Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Sacred Liturgy and the Sanctity of Human Life

A little girl has been deemed unsuitable for a kidney transplant because she is “mentally retarded” and suffers “brain damage”.
This heartbreaking story is just unbelievable…and yet, believable because of the utter disregard for human life that runs rampant in our society today. Please read the entire article about Amelia.
Here’s an excerpt:
The doctor begins to talk and I listen intently on what he is saying. He has a Peruvian accent and is small, with brown hair, a mustache and is about sixty five years old. He gets about four sentences out (I think it is an introduction) and places two sheets of paper on the table. I can’t take my eyes off the paper. I am afraid to look over at Joe because I suddenly know where the conversation is headed. In the middle of both papers, he highlighted in pink two phrases. Paper number one has the words, “Mentally Retarded” in cotton candy pink right under Hepatitis C. Paper number two has the phrase, “Brain Damage” in the same pink right under HIV. I remind myself to focus and look back at the doctor. I am still smiling.
He says about three more sentences when something sparks in my brain. First it is hazy, foggy, like I am swimming under water. I actually shake my head a little to clear it. And then my brain focuses on what he just said.
I put my hand up. “Stop talking for a minute. Did you just say that Amelia shouldn’t have the transplant done because she is mentally retarded. I am confused. Did you really just say that?”
The tears. Oh, the damn tears. Where did they come from? Niagara Falls. All at once. There was no warning. I couldn’t stop them. There were no tissues in conference room so I use my sleeve and my hands and I keep wiping telling myself to stop it.
I point to the paper and he lets me rant a minute. I can’t stop pointing to the paper. “This phrase. This word. This is why she can’t have the transplant done.”
I am convinced – utterly, to the core of my being – that a major reason for society’s descent into this kind of depravity, this willingness to look at a little child and say she doesn’t deserve to live, is the watering-down of our Catholic faith.
It begins and ends, I think, with the watering-down of the Sacred Liturgy, our Holy Mass, where we worship God and receive the Real Body and Blood of Jesus into our own bodies, uniting ourselves to Christ and becoming more like Him as a result. When we don’t understand this properly, we don’t receive Holy Communion worthily, and we fail to receive the grace intended in the Most Holy Sacrament.
The Eucharist is the source and summit of our life as Catholic Christians,
“[f]or the most holy Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth: Christ himself, our Passover and living bread. Through his own flesh, now made living and life-giving by the Holy Spirit, he offers life to men”. (Presbyterorum Ordinis, §5)
The Mass, of course, is the “point of contact” that good Catholics must have with their Church. We attend Mass and are supposed to be changed by our contact with the Real Presence of Jesus. Dr. Denis Crouan, in his book The Liturgy after Vatican II (Ignatius Press), suggests that the liturgy can and should have a profound effect on how we live our lives as Christians:
   Rather than explaining the liturgical rites at the very moment they are being performed, people need to learn to live them, so as to understand them in slow stages from within the celebration, in other words, with the eyes of faith and in relation to that which comprises the very heart of every liturgical celebration: the presence of the Lord on the altar.
   This is the way that liturgical rites can also become means of promoting sound social behavior and attitudes that are in keeping with the demands of the Christian life.
   All of this is a good demonstration of the scope that the liturgy is capable of achieving: when all is said and done, if true rites that are correctly performed are effective means of inducing sound behavior, error-filled rites that are arbitrarily constructed always run the risk of becoming vehicles for false, ambiguous behavior…(p. 21; my emphasis)
Sadly, we now have a large percentage of Catholics saying they don’t believe in the Real Presence (according to a 2008 study by CARA). Once we lose faith in the Real Presence of the Lord on the altar, how can we be changed by that Presence? How can we be changed if we are not truly coming into Holy Communion with God?
If we don’t believe in the Real Presence of Jesus, if we don’t treat the Eucharist – the very Body and Blood of the one who is the Resurrection and the Life – with reverence and devotion, could this not result in a failure to understand the sanctity of human life?  And if we are free to re-write liturgical rules for the Mass, why should we not be free to form our consciences according to moral relativism? We end up with groups like “Call to Action” and “Catholics for Choice” – and election-centered groups like “Catholics for Obama” and “Knights for Obama” – people who call themselves Catholic …even when their beliefs do not conform to Church teaching in non-negotiable areas. We end up with Catholic politicians who side-step clear Church teaching by maintaining that they can’t impose their religious views on the general public.
And we end up denying a life-saving organ transplant to a little girl named Amelia.
Yes, the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic Christian life.  Undeniably, though, liturgical abuses have diminished our collective understanding of the truth of this statement.  In point of fact, any abuse detracts from the sacredness of the liturgy and begins to undermine the very sense of the sacred in the minds of the faithful.
The sacred liturgy, “when celebrated well and focused on God, is where the building of the culture of life begins for within the liturgy one experiences and encounters the perfection of the culture of life from the giver of life Himself, God our Creator”, wrote Deborah Morlani in a 2008 post on the NLM blog. This applies to both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Mass. However, it is my belief that the liberalization of the latter is an important aid in combating the cancer of erroneous thinking we’ve seen given voice by self-identified “Catholics” who do not follow the non-negotiable teachings of the Church.
There are aspects of the extraordinary form of the Mass which are lacking in the ordinary form, and which contribute to reverence for the Eucharist: the EF Mass truly highlights the Blessed Sacrament as something more than a symbolic representation of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through the actions of the priest; it brings to our attention the hierarchy of the Church; and it creates an atmosphere of being set apart from the world by virtue of its ancient character, the use of Gregorian chant, and the use of a “special” language.
Perhaps the extraordinary form of the Mass will begin to revitalize and purify the Novus Ordo. However it happens, we must return to a greater sense of awe and reverence in the Mass. We must return to a strong belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Only then will we, as Catholics, reverse our descent down the slippery slope of moral relativism and once again become a strong moral voice in today’s culture.
And that’s how we will save little girls like Amelia from being abandoned by doctors who doubt her “quality of life” – and her very worth as a human being.
Save the liturgy, save the world.

(The main points of this post are taken from my paper "Abortion, Contraception, and the Liturgy", which appeared in the October 2009 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review. I'm happy to email the manuscript to anyone who would like to read it in its entirety.)

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