One Sunday when I was in college, my roommate and I decided to go to a local African-American Baptist church. I was still Protestant, and my roommate was Catholic. (He would later become my sponsor when I entered the Church). The service was just what you’d expect: lots of dynamic preaching, enthusiastic music and engaged worshippers. It was three-and-a-half hours of praise and worship like none I had ever encountered while growing up in the conservative United Methodist Church.
On the way home, I could not get over how intense and uplifting the service had been. I asked my roommate what he thought, expecting to hear high praise. Instead, he replied, “Well, it was really nice, but something was missing.”
“Missing? What could be missing? It was three-and-a-half hours long!”
“I know, but still, something was missing.”
“Well, they didn’t have Communion. It was like we got halfway through the service and then it just stopped.”
I was puzzled, and a little annoyed. Why would my roommate care about including a boring ritual like Communion? At the church I grew up in, we had Communion services about twice a year, and, as far as I was concerned, that was two times too many. There was nothing exciting or uplifting about Communion. How was eating some bread and drinking grape juice supposed to draw me closer to God?
Entering into the eternal
Now that I have been Catholic for almost 20 years, I see the immaturity and self-centeredness of my old way of thinking. Before, I saw a worship service as something that was directed at me: Its purpose was to uplift and encourage and inspire me. Today, however, I see that I had it completely backward: The liturgy is directed to God, not me. I am to be a participant in the Church’s worship, not a consumer of it. As this Catholic understanding has seeped into me, over the years my whole way of looking at the liturgy and worship has been radically altered.
Usually when Catholics discuss the liturgy, the conversation revolves around the human elements that often seem lacking: The homily was boring; the music was insipid; and no one seemed to be paying attention.
How often do we focus on the divine elements? Whenever we gather for Mass, we are entering into the eternal worship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What we “get out of” Mass is directly related to our focus — is it on the worship of God or on self-entertainment? Yes, insipid music and boring homilies are problems, but we cannot let these human failings turn our minds from lifting our hearts to the worship of the Triune God.
In a practical way, then, how can we adjust our attitude toward Mass and make the most of the time we spend participating in the liturgy of the Church?
Take it seriously
Recently, I was able to take a tour of the White House. Beforehand, I was sent a set of instructions about what I could bring and how I should dress. The guidelines stated that the attire should be formal — no shorts, T-shirts, etc. And that was just for a tour in which I wouldn’t even be meeting with the president or any officials. Picture the state dinners: Everyone is dressed in fine attire and conducts himself or herself with the utmost solemnity.
But if our dress is important for a state dinner with political leaders, should it not be so when we share the most sacred meal of them all — the holy sacrifice of the Mass? Our behavior and our attire should reflect how seriously we take our participation in the liturgy. Do we dress in our best clothes? Do we refrain from joking and chatting while still in the church? Are we sure to arrive early so we can spend time in prayer to prepare ourselves for the holy mysteries? All of these outward signs reflect our inner disposition. The more we treat Mass as the most solemn and important time of our week, the more we will be prepared to receive the graces that flow from it.
Another way we take the Mass seriously is our spiritual preparation before we even arrive at the church. Before a job interview, we are told that we should study all we can about our prospective employer. Do we prepare as much for our encounter with the Lord at Mass? We will hear the written Word of God proclaimed at every Mass, so an ideal way to prepare is to read the Scripture readings either the evening before or early Sunday morning.
Preparing for Mass also includes more mundane matters. Is the final 10 minutes before leaving home for Mass a frantic scramble for the door, with family members bickering with each other and parents scolding their children for misplaced shoes and unbrushed hair? If so, how can one be mentally and spiritually prepared to hear the Word of God and receive him sacramentally? Instead, a family can do small things to avoid such a chaotic scene: Make sure all clothes are ready the night before; and wake everyone up early so there’s plenty of time to get ready for Mass.
