Saintly Spaces

In thirty-two-plus years of working in liturgical publishing, you accumulate a lot of memories, along with subsequent stories to share. One of my most potent memories comes from early on in my work when, in 1992, I was given a saints’ hymnal submission to peruse and evaluate.

The hymns—one for each saint on the U.S. liturgical calendar—had been written by a well-meaning pastor who had typed (on a manual typewriter) each text on a sheet of music manuscript paper, all with hymntunes already photocopied on them. His skill as a hymn text craftsman, sad to say, was not up to the honorable nature of his intent. In addition, the texts were put into a fixed rotation of commonly-known tunes, with the result that (for example) on June 3, we had this text set to Beethoven’s HYMN TO JOY:

Charles Lwanga and companions spread the faith in Uganda;
In their witness and their dying, faith was known in Africa.

(I didn’t say all the memories were necessarily positive ones.)

One thing from that pastor’s cover letter, however, has also stuck with me: that the saints on the liturgical calendar are a largely-untapped resource to inspire us in our own daily living. He wanted to show that saints are, indeed, ordinary and oftentimes sinful people who nevertheless continued their striving to attain holiness through God’s grace.

I’ve had substantial opportunity lately to reflect anew on his insight, and on saints in general. The recent release of The Divine Office Hymnal put a new compendium of sanctoral hymns on my shelf. Earlier this month, I assisted in leading a “Singing the Saints” workshop for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, utilizing For All the Saints, another compendium of sanctoral hymns by J. Michael Thompson, for which I served as an editor.

Our workshop took place at St. Thomas Aquinas cathedral in Reno, NV (site of the NPM convention). It was there that I encountered a remarkable statue of St. Joseph in one of the side hallways.

What I loved about it immediately was the overt expression of paternal and filial love expressed there, as a young Jesus reaches up to his earthly father, who bends down to give him a kiss on his head. We rarely (if ever) see such a three-dimensional embodied display of love between these two, the kind of love incarnate we understand to be a basis for sacramentality. (I also served as an editor and contributor for Br. Mickey McGrath’s book Go to Joseph, where there are a number of illustrations that do present this same love between Jesus and Joseph.)

The detail that stood out to me as most notable was the space between the left heel of Jesus and the ground beneath it, as Jesus stretches up to receive his kiss on the head. I wish I had been able to learn/discover the name of the sculptor, because this is precisely the reason that I have such admiration (and, OK, a bit of envy) for those who work in the visual/graphic arts. So much is expressed in that small lifting of a small foot!

It seems to me that little bit of space is, in a substantive way, where the saints—named and unnamed—lived and continue to live. Their lives oriented toward that reaching up, that making of effort to draw a bit closer to the many paths by which we come to know divinity here on earth. Saintly stories are filled with innumerable accounts of the varied ways that heel-lifting love continued to lift them up.

It also seems to me that the same little bit of space is precisely where the liturgy needs to live, and move, and have its being. The gift of liturgy (and the joy of our work in it) is to provide that lift—from wherever we may be—to receive a divine kiss of grace.

Transubstantiation: What vs. How vs. Why


This past February, I was invited by the Southwest Liturgical Conference Study Week to give a virtual workshop presentation on classic eucharistic hymns. Thanks to SWLC and to GIA Publications, the video of that session “Singing on the Shoulders” is now available through GIA’s YouTube™ channel. In this post, I share a few items that came to the forefront as I researched and prepared for the workshop.

One of the initial things I noticed was how often, in Roman Catholic circles, the terms “transubstantiation” and “real presence” seem to be understood—perhaps understandably, though imprecisely—as interchangeable. An occasional (sometimes unintentional, sometimes not) consequence of this is the misperception on the part of Roman Catholics that they are the only ones who believe in Christ’s real presence in the communion elements and/or that transubstantiation is the sole way within broader Christian doctrine that this presence is expressed.

