The Newman Guide to Communal Worship
The Birmingham Oratory was full for a Mass of Thanksgiving for the canonization of Saint John Henry Newman in October 2019. Newman founded the Oratory in 1848. Photo: Birmingham Oratory
The Church is people. It’s not buildings. We can lose everything and still have each other. Jesus makes us brothers and sisters whether or not we have a place to meet. Remember the earliest Christians, the missionaries, the Church under persecution. Set up an altar any old place and give us the Mass. Even a parking lot with everyone staying in their cars. We can get by with that.
Many Catholics started saying this when the virus kept us out of our churches. Before that, some writers spoke of the gathering as if it were practical and incidental (the most efficient way to serve great numbers of people) or central (as a self-affirming act of the community). They treated corporate worship as instrumental, not itself formative in a way no other experience can be.
The Church is people, true. We can get by if we have to with Mass any old place. But the Church requires churches. Why? Because people who agree deeply and love God and each other build things and create permanent spaces in which to be and to worship God together.
A Place to Be In
Yes, where two or three gather in Jesus’s name, he’s with them. And yes, the instructions in the rite for the dedication of a church calls “the structure . . . a visible sign of the living Church, God’s building, which they themselves constitute.”
But when two or three gather in Jesus’s name for long, they build a church. Being the Church requires places to be the Church in. The Son of Man had no place to lay his head. But his people want a place to keep his body in the tabernacle. The Church as an ecclesia, a gathering, leads the people to create a space to gather in.
The man and woman who commit themselves to each other in marriage soon want a home. Few want to bounce from hotel to hotel, even if they have the money for very nice hotels. They want to create a space that is theirs. They want a place to raise their children. The new couple wants a place to gather their family and friends. They want to decorate it to tell the stories they want to tell, and celebrate the people they want to celebrate.
That’s the reason Christians build churches. Not just Catholics with our intensely liturgical life. Almost all Christians do this. Many years ago, good friends (my best man and his wife) joined a house church. They rejected the “institutional church.” Church buildings meant worldliness.
One day, my friend described what they did when they gathered in a member’s home to worship. They put a Bible in a place of honor and set the chairs facing each other to symbolize their equality. The elder who was preaching sat at the head of the room. My anti-church friends made a special space for worship. They built a church, even if it only lasted an hour or two, and they built it every week for their main gathering.
We’ve committed ourselves to a life with each other and we want to give that life a home. A place with an address. A place that’s ours. Where we can meet, talk, argue and encourage, help each other, console and confront, plan, serve. Most of all worship together. A place from which we can go out to share Jesus.
The Church needs churches. Most of us feel this now, because we don’t have them or we have them but only partly, with everyone masked and spread out, not allowed to shake hands or sing together. We want to see our brothers and sisters in the places we’ve always seen them. In our pews, surrounded by the statues and pictures and windows, facing Jesus together.
We need each other. We need to be with each other in the home we share. And bring others into the family so they’ll call our churches their home, because for their own happiness, they need to come home.
What would newly sainted John Henry Newman say about our gathering together? You would expect him to have written wisely about what we are losing and what we need to get back. His theology is marked by unusual attention to how people live and how the Christian instructions work out in practice. Surely when writing about worship he considered the effect of worshipping together and the people who gathered?
As far as I can find, he didn’t. I haven’t read through all the millions of words he wrote, but I could find nothing in the major works and many of the minor ones. He loved and needed his friends, and wrote beautifully about friendship. He created the Oratory and then led a community of men who shared a life, including worship. He writes much of “personal influence,” especially in moving another toward faith. But nowhere I can find did he speak of other Catholics at Mass as friends, as fellow members of a dedicated community, as those exercising a personal influence on each other.
He saw our developed worship as a gift. The early Christians, he said in one of his Sermons on the Subjects of the Day, preached as a Catholic, “had the discomfort of the world without its compensating gifts.” The example he gives of such gifts is our worship. They had “No high cathedrals, no decorated altars, no white-robed priests, no choirs for sacred psalmody, nothing of the order, majesty, and beauty of devotional services.” (This sermon and much other useful material can be found in Peter Kwasniewski’s collection John Henry Newman: On Worship, Reverence, & Ritual.)
