The importance of the Assembly – Dan Donovan Pt1

"The importance of the Assembly" Part 1 by Fr Daniel Donovan

In this informative and instructive, yet challenging two-part commentary, Fr Daniel Donovan argues that those who seem so intent on “reforming the reform” of the Second Vatican Council are actually challenging some of the earliest traditions of Catholicism. The “reform of the reform” does not take us back closer to the insights of Jesus and the early Church leaders but it takes us back to clericalism and a time of triumphalist certitudes that are totally disconnected from our authentic traditions and ecclesial insights. This commentary was sparked by further research Fr Donovan undertook following his recent series on the Eucharist [LINK]. As usual with Fr Donovan’s commentaries the footnotes are often as instructive as the main text.

The Assembly: A most important Liturgical Symbol…

Back in 1978 the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference (USCBC) produced a most significant document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (EACW) which responded to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in the Constitution Sacrosantum Concilium [1963] and the revised Roman Missal [1969]. Andrew Ciferni in his commentary on EACW[1] writes;

The renewed understanding of God, church, sacrament and ministry that emerged in the reforms required a vastly different approach to church building than that used during the 400 years before Vatican II. Thus the need for guidelines to assist communities and architects in the process of renovation and/or new building was and is a strong one.

Therefore this document contains specific guidelines set by the American Bishops for developing and maintaining the sacred space in which God’s people might assemble to praise and thank God for the mighty deeds of salvation in creation and in Christ experiencing and renewing their identity as “…a new people in whom the covenant made in the past is fulfilled.”[2] Accordingly, the Bishops declare in EACW #28;

Among the symbols with which the liturgy deals, none is more important than this Assembly of believers. It is common to use the same name to speak of the building in which those persons worship, but that use is misleading. In the words of ancient Christians, the building used for worship is called domus ecclesiae, the house of the Church.[3]

This emphasis on the gathered people, the Assembly, as the symbol of the risen Christ[4] [Mt 18:20] shaped liturgy in the decades after Vatican II has gradually been replaced with a neo-clericalism. As in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Eucharist has in the third millennium again become the domain of the clergy. Eucharist is and always will be the action of the whole Christ (head and members) and through the active participation of the gathered people “brings out more plainly the ecclesial nature of the celebration.”[5] Therefore it is relevant to reclaim the symbolic importance of the gathered Assembly “you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. [1 Pt 2: 4-5; GIRM # 3]

Sacraments of Initiation: The basis of the Eucharistic Assembly…

The Acts of the Apostles written by Luke, in the early 60’s AD traces the growth and spread of the Christian Church from Jerusalem to Antioch and eventually, throughout the Mediterranean world and finally Rome [Acts 27-28]. At Pentecost the proclamation of the Apostles moved the hearts of their listeners who enquired “what shall we do?” [Acts 2: 37] The answer was that the person “repent … be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is the genesis of Christian assembly[6] which “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer”. [Acts 2: 42]

So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church (ekklesia) daily those who were being saved. [Acts 2: 46-47]

John McKenzie points out that “ekklesia” was originally used (as in the preceding pericope from Acts) to describe the Jerusalem parent church but soon all the local churches were described as an “ekklesia”[7] the Assembly of the people of God. The apostolic proclamation of the Easter message (kerygma), “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” say to us that through God’s action the Church was growing through local assemblies gathered for “breaking bread and praising God and having favour with all the people.”[8]

Historical development of the Sacraments of Initiation.

The Assembly: The role of the Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles…

At his baptism [Lk 3:21] the Spirit is poured out on Jesus, the representative of humanity, and God is heard witnessing to the Son’s mission. Jesus is the bearer of the Spirit [Lk 11:20] and on Pentecost Day the Church is commissioned to continue his mission in the Spirit [Acts 1: 4-6][10].

Luke’s story of the Christian Church begins in Jerusalem as the disciples are gathered in prayer awaiting “the Promise of the Father” [Acts 1: 4]. Then the disciples would witness to Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and “to the ends of the world” [Acts 1: 8]. Immediately on receiving the Spirit, the disciples are empowered to speak and proclaim the mighty deeds of God throughout Israel’s history and especially the offer of salvation in Jesus.

Peter’s first sermon is directed to Jews gathered from around the world in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost.[11] At first the Church in Jerusalem was considered to be another Jewish sect with a daily routine built around Temple worship [Acts 2: 36; 3:1] and the uniquely Christian fellowship meal or the “breaking of bread”. The converts on Pentecost Day were Jewish and believed that they would continue to follow the practice of the Jewish Law as well as believing in Christ.

