“People Look East” – Advent Song, Advent Worship

 Orienting Advent and Lent

Some Reflections on Worship by Fr. Stefano Penna

For Catholics, nothing is more political than the liturgy. It must be so. “Politics” comes from the old Greek word for the ‘city’ … When you live in ‘city’ changing any little thing that is shared by the community affects everyone in the community. There is a great scene in one of my favourite books, The Little World of Don Camillo, where the old tough-minded and ferociously strong parish priest has been exiled because of getting into a fight (literally) with the mayor. The bishop sends a replacement who is a bespectacled and studious young priest. But when the people all show up to see how this young new priest is going to comport himself, they discover that he has moved a candle and replaced it with a picture of St. Rita. The people sit with deep disquiet. Finally, the mayor can take it no longer [he is as headstrong as Don Camilo with whom he had the fistfight] and he marches up to the front of the church and removes the picture of St. Rita to the applause of the whole community. Communist and Catholic alike are united against the one who dared to change the way their church, and thereby the way their community, was set up. They proceed to boycott Holy Mass until Don Camillo is returned.

I’ve always tried to teach this lesson to the seminarians entrusted to me: don’t change anything until you absolutely have to in a parish. Each church is inhabited by the particular People of God who have been there for decades and the pastor of that community is there but for a moment. Well I’ve been with this community now for almost 5 ½ years. What a journey it has been. And now we are walking together looking forward to the new things that God will be doing in this parish in the years ahead. Together we have decided that it is time to renovate this house of our worship so reflective of who we are. It is indeed “political” – but it is the politics of those who belong to the City of God.

Who really knows what the particularities of the future will be – that rests in the mystery of Providence. All we do know is that Jesus will be with us. Jesus will lift our vision through the power of his Spirit dwelling within us to see always the glory of God resting before us. As our world becomes more and more introspective and technologically divided our Christian community and our faith – reflected in the very building that houses our worship – will continually call people to look beyond the horizons imposed by the works of their hands. We are preparing a church building that will lead people to give glory to God only, to marvel at his pitching His tabernacle (tent) amongst us as He dwells in the power of the Spirit with us in our Eucharistic Lord.

We are a people who, “look ahead”. We are truly people who are “progressive because we know where we are going unlike others in the secular world who are quite content just to keep going and trusting that human beings can figure everything out. Our hope is of a different intensity, we recognize that, created in the image of God, we have been redeemed in Christ Jesus so that we can be very image of God. Lifting our eyes to the glory that awaits us we are able to live in the world with a joy and freedom unknowable by those who think this world is all there is. Indeed, our church and our community remain faithful only to the degree that we live for God only –soli Deo. We do not use God in order to enjoy the world rather we use the world in order to enjoy God.

This is an important point to make. In the politics of the Church and its liturgical life since the Second Vatican Council there has always been a constant refrain, “we can’t go back to the way things were.” I take seriously the experience of freedom for a deepened relationship with God that came to those who lived through the time of the second Vatican Council as young adults… They are now octogenarians and are blessed with wisdom we must respect. For many of that generation, constantly told by their leaders how inadequate things were in the past, anything that hints of “tradition” represents the denial of the deep freeing relationship that they experienced in the post-Vatican II years. “You are taking us backwards with all your Latin, and old-fashioned hymns, with your talk of altar rails and your insistence on the Sacrament of Confession.” I have heard them say that they grew up in a time of rules not relationship. I think I understand the legitimate concern in this:  there never were really “good old days” there were just simply days that happened before; some of these days were good, many of them weren’t, but none of them are anymore. It is simply impossible to go backwards – God set this up quite definitively when he organized time.

But there’s a strange agreement between an older generation when it comes to the liturgy of the past and the new generation when it comes to the old generation. Do you not notice how so much of the education of our children nowadays focused on how terrible people were in the past? Our children are often taught how racist we were, how bigoted and unenlightened we were, how frightfully disrespectful of the environment we were, how bound we were by old-fashioned ideas of sexuality and relationship. What is old is at best inadequate and most probably a terrible burden to be carried by a much more free new generation. It is not the case anymore that our children see themselves standing on the shoulders of giants but rather that they are condemned to hauling around the dead carcasses of the past unless they cut themselves free. But that of course is the short-sightedness that comes with not having lived very long – and that is the short-sightedness that is natural to the young.

