Mysterium Fidei – Towards a New Liturgical Synthesis

Editorial FAITH Magazine November-December 2008s


“Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Matt.: 13:52

Two Liturgies, Two Theologies?

By issuing Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict has confirmed that Latin Rite Catholicism currently has two liturgical forms for offering the Holy Eucharist: the Novus Ordo as the ordinary form and the Usus Antiquior, the older Roman Rite, as the extraordinary form of celebration. There is no real reason why this should be controversial. The Eastern churches regularly use various distinctive rites for the Sacred Mysteries without a problem.

Unfortunately, in the West these two liturgical forms have, in the minds of many people, become linked to two opposing ideological camps. There are those on both sides of this divide who claim that the Novus Ordo and the Missal of 1962 are based on incompatible theologies. Some even assert that they express mutually exclusive models of the Eucharist and of the Church itself, despite the Holy Father making it clear in the Motu Propriu that this is not so (cf. Art 1).
Nonetheless, it is true that there are incompatible theological ideologies abroad in the Church at the moment, which have often become, falsely, attached to particular liturgical movements with their attendant catechesis and parochial practice.

On the one hand we find the idea that the Eucharist is the self expression of the believing community; that Christ’s presence arises from the people as they celebrate and remember Jesus’ supreme act of self giving. Frankly, it is erroneous thinking like this that has led to so many of the abuses that have distorted the Novus Ordo in practice.

For example, there is a widely used English setting for the Agnus Dei which says “Hear our prayer, hear our prayer, in this bread and wine we share may we be your sign of peace everywhere”. Although this is false doctrine as well as a forbidden interpolation of texts, it is this kind of thing that leads some to see the Novus Ordo as inextricably bound up with theological liberalism and subjective worship, sometimes indistinguishable from secular entertainment.

On the other hand, we have those who reject the Second Vatican Council altogether and see no need for any development in the Church’s doctrinal, catechetical or pastoral approach to the world. For them the Tridentine liturgy has become a totem of this wider rejection of the modern Church. Others again love the Usus Antiquior because it is, quite rightly, perceived to express the nature of the Mass as the Sacrifice of Redemption with a highly developed sense of ordered reverence and humble adoration.

Transcendence and Immanence: The Need For Development

Perhaps not surprisingly, enthusiasm for the older liturgical form often goes hand in hand with an older kind of catechesis; although there is no intrinsic reason why that should be so.

The philosophy that underpins the older (although undoubtedly orthodox) catechesis, tends to be formalist, abstract and somewhat formulaic. The understanding that Christ fulfils all that is good in human nature and in creation can be lacking in these theological circles (with notable exceptions, of course), so there is not always a strong emphasis on the link between liturgy and the rest of life. This has led to a corresponding fear among some that the “return” of the “old Mass” (although, as Pope Benedict points out in Summorum Pontificum, it was never actually abrogated), signals a turning away from the attempt to understand and reach out to the modern world.

At heart these are false contradictions. The Holy Father certainly appears to hope that a new liturgical synthesis may emerge over time from the “mutual learning” of the two forms. Any such development will also need to be based on a new theological synthesis that refocuses our understanding of transcendence and immanence in the works of God. We must retain the objectivity of Catholic doctrine and devotion while embracing the modern need for a more existential and personalist approach to faith. The outlines of the approach we propose will be familiar to regular readers. But here we want to approach it from a slightly different angle.

“The Mystery of Faith”: A Point of Connection

At the climax of the Sacred Liturgy of the Latin Rite in both Ordinary and Extraordinary forms we find the words “mysterium fidei”. In the Tridentine liturgy this phrase is part of the formula of consecration spoken over the chalice. In the Novus Ordo these words are proclaimed by the priest immediately after the consecration of the chalice, marking the completed transubstantiation of both Eucharistic species, announcing the presence of Christ upon the altar. The people respond with an acclamation of their own addressed directly to the crucified and risen Lord : “Mortem tuam annuntiamus, Domine, et tuam resurrectionem conftemur, donec venias”.

The1973 ICEL translation gave these words a rather different spin. They changed the concise priestly proclamation of the Eucharistic Sacrifice – the Mystery of mysteries accomplished on earth as it is in heaven – into an invitation to the congregation to make a collective affirmation of faith in the central beliefs of Christianity. “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith”. The first of the three alternative responses given for the congregation in English is, accordingly, couched in the third person: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. It has become more of a mini creed than a liturgical cry of adoration.