The Jerusalem Church therefore followed the Jewish custom of leadership by elders James, Peter, John and the other apostles attended to the matters of daily life in the community as well as their proclamation of the Gospel [Acts 4: 4; 11-12]. Before long the apostles found that their proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus met with stern opposition from the Jewish authorities who ordered Peter and John “not to speak at all or teach in the name of Jesus” [Acts 4: 18]. Rabbi Gamaliel [Acts 5: 34-39] had seen many sects rise and fall in Judaism claiming religious authority for their teachings and beliefs. Therefore he suggested that the authorities “leave these men alone … for if this plan or this work is of man it will come to nothing” [Acts 5: 38] like those other sects and movements. “But if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it … lest you even be found to fight against God” [Acts 5: 39] and with these words the wise old Rabbi rested his case.

Apart from these external difficulties, there were internal day-to-day issues of housekeeping in the community [Act 6: 2] between the Hellenist Jews [Acts 2: 5-11] and the Hebrew converts. Apparently the Hellenist widows were not receiving fair portions at the daily distribution of food. As a result the apostles summoned the assembly and stated that “it is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables”. Therefore the community was directed to choose from among them “men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” [Acts 6: 4]. The apostles “prayed over them and laid hands upon them” [Acts 6: 6].

One of the deacons,[12] Stephen (a Hellenist) was stoned to death [Acts 7: 54-60] because he taught that Jesus was the fulfilment of Israel’s historical expectations. The ensuing persecution of the Church actually prospered the work of the Spirit scattering members of the Jerusalem Church to Judea and Samaria [Acts 1: 8]. Saul (later Paul) was present at Stephen’s death and thereafter undertook his persecution of the Church [Acts 7: 58- 9: 4].

The Jerusalem Church retained its Jewish roots in worship and the leadership of elders. Peter, one of the elders of the Jerusalem Church, receives Cornelius, the Roman centurion and his family (the first Gentile converts) into the Church [Acts 10-11] thereby signalling the Gentile mission and outreach to Antioch [Acts 11: 27] and the journeys of Paul [Acts 15]. Pauline Churches would be organised under an “episcopus” or an overseer to facilitate the smooth function of the various gifts of the Spirit building the assembly for service and mission in the world.

