A Catechesis by Which Christ Himself Becomes the Continual Mystagogical Catechist through the Mass

Book review: A Devotional Journey into the Mass: How Mass Can Become A Time of Grace, Nourishment, and Devotion,  by Christopher Carstens (pub Sophia Institute Press)

In this book, (buy here) the author, Christopher Carstens (who is the editor of Adoremus Bulletin,) takes us through each key element of the Mass (from how to enter the church through to how to respond to the dismissal). Grounding his discussion on the sacramental thought of Romano Guardini, he takes us on a journey into the heart of the liturgy. The principles he articulates are general and so are applicable to the Ordinary Form, the Extraordinary Form, and the Anglican Ordinariate form of the Roman Rite. (If you want a printable summary of the eight principles, Sophia also very kindly provides a free printable summary in two pages, here.) Furthermore,

‘If you’re unhappy because the Mass has become for your routine – or even boring and tedious – these pages are for you. They teach you eight simple ways to make your every Mass a joyful time of piety and intense devotion.’ This is how the publisher, Sophia Institute Press, quite legitimately describes the appeal of this book. I would add to this that Carsten's approach is the basis for a mystagogical catechesis that will allow us to participate so that the Sacred Liturgy as a whole itself becomes the primary force for continual mystagogy. As such I would see it as a natural complement to any authentic Catholic education, such as described in the book on children's education I reviewed recently - Educating in Christ.

By emphasizing the sacramental nature of the Mass so profoundly and in such simple and clear language, and by showing its deep connection to scripture and salvation history it is, in my opinion, a foundational text for an approach to the Mass that could reap rewards for a lifetime.

I appreciated particularly, for example, his emphasis also on lectio divina as a preparation for the scripture that is proclaimed in the readings at Mass. Firstly, he de-mystifies it with simple and clear instructions on the method. Secondly, and just as importantly, he highlights how this exercise in meditation and contemplative prayer is consummated in the worship of God. It is not a higher activity, but one like all others that is not actually liturgical, which derives its power and effectiveness from the liturgy, and so, in turn, leads us back to it for its consummation. To help us, Carstens explains beautifully how our personal pilgrimages are a participation of that which takes place in the story of salvation history, running through Old and New Testaments. This is a point, I suggest, for the evangelization of New Agers and non-Christians who are looking to Eastern religions in a search for mystery. I would say that their desire to meditate is good, but will be even more powerful and effective if transformed to be harmony with its true place in the spiritual life.

I was gratified to read how strongly he makes the point that this is not just about the words. All art and even the architecture of the church building must reveal these universal truths in such a way that they are communicated to each person, and so act as clear perceptible signposts that direct us on our way. To the degree that we respond to what is offered, we can ourselves be formed as artists who then fashion our very lives to the template of the Paschal Mystery.

To take one example of how images can support this. Some will remember my discussion on why the image of the three men in the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel, is important for Christians. Through this book, Carstens enriched my own understanding and appreciation of this image still further with his detailed discussion of the scriptural account of this episode and its importance to the Mass. As he tells us ‘its message, as well as its central text [Dan 3:39-40], is present at every Mass during the preparation of the altar and its gifts. This is truly right and just because the three youths exemplify the only true way for the Church to prepare for the Eucharistic sacrifice.’

As the Provost of Pontifex University, I enjoyed the following passage which is about the priesthood: 'There are a few words that the Roman Rite uses to describe its priests and one of them is pontifex. In Latin the noun pons means bridge... and fex is the foundation of the today's word factory, the place where things are built. Put the two words together - pontifex - and you get bridge builder which is precisely what a priest is, his role is to bridge the divide between God and man and pass over from earthly woes to heavenly blessings. Christ is the Pontifex Maximus. Even though he does not need his assistance in his saving work, He makes us sharers in His priesthood at baptism, empowering us to build the Paschal bridge with Him during the Eucharistic prayer.'

I believe that the mission of Pontifex University is in harmony with this. Our hope is that we become supernatural bridge builders and who are capable of contributing to the edifice that spans the divide between the liturgy and the the culture of faith; and then between the culture of faith and wider culture so that we become collectively a channel of divine beauty taking it from its source out into world that grace might be reflected in all human activity and every artifact that results from it. However, none of us can play a part in this if we don't first come in from the dark, and ‘passover’, so to speak, that bridge called ‘paschal mystery’ which connects us to the wellspring of grace and beauty - Christ present in the Eucharist.

About the author

Christopher Carstens is editor of the Adoremus Bulletin and one of the Liturgy Guys (along with Denis McNamara and Jesse Weiler) who create regular podcasts for the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein, IL. He is on the faculty of Pontifex University, for whom he has created an online class on the meaning of the Mass as part of the Master of Sacred Arts program.