Focus on the essentials
One of the great mysteries of God’s ways is how much he depends on us to work out his plan. Even when our response is inadequate or half-hearted, he is still able to pour graces through us. Moses initially fled in fear from the command of God, but God still used him to lead his chosen people out of slavery. Peter denied our Lord three times, but that did not keep him from becoming the first pope. God only needs a small response from frail humanity in order to make his divine plan proceed.
The same is true for the Mass: The music may be sung by people with limited ability, the homily is sometimes rushed and ill-prepared, and the ushers can even be rude to parishioners. Yet the holy sacrifice still takes place, and we are privileged to be a part of it. The awesomeness of every Mass should be what is front-and-center in our thoughts during the liturgy, not whether Martha the music director is off-key or Father Jones seemed to mail in his homily. Every single Mass includes the great miracle of the Eucharist, where bread and wine are transformed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. That this miracle is presented every single day throughout the world should not lessen, but rather multiply, its import.
This does not mean that we should just ignore bad aesthetics or poor song selection at Mass. The fact is that we should offer our best to God in the Mass. If I were to give my son a baseball bat for his birthday, out of love he would want to hit a home run with that bat to show his appreciation. If he were to treat it carelessly, he would show that he did not respect the gift. How much truer is this when we are allowed to participate in the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God?
But instead of focusing on the faults and failings of others, we should reflect on what we can do to make our offerings the “first-fruits.” Can we sing? Then we can join the choir. Do we have a good public speaking voice? Then we can volunteer as a lector.
Furthermore, we can encourage others who do give their best. When our pastor gives an insightful homily, we can make sure he knows how much we appreciate it. When the choir sings beautifully, we can let the choir director know that it helped our prayer. But most importantly, when we are attending Mass we can fully participate and engage ourselves completely in this highest prayer of the Church.
Go as often as possible!
The highlight of every Catholic’s week should be Sunday Mass — when the whole Church gathers to commemorate the death and resurrection of Our Lord. But this is not the only time we can go to Mass; as Catholics we are fortunate that the Church celebrates Mass each and every day. Countless saints have recommended daily Mass as the bedrock in any plan to grow in holiness, and what better way to draw closer to our Lord than to receive him sacramentally every day? In addition, our daily participation in Mass heightens our appreciation for the Sunday Mass — we become more aware of the cycles of the liturgical year and enter into the mysteries of the Faith on a deeper level.
So, next time you go to Mass, focus on what you can give to God through it — your solemn attention, your best participation and your complete reverence. You might be surprised by what you receive in return, for God will never be outmatched in generosity!
Eric Sammons writes from Maryland. He is the author of “Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew” (OSV, $14.95).
The problem of bad liturgies
Solemn. Mysterious. Reverent. Majestic.
These words, all used to describe the Mass over the centuries, can seem foreign to those who have experienced Masses that were either rushed and distant or casual and folksy. Although the Mass is the high prayer of the Church, it is celebrated by man, and whenever those of us impacted by original sin are involved, there are sure to be problems.
One of the concerns of the participants in the Second Vatican Council was that the Mass was no longer being given the reverence it deserved. Many priests were rushing through the rite and were making little attempt to make the words something the congregation could follow. Some members of the laity were treating the public prayer of the Mass as their own personal prayer time, or worse, a time to take a cigarette break outside. So the Council Fathers urged the Church to rediscover the importance of active participation in the solemn majesty of the Mass by all people.
Not exactly what happened, though, is it?
Instead of embracing a more reverent, participatory liturgy, many elements within the Church got caught up in the 1960s zeitgeist and implemented a “dumbing down” of the Mass: allowing things like “Clown Masses” and trying to reduce the Mass to a community meal with a few banjos thrown in. Many laity had to endure years of such nonsense with little or no recourse to a more serious celebration of the Mass. So, it seems that in the past 100 years many of the faithful have had to endure the two extremes of bad liturgy: either a rushed, mumbled Mass where the laity are considered unnecessary “extras,” or liturgical celebrations void of all reverence in a vapid attempt to be “relevant.”
