WHY CATHOLICS COME TO MASS?

WHY CATHOLICS COME TO MASS?

By Card. Seán P. O’Malley, OFM Cap. (Archdiocese of Boston via CNUA)

Sometimes we become fixated on the reasons Catholics give for skipping Sunday Mass. These are important and the Church needs to hear these concerns and respond. However, it is equally important to focus on and share the many reasons why Catholics throughout the Church’s history have come, and continue to come, with eager anticipation.

1.     We desire to respond to God’s love - ”God so loved the world that He sent His only son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”9 Jesus’ love for us led Him to offer Himself on the cross for our salvation. The same saving love of Jesus leads Him to continue to give Himself through the gift of the Eucharist.  The word “love” in English, particularly today, has been stripped of much of its beauty and meaning. It often is reduced to a “feeling.” In Greek, there are seven words for love and the word for the love God has for us, agape, connotes action, a self-gift.  The love we want to have for God is a self-gift in return, of our time, energy, worries, hopes and joy.  The Mass is the best place to thank God for the gifts besides Himself that He gives us — especially life, family, friends, faith and love.

2.     We desire to encounter Christ in the most profound way possible - At Mass, eternity and time intersect.  It is part of God’s plan of salvation that we would be able to meet Him directly and receive His grace through the sacraments. Because He is all loving and truthful, we believe Him when He and the Church He founded teach that He is really present with us in the celebration of the Mass. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy explains that Christ is present to us in four ways during the celebration of Mass: (1) in the community celebrating; (2) in the Word proclaimed; (3) in the

 

priest presiding; and (4) in the Eucharist.10   Dr. Tom Curran elaborated on these four forms of Christ’s presence at Mass in a way that is very helpful.11

First, we encounter Christ in the community of the faithful.  Each one of us is made in God’s image and likeness. The kindness we show each other in Jesus’ name is a way we show kindness to Jesus Himself. Also, by joining in the community of the faithful, we are included in Jesus’ prayer of thanks and praise to God the Father. It is a holy encounter with Jesus and with our fellow communicants.

Second, we encounter Christ in His Word.  The readings proclaimed from Sacred Scripture are truly the words of everlasting life and the letter from a loving God to His people. What is truly amazing is that, if we pray before Mass for guidance in a decision and we intently listen to the proclamation of Scripture and the homily, God will often speak to us in words we most need to hear.

Third, we encounter Christ in the priest. Jesus chose to have His sacrifice re-presented on the altar by an ordained priest or bishop. When the priest speaks in the first person during the Consecration, and says, “Take this, all of you and eat of it, for this is My body,” Jesus is speaking through him. He stands in the person of Christ, the Eternal High Priest. Through the priest, we are able to participate in the greatest event in history, the one that saved us from our sins and opened up the possibility of spending eternal life with God in heaven.

Fourth, and most importantly, we encounter Christ in the Eucharist. We take Jesus’ body and blood within us, and Jesus transforms us.  We become one with Him by receiving Him in HolyCommunion,    and    through    Him,    with    each other.12  Because of these direct encounters with Christ at Mass, we seek to be active participants — not passive spectators —

 

 

in listening to His Word, sharing in the Offertory, joining in the singing, and proclaiming a reverent “Amen” (“truly, I believe”) when we worthily approach to receive Jesus in the Eucharist.

3.     We desire to gather and pray with our parish family - The celebration of Mass, like life, has vertical and horizontal dimensions.  This parallels the great commandment, which instructs us to love God and then to love our neighbors as ourselves.   Christian life is a pilgrimage we make with our brothers and sisters in Jesus.  Jesus set the example by gathering all the Apostles at the Last Supper instead of having a dozen individual meals. God foresaw from all eternity that we would be placed in our particular community at this particular time and that discipleship is lived in friendship and fraternity with those for whom and with whom we pray at each Sunday Mass.  Our presence to each other is a symbol of our solidarity and unity with God and with each other. It is the fullest expression of our Christian identity. Liturgy means, “work of the people.” The greatest work we will do each week is to worship God and pray for, and with, our parish family.