But, why does the older generation silently acquiesce to this? Is it out of a strange sense of guilt that their own self-absorbed generation really did do a ‘number’ on their children and deserve to be excoriated? Or is it out of an inability to really want to engage this young generation because it is not comfortable and might bring with it a recognition of a failure in parenting. So, the generation that left their children at home to be raised by the television while it pursued self-fulfillment in workplaces, self-help conferences, and golf courses falls back on its own practice of leaving their children’s children to be raised by social media. All the while, this generation consoles themselves that “our kids might not be religious but they’re good.”


Of course, this is too simple an analysis – and so it is inadequate. Yet, there is something about my generation that is definitely ‘self-absorbed’. Simply, many of us have had the luxury of having a lot of time on our hands because we didn’t have to labour hard just to stay alive (how clearly this is written by someone a generation removed from being an immigrant). And in that time, we have spent a lot of energy focussed on ourselves. Remember, the appellation the “me” generation was applied to us folks who were kids in the 70’s (I wonder which generation was not a “me” generation). We were haunted by a question, “how am I fulfilled?” – and unsatisfied by the answers, we jumped in and out of relationships. Strangely, if we were not being battered around by the feelings that arose when we turned inward, we were very quick to assign blame (sometimes justly) at others: mothers, fathers, Church, Government all came into our sights. We had more freedom than any other human generation before – and we were not quite clear what to do with it.

            This inward-looking spirit of a generation of course shaped the way that we worshipped in Church. Inculturation doesn’t just happen in exotic non-European locations – it happens across time and between generations. The reforms of the Vatican Council took place against this backdrop. They were creative, sometimes silly, and always deeply politically charged. (Mass around the coffee table with spontaneous Eucharistic prayers in the student lounge at St. Thomas More where a few minutes before couples were making out to the music of My Sharona felt a little weird). It is not just this current “woke” generation that is marked by hyper-sensitivity to being offended. When I was in Seminary studying at a Jesuit College, one of my placements was to co-ordinate the college liturgies. I will never forget the time that the schedule resulted (accidentally) in all of the liturgical ministries being filled by men … the women rushed out of the Mass in tears before we could start. Those were the days. I am shaped by this in positive ways I think – I am conscious of language and practices that exclude anyone unjustly. However, I also realize that something was quite off-track in this.

Liturgy is the ‘work of the People’ who are able to do what they were created to do because of the Gift of the Spirit who unites us with Jesus who has destroyed the barrier that prevented people from doing this work. What is this “work” for which human beings are created? It is the worship of God. Yes, GOD is the one we come to worship. We do not gather to make certain that everyone feels represented and their pronouns and ideas respected. That is human-centered. Can you imagine going to Christmas dinner prepared by your parents and all that you did was spend your time talking about what your siblings are wearing, if the food is to your liking, and rehashing family conflicts … and never pay attention to your parents? Well, that was kind of the way in which the liturgy strayed.

A word from Pope Benedict writing about the clericalization of the liturgy.

“Now the priest – the “presider”, as they now prefer to call him – becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing. Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this newly created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting them and entrusting the “creative” planning of the liturgy to groups of people who like to, and are supposed to, “make their own contribution”. Less and less is God in the picture. More important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a “pre-determined pattern”. The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself. The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people”: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord”. (The Spirit of the Liturgy, pg. 80)

