success stories

Posted January 19, 2004

The Mass as Institution

From the book: Preparing Yourself for Mass
by Romano Guardini
Sophia Institute Press, Manchester, New Hampshire

Religious life is the life which ties man to God. It is not mere knowledge or experience of God, but actual union with Him. God exists. Man also exists, but manís existence is only through God and in His sight. From God to man and from man to God runs a bond more real and more vital than any bond uniting one being with another on earth. This bond between God and man, its effects on manís experience, his thought, and his action is our religious life.

Religious life can take a double direction. It can enter into our daily living and doing and struggling, into our relations with people and things, into our work and works.

One man tries to fulfill Godís will by accepting and performing his given job with a strict sense of duty; another, reluctant to break a divine commandment, refuses to inflict an injustice; a third practices heroic patience and helpfulness toward someone in the love of Christ.

All this is genuine religious life. All three of these attitudes are proofs of religious sincerity. In them religion has become the soul of daily existence: what Scripture calls "walking in the sight of God."

But religious life can also detach itself from daily existence and seek God directly. The individual believer may turn away from external doings and happenings to meditate on divine Revelation; he may take his concerns to God; he may appear before God to examine his own acts from Godís perspective and to renew himself in virtue. Or, in order to receive the sacred word, to worship God in common, and to place their intentions at His feet, a whole congregation may assemble in a room that even externally expresses its detachment from ordinary life.

Both forms are good; indeed they support each other. In the immediate religious act man collects himself; enlightened and strengthened he returns to daily existence with a higher degree of readiness. What he experiences there in the way of work, struggle, and destiny causes the new need which sends him gravely back to the sanctuary there to receive fresh light and aid. The demands of daily existence on their part constantly test the genuineness of a manís religion, enabling him to recognize mere pious sentiment and irrelevant fantasy for what they are.

Holy Mass belongs in the second category of religious life. It is not only one of the ways of turning directly to God, but is the heart of the direct relationship between God and believer. When the Christian goes to church, he leaves the world of ordinary human existence behind and steps into the hallowed spot set apart for God. There he remains with the others of the congregation, a living offerer of the sacred celebrated before Godís countenance.

Once more it is essential for us to make distinctions. What we do in this area reserved for God does not spring directly from our religious experience or desire; neither do we all gather in church to express to God our pressing wants as though in response to a great general need. This too is possible and natural, and it belongs to the most powerful religious experiences that a man can have: the united appearance before Him from whom everything comes and to whom everything returns.

What happens in Holy Mass, however, is different. The Mass is not the immediate expression of an existence capable of understanding and redeeming itself spiritually. It is not a creation of that power which shaped the word of praise and the revelatory act from the emotion of the hour, but something long since independently arranged, ordered, and declared valid once and forever. It does not arise each time from the individualís or the congregationís relation to God, but descends from God to the believer, demanding that he acknowledge it, entrust himself to it, and do it. It owes its existence not to Christian creativeness, but to Christís institution.

Consequently, the Mass cannot be celebrated by anyone, but only by one who is authorized. When the father is still the recognized head of the family (also its spiritual head), he can institute a custom or a celebration that becomes binding for the family.

Likewise the bearer of a religious office, the priest, or (if he has spiritual authority) the king can institute a religious celebration for a certain diocese or kingdom. Religious history has countless illustrations of this.

But the institution that concerns us here is valid not only for a family or a race or an empire, but claims to be the absolute norm of religious celebration, the heart of spiritual life for all peoples and for all ages. No human being has the power to set up such a statute. No earthly authority having such absolute power comes from God.

God never empowered any human being to institute an act obligatory for all peoples and ages. This does not mean that He could not have done so, but simply that He did not. He who did establish the unique universal institution of the Mass was no mere messenger of God, no prophet, high priest, or king, but the Son of the eternal Father, God incarnate in history, who could say of Himself; "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me." It is He who proclaims the saving truth to all men and to all ages; not as the prophets proclaimed it, "Thus speaks the Lord," but, "I say to you." He does not even say: "My Father speaks to you through me," but, "I myself say . . . " And He adds: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." Go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned." At the close of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares that obedience to His words is the sole basis on which life capable of existing in eternity can be founded; all life founded on anything else will disintegrate under Godís gaze.

