Liturgy, Learning and the Language of the Catholic Faith

In the past decade there has been much written in the field of education about learning styles. Some of us are primarily auditory learners, others visual, tactile or kinetic learners. Great teachers recognize different learning styles and deliver the message in more than one manner.

Ahead of Its Time

This has led to an explosion of “multimedia presentations” in many learning environments, whether it is the traditional school context, the corporate training center or the recreational setting.

Marshall McLuhan, the father of the modern study of communication and a Catholic convert, titled his groundbreaking book The Medium Is the Massage. It explored the way media affect human consciousness. A later McLuhan book, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, includes an essay titled “Liturgy and Media.” Although his analysis is often called “prophetic,” his thoughts on the liturgy were surprisingly traditional. And that brings us to the liturgy, that ancient multimedia presentation of the greatest message of all time by the greatest teaching institution of all time, the Catholic Church.

Who would have guessed that the “smells and bells” and all the other sensory elements of the ancient Catholic liturgy were ahead of their time and on the cutting edge of modern education theory just when the world is proclaiming the obsolescence of the Church, its message and its Founder? “God is dead!” You can’t get more obsolete. Unless you can’t keep that Good Man down. The Resurrection keeps getting resurrected. Now there was a multimedia event, the Resurrection. What leads up to it and what flows from it is what the liturgy is all about.

Learning the Catholic Language

Many who become fluent in a foreign language speak of the experience of total immersion in a foreign environment as the key to attaining fluency. Even for those skilled in classroom studies and exercises, the experience of total immersion can be very stressful, but it yields the desired goal of fluency. One friend told me of her experience as a foreign exchange student speaking French in Belgium. She was stressed for months, always mentally translating from French to English or from English to French in her head before speaking or understanding, until finally at the moment of greatest stress when she found it hard even to sleep, the breakthrough came. She began to dream in French and during the dreams no mental translation needed. From that point she was able to think and speak French without having to translate conversations in her head.

People come into the Catholic Church in many ways. For some it is a process similar to osmosis through immersion. They come to Mass every week with family or friends or by themselves, drawn by grace and an internal need. At first the liturgy may seem alien, foreign, incomprehensible, but they are among friends. Months or years may pass. At some point they begin to think of themselves as Catholics because they understand; the liturgy is no longer foreign, it has become their natural spiritual environment and language. They dream Catholic dreams and understand them without need of translation.

Many who study the Catholic faith in books and classrooms, yet lack the experience of immersion in the liturgy for an extended period, never really understand the Catholic faith. The essence gets lost in translation. They never experience the breakthrough that allows them to “think Catholic” without mental translation from their native spiritual language. It does not flow through them. They lack fluency.

Sadly many who are “born Catholic” and “raised Catholic” also fail to achieve fluency in the Catholic faith for a variety of reasons. They are like Americans who never master their native tongue, while encountering those of foreign birth who speak English exquisitely and often resenting them.

Getting the Message Across

When we are immersed in the liturgy we are totally engaged in worship; body, mind and spirit all lifted up by sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and movement, in what the Catechism calls “the source and summit of the Christian life”; ”the sum and summary of our faith”; “a pledge of the glory to come”; and ”an anticipation of the heavenly glory” (CCC 1324, 1327, 1402). No sensory mode of conveying the great message is left out. We are invited not only to “taste and see” but also to smell, hear and feel the goodness of the Lord. It’s remembrance, but it isn’t Memorex or virtual reality; it’s really live. It’s the real, not the counterfeit. It’s incarnational.

The celebration of other sacraments too is part of the liturgy of the Church. So we find these other sacraments integrated into the eucharistic liturgy in many places. From beginning to end, from baptism to the anointing of the sick, we encounter Christ through the senses of our flesh, as well as through our spirits. Christ comes to us in the sacraments through the “media” of word and matter in the liturgy. He who was baptized and anointed, baptizes and anoints us. He feeds us the bread of life and the cup of salvation. He forgives us our sins. He ministers to us in His priests.

The liturgy is the sacred work of the Church and the public experience and exposition of the Catholic faith for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This is why the Church must get its liturgical act together and perform its public work well. There is delicate work to be done. We must avoid or root out errors and abuses that distort the message and garble the language that is the liturgy. But this has to be done without stifling legitimate cultural diversity.

Bishops, pastors and their lay associates must understand that it is in the liturgy, more than in any other religious education program, that the Catholic faith is taught and learned. If we don’t get the message across in the liturgy, it’s not likely we will get it across in a classroom. If we celebrate the liturgy poorly, the faithful will receive a distorted faith because they will receive a distorted transmission of the faith. Classroom education in the Catholic faith should focus on explaining the faith in the context of the liturgy so that a learning synergy exists, rather than a cognitive disconnect. It is not by accident that the first half of the Catechism consists of the Profession of Faith and the Celebration of the Christian Mystery. Without that solid foundation there is no life in Christ, no Christian prayer, no fluency in the Catholic faith. And fluent Catholics are exactly what are needed for the articulate evangelism that is our common vocation.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Stephen Pohl is a graduate of Towson State University with a degree in Theater Arts. He lives with his wife and daughter in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are members of St. Gabriel's parish.

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