But he doesn’t seem to have seen enjoying that worship together as a gift. Newman doesn’t have much to tell us about the importance of worshipping together. He doesn’t provide a good explanation of why worshipping from your car isn’t enough, and why even entering the church but standing apart, masked and silent, isn’t enough either.
Which probably shouldn’t be surprising given Newman’s intense consciousness of God. At fifteen, he says in his autobiography, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he came to “rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator,” a disposition he kept for the remaining seventy-five years of his life. But he does say something we may need to hear.
The Privilege of United Prayer
Newman knew that public worship was to be corporate. In one of his Anglican sermons, given in 1834, he points to the earliest Church “persevering daily with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, and shar[ing] their food with gladness and singleness of heart.” He shows from the Book of Acts “how highly they [the Apostles] valued the privilege of united prayer.” It is “undeniable … that united prayer, not private or secret, is principally intended in those passages of the New Testament, which speak of prayer at all.”
Life itself points us to this. “The increasing troubles of the world, the fury of Satan, and the madness of the people, the dismay of sun, moon, and stars, distress of nations with perplexity, men’s hearts failing them for fear, the sea and the waves roaring, all these gathering tokens of God’s wrath are but calls upon us for greater perseverance in united prayer.” He asks his hearers to “feel as the early Christians felt when persecution hindered them from meeting.”
But even so, he doesn’t say anything about the people who unite in prayer. In one of his Catholic sermons in his Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, preached in 1856, he presents as part of his argument for Catholic worship as against Anglican “that heedlessness of the presence of others.” He makes an apologetic point: that heedlessness reflects the “simple earnestness of worship” which Catholics feel “because the Incarnate Saviour is present in the tabernacle,” which Anglicans don’t have.
In another sermon preached in 1834, when he was still an Anglican (he entered the Church in 1845), he again writes about worship as if the worshipper were alone with the minister. Its beauty comes from our relation to God, and apparently nothing from our fellowship with the others in the pews around us.
In the sermon, titled “The visible church as an encouragement to faith,” he emphasizes that we are never alone, but not because we worship with our fellows. “He who comes to Church to worship God, be he high or low, ent/p> that heavenly world of Saints.” But not, apparently, into that world of saints in the making.
And being in the church itself moves us. “The very disposition of the building, the subdued light, the aisles, the Altar, with its pious adornments, are figures of things unseen, and stimulate our fainting faith.” Being in the church, but not being in the church with anyone else.
Interior of the Duomo in Milan by Franz Alt, 1846. Image: wikimedia.org
A Sort of World
Still, people worshipping together clearly moved Newman. The year after he entered the Church, he wrote of a visit to the Duomo in Milan: “[A] Catholic cathedral is a sort of world, every one going about his own business, but that business is a religious one; groups of worshippers and solitary ones—kneeling, standing—some at shrines, some at altars—hearing Mass and communicating—currents of worshippers intercepting and passing by each other—altar after altar lit up for worship, like stars in the firmament—or the bell giving notice of what is going on in parts you do not see—and all the while the canons in choir going through matins and lauds, and at the end of it the incense rolling up from the high altar, and all this in one of the most wonderful buildings in the world and every day—lastly, all of this without any show or effort, but what everyone is used to.”
The non-stop variety would not have been something Newman had seen as an Anglican. There a cathedral would have its few services at set times, decorously celebrated for a small group, with the place quiet between services. In the Duomo he saw the abundance he wrote about as one of the signs of life. He seems to have loved it. Most of his former peers would not have. They would react to it as not only “Romish,” but Italian, without that spare, sedate, and selective piety Anglicans valued.
Yet even that description of worship at the Duomo ends “every one at his own work, and leaving every one to his.” Newman’s writing on worship takes up the rites and theology, and sometimes the experience, but when he does take up the experience, it’s (as far as I can find) always the personal rather than the corporate. He writes many beautiful passages about worship, and about worship in the church, but as if the church were empty other than the worshipper and the minister.
The Body United
And yet he tells us something we may very much need to hear, especially if we share the fallen human tendency to look at this world more than to the next. It is religion, and (as Newman would come to see after he entered the Church) for the Catholic particularly the Mass, that binds men together. Long-time friends often discover that they “are best friends at a distance.” The thing that truly binds friends together over many years is “the participation in something that is Unchangeable and essentially Good, and what is this but religion?”