[1] Elizabeth Hoffman, (1991), Editor, The Liturgy Documents: A Parish Resource, (Third Edition), Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, Andrew D. Ciferni, OPraem, “Overview of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship,” (EACW) pp.314-316.
In the text below the Greek “ekklesia” has the meaning “gathered local church ” which was borrowed from secular Greek life and referred to the assembly of citizens with full rights. The Christian assembly (ekklesia) was the gathering of those fully initiated members (baptism/chrismation and eucharist) the body of Christ (head and members). For further details see notes # 6 and 7 below.
[2] Hoffman, Op Cit Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass (LM Intro) pp. 118-164, LM Intro #7
[3] Hoffman Ibid, United States Catholic Conference (1978), “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” pp. 314-339, especially p. 324, EACW#28.
[4] Vatican II (1963), Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, in Walter M. Abbott (1967) General Editor, The Documents of Vatican II, London : Geoffrey Chapman, SC# 7 p.140.
[5] Hoffman, General Instruction on the Roman Missal, GIRM # 4 and Council of Trent, sess 13, 11th October 1551.
[6] John L. McKenzie (1966), Dictionary of the Bible, London-Dublin; Geoffrey Chapman, “Church” pp. 133-136 writes (point 2 p.134) the word “ecclesia” translated as church, “occurs 23 times in the Acts of the Apostles.” McKenzie further states that “In no passage does it certainly mean anything except the local church, usually the church of Jerusalem, but also the local church of Antioch and other cities.” Each local Church was called “ecclesia”. Membership of the “ecclesia” was through faith/baptism not through race as in Israel. The Greek word “ekklesia” did not have any religious significance but referred to the assembly of citizens for legislative or deliberative purposes. This citizens’ assembly was composed of those who enjoyed full rights “thus the word implies both the dignity of the members and the legality of the assembly.” Furthermore the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek (for Hellenist Jews) the same word, “ekklesia,” is used to translate the Hebrew “Kahal” and in later Hebrew “kahal edah, the local religious assembly of the Israelites.”
[7] McKenzie, Ibid.p.134. The word “ekklesia” in Greek is composed of the preposition “ek-” meaning “from” and a verb, “klepto” meaning “to take or gather,” the same Greek verb is the root of English words such as “kleptomania” (an obsessive urge to steal) or “eclective” (taking ideas or the like from various sources). Thus “ekklesia” suggests a community of persons taken from various backgrounds and gifts drawn together by God’s initiative through the power of the Holy Spirit. The proclamation of God’s word moved the people to conversion in Acts 2: 5-12 asking; “What does this mean?” Later in vv.36-37, the people respond to the Easter proclamation by being “cut to the heart” and approach the Apostles to ask “What shall we do?” This is the new “ekklesia” or Assembly born of the Spirit and apostolic evangelisation. Thus Assembly precedes the hierarchical structure which would be chosen from the fully initiated members and put forward to serve and prosper the specific needs of the Assembly (Acts 6: 1-6).
[8] These local churches, “ekklesia” formed the body of Christ drawing their unity from their common confession of Jesus as Lord in the Holy Spirit. Assemblies were responsible for their own internal structure and while there were different ministries and diverse activities and gifts there was “one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor 1: 11; 12: 3-12; Eph 4: 4-12). Church unity was “ex pluribus unum” or “from many one” in the Spirit (Eph 4:11-16). The author of Ephesians attributes the gifts in the Assembly as directly bestowed on members by God to equip the body of Christ for the work of ministry while edifying the members so that they might grow into the “stature and fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:13).
[9] Paul A. Feider, (1986), The Sacraments: Encountering The Risen Lord, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press. This text provides an outstanding introduction to the historical and theological foundations of the sacraments. The timelines illustrate the historical development of each sacrament over the centuries. Figure 1 (sacraments of initiation) and figure 2 (Holy Orders) Feider, pp. 14, 30, 104 . Each sacrament is an act of the body of Christ (the risen Lord and his people) so the plant is a living entity for Jesus said “I am the vine and you are the branches” (Jn 15: 5). The roots of each plant are firmly embedded in the living Tradition of the Church while remaining open to continued growth within the life of the Christian Assembly. Sacraments must never be fossilised memories of bygone times but must always be present encounters with the risen Lord and the participation of his body in that “dangerous memory” of Jesus who gave himself for all so that his people might do likewise.
Note in Figure 1 that the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist had lost their intimate union by AD 500, as baptism was administered to infants soon after birth to eradicate the effects of original sin in a time of high infant mortality. The western Church held over the sealing of baptism for the bishop and different communities administered confirmation at different ages between 8-14 years.
Baptism/confirmation is one sacrament, a bath of water for the forgiveness of sins and an anointing with chrism for the reception of the Holy Spirit, as in Jesus’ baptism (Lk 3: 21-23). Gradually baptism/confirmation became two sacraments. Eucharist completes initiation with full participation and membership in the life of the Assembly. The final disconnect between the sacraments of initiation resulted from the withholding of Eucharist from newly baptised infants (severing the union between baptism and Eucharist) because infants have a problem of reflux and could regurgitate it. Some Eastern Rite Catholic Churches did not drop Eucharistic reception for infants.
Later it became common practice to introduce children to penance at 5 and Eucharist at about age 16. Pope Pius X (1835-1914) complicated the reception of the sacraments further when he allowed children to make their First communion at age 7. Pius’ reform further disrupted the unity and order of the sacraments of initiation after 1910 with baptism at birth, penance and Eucharist at 7 and confirmation later about 10 years of age. This new order of the sacraments suggested “a link” between penance and Eucharist while further undermining the union between baptism and Eucharist in the process of initiation. The Rite of the Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1972 restored the importance of initiation as incorporation into God’s people and the body of Christ. The separation of the sacraments of initiation into three separate rites weakened the identity and dignity of the Assembly and allowed the emergence of a hierarchically organised Church rooted in Holy Orders. The clerical control in the Assembly is a direct result of the decline in and break-up of the rite of initiation.
[10] Acts of the Apostles was also, written by Luke. In the Gospel Jesus had been the bearer of the Holy Spirit and following his ascension the Church continues Jesus’ mission in the power of the Spirit. In fact the genre of writing Acts in the Greco-Roman world recounted the exploits of public and cultural heroes. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles records the marvellous deeds of the Holy Spirit in establishing the Church throughout the world. Simply the hero of Acts is the Holy Spirit, the source of power and unity in the Church.
[11] Pentecost was a major Jewish Feast (Exodus 23: 14-17) which was originally an agricultural feast of the harvest time and later the celebration of God’s giving the Law to Moses.
[12]This initiative by the apostles gave rise to the order of deacon to manage the daily issues arising in the community thus freeing the apostles to devote their energies to proclaiming the Gospel as stated in Acts 6: 7 as “the word spread, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith”.

Fr Daniel DonovanFr Daniel Donovan is a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney NSW. He holds degrees in Theology and Education. He has worked in parishes in Australia and the United States. He has worked in teacher formation programs teaching theology and Religious education at University level. He is involved with religious programs on National Television and Radio networks. He continues to pursue his pastoral and academic interests through retreats, lecturing and conference work especially in aspects of spirituality and faith development.


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