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Phenomenology and the Eucharistic Mass Essay

In the study of communications, reaching a common consensus on how to apply a shared and common understanding of communications seems to be a near impossible task. After being introduced to the seven traditions of communications by Craig in his essay “Communication Theory as a Field”, I choose to explore the tradition he categorizes as Phenomenology. My initial understanding on the study of communications were quite limited to the transmission view, dominated by a sender and receiver framework.

Interestingly, the transmission model in it’s origin was culturally rooted in religion, and used as a tool for the dissemination of Euro centric religious values and practices globally. With advancement in technology, especially in the 1920’s, the North American perspective on communication shifted the transmission model from religion to science to reflect a multidisciplinary approach in to the study of communications. As a practitioner of what was once the transmission view, the Catholic Church had experienced tremendous religious propagation of its message through forcible transmission all over the world.

Based on Craig’s essay, the Catholic Church of today then embodies traits of a ritual view of communication, and is aligned with religious communication, and expression such as fellowship, participation, community, communion, and common faith. The phenomenological model of communication shares characteristics with the ritual view that I will be exploring through the Roman Catholic Eucharistic liturgy. The phenomenological tradition described by Craig, “… conceptualizes communication as dialogue or the experience of otherness” (p. 217).

Communication in this tradition is not rooted in verbal transmission but instead a shared experience on plains that extend beyond tradition verbal or textual communication. For the purpose of this paper phenomenological tradition can be seen as a form of communication expressed metaphysically as well. Gadamer’s’ theory from “Truth and Method”, focus on tradition and language as a primary form of communication. His ideology is that: we are only able to make sense of ourselves and the world around us because our consciousness has been shaped by history and traditions in ways we are largely unaware of… wareness expands our understanding of the tradition.

His description of an I-Thou relationship as the question-answer logic that underlies hermeneutic experience creates communication by identifying, hermeneutics, “that lead to a dialectical process of interpretation and growth of understanding. As a phenomenological practitioner, this theory has very intrinsic value. Communication in this practice provides a very meaningful and existential experience that I am to able to engage in with my Creator, in the absence of any other person. As a Roman Catholic, I have had many questions about the way we participate in mass.

My parents grew up on the island of Trinidad, in a devout Catholic community. The Spanish, that had at one time colonized Trinidad, were very committed to their mission of converting the indigenous people of the island. The spread Catholicism throughout the country was profuse, with community churches everywhere, (even building one across the street from my mother’s house), and adding a monastery and seminary college a mile further up the mountainside where my father lived. Catholicism was not just a religion in our community, it was a part of the culture, and employed many of the villagers as they worked for the seminary.

My grandparents were in fact Hindu, and converted to Catholicism because of the strong influence and presence it had within the community. As a Roman Catholic child, I had been told to repeat, chant, and act with humility, adoration and reverence during mass. I did not understand what we were doing or what the intention was. I became harder and harder to find meaning in going to church. In my late teens I stopped attending mass because there was no intrinsic connection for me in my faith practice. I remained a spiritual and deeply rooted faith based person, but I could not come to terms with many of the teachings of my church.

I stayed out of church for many years. At some point, I became curious about what it meant. I was not looking for a theological understanding per se, but instead, what did “it” mean? The chanting, the collective response in unison, the prayers itself. What was I blindly repeating every Sunday? I chose to study the teachings of the Catholic Church in university at Newman Theological College to gain a scholarly perspective. Many things became clear, although I did acquiesce on some ideological points, (my own hermeneutical experience).

Inspired by my academic insights, I returned to church as a knowledgeable participant of the mass, understanding that as part of the community, I would belong to the collective voice of the fellowship of Christ. The Catholic mass is deeply enriched with both Phenomenological Theory as well as Semiotic Tradition. In some regard you must look at the semiotics in order to fully understand what is being communicated during certain points in the eucharistic liturgy. For the purpose of this paper I will focus on the phenomenological aspects.

The Eucharistic liturgy is a two century old tradition, considered the real presence of Christ at the last supper carried out each Sunday, and is considered an integral part of Catholic worship. As Catholics we believe Jesus began a significant new fellowship meal that we observe to this day. It causes us to collectively and intrinsically share in the experience of his sacrifice through his death and resurrection. The description of the liturgy I’m presenting here reflects a very basic summation of the ritual. At the start of the liturgy we are asked to offer ourselves up, and surrender to God.

As we participate in the Eucharistic Prayer we are in the act of giving thanks. The congregation is humbled as Christ is transubstantiated from man into the elements of bread and wine. We collectively mourn as Jesus is offered to the Father in sacrifice for the sins of man. We participate in the Lords Prayer, and a prayer for peace. The Holy Spirit is invited to come down upon us and unite the community of worshipers into one body as we prepare to accept the communion, and offer each other a sign of peace. As a community we should be considered one body, ready to receive Christ as a single body in the form of the host.

Prior to accepting the communion we collectively humble ourselves stating our unworthiness and asking for compassion and forgiveness for our transgressions. As members of the congregation travel to the the altar, it represents a pilgrimage in this life from a journey of birth to death, and to the heavenly Father. Once each individual receives the host, we communally belong to the larger body of Christ. An aspect of the phenomenological theory of communication as seen by Buber can be practically applied in this example. The I-Thou relationship is present when looking at the relationship each individual member of the ongregation has with their Creator, or even Catholicism itself. The act of worshiping communally creates an experience and awareness of each other that reflects dialogue in Gadamer’s model of phenomenology.

Prayer itself is a great example of the I-Thou relationship the Buber describes. Although it contradicts Gadamers “parallel concept of conversation emphasiz[ing] the object or subject matter of conversation that brings people together in dialogue” (p. 219). Buber also notes that, “dialogue can be entirely wordless, yet deeply meaningful” (p. 19), and talks about how sacred silence itself can be on page 227, which is evident throughout the moments of the liturgy in which individuals respond on an emotional level through reverence, humility, sorrow, or repentance. Burber’s theory of a person living life with an open mind, open to experience and in essence living the life of dialogue is what resonates most for me. My critical exploration into understanding the Catholic mass has supported my dialogue in prayer with my creator, as well as my participation as a member of the Catholic church.

It would be assumed that since developing a clearer understanding of the mass, that I would be regularly attending. That is not the case. What I grew to understand is that I cannot effectively belong to the congregation if I am not intrinsically communicating through action, intention and prayer when I attend. For that reason, I go to church when I have a deeper calling to do so. My I-Thou relationship within my faith is not compromised as I connect to my creator in conversation and prayer every day, however, my I-Thou relationship with the other church goers would be compromised and lacking authenticity if I attend mass out of obligation.


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