An old adage instructs, “As we pray, so we believe.” On this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, it is certainly worthwhile to look carefully at the contemporary Church to analyze how Catholics pray and what this prayer reveals about the nature and importance of Catholic beliefs. The holy sacrifice of the Mass as it is celebrated today happily illustrates that the beliefs of the Catholic Church today are much broader than the beliefs treasured by our parents and grandparents and by many centuries of believers. The Second Vatican Council backed up its acknowledgement of the “universal call to holiness” issued by God to every person by several liturgical changes that happily draw the laity more and more into active participation in the rituals that constitute the Mass and the sacraments which are certainly the heart of Catholic prayer and the chief enactment of Catholic beliefs.
For centuries, Catholics prayed quietly in their pews while bishops, priests, deacons and selected servers celebrated on their behalf the Eucharistic and sacramental mysteries bequeathed to the Church by Christ. Indeed such prayers at Mass (rather than prayers of the Mass) were a valid and productive form of liturgical participation. Generations of devout Catholics drew much grace and strength from this quiet participation at Mass. In fact, they were quietly offering Mass, too. A traditional offering prayer at Mass has long read, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father.” So the Church has always believed that lay persons were taking an active, if subdued, role in the Mass. But the rites at Mass did little to affirm this core belief. The Fathers at Vatican II were enlightened by the Spirit to bring the Church’s prayer more in line with the Church’s beliefs.
Choral presentations have been integral to Catholic life since Jesus left the first Eucharist “after singing a hymn.” Gregorian chant is truly a Catholic treasure as were the operatic compositions of Palestrina. But an emphasis on congregational singing is new to much of the Catholic world. Many pre-Vatican II pews offered neither hymnals nor Bibles. Now the laity are encouraged to offer their voices in effective praise of God at Mass. The liturgy of the Word at Mass was for many centuries ironically unspoken. Whispered at the altar by the priest, the first reading on Sunday (always from an Epistle and never from the Old Testament) might be read from one’s own missal. These sacred words were rarely proclaimed. The Gospel thankfully was read from a pulpit with a sermon to follow, but only on Sundays and Holy Days. Only the most progressive parishes would recite or sing the Creed. The present day Liturgy of the Word has dramatically altered this previous quiet time. The Old Testament, the New Testament, the Gospel accounts are proclaimed by both laity and clergy. An instructive and inspiring homily hopefully follows. There is even a brief pause for reflection. And again, the so-called “Prayer of the Faithful,” or Universal Prayer, concluding the Liturgy of the Word, respectfully introduces the lay world’s concerns into the Church’s liturgy.
The faithful for many centuries did participate in what was called the Offertory by dutifully and generously dropping their donations into a collection basket. Now the presentation and preparation of gifts calling for the bread and wine to be brought from the nave to the sanctuary is a graphic illustration of Catholic belief. Bread and wine which are the “work of human hands” are both rich emblems of human enterprise and expertise, aptly symbolizing the life of the laity who humbly present these gifts for sacrifice. And while the lay faithful have always endorsed the consecratory words of the priest by a resounding “Amen!” at the conclusion of the Canon, now the faithful are encouraged to acclaim the sacramental re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery by a sung affirmation, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.”
The now ubiquitous recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as well as the exchange of a respectful sign of peace among the faithful themselves (and not merely handed down from the priest) along with the opportunity for the laity to receive Communion under both species are further indications that the universal Church encourages active liturgical participation by all worshippers as an affirmation of their divinely-determined importance within the believing community. So indeed, “As we pray, so we believe.” When the Catholic Church encourages the attentive and respectful participation of the lay faithful throughout the Church’s rites and rituals, the Church is affirming its belief that laity as well as clergy, people as well as priest, are recipients of God the Father’s “universal call to holiness,” so integral to the solemn instructions of Vatican II.