A miracle explained

Back in my salad days at Our Sunday Visitor, I shared an office with Dale Francis. Dale was a legend. Editor and author, his columns in Our Sunday Visitor, and syndicated throughout the Catholic press, were read by millions. 

Dale’s gone now, but I believe he was — is — a saint, though like many saints he could be hard to live with. He smoked cigars that smelled like somebody set a sofa cushion on fire and pounded out reams of copy on an old typewriter that provided endlessly annoying background noise to my copy-editing. 

Dale was a convert, and he brought to his writing the wonder and awe of a convert. Dale woke each morning amazed that the Church would have him. 

One day, we were discussing declining rates of Mass attendance. As this was when I knew everything, I was giving some senseless flapdoodle about changing culture and mores. 

Dale waited me out, then said: “I don’t really understand how anybody could miss Mass. At the consecration the hair on the back of my neck stands up as I take part in the miracle.” 

So much for the flapdoodle. 

I thought of Dale’s comment as I read “The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, The Tradition,” by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Mike Aquilina (Doubleday, $21.99). 

This is a book that captures and explains Dale’s miracle. That celebrates that “the Mass is what Catholics do.” The authors explain the Mass in words that anyone can understand, but with a depth and a poetry in phrasing that just won’t let go of you: 

“We come to Mass, perhaps distracted by a thousand and one troubles and concerns of everyday life. Then Jesus draws close to us. ... By the prayers of the Mass, he draws out our response. He gives us words to express our sorrow, our pleas, our praise. Then he opens the Scripture to us. He gives us himself in the most intimate way. And then ... what we receive in the Mass we must now take into the world.” 

I hate to use the word “catechesis” to describe this book, because it might suggest a rote exercise. While this book contains a hundred bits of knowledge, its goal is revolutionary — a revolution of the heart and soul. 

The authors give us all we need to know about the Mass, everything from defining the seasonal vestments to the commandment that lingers in the final dismissal. But at the same time, they place the Mass at the very center of how we live — “the heart that gives life to all of it.” 

Throughout the book, the authors trace things back — finding scriptural connections, citing the Church Fathers — then take us home. 

Describing the Sign of Peace, the authors cite St. Peter [“Greet one another with a loving kiss. Peace to all of you who are in Christ” (1 Pt 5:14)] then note that St. Justin Martyr described it as part of the Mass in the second century; while St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in the fourth century, writes, “This kiss is the sign that our souls are united and that we banish all remembrance of injury.” 

The authors then explain: “We place a premium on charity; and with charity comes peace. Jesus made such peace a precondition of a truly holy Communion.” 

The joy of our faith is that it is red wine and cold beer — it has moved the greatest thinkers of Western civilization to plumb its depths, but is just as comfortable in the taverns, alleyways and playgrounds of any neighborhood anywhere. 

Cardinal Wuerl and Aqui-lina have given us a presentation of such extraordinary depth, but as accessible as an early morning Mass on a cold Monday. 

This is a book of the Mass. It is Dale’s miracle explained. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.