At the annual gathering of the priests of the Diocese last October the speaker was Tom O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at Nottingham University. Tom gave the priests of the Diocese Six Simple Steps which could go some way to achieving Vatican II’s vision in our celebration of the Eucharist. This month we take a look at steps 5 and 6.
Step 5: Stand at the Table
“One of the obvious changes in the reformed liturgy was that ‘the priest no longer had his back to the people.’ Altars were ‘pulled out’ or a new one built behind which the president stood – and the change was understood in terms of visibility. Now what he did could be seen rather like a science teacher’s demonstration bench.” But it could also be seen as “a podium for the presider along with all the other furniture in the ‘performance area of a church building’. But the change was really to draw out that the Eucharist takes place at a table, which can be interpreted as our altar. This is the Lord’s table around which we are bidden by the Lord and which anticipates the heavenly table.
“In terms of a vision of the Church, to be gathered round about it serves to emphasise that we are all called into intimacy with the Lord and all called to ministry of one sort or another. Priesthood is a matter of presiding among the baptised, not providing a priestly service on behalf of the baptised. We have but one priest, the Christ, and we are sisters and brothers. If we reject clericalism, notions of a priestly elite, then the way we gather for the Eucharist must reflect this. … We regularly hear of being called to share in the Lord’s table … this must have physical liturgical expression if (a) we believe it and (b) believe that the liturgy is sacramental.
“Steps 2, 4 and 5 taken together express a completely different way of being Church, and a radically different way of understanding our relationships with the Church – in effect a Church of mutual service. By contrast, continuing with the opposite practices perpetuates the vision of a Church of distinctions and levels” as if the vision of Vatican II is to be ignored.
Step 6: The Prayer of the Faithful
“The oldest debate in Christian liturgy relates to the tension between fixed formulae and spontaneous prayer. …” The history of our liturgy sees set eucharistic formulae emerging in the early communities but we also have statements about prayer being uttered by the president “as best he can”. … ”At the Reformation, Catholics virtually eliminated any role for spontaneous prayer in the official liturgy.” By the time of Vatican II (1962-65) many “had recognised the need for both familiar forms and for spontaneous expression, and so there is a place for this in the reformed rite: the Prayer [note the singular] of the Faithful. However, often in practice it has become a scripted set of intentions. … The Prayer of the Faithful is an expression of the priesthood of the baptised and their ability, in Christ, to stand in the presence of the Father and ask for their own needs and those of all the communities to which they belong. But this vision of the Church, if taken seriously, needs to find practical expression in the Church’s faithful using their voices for their needs. …
”The liturgy should be a place where we can express our needs, as Church and not merely as a collection of individuals; and where we become aware of who we are both before one another and before God as the Church. And if people fear that people will have ‘shared prayer’ rather than intercession or that the prayer will be addressed to Christ rather than to the Father – then this is surely a matter of catechesis, and, in any case, such prayers will not be much worse than some of the composed examples in use now, or that other blot on the landscape: omitting the Prayer altogether or replacing it with some novena prayers.”
Prof Tom O’Loughlin concludes that “these six steps are all within the scope of every community that meets for the Eucharist; all are within the law as it stands … If we believe that the liturgy is a school of theology and that lex orandi (how we pray) establishes the lex credendi (how we believe), then these simple steps may go further towards embedding the vision of Church that was proclaimed in Vatican II than spectacular events in the Curia in Rome or canon law.”