In the late twentieth century, following decades of reform and renewal in many of the Christian churches, one would perhaps expect the catholic/sacramental traditions to be alive and well. In many respects, they are. There is spirited commitment to Christian ideals and a great deal of ecumenical dialogue. But attendance at weekly liturgy no longer seems to be the standard it once was. Are people simply over-extended? Or have we lost touch with a deep level of our common heritage? Perhaps an example from my own background can illustrate the issues involved.
A recent Sunday liturgy at a Roman Catholic parish continued for approximately one hour and fifteen minutes, a bit longer than average even for this fairly relaxed congregation. The priest was welcoming and engaging, and he managed to involve the willing congregation in many aspects of the ceremonies with which they otherwise would have been concerned only as spectators. Examples of his excellent talent for inviting such involvement included: encouraging all the children to stand around the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist and asking questions of them as he proceeded, explaining the relevance of each aspect of a Baptism ceremony as a baby was welcomed into the Church, asking several randomly selected adults to bless the child as representatives of the community. On the whole, it was a thoroughly pleasant experience and the majority of those present seemed gratified to have been in attendance.
On the other hand, four-fifths of the time involved was spent in activities other than what would be defined strictly as "eucharistic." The Liturgy of the Eucharist itself took no more than twenty minutes, half of which was taken up with distribution of communion. Even the Liturgy of the Word was truncated, there being no actual scripturebased homily. (The priest did, however, make use of imagery taken from the gospel for some brief remarks during the baptismal ceremony.) Thus, while this liturgy surely engaged the participants, the fact that it was meant to be a eucharistic liturgy seemed secondary, and the elements of ceremony which served to engage the participants were not actions straightforwardly concerned with Liturgy of the Eucharist. These engaging elements were people-centered, inclusive, even overtly symbolic (good use being made of the Paschal candle); they were "eucharistic" in the broad sense of being grateful expressions of community blessing. But that which was involving in the liturgy was not eucharistic in the more narrow and technical sense of being anaphoral-i.e. directly related to the Eucharistic Prayer, the great expression of thanks for what the Church is because of Christ's sacrifice. One might say that the group was concerned with solidifying community, but did not seem particularly interested in doing this on the deeply symbolic, sacramental level.l Overt eucharistic sacramentality seemed less important than a kind of "prayerful sociability." An equally important observation is that no one seemed to mind; as long as the technical requirements of the Liturgy of the Eucharist were satisfied, its time-deficit was apparently unimportant.
My sense, from a number of similar instances, is that this recent scenario is simply a particularly noteworthy example of a trend. Many Roman Catholics-who as a church profess to have a fully developed sacramental life, and who further avow that the eucharist is the center of that sacramental life-in practice relegate their specific eucharistic practice to a few minutes in a given week. Thus the majority of church-going Roman Catholics are enthusiastic participants in liturgy, but dedicate little time therein to the great sign of fellowship, death and resurrection which they say is the center of their religious lives.
Much in recent Roman Catholic liturgical practice has come about as a direct result of the reforms begun by Vatican Council II. People-centered, friendly liturgies have become a way of life for Roman Catholics in recent decades, and many of the laity are now active participants in liturgy and engaged worshippers where previously they were passive observers and detached witnesses of someone else's ceremony. …