“Dogmas come first, not liturgies”

In his poem “Reflections on a Flea,” Fr. Leonard Feeney wrote:

“And by the way,
Speaking of how to pray,
Dogmas come first, not liturgies.”

This claim encapsulates one side in a contemporary debate concerning the best method of evangelization. Some prefer the so-called “path of beauty.” Some prefer the “path of truth.” Without denigrating the role of beautiful liturgy, I prefer the “path of truth.”

Consider that in the Early Church catechumens attended only the so-called Missa Catechumenorum, which is the overtly catechetical first part of the Mass. Only the baptized — the fully catechized and initiated — attended the Missa Fidelium, which is the overtly sacrificial part of the Mass beginning with the Offertory. In other words, it is catechesis that makes sense of the liturgy. Many who argue for the “path of beauty” seem to want the liturgical experience to substitute for or drive catechesis. This is the opposite extreme from the post-Vatican II over-emphasis on the “Liturgy of the Word.” I would say, it is doctrinal Faith that makes sense of the liturgy, not the other way around, even though the liturgy itself has an eschatological and sacrificial reality that transcends catechesis. Participation in the Mass is more the end than the means of evangelization; as Fr. Feeney said, dogmas still come first.

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