4.     We desire to strengthen our particular family - Father Patrick Peyton, the great “Rosary Priest,” instructed us, “The family that prays together, stays together.” He advocated praying a family rosary daily. In the same way, I recommend that attending and praying at the Sunday Mass together will strengthen your family to confront the various challenges today that often tear families apart. During the sacrament of Baptism, parents are reminded that they are called to be the first and best teachers of their children in the ways of faith.  Knowing that the Mass is Catholicism’s central prayer and that it is the source and summit of Christian life, we teach our children and grandchildren one of the most important lessons of all when we attend Mass with them.

 

Recently I attended a dinner at which the principal of one of our local Catholic high schools was being honored. In his remarks he said: “I grew up in a family where going to Mass on Sunday was about as optional as breathing.” Many of us in the audience could identify with those words — it was not a matter of authoritarian parents or social pressure, but rather a sense of how important the Sunday Eucharist was for our family identity and survival. To miss Mass is to stop breathing; it is the sure path to a spiritual asphyxiation.

5.We desire to witness to our faith and provide a living legacy to our children and grandchildren - Children are always watching their parents and grandparents. We form our young people by the way we participate in the Mass.  Children who see that their parents get to Church early to pray before Mass will want to imitate them.  Children who observe parents and other adults reverently receive the Eucharist will more readily realize that the Eucharist truly is the Body and Blood of Christ. The example of parents is an essential part of preparation for receiving First Holy Communion.  Children who hear from their parents how much, and why, they love Mass will be less inclined to compare Mass to television and consider it “boring.” A great tribute at a funeral liturgy is when we describe the deceased as someone who never missed Sunday Mass and someone who had a great desire to receive the Eucharist and to be with the parish family.  When I was growing up, my family and others in our parish would regularly attend Saturday afternoon confession together and Sunday morning Mass.  Following Mass, extended families gathered for a great Sunday lunch and time for relaxation.  Celebrating Sunday, the Lord’s Day, was a legacy passed from generation to generation. It was a time to build up the family of Christ, the Church, as well as our own family. Today

 

the pace of life has quickened.  Technology allows work and other responsibilities to intrude into family time.  Youth sports, which used to have distinct seasons and no games on Sunday, are now year-round activities with games beginning as early as 7:00 a.m. on Sundays.  Indeed, many families have busier, more hectic schedules on Sundays than they do during the week because Sunday has become simply part of a two-day weekend.  St. Pope John Paul IIwrote about this in his 1998 pastoral letter on the Lord’s Day. The custom of the ‘weekend’ has become more widespread, a weekly period of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in cultural, political or sporting activities which are usually held on free days. This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects if, while respecting true values, it can contribute to people’s development and to the advancement of the life of society as a whole. All of this responds not only to the need for rest, but also to the need for celebration, which is inherent in our humanity. Unfortunately, when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a ‘weekend’, it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see the heavens. Hence, though ready to celebrate, they are really incapable of doing so. The disciples of Christ, however, are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord’s Day holy, and the ‘weekend’, understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation.13 St. Ignatius called Christians people who “live in accord with the Lord’s Day” because they gathered on the first day of the week after the Jewish Sabbath to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection.  Their lives were renewed by this sacred worship.  As Pope Benedict says, Sunday is not

just a suspension of ordinary activities, but a time when

 

“Christians discover the Eucharistic form that their lives are meant to have.”14  The way we celebrate Sunday will affect the way we live the remainder of the week and is a mark of Christian identity from generation to generation.

6.     We desire to be transformed by Christ’s sacramental grace - The Eucharist is not just something symbolic.  Jesus said: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; . . . he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and . . . abides in me, and I in him.”15   Upon hearing these words many disciples abandoned Jesus but He did not call them back and say, “I am just kidding,” or “these are just figurative expressions.” Instead He asks the Apostles if they are going to leave Him too.  St. Peter answers in the name of all faithful disciples: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”16 The graces and transformative insights God provides in each celebration of Mass help us move toward a happier, holier life. As we prepare for Mass, we have the opportunity to pray confidently that Christ will give us sanctifying grace. When we arrive, we can ask God to speak to us through the readings, music, homily and prayers and show us one way we can grow to become more the person God created us to be.  When you gain that insight, you can pray for the remainder of the Mass how you can put that new insight into practice in the upcoming week.17 The Eucharist gives us strength to face life’s challenges and to keep mindful of God’s love for us.

