One of the hallmarks of contemporary American evangelicalism is the dynamic flow of various strains of Protestants in and out of each other’s churches. On any given Sunday, a Southern Baptist church welcomes Presbyterians, a Presbyterian church welcomes Methodists, and a Methodist church welcomes “Bible Christians.”
Sometimes those cross-denominational visitors come back, preferring the preaching or the fellowship of the host church to their home church. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, it doesn’t matter much. There’s no requirement that Southern Baptists only worship in Southern Baptist churches or that “Bible Christians” go to church every Sunday. That, in part, is because most evangelical Protestants define themselves by what they believe, not how they worship.
The same can’t be said for Catholics.
“The Mass is what Catholics do,” writes Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., in his book, co-authored with Mike Aquilina, “The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition” (Doubleday, $21.99).
In other words, Catholics and their liturgy are inseparably linked. Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Cardinal Wuerl about the importance of the Mass to Catholics and how the upcoming new translation will affect Catholic liturgy and life.
Our Sunday Visitor: There are so many ways of talking about the Mass or describing what it is, but what is the most fundamental understanding of the Mass that Catholics need to have?
Cardinal Donald Wuerl: The reason we Catholics celebrate Mass and why it is the center of our life is succinctly taught in Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical on the Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharistia). “When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of our Lord’s death and resurrection, this central event of salvation becomes really present and ‘the work of our redemption is carried out’” (No. 11). We are not bystanders when we go to Mass. We participate in the very action by which our salvation is won for us. The Mass is at the very heart of our identity as disciples of Jesus. No wonder we say that the liturgy, the Eucharist, is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed: it is also the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 10). For this reason, the Church calls us to Mass every Sunday.
OSV: What are the most fundamental lessons we learn about God from the Mass?
Cardinal Wuerl: God loves us. He sent his only begotten Son among us to proclaim the depth of his love. On the cross, Jesus manifested the greatness of God’s love for us, and instituted the Eucharist to continue to make that love present. The origins of the Mass are found in the Last Supper. God wanted to restore for us the intimacy of friendship with himself that was so deeply wounded by sin. To do this Christ would die on the cross and rise to new life. The Eucharist is the perpetual memorial of God’s love for us.
OSV: What are the most fundamental lessons we learn about ourselves from the Mass?
Cardinal Wuerl: On our own, we simply cannot have the relationship with God that each of us truly desires. We are caught up in the human condition with our own frailty, limited vision and sinfulness. Yet in the Mass the merciful embrace of God awaits us, and we are made one with Christ and with each other. It is for this reason that Christ established the Eucharist as an efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion and unity of the people of God by which the Church is renewed and sustained. Blessed John Paul II wrote that the Eucharist builds the Church, that it is the source of our communion with each other and the font of the Church’s unity. What we learn about ourselves is our relationship not only to God but to each other as brothers and sisters made one in Christ (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 22). To be Catholic is to “belong to the family of faith” (Gal 6:10), the “household of God” (1 Pt 4:17). Being a member of the Church means that we live and act within the structure of this spiritual and visible community. We are called to work in solidarity with the bishops — the successors of the apostles — who are given the responsibility to preserve the unity of the Church as they provide leadership, teach and sanctify.
OSV: What can laypeople do before Mass to prepare ourselves to better understand the liturgy?
Cardinal Wuerl: All the faithful are called to approach the altar spiritually prepared. St. Paul wrote that, “whoever eats the bread, drinks of the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer to the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor: 11-27). It is for this reason that we take special care to examine our conscience and if necessary receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving the body and blood of Christ. This year, as the Church calls us to reflect on the new English translation of the Roman Missal, we also are expected to renew our own understanding of the Mass. This we can do by taking the time to turn to the many sources available to us to instruct us in understanding the Mass. … [My book] was prepared precisely to help Catholics experience all over again the wonder of the liturgy.
OSV: What can we do during the Mass to help us enter fully into the liturgy and ward off as many distractions as possible?
Cardinal Wuerl: Since we recognize that we are celebrating what the Church calls “the sacred mysteries” we need to be recollected in anticipation of entering into this spiritual reality. It helps to arrive at church a little early simply to put aside all the distractions that are a normal part of life. It takes an active commitment to stay focused on what is happening in the sanctuary, participate in the singing, the listening and the responses. Reminding ourselves of what is transpiring on the altar is the principal defense against so many distractions that seem always to be around us.
OSV: How is the way we, as individuals, participate in the Mass connected to the way we live our lives as Catholics?
Cardinal Wuerl: We are not at Mass alone. We are a part of God’s family and we must be alert to the needs of that family. Just as we begin Mass with the Sign of the Cross, so, too, we conclude it with the blessing in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, before the dismissal. We are reminded that the word “dismissal” has come to imply a “mission.” Our Holy Father tells us that these few words summarily express the missionary task of the Church. We are to come away from Mass aware that we are responsible for the restoration of the temporal order, for the sanctification and evangelization of the world. Disciples are called to bring the Good News to those around us. The evangelist is the disciple who shares the Good News.
OSV: What difference do you think the new translation will make in how Catholics understand and participate in the Mass? In how Catholics live their faith daily?
Cardinal Wuerl: The real impact of the new translation will be felt among those who use this time to reflect on and renew our faith in what happens at Mass. The changes in the new translation are few. Yet this time of preparation for the use of the new translation is richly fruitful because it engages all of us in renewing our understanding of the Mass, deepening our faith to embrace the mystery of the Eucharist and heightening our commitment to live its effects in our world, our community, our neighborhood, our parish, our family. This is a graced moment for the Church, a part of the New Evangelization, the outreach to all around us, to welcome them once again to experience the joy that is ours and perhaps once was theirs — the joy of being part of the body of Christ sharing in the re-presentation of his death and Resurrection in a way in which we are renewed, redeemed and given the pledge of life everlasting.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.