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The Eucharistic face to face

Facing God or facing the people is not only a matter of ritual celebrations but also of settling any issue in the Church
The Eucharistic face to face

A Catholic church in Kochuthovala, Idukki, Kerala, India. (Photo: AFP)

Published: July 30, 2021 10:10 AM GMT
Updated: July 30, 2021 10:10 AM GMT

Pope Francis in a letter to India's Syro-Malabar Church has exhorted its clergy, religious and lay faithful “to proceed to a prompt implementation of the uniform mode of celebrating the Holy Qurbana.”

“I confirm their ecclesial ‘walking together’ with God’s people, trusting that ‘time is greater than space,’” he further says.

What the pope seemingly means by that is opposed to what he wrote and said before. 

On uniformity, he said: “How the dictatorship of uniform thought ended up killing many, many people ... Uniformity is not Catholic, it is not Christian. Rather, unity in diversity.”

For him, the Church should not “become more rigid and less synodal and impose a uniformity far removed from the richness and plurality that the Spirit has bestowed on his Church.”

The pope's July 6 letter wanted the Church to implement a standardized form of Eucharistic liturgy, as agreed by its Synod of Bishops. The synod in 1999 agreed to an order of the Mass, aiming to end an ongoing dispute over whether priests should face the altar during Mass.

The question of the orientations of Mass must be studied by scholars and must be discussed at different levels

For the pope, any crisis in the Church should not be resolved by authority “dominating space.” Rather, it should “generate processes rather than holding on to positions of power.”

The bishops may have made a decision at a point of history unanimously, but it was never discussed with the priests, religious and laity and was not put into practice.

The unanimous way suggested was to face the people for the liturgy of the word of God and to turn to the altar for the Eucharistic prayer until communion.

The question of the orientations of Mass must be studied by scholars and must be discussed at different levels.

There are only two theologically accepted orientations, turning towards the East and turning towards the people. Now I am hearing of a strange third orientation — to the altar, which is interpreted as the pilgrimage of the people of God with Christ heading towards heaven.

This is the life orientation of all Catholics expressed in poetic language. Church processions symbolize this pilgrimage. But we are here speaking of the Eucharistic celebration where people of God celebrate the paschal mysteries.

It is a gathering for celebration, nobody moves to anywhere. All are staying in the church. Here there are only orientations and no movements. The only valid question is what direction you take.

For St. Augustine, it was the question of turning to the Lord. For him and for his time, it was the east from where the sun rises. All the churches were built east-west.

Turning to the east was not peculiar to the Eastern churches. It was a universal phenomenon.

Historically, it was started by Emperor Constantine for reasons that were personal. Turning to the east was turning to the god of the Roman Empire — the sun. It was about solar domination.

Christ did not become the God of the Roman Empire but through him the Sun God was named Christ.

The Second Vatican Council represented a return to the sources of our faith, which was a paradigm change

The emperor got a revelation on the Milvian bridge “in hoc signovinces” (in this sign you shall conquer). Accordingly, the cross became a sign of war and victory. In him the crusade started.

It also indicated the nature of power, which came to the Church in the form of Pontifex Maximus.

It was a sad metamorphosis of the Gospel view of authority. The bishops inherited the psychology of the royal prince, of which Pope Francis spoke. Are the bishops still living in that psychology?

The Second Vatican Council represented a return to the sources of our faith, which was a paradigm change. The Eucharist shows the new paradigm. The orientation of the Eucharist celebration changed, it turned to the people.

There are no instructions in the Ordo on the orientation. Why? The use of vernacular languages makes turning to the people a must. Authority is exercised in and through synodality, which is a mode of consultation.

Facing God or facing the people is not only a matter of ritual celebrations but also of settling any and every issue in the Church.

The secret of facing lies with language, which arises from mutuality — face to face. Every face is the epiphany of the other, the divine face.

“Hide not your face Lord ... It is your face O Lord that I seek, hide not your face.” (Ps. 102:2). “The face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation.” (Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. p. 198). “This gaze that supplicates and demands … is the epiphany of the face as the face.” (Ibid, p. 75).

As Levinas puts it, “The idea of infinity is concretely produced in the form of a relation with the face.” (Ibid, p.199) The face expresses, and that is language, further “language is justice.”

Socrates did not write anything but was involved in dialogue and was the inventor of morality. Jesus Christ never wrote anything

Responding to the face is itself morality. Every act of dialogue creates an ethic of responsibility. In dialogue, the same cannot dominate and impose. Any rhetoric can impose.

Socrates did not write anything but was involved in dialogue and was the inventor of morality. Jesus Christ never wrote anything.

Language has the mysterious divine power to settle any and every crisis. The Eucharistic text is written and celebrated as a dialogue that requires the celebrant to face the people.

The Holy Mass is at once the enactment of the last supper and the death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection. It is communion between all the faithful who participate in his body and blood.

The Mass is also the making of his body, which has disappeared from us.

The Church as his mystical body utters, “This is my body,” making his absence present, making every Christian embody him in this world. Consequently, every Christian walks on earth as the body of Christ.

To recognize the other is the response of the Eucharistic celebration. To recognize the other is to recognize hunger. To recognize the other is to give. It is taking responsibility for the other, who is facing you.

The ethical orientation to the other is in facing him, but to turn away is indicative of disregard. 

I would say that, for the Christian, the human face is Christ. No dialogue or conversation happens with people turning their backs to others.

Father Paul Thelakat is a Catholic priest of the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church and former spokesman of its synod of bishops. He is editor of Light of Truth, a church-run biweekly from Kochi. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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2 Comments on this Story
When it comes to the commentary on Syro Malabar issues, UCA News has always depended on opinions of the Ernakulam based rebel group. I have brought this matter to the attention of UCA news in the past too. Paul Thelakkat is the ultimate symbol (and a most notorious) of the rebel group. In this article he has resorted to all types of arguments just to prove his point. He is throwing a lot of matter, helter-skelter, in the hope that something would stick. It would be much appreciated if UCA News would invite an official representative of the Syro Malabar Church to explain its stance on the issue of ad orientem or versus populum. Stay away from these representatives of those who want to show, arrogantly, their backside towards God.
Respected Tom, I am not sure whether you are a priest or layman. After reading your comments, I am very pity to say that crisis of the Syro Malabar church comes from this type of behaviour shown in your comment. How much intolerance you felt after reading Fr. Paul Thelakat writing, That is the real problem of Syro, Malabar church leadership too. They are competing for making uniformity in liturgy disregarding the voice of people of God and Preist, it is utter evil, not for unity in the church. Real unity is a gift from God, our task is that welcome that gift and makes it visible to others, rather than just a goal to be achieved for uniformity in the liturgy. Pope Francis is totally against this model of uniformity in the church. When theological, liturgical, spiritual and canonical differences are genuinely rooted in the apostolic tradition, they are not a threat or rebellious or notorious to church, but rather a treasure for the unity of the church. Trying to suppress or insult such
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