From time to time in various debates about the liturgy, the principle of lex orandi lex credendi surfaces. While the Latin might be a little off putting, the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the concept as follows:
When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi according to Prosper of Aquitaine [5th cent.]). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. (CCC1124)
While this concept is central to our faith, many times I feel the concept has become a meaningless formula. How does prayer form our belief? More importantly, how does the highest prayer we can offer (liturgical worship) impact our belief as Catholics? In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of a mystagogical understanding of the liturgy. Once again, the principle is a lot easier than the word itself. The Holy Father states:
Another aspect of catechesis which has developed in recent decades is mystagogic initiation. This basically has to do with two things: a progressive experience of formation involving the entire community and a renewed appreciation of the liturgical signs of Christian initiation.
Why Are Liturgical Signs Important?
While we can all quote the Catechism’s clarity on the manner, we must also concede the truth that in most parishes, this understanding of the liturgy is seldom put into practice. When we think catechesis, we think of classes either after mass or even during mass for the children. (A gripe for another time.) If we manage to take our faith seriously, we might look at opportunities for catechesis by reading the documents of the Church and the Popes. According to Pius XI in Quas Primas, there is one thing missing from our formation in faith:
For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year — in fact, forever. The church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God’s teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life. (Quas Primas, Paragraph 21)
Encyclicals have their place (as this column shows) but their use is quite limited, and will likely benefit only a few people. As much as people are buzzing about Evangelii Gaudium, we should remember these words of Pius XI and accept that the overall impact of this papal writing will be minimal upon the Church. Catholics need to recover this sense of the liturgy, and show how the liturgy impacts every aspect of the faith. Every aspect from our education, our ability and desire to evangelize must have its roots within the liturgy.
How Does the Liturgy Catechize?
In order to properly answer this question, we need to understand what catechesis is. For many, catechesis is simply “learning about the faith.” When we learn the doctrinal understanding of the Eucharist, we are participating in catechesis. This is the accepted view of catechesis today. It is also wrong. St. Pius X (probably one of the 19th and 20th centuries greatest catechists) devoted an entire encyclical to the topic of catechesis, and he said the following:
The task of the catechist is to take up one or other of the truths of faith or of Christian morality and then explain it in all its parts; and since amendment of life is the chief aim of his instruction, the catechist must needs make a comparison between what God commands us to do and what is our actual conduct. After this, he will use examples appropriately taken from the Holy Scriptures, Church history, and the lives of the saints — thus moving his hearers and clearly pointing out to them how they are to regulate their own conduct. He should, in conclusion, earnestly exhort all present to dread and avoid vice and to practice virtue…
Too often it happens that ornate sermons which receive the applause of crowded congregations serve but to tickle the ears and fail utterly to touch the hearts of the hearers. Catechetical instruction, on the other hand, plain and simple though it be, is the word of which God Himself speaks through the lips of the prophet Isaias: “And as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth and water it, and make it to spring and give seed to the sower and bread to the eater: so shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth. It shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it.” We believe the same may be said of those priests who work hard to produce books which explain the truths of religion. They are surely to be commended for their zeal, but how many are there who read these works and take from them a fruit commensurate with the labor and intention of the writers? The teaching of the Catechism, on the other hand, when rightly done, never fails to profit those who listen to it. (Acerbo Nimis, 13-14)
How much of our catechesis is anything remotely approaching what St. Pius X outlines? How often do we think about these things in the liturgy? This is probably one of the greatest challenges Catholics face today, especially those of a more traditionalist bent. We are frequently told that the liturgical symbolism we cherish is something that, while beautiful, does not have relevance for today’s world. Rather than get upset, we should realize that unless we approach things like St. Pius X encourages us to, they are right. Every aspect of lex orandi, lex credendi needs to be read through this understanding. How do the different parts of the Mass guide us along the way to holiness? How does the symbolism we love elevate hearts to ponder the heavenly mysteries? How do the things of this world we use in our celebration of the liturgy take on an Incarnational aspect, that is, elevating the things of this world by placing them in the service of Heaven? How can we use them in giving the Gospel?
This call is not an optional one. So long as it remains optional, there is no chance of renewing our Church. Most of us are withholding one of the strongest tools our faith has, and the challenge of today is how to overcome this problem.