The Eucharist: Roman Catholic Mass
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White cloaked men, carrying a large cross and candles enter, followed by a man and two women in suit and dresses enter the church. They are then followed by three men in green and gold, one of whom carries a gilded Bible. This is the highly ritualized Sunday Mass of the Roman Catholic Church. It is as foreign to the average non-believer as a Hindu or Zoroastrian service may be, and possibly as foreign to a Protestant Christian as well. Gone are the electric guitars and beating drums of a non-denominational Christian church, the long sermons of ministers and pastors replaced by simple Bible readings and responsive prayers. Roman Catholics ritualize their beliefs, finding meaning in the repetition while many other denominations attempt to dissect their beliefs to restate to their congregations. By observing seven different Christian services, the differences between Catholicism and other Christian denominations seem clear. Catholicism places more emphasis on ritual, has a more literal interpretation of the Eucharist, and is generally more akin to the churches of the days before the Reformation than those of the Protestants.
During the last week of July, 2012, seven different services from three different churches were observed, thanks to the World Wide Web. Three of the services, one including Sunday Mass, were from the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana, a Roman Catholic Church that prides itself on being the oldest active cathedral in the United States (St. Louis, n.d.), as well as being the distinguishing feature of the French Quarter. Three more of the services were courtesy of the Alpha Church, an online church that allows members to minister Communion to themselves during the pre-recorded service. The final service was that of a “seeker” church, Central Christian Church of Henderson, Nevada, that served as a knowledge base due to the number of services attended in years past and familiarity with the general proceedings.
Central Christian Church places emphasis on the engaging side of glorifying Jesus. They have live bands and singers and a friendly, always smiling pastor in Jud Wilhite. Dress is “come as you are,” though nobody would show up in flip-flops and a wife-beater. They have in the past had guest speakers like country music star Randy Travis, and will be hosting former NFL quarterback and outspoken Christian Kurt Warner next month. Before services, the congregation receives a pamphlet with blank spaces encouraging people to write their own thoughts or take notes during the sermon which is always given as if Jud was your favorite high school teacher, explaining the intricacies of your favorite subject. Words to the hymns are projected onto huge screens so the congregation can sing along, and during the service, the pastor’s face is projected so that even those in the back of the huge auditorium, with capacity of three thousand, have a good view. They provide the main sermon, with some specific online portions, on their website, centralonline.tv, as a way to encourage people to join their church and to allow people who cannot make the service for any reason to participate by watching and joining in the chatroom located beneath the video. Central’s purpose as a “seeker” church is to remove all the barriers that may prevent someone from joining the church, like Sunday clothes, ritualistic behavior, and stuffy demeanor, then to emphasize growing in knowledge and baptism. As such, they often have a lighter message that focuses more on how Christianity can help you in your life now.
Alpha Church does not provide a “brick and mortar” style service, and instead has three Communion services, as well as several sermons to choose from on its website. It also offers a way to send your confessions to the pastor via e-mail, a high tech version of the confessional. The senior pastor is a woman named Reverend Patty Walker, and she leads prayers through scrolling text and flashing images. In the parts of the prayers that are meant to be responsive, at least two voices speak the congregation’s lines, along with the viewer. The Eucharistic prayers and recitations are very similar to the basic components of the Catholic weekday Mass, except for two major differences. One, the Catholic church still does not permit women to become ordained priests, and two, the way in which Alpha Church approaches the Eucharist. On the home page, Alpha asks the viewer to have ready a piece of something to eat, such as “a cracker, a small piece of bread, a little piece of a tortilla, or a few grains of cooked rice,” and something to drink like “juice, water, soup, broth, tea, or milk” (Alpha Church, n.d., Take Holy Communion).
Finally, the St. Louis Cathedral is a classic Roman Catholic Church that provides its services online specifically to the bedridden and prison population, but also to any persons that wish to view it. The services, depending on whether they are weekday or Sunday services, follow the same ritualized procession as is common in other Catholic churches. They do not offer online communion as the belief is that the priest consecrates the bread and wine, something the average person cannot do from the other side of a computer screen. The camera rotates between three fixed positions, a wide-angle shot of the entire sanctuary including the altar, the table, and two pulpits, a close-up of the pulpit from which Bible readings and the main sermon are given, and a close-up of the leader of the hymns. Few shots provide any information about the congregation itself, though each individual can be seen at a three-quarter rear view as they come up to receive the Communion wafer. From these shots, it can be seen that the majority of the congregation is white and dresses in attire of at least business casual, if not full suits and nice dresses.
