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October 23, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 137




Dennis Coday Keeping the rituals alive

Dennis Coday, NCR staff writer

Yesterday after I posted Today's Take (Making us bigger and better than we are), I wondered if I had sailed too far down the River of Nostalgia. I wondered if I had left the impression that I spent my childhood on a mountain peak shrouded by clouds of high-church ecclesiology.

I wanted readers to know that as a child I had plenty of meaningful, satisfying low-church experiences as well.

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I remember the thrill as a Catholic grade schooler being invited to the Catholic high school for a Spirit Mass, the spirit being not the Holy Spirit but team spirit and school pride. The Mass preceded the pep rally that preceded the big game -- a football game I would suppose, but I don't recall.

I can still feel the excitement of a gymnasium packed with young people singing at full throat and guitar accompaniment: "Shout from the highest mountain " Wow. We never sang like that in church. It was great. We sat high up in the bleachers, and the priest stood in green chasuble at a makeshift alter at half court surrounded by the team and cheerleaders. At communion time we all sang lustily (yes even the girls): "Sons of God, hear his holy word, gather round the table of the Lord. Eat his body, drink his blood and we'll sing the song of love, allelu, allelu, alleluia." Yes, I know I have dated myself here.

As I got older and involved with high school youth groups, we were blessed with kind, generous priests who took the time and trouble to sit and pray and play with us. With these priests we celebrated home Masses with a coffee table as an altar and cushions on the floor. Dialogue homilies helped scripture speak to us young people, and we prayed from our hearts.

As I thought more about my memories of incense clouds during benediction and the awe of the mystery of God, and how those rituals shaped me and my faith, I realized that yesterday's reflection was incomplete.

To reflect fully on the meaning of ritual and belief, as Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister asks us to do (Why Go to Church If You Don't Do What the Pope Says?), I realized that I needed to reflect on my full Eucharistic experience, high church and low church. The combination of the two experiences has carried me here today.

I guess that is why I am a bit alarmed when I hear Catholics telling me about training courses they have had to attend on the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal. The instruction includes detailed instructions for each part of the Mass; for the duties of the celebrant, other ministers and the people; for differences when there are concelebrants and when a deacon is present or not; for the arrangement and furnishing of churches; and for the bread and wine and sacred furnishings, vessels and vestments. The latest version was approved in English translation by the U.S. bishops at their general meeting last November. The Vatican confirmed the instruction in March, and it is to take affect in most places this Advent.

I have been told be people attending training sessions that the main purpose of the instruction is to draw a clear distinction between priest and people. Therefore, Eucharistic ministers are not supposed to approach the altar or stand behind it; this is a priest-only zone. Priest are not to leave the sanctuary to for the sign of peace; outside is a people-only zone.

Other things have been mentioned -- people are to kneel during the Eucharistic prayer, for example. All seek to separate priest and people. I do not know for sure, but I suspect coffee table altars are not in the instructions. What about gymnasium Masses?

I am all for keeping alive the rituals of the church. But I want to make sure all good things are kept alive for the next generation.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer and coordinates NCR's Web site. His e-mail address is

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