and a final Amen. But only in rare situations does this tripartite blessing ever elicit any significant response except the concluding Amen. Liturgists and musicians need to devise forms that cue the assembly, so that all the Amens are full-bodied and authentic.
Furthermore, the possible uses of the blessing merit consideration. Given the context of dismissal and sending forth, blessings could provide an occasion for sending ministers of various kinds. We know, for example, that at many Masses extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are present within the assembly, but their ministry of taking Communion to those who are absent is often invisible to the community. These ministers have their pyxes filled after Mass, unnoticed by the congregation. What would happen if those bringing Communion to the sick and housebound came forward just before the blessing? The entire assembly could pray over them that they be worthy ministers and send them forth to those unable to be present.
Likewise, on certain occasions during the liturgical year, the blessing could be an appropriate time to commission social ministers and send them forth on their mission. It would be most fitting for the gathered assembly to commission with a special blessing those who work in soup kitchens or with the homeless and refugees and so on. Indeed, from such usage the blessing formula could become more meaningful, a clear means of commissioning. In the General Instruction we read: “On certain days and occasions this blessing...is expanded and expressed by a prayer over the people or another more solemn formula” (No. 167). The Roman Missal contains 20 such solemn blessings. Might not the Catholic Book of Blessings be used to supplement this number to meet diverse pastoral situations and needs?
A third and final point: in the description of the closing rite, there is no mention of a closing or recessional song. Historically the Roman rite did not call for such a hymn. The dismissal was meant literally. At the risk of being called a liturgical fundamentalist, I think you should say what you mean and mean what you say. If you say, “Go,” then the assembly should go. Who said there must then be two verses of a song to get the ministers down the aisle?
On the other hand, if some music is needed to complete the celebration, it makes sense to anticipate the dismissal with a song that emphasizes being sent to the world, such as Paul Inwood’s “Take Christ to the World,” or one that asks that we might be blessed and sent, such as Christopher Walker’s “Send Us as Your Blessing, Lord.” Of course, there are many examples of hymns that emphasize mission, but composers alerted to this need might create new pieces that incorporate the blessing and sending. Furthermore, through-composed musical pieces might be devised to move the gathered assembly through the announcements, blessings and ultimate dismissal in such a way that the entire closing rite is cohesive.
The Lord’s Day and Mission
The Eucharist prepares the church for mission. “The Lord’s Day is also the day of solidarity and sharing with the poor, insomuch as the Eucharist is the bond of fellowship and the source of communion” (No. 70). It is the authentic source of mission and its only end, the “source and the summit” of the Christian life as it is expressed in the daily lives of those who break bread together as Jesus commanded. If prayer shapes belief, then together they find their true authentication in genuine Christian living. To ignore this inner connection between Eucharist and life is to ignore the bond between the life and mission of the church.