The miracles are worked without excitement or display; Jesusí calm, self-understood attitude toward them is that of one accustomed to doing whatever he wills. Everywhere in the Old Testament Godís self-revelation is sustained by His awareness that He is the Lord ó not only over things, but independently of things, in His own right because He is who He is. Sovereignty is elemental to Him, and this same sovereignty is in Christ.

Not for nothing was the name reserved solely for God applied immediately to the Son: Kyrios Christos. It appeared with the ease of a foregone conclusion, of necessity, since He actually was the Lord, whose sovereignty covers not only material reality but also that which is immeasurably greater: the law and the covenant. When the Pharisees protest that Jesusí disciples are breaking the law by plucking ears of grain on the Sabbath, He replies: "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath, and with the Sabbath, the entire law. At the Last Supper He formally declares the old covenant fulfilled and He proceeds to establish the new heart and mainspring of religious life, the Eucharist.

We know exactly when and how He went about it. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe how Jesus, before His death, celebrated the Passover for the last time with His disciples. During that feast, whose celebration differed sharply from the traditional form, He instituted the new feast in His memory and the new covenant in His blood. St. John reports the speech Jesus made at Capharnaum, where He promised men His Eucharistic flesh and blood. Finally, St. Paul speaks of it in the eleventh chapter of his first Epistle to the Corinthians, where he stresses the fact that the Lord Himself revealed it to him.

God ratified what Jesus instituted. Man has here no call to create or determine; his task is to obey and act. Moreover, the institution itself is entrusted to a special authority for protection and guidance.

It is conceivable that the Lord could have instituted the mystery and then left it to the pious inspiration of the believers. Had He done so, it would have passed through history, formed and colored by the peculiarities of various governments, races, epochs.

The development of its central theme would have been handed over to the experience and creative powers of the believers.

But this is not what Chris did. He did not entrust His institution to the freely streaming spirit or to the religious inspiration of the moment, but to an office which He Himself established. He wanted His followers t live not as a loose collection of individuals with their sundry convictions and experiences, but as a constitutional unit, as a Church. When He chose the Apostles He was already conferring office and authority upon the Church: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven." He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me. And he who rejects me, rejects Him who sent me." That office was to continue through history: "all days, even unto the consummation of the world." Consequently the Apostles were to have successors to whom that office could be passed.

To this office, to the Church, Christís institution was entrusted. Her authority determines the form and details of the sacred service. Though it has adapted itself to the characteristics of peoples and periods during the course of centuries, its core has remained the same, and it is the Church that has kept it intact. The adaptations themselves sprang only partly from the differences of historical settings; the predominant cause for all modifications was the ecclesiastical office itself which, constantly active, adapted and rearranged details, yet preserved the efficacy and unity of the whole.

From this we begin to see the attitude that is required to us: faith, piety, and vital participation. These are not to be shaped and guided solely by private experience and religious creativeness, nor are they to be given free rein: they are to be practiced in the spirit of acceptance and obedience. When believers attend Holy Mass they go not to express their own religious emotion nor to receive direction and inspiration from the spiritual talents of a man who enjoys their special trust. They enter into an order established by God, they go to participate in a prescribed service.

Criticism of liturgical details may be acceptable, but no matter how well qualified we might be for fundamental criticism or for religious expression, in all essentials we must renounce both our private desires and our personal disapproval. This does not mean that the believer is placed under tutelage; it is simply a clarification of domains. Criticism is good where it makes sense; criticism of the Mass makes none. One can very well criticize the lighting system of a city, but not the course of the sun; one can find fault with the arrangement of a particular garden, not with the natural order of growth, bloom and fruition. Here it is a question of something similar, only incomparably greater. The Lordís institution belongs to Revelation and with Revelation to creation itself. To see this is to possess the key to understanding creation; and to accept it is the first step toward the sanctuary.