(Editor's note: This essay is adapted from chapter four in Living
Beauty: The Art of Liturgy, that Thomas Scirghi, SJ, coauthored
with Professor Alejandro Garcia-Rivera, Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, 2008, with permission.)
The liturgy does not end with the final blessing of the congregation.
This is understood by most of the assembly, if only in theory
rather than in practice, and despite the custom of some to
dart out of the church right after receiving Communion. In one
sense, our worship prepares us to encounter the risen Lord in
daily life, throughout the week. It is in this encounter where liturgy
and justice meet. We read in the Constitution on the Sacred
Liturgy: "Day by day the liturgy builds up those within the
church into the Lord's holy temple, into a spiritual dwelling for
God . . . . At the same time the liturgy marvelously fortifies the
faithful in their capacity to preach Christ. To outsiders the liturgy
thereby reveals the church as a sign raised above the
nations" (CSL, 2).
For Christians, justice is the work performed by the followers
of Jesus in response to the Gospel message. More precisely,
according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1807,
justice is the moral virtue by which we render what is due to
God and to our neighbor. Justice toward other people disposes
each person to respect the rights of others and to establish in
human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with
regard to persons and to the common good.
I hope to show here that the liturgy provides a means to
"rehearse" the practice of justice toward others, building the
common good of all people. We will first look at the meaning of
the dismissal heard at the conclusion of the liturgy. This brief
rite points the way to the proper disposition toward all people.
Then we will show why the practice of justice is intrinsic to the
liturgy. This relationship is witnessed on two levels: by the way
in which the community members interact during worship and
through their responsibility to care for the greater society outside
the Church community.
The liturgy concludes with a blessing and a dismissal. For the
dismissal, usually we hear a simple benediction, such as "May
almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy
Spirit. The Mass is ended, go in peace." And the people respond,
"Thanks be to God." According to the General Instruction of the
Roman Missal (GIRM), 90, the purpose of the dismissal is "so
that each may go out to do good works, praising and blessing
God." It is interesting to note that, while the literal meaning of
the dismissal is simply a granting of permission to leave the
assembly, throughout the Church's liturgical tradition this
meaning has unfolded creatively, suggesting more of a mission
than a simple sending away.
For the dismissal, the early Church used the phrase Ite,
missa est ("Go, you are dismissed"). From the Latin word missacomes the English word "Mass." Here, missa is derived from the
Latin word dimissio, meaning "dismissal." Ite, missa est sounds
somewhat similar to what we might hear today at the conclusion
of a business meeting or a session of court, for example, "This
meeting [or court] is adjourned." For the early Church, it
announced the end of the worship. However, sources from this
era indicate that the phrase may have been more than a mere
announcement. For example, according to Hippolytus, writing
in the third century, the catechumens were sent away from the
liturgy with a laying on of hands. Here, the dismissal itself
became a religious act, a sign of the Church drawing her children
near with motherly affection before sending them away.
Joseph Jungmann, in his classic work, The Mass of the Roman
Rite, explains that it is in the very nature of the Church for its
members to experience a refuge of grace and blessing. Such a
refuge would have been especially significant for members of the
Church during this time. Christians faced persecution regularly
so the way home was fraught with danger and temptation. This
sign of sending forth—the laying on of hands—served to
strengthen them for their journey. Eventually, by the fifth century,
the word missa came to stand for the final blessing within
the liturgy and from this developed the custom of calling every
service of worship a missa because it included a blessing.
Furthermore, it was through this dismissal that the assembly
was directed toward good works in the care of others.
It is a matter of finding God in all things. The sending
forth commissions the Christians to transform the way they live
so that Christ's presence may be revealed. In responding to the
living word of Jesus Christ, Christians conform their lives to the
practice that promotes harmony for all people. Hence, Christians
are committed to a practice of justice, which is the lived expression
of finding God in all things.
Recently, the meaning of the dismissal has been given a
stronger connection with the Church's mission, as found in the
papal exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, following the Bishop's
Synod on the Eucharist:
||Ite, missa est. . . . The word "dismissal" has come to imply a
"mission." These few words succinctly express the missionary
nature of the Church. The people of God might be helped
to understand more clearly this essential dimension of the
Church's life, taking the dismissal as a starting point. In this
context, it might also be helpful to provide new texts, duly
approved, for the prayer over the people and the final blessing,
in order to make this connection clear. To make more
explicit the relationship between Eucharist and mission.
The suggestions that the bishops made, and that Pope Benedict
XVI included in his exhortation, appear to follow the lead of
Pope John Paul II who, in his Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini, recommended
that "the final blessing and dismissal need to be
better valued and appreciated, so that all who have shared in
the Eucharist may come to a deeper sense of the responsibility
entrusted to them." With the forthcoming revised English translation
of the Roman Missal, the Church will hear new charges
for the dismissal, such as "Go and announce the Gospel of the
Lord"; "Go forth the Mass is ended"; "Go in peace"; and "Go in
peace, glorifying the Lord by your life." The rite of dismissal,
then, provides an outward thrust to the liturgy, clearly indicating
that the Christian worship of God continues after the close
of the service.