There are a number of comparisons that can be made from such simple descriptions of the services. For instance, the highly ritualized Catholic service also means a more conservative dress code. Very few of those who accepted Communion were dressed in t-shirt or shorts, whereas at Central, the majority of the congregation is in t-shirts and jeans, and there is not a tie to be seen, even among the speakers. Alpha Church has no in-church congregation, and as such, what the viewers wear is a matter of preference and unknown. The Eucharist itself is also easily compared as St. Louis goes through a sanctification process with its wine and bread, complete with chimes during the blessing on Sundays, prior to calling the flock to receive Jesus. On the other hand, Alpha Church allows the viewer to administer Communion to oneself, or to each other if watching with a partner. Central, as a seeker church, has a large contingent that is not baptized, so Communion, in order to not be exclusionary, was held upstairs in a special room, rather than announced to the entirety of the audience. It is held in the main auditorium once per month, whereas in the St. Louis Cathedral, it is held daily.
To the casual observer, there are two main differences between the Catholics and the “other Christians,” all grouped under the title “Protestant,” which stems from the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The first is the belief in Peter as the Pope and the need for human interaction by ordained priests to bring the Kingdom of God to the congregation. In Catholicism, sins are confessed to a priest, a priest sanctifies the Communion bread and wine, and a Catholic can pray to saints in addition to Jesus or God. In comparison, Protestants believe that the only person that stands between a Christian and God is Jesus himself. By reading the Bible, one can develop a personal relationship with Jesus without the middle man. The other difference is in the Eucharist itself. Catholics believe in transubstantiation, the fundamental change of the wine and bread that become the blood and body of Christ, whereas Protestants believe this to be a symbolic representation.
Until recently, the act of taking Communion has always been an act undertaken by the baptized. Since Communion is one of the highest rituals in Christianity, it is not to be taken lightly. Baptism is the door by which one may come to the table of Communion. More recently, some churches have considered “open communion” for the unbaptized as well, pointing to the remarkable “table ministry” of Jesus who ate with sinners, Jews, Gentiles, and everyone in between (Farwell, 2004). As Father Foley points out, there is no “ecclesiastical ID card” that is checked to ensure that only the baptized are partaking of the ritual, most churches also do not announce that any and all are free to join (Foley, 2011). The baptism and communion are the only two sacraments that all Christians agree on, and their cooperative purpose is the same throughout. Baptism is the entry into the Kingdom under Christ and the rite of passage into permanent communion with the Father and the Son, whereas Communion is the sustenance of the soul in preparation for the Second Coming (Chapman, 2005).
The difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, as pertains to the Eucharist, is in the term “transubstantiation.” Catholics believe that the priest sanctifies the bread and wine, and in doing so, Jesus himself enters into the offering. The bread and wine do not “turn into” Jesus, but the other way around (Keenan, 2004). “The Eucharist conveys God’s grace as a boat conveys its passengers, whereas the other sacraments convey grace as a letter conveys meaning” (Smith, 1958, p. 351). In contrast, Protestants view the Eucharist as either having the “real presence” of Jesus, or as a symbolic representation and recollection of Jesus. “Real presence” is something more than a representation, but less than the belief that the bread and wine now are actual bits of their Lord (Robinson, 2009). All stem from the events recounted in the Gospel as the Last Supper when Jesus took his bread and wine and told his disciples to eat the bread as his body, broken for them and drink the wine as his blood, shed for them (Cavanaugh, 2001).
Finally, the rituals that the Catholics take part in each Sunday have an eternal, unchanging feel to them, as though it is the way service has always been performed, and with the rare exception and the use of English rather than Latin, much of that statement is true. For instance, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and some Protestant churches like Alpha Church, still recite the Nicene Creed, which was mandated across the Holy Roman Empire by the likes of Charlemagne and Constantine because uniformity of belief meant an easier empire to control (Chapman, 2005). This is called the affirmation of faith by some, and is essentially a bulletin point list of beliefs the Church adheres to, such as “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again . . .” (Nicene Creed, n.d.).