With more faithful texts currently in the process of being approved, the authentic interpretation is very likely to be restored in the near future. Nonetheless, the mindset that led the original ICEL ‘translators’ to interpret “Mysterium Fidei” ■in terms of a theological narrative to be recited, rather than as an acclamation addressed to a living person, does touch on some deeper theological and philosophical issues which have wider relevance and more far reaching implications.

Mystery As Sacrament Not Conundrum

The expression “Mysterium Fidei” could also be translated as “The Sacrament of Faith”. For to the Greek Fathers the sacraments are “the mysteries”, because they are the presence and actions of God in Person through the Word Incarnate who lives and ministers in his Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. The sacraments embody and activate in particular times and places the “mystery of God’s purpose set forth in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1.1).

The Eucharist is the Mystery of Faith par excellence because it is the whole Christ offering himself as Sacrifice of Reconciliation and Sacrament of Communion, on earth as he is in heaven. To the Greek mind a mystery is not something ethereal and unreal, it is a Reality that encompasses us. It is not something remote and intangible, but something revealed and active, something so overwhelmingly actual and present that we cannot fully grasp it with our created minds. It is something that we can truly encounter, come to know and grow to love, but never fully comprehend or exhaust as a source of consolation and joy.

On the other hand, for minds deeply influenced by Nominalist traditions of philosophy in the West, a ”mystery” means an intellectual conundrum, something one step removed from worldly experience and therefore not quite real in its psychological impact. So the “mystery of faith” is interpreted as a subjective attitude of conviction towards the unknown.

The Pope On Objective and Subjective Faith

In Spe Salvi Pope Benedict touches on this topic in a fascinating and illuminating passage:
“ In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (v.1) we find a kind of definition of faith which closely links this virtue with hope. Ever since the Reformation there has been a dispute among exegetes over the central word of this phrase, but today a way towards a common interpretation seems to be opening up once more […]: ‘Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen’. For the Fathers and for the theologians of the Middle Ages, it was clear that the Greek word hypostasis was to be rendered in Latin with the term substantia [] faith is the ‘substance’ of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen.

“ Saint Thomas Aquinas, using the terminology of the philosophical tradition to which he belonged, explains it as follows: faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of ‘substance’ is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say ‘in embryo’ […] there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this […] creates certainty. This ‘thing’ which must come is not yet visible in the external world […] but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it haseven now come into existence.

“ To Luther, who was not particularly fond of the Letter to the Hebrews, the concept of ‘substance’, in the context of his view of faith, meant nothing. For this reason he understood the term hypostasis/substance not in the objective sense (of a reality present within us), but in the subjective sense, as an expression of an interior attitude […] In the twentieth century this interpretation became prevalent […] but […] Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent […] It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a ‘proof of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet’. The factthat this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.” (Spe Salvi para 7, see also Pope on St Peter on p. 24 of this issue)

The Knowledge Which Is Faith

Long standing readers of Faith may recognise a parallel thread of thought here with the writings of our own founding editor Fr. Edward Holloway. In the editorial for November-December 1979 [1] he wrote:

“ Faith is a knowing which is conditioned by the relationship of dependence for fulfilment between us and God […]This knowledge, which implies an inbuilt dependence in us towards some outside principle which perfects and fulfils us beyond our own personal capacity, can be a very dim knowledge in the beginning. In fact it must be a dim and partial beginning or it would not be ‘faith’. It is built upon a certain natural power and need to seek, to seek in the order of our spiritual nature, which means to seek through the mind and the heart, through knowing and through loving. But although this seeking arises within our nature, the fulfilment we seek is not one with us […] Faith is that activation of the spirit, through the intellectual powers of the soul, which springs to life when Godtouches and draws the spirit to recreate it and to redeem it. In that order there can be an immense growth. […] It is the milk which alone answers our new-born cravings, and once it is given it becomes the principle of our growth in the likeness of God, in that divine order which is eventually to know and love him as he is in himself”.

For Holloway, knowing of any kind is not only objective, but is an existential insight rather than an abstraction from ‘non-essential’ reality. He was wont to remark that “abstracts don’t exist, only existentials exist!” Knowledge of the real is not by abstraction of the form from the material substrate, but by the recognition of the true - and also the good, the meaningful and the joyful - embedded and embodied in the material existence. Holloway went on:

“There are many sorts of knowing from nature around us which give us clues and analogies to the nature of faith in God […] Even a bird will migrate year after year to one precise spot, from some inborn power to orientate itself. It is a ‘know-how’ built into its very being […] whatever guides and focuses the will can be called in some sense ‘knowledge’”.