To presume that other Christians—one thinks particularly of our Orthodox sisters and brothers—do not believe Christ to be truly present is an extremely limited view of those other rich faith traditions. There are many Christians who believe Christ to be truly and fully present in the eucharist, even though they do not use the particular term “transubstantiation” to convey how this occurs. Among the Protestant reformers there was a range of approaches, from using a different term (consubstantiation/Luther) to proposing that the presence of Christ, while real, is spiritual in nature (Calvin). The fact remains—then, as now—that various Christians do believe in the real eucharistic presence of Christ in varying ways.


All of this led me to toy briefly with including a Protestant eucharistic hymn in the workshop; I am admittedly lacking in knowledge of these hymns, so I received recommendations from Protestant liturgical music colleagues. (Since no hymns from these sources have entered common Roman Catholic repertoire, I decided not to.) One of the primary realities that emerged was that many texts had a rather studied avoidance of saying humans could know how the communion elements are changed into Christ’s Body and Blood. Their focus often is on the mortal inability to bridge the gap between us and infinite mystery, and so they turn instead to expressions of an adoration beyond human knowledge or language, in a posture of reverence and awe before the mystery of Christ present in the sacrament. (Yes, other Christians refer to eucharist as a sacrament too.)

Though Roman Catholicism uses the term “transubstantiation” confidently, it has never claimed that the term exhaustively communicates the wondrous mystery. From Trent’s use of aptissime (it is the “most apt” term) to the current Catechism (“This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” [1376, quoting Trent]), the language around transubstantiation and the real presence of Christ is consistently and humbly aware of our mortal limitations.

Sometimes the current Roman Catholic discourse surrounding these matters can seem a bit smug, if not outright condescending. I can’t help but speculate that we might benefit a bit from a healthy dose of the humility and awe present in eucharistic hymns’ language outside our own heritage (those of the Wesley brothers come to mind). If our earthly eucharistic banquet is truly a foretaste of the celestial banquet to come, perhaps it would be to our benefit to apply Charles Wesley’s “lost in wonder, love, and praise” of eternity to the here and now.


The “here and now” purpose of the eucharist always takes me back to Alexander Schmemann’s Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom.

“The purpose of the Eucharist lies not in the change of the bread and wine, but in the partaking of Christ, who has become our food, our life, the manifestation of the Church as the body of Christ.”

Schmemann also explains that the focus on partaking is largely why the churches of the orthodox East—for all the liturgical reverence the communion elements are shown—didn’t really turn them into their own topic of theological discourse, much less attempt to go into the mechanics of the mystery, as happened in the West.

The same way that Roman Catholicism hasn’t been a sola scriptura denomination, the Eucharist shouldn’t be turned into a solum transsubstantiationem event. Transubstantiation, of course, is at the heart of the mystery, but any kind of co-identification unnecessarily impoverishes the many other facets of the sacrament and can even set our faces in the direction of idolatry, in which the event of transubstantiation itself is worshiped, and not the Christ made present.

Augustine’s insight is relevant here: at the eucharistic celebration, we receive what we already are—the Body of Christ—so that we might become what we receive—Christ present in and for the life of the world. At the end of the SWLC workshop I offered my own view that the next major frontier for eucharistic hymns might be a more regular and explicit connection made between the eucharist and the Church’s mission for peace and justice. As Godfrey Diekmann stated: “What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t?” We could likewise ask what difference it makes how we express the manner in which that change is described, if it does not also help us to be changed.

Take and eat the Body of Christ broken for you.
Take and drink the Blood of Christ shed for you.

Radical Henotheism

My reading project this past Lent was Radical Monotheism in Western Culture (H. Richard Niebuhr). Early on in the book, I was re-introduced to the term “henotheism,” a term I first encountered in studying the Hebrew scriptures, especially the psalms. It is a term used to define a people who adhere to belief in [a] god[s] while living in the midst of other peoples who believe [an]other god[s]. The psalter, of course, is filled with references to other gods whose existence is not denied, but whose supremacy always is.

Since I’d been a fan for quite some time of Niebuhr’s critique of late twentieth-century U.S. Christianity as a religion in which a wrathless God redeems sinless people through a Christ who never suffers, I figured this Lent was as good a time as any to read Radical Monotheism.

