The table of the Lord is the heart of Catholic parish life

Father John A. Kiley

“How Green Was My Valley” was a 1941 film production of a 1939 novel about the Morgan family, a Welsh household in the late nineteenth century who faced challenging work in the coal mines of Wales while coping with the domestic drama of education, marriage, emigration, and death. The Morgans were faithful Christians employing the Bible as an important part of their daily life and, as good Welsh people, preferring the Methodist chapel over the Anglican Church. Each evening, when the father and his five coal-mining sons returned daily from the dusty coal pits and the mother and her daughters had completed their domestic chores, the family gathered around the extensive kitchen table to be led by their father, quite solemnly and quite sincerely, in a prayer of grace before meals. Much of their circumstances were grim; but much of their surroundings were supportive; for this they were reassuringly grateful.
More recently, American television viewers while watching the weekly show “Blue Bloods” have grown accustomed to witnessing the four generations of New York’s Reagan family gather around the family dinner table after completing their varied policing and legal duties to offer the traditional Roman Catholic grace before meals, “Bless us, O Lord…” The extent of the Reagan family’s Catholic practice is perhaps better left to the imagination, but the tribute paid to the honorable drill of grace before meals is appreciated by many viewers.
Even more recently, a television advertisement for Mahindra farm equipment depicts a hard-working Mid-Western family again gathered about the family dinner table, hands joined and heads bowed, in grateful prayer for the completion of the day’s work and the meal they are about to enjoy.
These three scenes are admittedly good theatre; the religious sincerity of the actors is unknown. Yet the touching significance of the Methodist prayer of the Morgan family, the Catholic prayer of the Reagan family, and the general prayer of the farming family is especially re-enforced by the sight of these large families gathered around a single family table, keenly appreciative of God’s Presence there among them and keenly respectful of the familial bonds that unite them to one another.
On a much more exalted level, the Roman Catholic world family gathers sacramentally and literally around the table of Lord, the many altars of the Church’s myriad parish churches, to adore, to thank, to atone and to petition weekly through prayers offered on their own behalf as well as by their priest glorifying God and fortifying themselves. The theological, liturgical and visual centrality of the altar in present day Roman Catholic churches deserves renewed attention. In the Second Vatican Council’s solemn decree on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council fathers taught: “The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar should usually be fixed and dedicated.”
Catholic altars, compelling in their structure, uncluttered by adornments, and clearly central to the act of worship, are the liturgical heart of every parish church. Since the Church’s altars primarily represent Jesus Christ and his salvific work among the faithful, Catholic altars are kissed and incensed by the celebrating clergy at the start and kissed again at the completion of every Mass. On the altar the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary is daily renewed through his Body and Blood sacramentally offered as a banquet of bread and wine. Around the altar believers redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice are vocally united in prayer, visually united in gestures and spiritually united through the reception of the Sacrament.
During recent centuries the tabernacle housing consecrated Hosts was rightly accorded proper respect by the Catholic faithful. Making visits to the Blessed Sacrament present in the tabernacle, genuflecting when crossing in front of the tabernacle and making sure a proper sanctuary lamp burned before the tabernacle were regular Catholic practices. Some of this reverence should be shared nowadays with a church’s free standing altar, appreciating that that altar too bespeaks the presence of Christ, not sacramentally but still plainly, as the center of Catholic liturgical and parochial life. The table of the Lord is the heart of Catholic parish life.


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