            The music sounded like Disney musicals or soft-rock (not that there is not a venerable tradition of using popular music in hymns – Martin Luther used a German drinking song as the tune for A Mighty Fortress is our God). But most of all the lyrics of modern music was either about us singing to each other… or about God singing to us. Even Praise and Worship music sounds a lot like its aim is the congregation’s feelings. Now, there is good in this – the experience of the pre-Vatican II Mass was often that of being a spiritual spectator who really wasn’t necessary to the work of the priest as he read his Mass. This misplaced the fundamental truth that, “for us, and for our Salvation” Christ left us the Mass. Jesus’ gift is that we can worship God in Spirit and Truth in the Holy Mass – we are not “spectators” reciting our Rosaries at the Eucharistic Sacrifice – we are a priestly people who share in the Sacrifice. St. Augustine’s insistence that all at the Mass understand that they are transformed along with the Bread and Wine in the Divine Mystery rings clear, “See yourselves on the Altar, receive who you are, be what you Receive!” This is why the fundamental principle of liturgical reform of Vatican II is ‘active participation’. The veil of the Temple has been torn in two, and worship of God in and through Christ Jesus stands open for all to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. However, as in most things, the “corrective” swing of worship from spectator to participant became exaggerated. It moved from “See yourself on the Altar by seeing Christ” to “Can I see myself on the Altar”. The music of “we, we, we” – liturgies that put all the emphasis on personalities (the priest, the choir leader, the reader) could not compete against all the other experiences (Rock Concerts, Movies, Sports) that really could stimulate people … and the churches that emptied themselves of distracting statues of saints were soon emptied of people trying to be saints.

            I know, I know. There are a lot of huge claims that I have made. I am a trained scholar so I recognize that there is peril in making sweeping comments. But, to quote Jordan Peterson, I have thought a lot about this and I have read a lot about this – so while I do caution against accepting my comments simply because they are my comments (that is the fallacy of arguing from authority), nonetheless, I wish to make my developing reflections known to you, my parish, because it is what underlies what I bring to our journey together in worshipping God. I have never been happier in my priesthood than being your Pastor, sharing the Word with you and – most of all – celebrating the Sacraments as your priest.  And I assure you, the way in which we celebrate the Liturgy at St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral and the plan for renovations that will bring even more beauty to this venerable place is completely reflective of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council… as well, they are responsive to spiritual longing of a new generation of Catholics.

Mass “ad orientem

Three times during the week (Fridays, Saturdays, and Sunday Evening at 8 p.m.), and during special seasons and Solemnities, Holy Mass is celebrated according to the Roman Missal ad orientemto the East. This is the way almost every Christian rite worshipped (and still worships) all through the long history of the Church. It might look strange, and it might seem to be an artificial gesture of “protest” rather than the organic expression of the worship which belongs to the Holy Church and not to any individual priest or community. Here is a deeper reflection on this “attitude” of worship.

Advent is a season of joyful waiting … waiting for the coming of the Son of God who has already come in the flesh and will come in Eternal Glory. It fits well with the natural season here in the West of Canada. The dark grows longer … but the sun soon will reverse the darkness. The Sun – so glorious in its rising in our prairie home – rises in the East earlier and earlier. Daylight comes to chase away night and bring life, from the East. Lux ex oriente. “Light from the East”. So, Christians – children of the Light – have turned to the East. The morning prayer of the Church proclaims, “The Rising Sun shall shine on us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace (the Benedictus Prayer, Luke 1:79). The Rising Sun is Christ Risen from the Dead. He it is who sets our minds and hearts in the right direction – to God. So, they – and we – turn to the East to get their bearings as we are borne by Jesus.  And so – even in this secular time – we have “orientation” days – getting our bearings from turning to the East. Soon the “spring” days of Lent will come and they will grow long again – and the longing of the People of God for the Resurrected One will be fulfilled.

From the earliest days of the Church the People of God turned “to the East” in their worship. We adopt this position at certain Masses, especially during this Lent. We Worship the God who directs our eyes and hearts beyond the horizon. We meet our God meeting us in the Sacrifice of Christ with which we are united at the Holy Altar. So, having the light of God shine on our face we can turn to the World – to the poor, to our neighbours, to those crying for justice, to the faceless ones on the margins – with the Light shining from our faces and our hearts. We can do so because we have communed with our God.