My re-encounter with henotheism diverted me a bit, as I began to ponder the differences between it and religious pluralism, or religious/non-religious pluralism as we’re increasingly experiencing it (with the continued growth of the “nones”). I also couldn’t help but wonder what role liturgy/ritual plays in this context.

Niebuhr, of course, posits that everyone has [a] god[s] whether or not it/they is/are named or understood as such; we all have sources of meaning in our lives and things that we believe in—whether or not we would identify that belief systemically as faith (something of a cousin to Jung’s “invited or not”). Some have identified money, possessions, celebrity, social status, self, various “tribes” (or teams)—and so on—as the many “theisms” of our day, perhaps even for those of us who claim a particular religious faith.

The “Unknown God” altar Paul encountered in Acts reminded me yet again of all this, and as we stand poised to crown the Easter season with Pentecost, it occurred to me that the Spirit really did birth what would eventually become yet another new religion, with its own theos, into an already-henotheistic time and place.

In what ways, then, can we—living in a time and place not much different in many substantive ways—continue that Pneuma event? How to draw on the presence and power of the Spirit to lead us back to a faith that truly has one God at its heart, at the heart of our lives? How do we, day by day in life and Sunday by Sunday in prayer as the Spirit-born Body of Christ, truly live and move and have our being (fiercely and radically so) in one God? In short, how are we to be a radically henotheistic church in an increasingly and radically polytheistic world?

A substantial part of the answer may be to allow the Spirit to live and move and have Her being through the liturgy, and to trust in the source and summit (though not the sum) of the Church’s prayer to ground us. Not, to give a couple examples, through mere surface implementation of greater rigidity or increased expansiveness, but through a more rigorous and deeper praying and living into its wondrous mysteries.

Brief Book Review: Guide for Forming a Parish Bereavement Ministry

Guide for Forming a Parish Bereavement Ministry
By Robert Valle

“Each death is sacred because each life is sacred.” This is the truth at the heart of Guide for Forming a Parish Bereavement Ministry.

Who should read this?
Everyone who is responsible for parish liturgical celebrations that minister to the bereaved: pastor/clergy, liturgist/musician, lay bereavement ministry volunteers.

For those in leadership positions, the word “forming” is central. The book doesn’t merely tell how to recruit and organize (though these important aspects of the ministry are covered). Instead, the approach comes from an awareness that true ministers must care for the bereaved. It also emphasizes that the entire parish is responsible in the ministry of prayer for the bereaved.

Why is this book useful / practical?
This book is filled with numerous concrete ways to go about the responsibilities and specific tasks that will assist others as they walk the way of grief and sorrow. A deep experience and understanding of the realities of parish life are evident throughout its pages, with everything flowing from the formation process in a parish context.

The process is guided by the Order of Christian Funerals, with formation sessions and facilitator’s guides to help along the way. These will assist bereavement ministers through prayer, reflection, and sharing.

Why is this book significant / important?
The Church’s liturgy is presented as the primary catechetical and formative source for ministers. To reinforce/reiterate: as with all liturgy, the whole parish is primary in this ministry, with particular ministers drawn from it. This focus is particularly helpful in situations that find parish ministers working with unchurched children/families of the deceased, who might think of the parish merely as the location at which the funeral rites are staged.

Why should I use this guide?
The funeral rites are one of the moments richest with promise—and fraught with peril—in the life of a parish. Rich in the promise as a means to evangelize and share the Gospel; fraught with the peril of traversing an emotion-laden time in the lives of the bereaved. In the end, this Guide is a wonderful resource to lead all to the fullness of hope in Christ, the Resurrection and Life.

A side benefit
This resource is a concrete example of how to do liturgical/sacramental theology with the Church’s rites as a starting point, and how to incarnate that theology in the spiritual life of the parish and its members. A fine model for anyone interested in catechizing from the liturgy is presented here.

Valle, Robert. Guide for Forming a Parish Bereavement Ministry. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2023. 144 pages. $54.95. ISBN: 9781616717223.

REVIEWER: Alan Hommerding