Under my roof

I thought I was done talking about the liturgy.  I really thought I was. There is a point where you move from “vibrant and ongoing conversation” to “dead horse of a thousand contusions,” especially when you’re blogging. I get that.

But one of my friends called me right before New Year’s, and we talked about the Mass changes. Suddenly I had a new perspective, one which still begins in my frustration over literal translation but definitely transcends it.

My friend works with the homeless. Actually, at his organization they prefer to say “folks experiencing homelessness.” Saying “the homeless” defines people by their state and carries a whiff of dehumanizing.

He is well-acquainted with an urban parish where much of the congregation experiences homelessness. The parish decided not to implement all the changes in the revised Missal. One phrase they took special care to excise: “under my roof.”

Before Communion we no longer say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” In a nod to Latinate precision, as well as to the story of the centurion seeking his servant’s healing (see Matthew 8:8), we now say “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.”

At this particular parish, however, many worshipers have not had a roof for a long time. Many may never have one again. This gives them, and the parish as a whole, a very different perspective on both life and church. So the leadership made a pastoral decision. They simply refused to make congregants speak of roofs.

For me, “under my roof” was one of the less odious changes. But hearing this story made me realize something about homelessness and God’s relationship to those who endure it. God is one of those folks experiencing homelessness, and it’s not a metaphor. The homeless God, in the person of Jesus, is literal.

Jesus was not being poetic but matter-of-fact when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Luke 9:58). His chosen homelessness, his life on the edge and on the run, was integral to the form and meaning of a mission principally carried out among outcasts. It should be an important factor in interpreting, continuing, and publicly celebrating his mission today.

But the ordinary Catholic Mass, the main contact most Catholics have with their faith and what it asks of them, easily sidesteps this reality. Liturgy prefers God the majestic and Christ the king. This has been true for centuries, ever since Christianity spread beyond its origins among fishermen and slaves, and the Third Edition of the Roman Missal just underlines the problem with a bit more pencil.

I am beginning to understand we have much bigger questions than whether the new English translation is good or bad, worse than or better than. Something about Jesus’ very Jesus-ness was already obscured before the consubstantiality, the prevenient grace, the precious chalice poured out for many, and our most grievous fault. It seems somewhat more obscured now. And those who lack roofs have already understood this for a long time.

5 thoughts on “Under my roof

  1. There’s a secondary meaning to the response, though. This response is made immediately preceding Holy Communion, the point at which we receive the Lord via our mouth – which in fact has a roof. Thus, the response is saying “Lord, I’m not worthy to take you into myself, under the roof of my mouth…”

    I think your friend’s parish leadership, while trying to be compassionate to those experiencing homelessness – which is commendable – totally dropped the ball on this. Their compassion is seriously misplaced. I don’t think the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the time or place to show how compassionate we are to a certain group of people – it’s the time and place to have right worship to God. He and He alone ought to be the focus – it’s after the Mass, when we are dismissed, when we are commissioned to love our neighbor as ourselves. Proper places and proper times.

    Incidentally, I was not aware that individual parishes had the right to change words of the liturgy. This sets bad precedent, and has me greatly concerned. I hope someone alerts the bishop to what’s been done at this parish.

    • The suspicion at the end of your comment is presumably true: I don’t know of any provision of canon law or official discipline that “allows” the parish to do it, and in that sense you could say they have no right to do it. My understanding is that the diocese knows and is looking the other way.

      What you say seems logical: worship is God-directed; God alone is the focus; seeming to focus on the worshiping community is therefore at best misguided, at worst narcissistic. But I don’t see this parish diluting that focus. If Jesus is God, and Jesus lived among people very much like the parishioners—indeed, apparently he himself lived very much like the parishioners—then that ought to factor into our worship. To focus on God is also to focus on what God thinks is important, exemplified in how God chose to live when God took flesh. And liturgy, as those promoting the exalted vocabulary of the new translation kept pointing out, is educative.

      Meanwhile, God is never unmediated, never without a thousand faces. The context of a particular community, the stuff of its life, has much to do with how God is experienced there. This in turn affects how that particular community should worship. Rubrics are an ideal thing; community life is a real thing. This is why we have provisions and indults for different liturgical rites. And while the parish I describe does not have the historic or legal relationship with the Vatican that, say, the Eastern Rites have, or that the Anglican Ordinariate or the Ambrosian Rite have, they felt they had to risk this pastoral decision because God and the Eucharist look different in the streets. We don’t know how different unless we are there, too.

  2. It also feels wrong to worry about “offending” some group, I mean, every sentence could offend some group, so we would have to have a custom version for each single parish. This is not what the church is about, is it?

    My main point is: even if you are homeless, you don’t always sleep under the stars, even if you sleep in a car, under a bush or an overhang, you still have a roof, you still have a place that you call “yours” for a short period of time, a place that you would be offended if someone else came in and tried to lay down in.
    Secondly, people know what a roof is and can relate.

    • “This is not what the church is about, is it?” I disagree. Profoundly. Universality is not the same as uniformity. St. Paul said he became all things to all to save at least some. Being Christian implies doing one’s best to enter the reality of people who are not you, especially when those people are vulnerable and marginal. (We have a great model: the Incarnation.) Being Christian means being willing to check one’s ego, to suspend one’s conventions, when those vulnerable people tell you what the score really is. I trust the pastoral judgment of those who knew their sheep deeply enough to realize that “under my roof,” which mainly means “inside my home” (as it certainly did for the Roman centurion), would work badly in this context. I trust local leaders who see things in their parishes that Rome does not, and cannot. If that means every single parish makes some sort of judgment call, so be it.

      I also think of the example of Pope John XXIII. As a Vatican diplomat, he had mainly served in Eastern Orthodox countries. During WWII he saved thousands of Jews from the Shoah, or Holocaust. His experience with those who were not Catholic, and with those who lived in the shadow of death, changed him. It changed his understanding of liturgy. He became acutely aware of the the ways “every sentence could offend some group.” According to Lawrence Elliott’s 1973 biography “I Will Be Called John”:

      “Small acts to set right what he once referred to as ‘our own bad habits’ illuminated his sensitivity to the feelings of others. At the pope’s direction the baptismal ceremony for converts to Catholicism was revised to eliminate the condemnation of former faiths. Parts of a liturgical prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus which were offensive to Jews and Moslems [sic] were likewise changed. On his first Good Friday as supreme pontiff, John expunged from the traditional Good Friday prayer the reference to ‘perfidious Jews and infidels.'”

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