Reassessing the Philosophy of Knowledge

Faith is different from routine knowledge not because it is a different kind of knowing - a unique or irrational act of the mind - but precisely because it is knowledge within a supernatural relationship. It cannot, therefore, be arrived at by natural insight, but is the response evoked by divine revelation. It is objective and real, but elevates the mind as far above intra-mundane reasoning as its Object is greater than our reason can grasp. It is truly a personal knowing, but is not simply grounded in our subjective experience, because its Subject, the initiator of the relationship, is the source of our own Being. God is the measure of our minds, not the other way round.

For the Nominalist, knowledge is always subjective, the categories of our own minds projected onto the inchoate phenomena of experience. For the existentialist, truth is a story we tell ourselves to try to make some sense of our lives. Religious doctrine is interpreted as a kind of pooled subjectivity within a particular cultural and spiritual tradition. This is precisely the central paradigm used by Paddy Purnell SJ in his book, Our Faith Story, It’s Telling And It’s Sharing, which is still being put forward as the catechetical blue print for Britain.

In order to answer this we need to move beyond the static, a priori formalism of Aristotelian metaphysics, at least as it came to be expressed in the late neo-scholastic schools. The account of knowing by abstraction left us unable to respond to the great insights of contemporary scientific discovery, because all matter is dismissed as belonging only to the ‘accidental’ order. Our intellectual framework for apologetics became inflexible and unable to respond to the new insights of the day.

In our theology and pastoral catechesis, we did and we still do need a more existential and personalist outlook. However, losing philosophical abstractionism does not have to mean accepting Nominalism or Existentialism. Similarly, accepting the serial interdependency and inter-relativity of all material being - what some call “evolution” in the material order -does not have to mean accepting historic relativism or a random account of Nature.

Knowledge and Relationship Embedded In Nature

The inter-relativity of life forms on earth is anything but random. Material beings are unities of action and reaction. Each thing forms part of the environment in which other entities find their place and from which they take their direction, their limits and possibilities, their very identity as meaningful units within the system. There is a mutual “ministry” of meaning of one thing toward the other in terms of cause and effect. Animals do recognise meaningful entities in their experience and they ‘know’ the natures of what they encounter, but only in so far as they impact on their own survival.

As human beings we are not, therefore, trapped behind the glass wall of our own subjectivity, because our brains are part of this same fabric of meaningful and interconnected reality that is the universe we live in. And as spiritual minds we also perceive the universal relationships which define the objective nature of the things within our experience. Yet we only approximate to the mind of God in this. Our knowledge is experimental and developmental. We can and do deepen our understanding of the natures in Nature as we make new discoveries and gain new insights.
But can we know God objectively? And with what sort of ‘knowledge’ could we know him? The purely material creature has no need to know God directly. Its ‘knowing’ is entirely written into the mathematical relationships which define the valencies of its atoms and molecules, the law-bound reactions of its biochemistry and its biological survival instincts. But with Man it is otherwise. With our superabundant brain power, we cannot be controlled or contained within the material environment alone. Human nature is integrated through the directly and individually created spiritual soul.

There is that in us, therefore, which is truly transcendental, and yet we are not the Transcendent as such. We are not the meaning and measure of creation nor the answer to the enigma of our own existence. Aware of our contingency, we too seek beyond ourselves for our identity. We can know that God exists from the evidence of creation, but we cannot truly ‘know’ the God from whom our fulfilment must come unless he reveals himself to us. And when he is revealed, the impact must necessarily be that of mystery - not something discovered by the light of reason, but a Reality that illuminates our minds with its own incandescent Light.

Human Nature Created Into The Order of Divine Charity

Man is therefore a paradox, a creature with no natural end or fulfilment, only a Supernatural one that is intrinsically beyond his nature. For the categories of ancient Greek philosophy with its vision of self-contained spheres of existence revolving below the Unmoved Mover, this is a problem. But need it be a problem for a world view built on native Christian principles? We can happily say that Man exists in the order of Divine charity; our identity and our destiny are defend through Love alone.