The Constitution explains that the Church's activity
extends beyond the liturgy. Indeed, before people come to the
liturgy they must be called to faith and conversion. In the words
of Saint Paul, "How are they to believe in him whom they have
not heard?" (Romans 10:14–15). For this reason, the Church
proclaims the good news of salvation to believers and nonbelievers
alike. To believers, to inspire them to works of charity and
piety so that they will shine like the light of the world and give
glory to God for all to witness. In this way the nonbelievers will
come to recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God (CSL, 9).
The relationship of liturgy and justice becomes clear when we
consider the threefold purpose of the Church. In his encyclical,
Deus Caritas est, Pope Benedict lists these purposes with their
Greek titles: kerygma, leitourgia, and diakonia, translated as
proclamation, worship, and service. It is the Church's responsibility
to proclaim the good news of the risen Christ, to worship
God in gratitude for creation and redemption, and to continue
the salvific work of Jesus Christ in daily life. In the liturgy, the
three are brought together as scripture, sacrament, and service.
We find a paradigm for this threefold scheme in the
account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, at the conclusion
of the Gospel of Luke (24:13–35). Recalling the story, we
find the two disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed companion,
walking along a road toward Jerusalem. It was later in the
day—the day Jesus rose from the tomb. As they walked, they
discussed the news of the day: the rumors of Jesus' Resurrection
and his appearance to several women. They are confused, not
knowing how to understand this fantastic report. Then a
stranger appears; it is Jesus, but they do not recognize him. In a
sorrowful tone, they recount these stories to him. When they
finish speaking, Jesus interprets the scripture for them, explaining
how Christ is the fulfillment of the prophets. The two disciples
then invite Jesus to join them for a meal and to spend the
evening with them. At the table, Jesus is invited to pray the blessing
over the meal. Following the Jewish custom, he takes a piece
of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the two men.
Suddenly, the men have a flash of recognition: in the breaking of
the bread, they recognize Jesus as the Christ. They express to
each other their amazement and run outside to tell the other
disciples of their experience: "The Lord has truly been raised!"
The apparition on the way to Emmaus offers a paradigm
for the threefold structure of the liturgy: the word of God, the
Communion meal, and the dismissal. First, the disciples come
to the Lord carrying their concerns of the day. Their expectations
of Jesus as the Messiah are confused. They stand in need of
hearing God's word in a new way. Jesus opens the scripture for
them, as a preacher would, applying the lesson of the text to the
current context. Then, at the table, Jesus breaks the bread, following
the fourfold action of take, bless, break, and give, the
same action we find in the feeding of the multitude and at the
Last Supper. The word of God disposes the disciples to a deeper
awareness of the presence of God in their midst. As they move to
the table, Christ's presence is rendered clear to them through the
meal which he commanded his followers to celebrate. At this
point, they express an awareness that their "hearts were burning
as he opened the scriptures" for them. The encounter at Emmaus
is more than a pedagogical moment; it is drama. As their eyes
and hearts were opened, the disciples were drawn into the scripture;
they became part of the story. They were able to see in a
new way. They had been transformed. Finally, this good news
cried out to be shared. The two disciples ran from their home to
tell other disciples. In their telling of the story, and interpreting
its meaning for themselves, the Christian community was born.
Those who worship the risen Christ today should leave the liturgy
intent upon telling the story through the spoken word and
good works. The dramatic dialogue of proclamation and
response continues to reveal the presence of Christ as the hearers
participate in this story.
Through this activity of word and works—the diakonia—the
Christian community continues to thrive. As Susan Wood
explains in her book, Sacramental Orders, before this term
became associated with a specific office within the Church—the
"deacon"—it referred to service in a broad sense, that is, the
ministry of the whole Church. Traditionally, this service took
the form of social ministry with an emphasis for the care of the
poor and of those in need. This service was seen as a continuation
of the ministry of Jesus Christ. As Christ cared for the poor,
and showed compassion toward those in need of healing and
forgiveness, the Church as the body of Christ would manifest
the presence of the Savior through its service. In this way
Christians strive toward building a community of justice.
Throughout the scriptures we find a connection between the
activity of worship and the practice of justice. The Hebrew prophets
as well as the apostles rail against those who practice an elaborate
worship, adhering to the rules of purity while ignoring the
needs of their neighbors. We hear from the prophet Amos: "I hate,
I despise your festivals, / and I take no delight in your solemn
assemblies. . . . / But let justice roll down like waters, / and
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (5:21–24). For other
examples from the prophets, read Hosea 6:6 and Isaiah 1:16–17.
