In defense of “I am not worthy” in the Roman Mass

The Huffington Post recently published an article titled “Dear Pope Francis, End the Religious Ritual that Devalues Human Life” by Christine Horner.

Ms. Horner writes:

Every single day before communion, millions of Christians verbally declare one of the most destructive phrases in human history.

Stop the press.The tribunal of the Huffington Post’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has made a judgment. According to them, Catholics are daily reciting: “one of the most destructive phrases in human history.” How awful. Catholics are ruining their self-esteem daily by saying these words in public:

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

This statement, a recitation of Matthew 8:8, is one of the most destructive phrases in human history…and it has a long history. Every Roman Catholic Pope, bishop, priest, and pious laymen has been reciting this (biblical) phrase daily for over 1,300 years. Yet according to Ms. Horner this acclamation of “unworthiness” is one of the most destructive things a Christian can say.

domine non sum dignus padre pio

She is incorrect, but I can see where she is coming form. Our American culture is a cult of self-esteem. In the United States, we are taught that depression, theft, rape, murder, racism, war, unemployment, etc. are essentially caused by a lack of self-esteem.

Dignus, Dignity, and the Imago Deo

Since our culture has lost its roots in the virtue tradition of Christendom, we no longer understand human dignity in terms of being conformed to the imago Dei (image of God). Our worth is no longer related to a divine being that loved to create us and loves to redeem us.

True human dignity relies on theism. When we say in Mass “Lord, I am not worthy, the Latin is “Domine, non sum dignus.” You don’t need to know Latin to see that dignus (Latin: “worthy”) is related to our English term “dignity.”

This is where Ms. Horner at the Huffington Post misses the mark. She claims that our saying, “Lord I am not worthy” is a form “negative reinforcement.” For her it confirms the alleged Catholic strategy of drowning people in guilt and unworthiness – which to her translates as fostering low self-esteem.

Self-Esteem or God-Esteem

The Huffington Post lacks the theological foundation to understand that promoting self-esteem without God-esteem is the path to destruction and sorrow. The “You go girl!” culture of self-affirmation and self-esteem trumpeted by secularist outlets like the Huff-Po for the last 30 years attempts to produce “esteem” from a collective. If enough people say, “You are so beautiful” then this will translate to a girl truly believing she is beautiful. If enough people just say, “You are so intelligent,” it will translate into intelligent people.

The problem for them is that this approach to esteem relies on a consistent collective that reinforces the message. This is why “bullies” are such a problem in the modern self-esteem cult. They are destroying the collective affirmation process. And then there is also the inconsistent messaging. Every one is told they are equally special and worthy, but the media outlets quietly suggest that some are more special and worthy. Taylor Swift, Robert Downey Jr, Jennifer Lawrence, Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone seem be more worthy than the rest of us.

So where do we find find esteem or worthiness?

Worthiness, Suffering, and Martyrdom

When we look at Christianity at the turn of the 4th century, we find Christians standing up to the supreme arbitrator and law giver (the Roman Emperor) and the entire political/social collective (the Roman Empire) for the sake of a dignus that was not granted by collective, the media, the culture, or the secular state.

They discovered a divine dignus.

Saint Agnes of Rome cannot be persuaded to abandon Christ, her virginity, her modesty, or her virtue. Why is she so strong? Because the collective is coming together to affirm her?

No, she is so strong because she finds herself unworthy of anything outside of her life in Christo. Her esteem is thousands of times higher than the richest matrons of Rome – even higher than that of the senator or emperor himself. If Christ rose from the dead, and Christ is truly “under her roof,” well then she has it all.

The Huffington Post and the women’s mags at the supermarket checkout line are trying to lift “self-esteem” to empower people to love themselves and value themselves.

They are telling us, “Don’t say ‘I’m unworthy,’ but rather say ‘I am worthy of everything.’ Deep down inside say to yourself, ‘I have a perfect body. I’m rich. I’m popular. I’m basically Leonardo DiCaprio/Taylor Swift,’ and then you will be so!'”

But let’s be honest. That doesn’t work. And even if you are the sexiest or richest person of the year, does that translate to worthiness and happiness? Apparently not.

Liturgical Worthiness

Our liturgical affirmation Domine non sum dignus is not isolated. It is placed in a context. Let’s look at its location within the Roman Rite:

  • Eucharistic Prayer
  • Our Father
  • “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”
  • Agnus Dei
  • “Lord I’m not worthy…”
  • Reception of Communion

The acclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) by Saint John the Baptist is theologically proximate to “I am not worthy,” since John the Baptist also says, “even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27).

The Christian who says, “I am not worthy” has just recited the Our Father, declaring that God is our Father. Not something we are inherently worthy of, but something He grants as a gratuitous gift. Next, the believer hears “The peace of the Lord be with you.” The liturgical context is essential familial, peaceful, and redemptive.

We do say, “I am not worthy,” but the “but” is important. We say, “but only say the word and my soul shall be cleaned.” This statement is an affirmation of hope!

And what is the next phrase that the priest proclaims to the Christian? He proclaims, “The Body of Christ,” and the believer receives the Eucharist. That is the word that makes clean. That is the word that makes worthy.

Conclusion on “Being Worthy”

Ms. Horner does a disservice by isolating one line of liturgical text from the whole of the Eucharistic liturgy. Most non-Catholics have no idea about its placement proximate to the Our Father, the peace, or the climax of Catholic liturgy in the reception of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. Most non-Catholic readers do not understand that Christ enters “under the roof” of our mouths and that we become one in Him and He in us. Yet this is where we find our worthiness. When we esteem God, we find our dignity fully. God designed it that way.

Sadly, the cultural self-esteem cult of finding an ever larger and louder voice of affirmation will not transform a man or woman into something beautiful or truly worthy. Only God can do that for us. Without this Eucharistic miracle “under our roofs,” we will continue to be plagued by cultural decline, despair, and violence. With your kindness and love, share the Gospel with others. Invite them to Mass with you this Sunday. Let others see the hope that we have in the Eucharist.

Godspeed,

Taylor Marshall

 

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