However, the Love that defines us is not arbitrary. It is love focused through supreme Wisdom. The meaning of human nature and human history is set out as a loving plan that makes sense uniquely in Jesus Christ - the Word made flesh. Our mixed nature of matter and spirit is created for life with God through the gift of the Incarnation. We have no other identity. Christ is the template on which human nature is conceived and destined. As St. Paul put it, “Adam is a type of the one to come” (Romans 5.14), and this is the foundational truth that makes redemption after sin possible (cf. Romans 5:15).

St. Paul is telling us that we were built on the model of Christ, but not the other way around. That which is contingent and developmental is predicated upon the coming of the Transcendent One, who unites Himself freely with his creatures. But God is not thereby co-defend with his creation as an aspect of its being and becoming. Christ is always the long expected One on whom the very foundations of the world are aligned. In that sense he is always immanent to the creation; he is indeed the “Son of Man” and “Heir of the Ages”. But he is not the emergent expression of Man becoming divine through cosmic evolution.

We are not, therefore, already “graced” in an a-thematic communion with the Godhead simply by existing. Yet God is truly for us what the Environment is for other creatures on earth - “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17,28). The Divine Being in Itself cannot be an intrinsic dimension of our own existential dynamic, but God’s grace is truly necessary to the realization of our created potential. So God always offers himself to every human being in the measure that they can receive from the first instant of their existence, and that offer is always a prompting towards Christ.

In the fallen world order, Original Sin blocks our primal integration into grace and the gift of divine faith is now given in the first nascent dawning of personal knowledge and love of God as we are drawn into the Life of the Trinity by the action of Christ though the Church at baptism. There cannot be “anonymous Christians” but there may be many anonymous catechumens whom God will not turn away if they do not turn away from him, even though they may not arrive at baptism in this life. For nothing is neutral to God and we are all made for communion with Christ.

Bringing Out Treasures, Both Old and New

So faith is not simply a subjective aspiration, our personal story understood in the light of the Story of Jesus. But it is also more than the formal affirmation of doctrinal facts, although it must come to include that, for faith is an assent of the whole person to God’s revelation in Christ, which therefore includes assent of the mind to the words of the Word made flesh. Likewise, the Mass is not simply the self expression of the community as “Spirit in The World”, but it does gather the lives and prayers of the faithful and the gifts of Nature and bring them to God at the altar. Just as Mary brought the created order to its perfection in her body and soul and became the vehicle for the Incarnation through her faith and obedience to God’s purposes, the people’s gifts are gathered athands of the priest in persona Christi to be taken up to God in the Great Offering which is both Sacrifice and Communion.

“The Mystery of Faith” describes both an inner relationship with God that grows from dim but real beginnings in the individual soul at baptism towards to the fullness of vision, and it also describes the public revelation of the Word of God from Adam to Christ - and then deepens in the heart of the Church without change of content from the Incarnation to the Parousia. The inner word of faith is the substance of personal union of mind and heart with God in Christ, and the outer Word of Faith is the substance of God Incarnate speaking and acting in human history.

Both the inner and the outer substance of faith are brought together in the Eucharist. For the Eucharist is the Living Christ, abiding in risen glory to be adored, substantially and actively present in his ministry of redemptive love to be received with humble joy and gratitude. We hail him there as the “Existential of existentials” one might say- fully Divine and fully human - and we cleave to him as the “Mystery of Faith”.

We do not just proclaim doctrines about him in a cold and formal way. Neither do we merely remember him as stories to be admired and imitated. We are joined to him in living communion of spirit and a mystical union of body. Faith is indeed the substantial and embryonic reality of this communion which is not yet apparent to the bodily senses. Like the young of some animals that are born blind, we are in communion with the life giving nourishment that sustains and nourishes us, yet our eyes have not yet opened to see the face of the Beloved. The Mystery of Faith is nothing at all abstract, but neither is it subjective. It is the already present reality of the Father’s glory which Christ shares with us and confers upon us by the indwelling of Holy Spirit in the sacramental life.
It is along these lines that we must correct and answer the false immanentism that has distorted not just liturgy, but catechesis and Christian formation in so many places. Along these lines we can find a new development of orthodoxy which will bring out the full majesty of Christ as Mysterium Fidei. at the heart of our liturgy and of our lives.

[1] Republished in Theological Perspectives Volume 1: Christ The Sacrament of Creation (see inside back cover) available for download at Shop/PersTheoDownload.htm or as a bound volume from Family Publications

Faith Magazine

November - December 2008