These beliefs and more were on display during the Sunday Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral. At the beginning of the service, a white cloaked man holding a cross atop a pole entered the nave first, followed by two candle-bearers, also in white. Two women in dresses and a man in a suit trailed them, followed in turn by a man in green with a gold runner from throat to hem who was carrying a very intricate Bible. Two more men in green, one in the same cloak as the first, and one with the gold that encircled his shoulders, brought up the rear. With more research, the Bible carrying member was likely the “deacon.” Each person in the procession walked past the congregation to the altar where they bowed before heading to the small seating gallery to the side of the sanctuary. The man with the most gold, the priest, says what is repeated throughout the service as a greeting, a conclusion, and a statement, “May the Lord be with you,” to which the rest of the gathered say “And with your spirit.” This is just the first indication of the highly ritualized event unfolding before the camera. As the prayers are said, the hymns are sung, and the Nicene Creed is recited, it is clear that the majority, if not the entirety, of the congregation knows exactly what is coming up and what their role in the action is. The three members of the procession that are not in cloaks take to the pulpit, one by one, to read from the Bible before the priest offers a short sermon. This week, it is about responding to the bad things that happen to good people, inspired by the terrible attack in the movie theater in Colorado. More responsive prayers followed by prayers for particular people such as our leaders, which always end in “for this we pray . . .” and is finished with a congregational echo of “Lord, hear our prayer.” The majority of what has happened so far is either severely edited or omitted from the weekday service, but now it is time for the Eucharist.
A hymn is sung of “Hossana,” which is also present in the Communion services at Alpha Church as a spoken prayer. Also missing during the weekday are the chimes that ring out as the priest sanctifies the bread and wine, asking to make the gifts holy “so they may become for us the body and blood of Christ.” It is a bit of theatricality that was surprising, considering the very stoic nature of the ritual. The priest recounts Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, as he told his disciples to “do this in memory of me.” The priest leads the congregation in proclaiming the Mystery of Faith, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. The priests and deacon partake of Communion first, with the assistance of one of the white cloaked men, then they offer it to the members seated in the gallery to the side of the sanctuary before finally giving it to those lining up in the aisle. Each member of the congregation stands in one of two lines to receive the Body of Christ. They bow, take the bread as the priest or deacon says “Body of Christ,” they reply “Amen,” eat the piece, cross themselves, and move off camera, where it is presumed another person stands with the wine.
At this point, a brief analysis can be done concerning the makeup of the congregation itself. The majority of the members who partake of the bread are white and most were between about thirty and sixty years old, though a few appeared younger. Most of the men are wearing suits or slacks with nice shirts. Most of the women are in dresses or skirts, with some in slacks and blouses. One man, with a child on his hip, was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, while one older woman wore “tourist” garb, with a sweatshirt tied around her waist. These two were rather conspicuous compared with the people around them. Compared to the crowd of Central’s congregation, the Catholic Church attracts an older, more professional congregation.
As compared to the Protestant churches, particularly that of Central Christian Church, Catholicism places more emphasis on ritual, has a more literal interpretation of the Eucharist, and is generally more akin to the churches of the days before the Reformation. The seeker church is sleeker and more engaging to entice non-believers, offering an entertaining and personal experience to get the foot in the door, so to speak. It offers a less substantial offering of God’s message due to its evangelical nature, but other Protestant churches are available for those who have grown out of that phase of their spiritual journey. Catholicism offers ritual in return for the authority of the Pope and his priests, while Protestantism promises the personal relationship with God through Jesus that is only available through the priests in the Catholic religion.
Alpha Church. (n.d.). Alpha Church Services of Holy Communion Eucharist. Retrieved July 25, 2012 from http://www.alphachurch.org/holycomm.htm
Cavanaugh, W. T. (2001, July). Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It?: Romero’s Challenge to First World Christians. Theology Today, 58(2). Retrieved July 12, 2012 from ProQuest.
Central Christian Church. (n.d.). Central Online. Retrieved July 29, 2012 from http://www.centralonline.tv/about/welcome
Chapman, M. D. (2005, March 1). Why Do We Still Recite the Nicene Creed at the Eucharist? Anglican Theological Review, 87(2). Retrieved July 12, 2012 from EBSCOhost.
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Nicene Creed. (n.d.). The Nicene Creed. Retrieved July 12, 2012 from http://www.creeds.net/ancient/nicene.htm
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St. Louis. (n.d.). St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. Sacred Destinations. Retrieved July 29, 2012 from http://www.sacred-destinations.com/usa/new-orleans-st-louis-cathedral
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