The Father is the center of Christian life

Father John A. Kiley

His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze of Rome, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has distinguished himself lately as a defender of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, especially when dealing with liturgical excesses. In an address to a French liturgical commission, he recently cited abuses that result from "an undue place given to spontaneity, or creativity, or to a wrong idea of freedom."

Sad to say, most Catholics have been to Masses in which balloons, birthday cakes and puppets were more in evidence than the crucifix or the bread and wine. But more to the point today were other words of the cardinal to his French audience. The African-born prelate lamented "the error of horizontalism which places man at the center of a liturgical celebration instead of vertically focusing on Christ and his mysteries." In an era which exalts community, in a generation which extols caring and sharing, in an age in which the sign of peace has more significance than Communion itself, decrying the horizontal nature of the liturgy (which it genuinely does possess) might seems unfortunate or improper. Is it possible that the final words of the Mass commissioning the worshipers to go forth in the service of the Lord are misspoken? Could St. Martin of Tours, St. Vincent de Paul, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa have been wide of the mark when they distinguished themselves by their obvious concern for community life? Certainly not. The horizontal dimension of Christianity has been integral to the faith since Christ first welcomed the multitudes who followed him to the countryside. Christianity is an evangelical community, one of whose primary obligations is to spread the Good News by word and deed to the masses. Outreach can never be separated from the true faith.

Yet, as important as charity and justice are to Christianity, worship is even more important - and this is the cardinal's point. The chief purpose for which Mass is said and for which the sacraments are celebrated is the greater honor and glory of God. The worship of the Father through the renewal of Christ's sacrifice, through the offering once again of Christ's body and blood on Catholic altars is the chief obligation of the liturgical assembly. Christians are first and foremost a worshipping people, and, only then a missionary people, as they invite their sisters and brothers worldwide to share in Christ's single, supreme sacrifice of obeisance.

The primacy of the Father in the Christian life is nowhere more evident than in the Sermon on the Mount of St. Matthew or the Sermon on the "level stretch" found in St. Luke. Every action outlined here by Jesus Christ refers all activity back to the Father. Turning the other cheek when struck, standing unclothed in public, lending to deadbeats, loving one's enemies, praying for those who speak ill - these are not natural human responses. No one does these things instinctively. A motivation higher than self-respect or self-concern must enter into the picture. And the higher motivation is God the Father. People would not naturally react by turning the other cheek in an assault or contributing good money after bad to a borrower. Only a higher incentive could provoke this. And St. Luke makes this higher incentive clear when he writes, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." St. Luke is writing here of an ethic of the Father. The Father is the primary motivation for all authentic Christian activity. The Father is the center of the Christian life, as he was the center of Christ's life and Christ's preaching. The vertical dimension, the orientation of the believer toward God through Christ, is the essential theme of Christ's teaching, example and ultimate sacrifice on Calvary. Love of the Father is the basis for all Christian morality as well as the core of every Christian liturgy. It is by expressing this orientation toward the Father that Christians will come to be know as "children of the Most High."

In 1936 Pope Pius XI praised St. Francis of Assisi as the "most Christ-like of all the saints." St. Francis won this accolade not because he was poor or a lover of nature or a humble soul or a friend of lepers and Moslems. St. Francis deserved this title because he referred all things to the Father. His poverty was an act of faith in the Father's providence. His love of nature and lepers and Moslems reflected his belief that God was a Father to all living things. His life was the simple message of God's omnipresent fatherhood. St. Francis' horizontal concern for creation sprang from his vertical dedication to the Creator. Such love of the Father is still the source of all true Christ-likeness and the basis of all good liturgy.

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)