Fortunately, the Church, under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, has begun to move toward a synthesis of the reverence inherent in the pre-Vatican II liturgy with the participatory nature of the Novus Ordo. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t strong pockets of resistance to this trend from those who would consider the laity a foreign interloper to the Mass or from those who would like to remain in the 1970s.
So, what can a Catholic do if he’s stuck in such a situation?
The first thing is to remind himself repeatedly that every valid Mass, no matter how poorly it is celebrated, is the greatest miracle in the world today. In every Mass, the eternal Son of God is offered to the Father through the Holy Spirit for our salvation. And furthermore, we are allowed to receive sacramentally the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ in order to help us become more like him! No aging hipsters or distant priests can prevent that from happening.
Think of the many times and places through the centuries when faithful Catholics were not even able to attend Mass on a regular basis, due either to a shortage of priests or violent persecution. This should help us keep things in perspective, rather than idealizing the past — or looking with bitterness on our less-than-perfect present. When we see a video of a reverent Mass from the 1940s, we may be too quick to long for that era that seems the pinnacle of liturgical worship. Some Catholics, on the other hand, hear that the Latin Mass is being celebrated again in our day and worry that this will lead to a rejection of all the fruits of Vatican II. Both these reactions reveal a blind side. No era is without its problems. In every age, the Church has had to battle against the failures of the men and women in its ranks, and to insist that its priests live up to their awesome calling. While we cannot minimize real problems in the Church today, we must also guard against a negative mentality about the present that precludes gratitude for the blessing of the Mass in our time.
And finally, we must pray. Unfortunately, this advice can seem clichéd, but that’s because it’s always the best advice. If your priest or music director doesn’t seem to appreciate the solemnity of the Mass, be sure to spend hours in prayer for every second of complaining. The best — and only — way to truly effect change for the better in the Church is by grounding all our actions in prayer. We must ask the Lord for forgiveness for our own sins of irreverence and then beg him to increase our appreciation for the gift that is the Mass.
The Cost of Going to Mass (sidebar)
We Americans are blessed to have both the freedom and the means to attend Mass on a daily basis. We are guaranteed freedom of worship, and in most areas of the country, there is a parish church nearby offering Mass each and every day. But this is not always the case for Catholics, whether today or in times past. In the early Church, going to Mass was a capital offense; yet disciples of Christ risked everything to attend Mass and receive the Holy Eucharist. Even after the Roman persecution ended, there have been many times in Church history in which going to Mass has been a dangerous occupation. The story of St. Eric of Sweden is one such example.
In 12th-century Sweden there was a great and virtuous ruler: King Eric. He ruled his land fairly and compassionately, and he loved his people, especially the poor. Yet as often happens with great rulers, he had numerous enemies — including Magnus, the prince of Denmark, who desired Eric’s throne. Magnus plotted Eric’s overthrow and gathered a band of rebels to kill him.
The day of the usurpers’ attack fell on the feast of the Ascension, and King Eric, as was his habit, was attending Mass. During the holy sacrifice, word came to Eric that the rebels were marching against him. The king calmly replied, “Let us at least finish the sacrifice; the remainder of the festival I shall keep elsewhere.” During the Mass he offered his life to God and prayed fervently for his people and their safety. As Eric left the church grounds, his attackers surrounded him, beat him from his horse and decapitated him.
For Eric, the Mass was more important than even his very life. He is now honored as the patron saint of Sweden.
Going Deeper (sidebar)
In addition to previewing the Sunday readings, another good way to get more out of the Mass is through lectio divina, an ancient practice in which we encounter God not only through reading his inspired texts, but through our response to his Word.
In “The Mass in Scripture” (OSV, $9.95) Stephen J. Binz provides 30 lessons on the Eucharist, leading readers to deepen their understanding through study, reflection, prayer and action.