What Newman saw most clearly was the body of people united in one devout act. He was so overwhelmed by the presence of Christ in the sacrament that he doesn’t seem to have noticed anyone else, except as people also overwhelmed.
In his autobiographical novel Loss and Gain, published in 1848, just three years after he entered the Church, the character standing in for him describes the Mass as “a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. Here becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble.” (I am grateful to Ryan Marr, former director of the National Institute of Newman Studies, for pointing me to these passages.)
Newman loves the objectivity of the Mass, the Reality he met there, which he had not seen in the Church of England. Curiously, he had not thought much about that until he entered the Church and briefly studied at the seminary called Oscott. He was, Ian Ker writes in his biography, “remarkably ignorant about the Church to which he now belonged, and particularly with regard to the central feature of Catholic devotional life.”
That was Christ in the tabernacle. Before he experienced it, he wrote, “I would not have fancied the extreme, ineffable comfort of being in the same house with him who cured the sick and taught his disciples.” He had intentionally not tried to understand the Mass when he was an Anglican and had never even noticed the tabernacle lamp.
“But now after tasting of the awful delights of worshipping God in his Temple, how unspeakably cold is the idea of a Temple without that Divine Presence!” The reality of Jesus’s presence made him feel the faith “as an objective fact,” which made Catholicism “a working religion.” It gave him the confidence that he had made the right decision.
Each In His Place
In Loss and Gain, Charles Reding, the character who stands in for Newman, observes that everyone participates: “So we, all around, each in his place, look out for the great Advent, ‘waiting for the moving of the water,’ each in his place, with his own heart, with his own wants, with his own thoughts, with his own intentions, with his own prayers, separate but concordant, watching what is going on, watching its progress, uniting in its consummation; not painfully and hopelessly, following a hard form of prayer from beginning to end, but, like a concert of musical instruments, each different, but concurring in a sweet harmony, we take our place with God’s priest, supporting him, yet guided by him.”
Looking at the people around him, Reding adds: “There are little children there, and old men, and simple laborers, and students in seminaries, priests preparing for Mass, priests making their thanksgiving, there are innocent maidens, and there are penitent sinners; but out of these many minds rises one Eucharistic hymn, and the great Action is the measure and the scope of it.”
In another passage, Reding has gone to Mass for the first time. He sees that Catholicism “is a popular religion.” It “seems to possess all classes, young and old, polished and vulgar, men and women indiscriminately; it is the working of one Spirit in all, making many one.”
But it wasn’t their presence with him that moved him, but their participation in a greater reality. He “thought he never had been present at worship before, so absorbed was the attention, so intense was the devotion of the congregation. What particularly struck him was, that whereas in the Church of England the clergyman or the organ was everything and the people nothing, except so far as the clerk is their representative, here it was just reversed. The priest hardly spoke, or at least audibly; but the whole congregation was as though one vast instrument or Panharmonicon, moving all together, and what was most remarkable, as if self-moved.”
Eucharistic adoration at the Brompton Oratory in London, founded by Father Frederick Faber in 1849 at Newman’s request. Photo: wikimedia.org/Diliff
What Newman Saw
I wish Newman had written on the value of worshipping with others. Maybe being together matters more to us now than it did to Newman and the believers of his day. We live in a society in which so few enjoy stable, multi-generational families and communities, have a secure place in the world, and in which so many people feel alienated from so many others. People feel the need for their church to be more than the place they go to Mass, and the people there more than just the random people sitting around them.
The Church in America is closer in that way to the early Church than to the English Church of Newman’s day. The earliest Christians formed a community with an intense communal life. Surely even at Mass, when everyone directed their attention to Jesus, they cared that they did so with each other, that they weren’t meeting Jesus alone but with people they knew by name.
Newman seems not to have felt this. At least, he didn’t write as if he did. What he did see, he helps us see. He calls us to stop looking around (if we do that) and look forward and up. He saw Christ in the Mass with unusual intensity and wrote about him with great power.
In a way, he does what I wish he had done more clearly. For people who need friends, he points us to the Friend, the Friend who has done everything for us, including dying in our place, and comes to us himself in a form we can see and touch and taste.
This article builds on David Mills’ “Why We Need Churches,” published on stream.org.