You are turning your back to us Father”. Thus, many of our elders remember the silent masses of the past. It is not at all what is meant by this orientation. The Priest and People are all on the same side of the altar as they worship God, the Priest and the People are all on the same side of the table to receive the Heavenly Food. Jesus Christ – the High Priest – leads us in the prayer of the New Covenant that He offered on the Cross. Jesus Christ – the Lamb of Sacrifice – comes to feed His People. One of the gifts of our sanctuary as we find it now is that the Altar is indeed close so that it is quite clear that the priest is leading the prayer to God. United in looking East, united in bringing Him to the World.

Let us consider the words of Cardinal Sarah, recently retired Prefect of the Congregation for the Sacraments at the Vatican,

To convert is to turn towards God. I am profoundly convinced that our bodies must participate in this conversion. The best way is certainly to celebrate — priests and faithful — turned together in the same direction: toward the Lord who comes. It isn’t, as one hears sometimes, to celebrate with the back turned toward the faithful or facing them. That isn’t the problem. It’s to turn together toward the apse, which symbolizes the East, where the cross of the risen Lord is enthroned.

By this manner of celebrating, we experience, even in our bodies, the primacy of God and of adoration. We understand that the liturgy is first our participation at the perfect sacrifice of the cross. I have personally had this experience: In celebrating thus, with the priest at its head, the assembly is almost physically drawn up by the mystery of the cross at the moment of the elevation.

The Position of the Altar in the New Renovation

            St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral is a Romanesque church. That means that its interior space follows the pattern of the earliest large gathering places built and occupied by Christians for their worship of God. The essence of these churches was that they were simple, open to the flow of worship by people, and centred upon the altar on which the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Immediately upon entering, a person was called to lift their eyes and turned their heart towards the Lord. Three vital visual experiences greeted the worshiper: first, their body was directed towards “the East” from whence the mystery of God was coming to meet them; secondly, before their eyes they saw the crucifix upon which the deepest meeting of God and man in saving love took place; thirdly, they beheld the altar upon which the mystery of the sacrifice of the Cross and the Resurrection It won was encountered as Jesus commanded, through a Thanksgiving offering and meal. That altar was shrouded as was the tabernacle carried by the tribes of Israel by the Holy Presence of the Spirit, not to bar people from entering but rather open to feed the community of believers with the bread of life. The structure over top of the altar itself proclaimed the mystery of the altar for it was called a “ciborium” – a food place (cibo  in Latin and Italian means “food”). We shall introduce this structure – a new element for the Co-Cathedral but a fundamental element of the early life of Christians who lived in apostolic missionary times. How appropriate for the missionary times in which we now live will be this open offer to all who enter to lift the eyes of their hearts to the Lord, to share in the Salvation He offers from the Cross, and to taste as Food the Body and Blood of Christ Resurrected.

The way in which altar covered by the ciborium is placed will allow both the celebration of the Eucharist versus populi (“towards the people”) and ad orientem (“towards the East”). This will allow flexibility while anchoring the Altar – in other words, anchoring Christ the Altar – at the center of the community that will worship God in this holy place for years to come, Deo volente!

What is this Renovation all about?

The Orientation of our Co-Cathedral Parish

Well, it is about orientation. Funny how when I earned the ‘Orientation’ Cub Scout Badge, I was given a compass that was always pointing to the North (that technically would be Septentrionation – hmmm). That focus on turning to the East to get our bearings still reminds us that ours was a culture that used to turn to God the Risen Lord Jesusto get its bearings. Not so much anymore.

But that is what we do – we come daily and on the Lord’s Day to get our bearings. We come before the Christ the King, His Throne is the Cross-become-Altar where we are able to do what human beings were created for and are able to do fully only in Christ: worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth. At the heart of Saskatoon-the-busy will be renewed the place where in quiet prayer and in loving worship, people may get their bearings.

What will we discover? That Christ is bearing us! He is carrying and caring for us. This we discover on our knees before the great mystery of the Cross where “kings stand silent before Him.” We who are born of the water flowing from His side and borne – carried into the world as a flood of communion not just versus populi but ad populum (“for the people”). And that Flood of Communion is nothing less than we who are His Body living at the heart of every place we go.