I teach an eight-evening course on liturgy in my diocese every year. The students are parish volunteers who serve on liturgy planning committees or in music ministry or in some other pastoral role.
They show up on the first night with their empty vessels, expecting me to fill them to the brim with liturgical knowledge.
Are we just filling vessels?
I see the same dynamic happening in initiation processes. The catechumens and candidates show up every Wednesday evening (or whenever your sessions are), expecting you to fill up their empty vessels with Catholic knowledge.
And most of us oblige as best we can. And when we cannot, we bring in an expert (someone who teaches a liturgy course, for example) to fill up that part of the vessel.
Why we keep doing the same thing
Of course we know this usually doesn’t work. Mostly, our seekers are bored or compliant but seldom converted. But we continue to use the empty-vessel model, and we teach others to use it as well. I’ve been trying to understand why we continue to use a broken model, and the best I can come up with is this: we are afraid to change, and it is hard to imagine something we haven’t tried.
Getting past our fear is an individual project. I can encourage you and pray for you, but when it comes time to take that final step off the high dive, you have to make the decision.
Imagine a new future
I think, however, I can help with the imagination part. I’d like you to imagine gathering all your seekers’ empty vessels and locking them in the back room. From that moment on, refuse to be a vessel filler.
Next, imagine a new, infinitely large, always overflowing vessel. That vessel is the liturgy. We do not take our small vessels to the liturgy to get them filled. We dive into to the liturgy, immersing ourselves in the mystical vessel of praise and worship. We die to ourselves in that vessel and rise up out of it as new creations.
The liturgy is not a subject that can be taught the way we teach math or grammar. It is an encounter with the living Christ. When Mary encountered Jesus at the tomb, her life was changed forever. When Saul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was never the same. When our seekers encounter Jesus on Sunday, they become new creations.
We misinform the seekers if we tell them that liturgy is a subject that will be taught on a Wednesday evening in October.
We form the seekers when, after their mystical encounter in the liturgy, we ask, “How will you live differently now that you have met Jesus?”
Formation for life
As believers, we have one source for knowing how to live. That is the liturgy. Through the words, music, movement, and symbols of the liturgy, we are immersed into Christ. The entire liturgy is designed to do this. In that mystical experience of the Risen One, we are forever changed. And as new persons, as “other Christs” (CCC 2782), we go out into the world to live as Christ (Phil 1:21).
It is not necessarily obvious that the liturgy is a mystical experience of the Risen One. Some of us might remember a time when, for us, Mass seemed to be more obligation than celebration. But one day, we were at the tomb. We were on the Damascus Road. The scales were lifted from our eyes, and we began to glimpse the mystery.
This has to be the heart of our formation efforts for the catechumens and candidates. If, with our guidance, example, accompaniment, and encouragement, we can help the seekers awaken to the mystery of Christ’s real presence in the liturgy, we will have done our work. And if we fail to do that essential work, any vessel filling we try to do will be futile.
Please share your thoughts
How do you help your seekers to recognize Christ in the liturgy? How do you encourage them to live from and through Christ because of the liturgy?