7.We desire to participate in Jesus’ victory over death and the salvation of the world - Each Sunday Mass is a “little Easter” because it marks the Resurrection — Jesus’ victory over death. This victory is the most significant one in world history

 

because it opens up the possibility of everlasting life. Consider for a moment the fact that God loved each of us so much that He became incarnate — a human being — so that He could suffer death on a cross as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this because He wanted us to live eternally with Him in Heaven. His victory, through His love, is meant to become our victory too.  Sports fans in Boston over the past decade have had the good fortune to celebrate many championships.  Our victory parades have been incredible gatherings.  No sports fan in the nation would deny that Boston knows how to celebrate victory.  Wouldn’t it be great if others said that about us for the way that we celebrated the biggest victory of all — Jesus’ victory over death?

8.     We desire a foretaste of Heaven - ”Every time we celebrate the Eucharist,” St. John Paul II preached in 2004, “we participate in the Lord’s Supper which gives us a foretaste of the heavenly glory.”18   The Pope would add in his beautiful encyclical on the Eucharist, The Eucharist is a … foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ; it is in some way the anticipation of heaven, the ‘pledge of future glory.’19 In the Eucharist, everything speaks of confident waiting ‘in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.’ Those who feed on Christ in the Eucharist need not wait until the hereafter to receive eternal life: they already possess it on earth, as the first-fruits of a future fullness which will embrace man in his totality. For in the Eucharist we also receive the pledge of our bodily resurrection at the end of the world: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’20  This pledge of the future resurrection comes from the fact that the flesh of the Son of Man, given as food, is his body in its glorious state after the resurrection. With the Eucharist we digest, as it were, the ‘secret’ of the resurrection. For this reason St. Ignatius of Antioch rightly defined the Eucharistic

 

Bread as ‘a medicine of immortality, an antidote to death.’21 St. Augustine wrote, “O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”22 God wants us to experience deep peace and joy by sharing in His divine life. The Mass, because we receive divine life within us, is the foretaste of that heavenly peace and joy.

9.We desire to follow God’s loving guidance and to commit to deepening our relationship with God - God’s commandments and the teachings of the Church that are based upon them are often misunderstood as burdens instead of guidance and wisdom for a joyful and peaceful journey through this life and into the next.  God created us and knows what will make us truly happy.

God’s Third Commandment instructs us to keep the Sabbath holy.  For Christians, this weekly Sabbath is Sunday, which the early Christians always called the Lord’s Day. By keeping Sunday for God, by keeping first things first and putting God above other things, we will experience greater order and more peace in our lives.

The Church calls every one of us to make a commitment to attend Sunday Mass.  In doing so, we promise to do our part to keep up our relationship with Christ and with our Church family

— the Body of Christ.

Christ’s relationship to the Church is described in Sacred Scripture as that of a Bridegroom with his Bride.23   His self-sacrificing love is something the Church seeks to reciprocate. It is a model of the love between a husband and a wife. Imagine if a wife, celebrating an anniversary dinner with her husband, told him that she accepted the dinner invitation only to “fulfill an obligation.” How would you feel to be on the receiving end of that message?

 

Likewise we are at Mass in response to a commitment of love, not just to fulfill an obligation. Christ eagerly desires to meet us in the Mass and to be present with us at all times. He hopes that we reciprocate His eager desire and make it a personal commitment each week of love and gratitude.

When I was a seminarian, I remember reading an interview with Flannery O’Connor about what it was like to grow up Catholic in the South.  O’Connor said there were very few Catholics and many prejudices against them. She told the story of her best friend who was a Baptist.  Flannery often invited her to Mass. Finally, one Sunday the little girl got permission from her mom to accept Flannery’s invitation. Flannery could not wait for the Mass to be over so she could ask her little friend whether she liked it. The little girl said: “WOW. You Catholics really have something special. The sermon was so boring, the music was lousy, the priest mumbled the prayers of a language nobody could understand, and all those people were there!”

While some complaints about the way the Mass is celebrated are legitimate — and there is no question that we should work to make the celebration of Mass as beautiful as we can — we need to make sure we focus on what is already beautiful — the people gathered, the proclamation of the Word of God, the Eucharistic sacrifice, and the communion we share with God and with each other.  Obviously, that is what the people in O’Connor’s parish did. They were not there to be entertained.  Most of them were probably there because they realized “sine dominico non possumus” - “without Sunday we cannot live!”

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