Saint Paul echoes the prophet when he criticizes the
Corinthians for their manner of worship. He focuses his criticism
on the divisiveness so clearly evident within their celebration
of the Lord's Supper. So rampant is their division that they
make a mockery of the Eucharist. In Paul's words, "When you
come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among
you. . . . When you come together, it is not really to eat the
Lord's Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes
ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another
becomes drunk. . . . Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or
drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be answerable for
the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:18–27).
Jesus appears to sum up both the criticisms of Amos and
Paul in his denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees. According
to Jesus, they have taken the seat of authority and made a show
of their religious practices. Meanwhile, they create burdens for
the Jewish people. They do not practice what they preach. He
chastises them: "So you also on the outside look righteous to
others, but on the inside you are filled with righteousness and
hypocrisy" (Matthew 23:1–36; Mark 12:l38–40; Luke 11:37–52).
Genuine worship consists of the praise of God and the practice
of justice for the people of God.
Genuine worship is fruitful. Christian worship will be
judged effective by the fruit it bears amid the greater community,
and this fruit is borne through the work of justice. As it is
written, "By their fruits you will know them" (Matthew 7:16).
This ancient notion of producing fruit was revived by the Second
Vatican Council, as mentioned earlier (CSL, 9). It is amplified by
John Paul II in his letter, Dominicae Cenae (1980), in which he
explains that there is a clear connection between the community's
worship and the fruit to be borne from it, namely that what
the congregation has received by faith and sacrament in the celebration
of the Eucharist should affect their way of life.
Strengthened by the "heavenly food," they should live joyfully
and gratefully, eager to perform good works.
Diakonia is a creative act, a work-in-progress, constructing
the community. The service of God becomes a form of expression
through which the modern-day disciples realize the presence
of Christ in their midst and understand the meaning of
Christian discipleship. This act is no mere form of self-expression,
but an expression of the body of Christ, a realization of the
faith of the community rooted in the teaching and work of Jesus
Christ. This discipleship in service of others is heard concretely
in the liturgy's Prayer of the Faithful, in which the needs of the
community are gathered and offered to God, a demonstration of
the priesthood of the laity. As this prayer is included in the
Liturgy of the Word, it provides a response to the word of God.
The faithful take the word to heart by bringing it to life within
Genuine worship relies upon the intermingling of the
three duties of the Church: proclamation, worship, and service.
Taken individually, these duties may be reduced to self-serving
activities. For example, reading or hearing the scripture alone,
without the proper response in praise of God or in works of justice,
may reduce a living faith to fundamentalism. When the
worship celebration is separated from its scriptural roots, it risks
being tied to a medieval format or drifting into the avant garde.
And when justice loses its moorings from the Church, it becomes
social action rather than an act of discipleship.
From this discussion we see that the Rite of Dismissal is more of
a charge than a conclusion. It is the necessary response to the
proclamation of the scripture that enlivens the word of God. It is
the response, as well, to the recognition of Christ in the breaking
of the bread and the sharing of the cup. The Judeo-Christian
tradition proclaims the necessity of living justly, for this is how
the faithful will know the presence of God. We come to worship
in order to deepen our awareness of Christ in our midst. When
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, he displayed the effects of
this kingdom in the ordinary events of life, especially through
his teaching, healing, and forgiving. He demonstrated the power
of God acting in the world. He confronted the powers of the
world by living for the poor and the oppressed. The Son of God
is present in the least of humanity (Matthew 25). To fulfill the
law of Christ, then, Christians are called to live in justice, that is,
to live faithfully to the demands of their relationship with all the
people of God. The liturgy cultivates our ability to recognize the
living Lord, not only in the Church's ritual and in the confines
of the sacred space, but to recognize him in the world, and to
help others come to recognize him as well.
The Constitution explains that the goal of the Church's
work is that all who become children of God by faith and
Baptism should come together to praise God within the community
of the Church and to eat the Lord's Supper. "The liturgy
in turn inspires the faithful to become 'of one heart in love,' and
prays that ‘they may grasp by deed what they hold by creed' "
(CSL, 10). Through living out their lives in the practice of justice,
following the example of the Lord, Christians continue to
respond to Christ and recognize him in their daily existence.
Given the tools of the trade by the Church, Christians set out to
fashion a world in which Christ is recognized: "Go in peace, glorifying
the Lord by your life."
1. Discuss the meaning of the statement "The Rite of Dismissal
is more of a charge than a conclusion."
2. How is the dismissal rite treated in your parish worship?
3. How may the liturgy bear fruit within the local community?
4. Discuss the inter-relationship of the three duties of the
5. Some claim that the liturgy has nothing to do with justice.
Give examples from scripture which connect the people's
worship with the practice of justice.