Pope Francis spoke recently about something that is very dear to me, namely, the importance of the Holy Mass as a mysterious and sacred encounter with the living God and more than just the gathering of Catholics to pray together.
He explained that Holy Mass is not just a “social act” or a “prayer gathering,” but the place where “the presence of the Lord is real, truly real.” “When we celebrate the Mass, we don’t accomplish a representation of the Last Supper,” the pope said, explaining that, “IT IS the Last Supper itself.”
His comments made me think of an encounter I had a few years ago. Just after I had finished celebrating the Holy Mass, I was asked by a member of the congregation, “Father, I noticed that when you say the Mass, you really don’t seem to be looking at us a whole lot. Why is that?” My initial reaction and response was “Well, when I celebrate the Mass, I am speaking to our Lord and not with the congregation.”
In response to this very good question, I attempted to clarify this common misconception that the Mass is primarily a dialogue between the priest and the congregation, or this sort of social gathering that the pope was referring to.
With the exception of just a few dialogical parts, i.e., “the Lord be with you … lift up your hearts …” the Mass is not a dialogue between the priest and the congregation as if it were simply a performance reenacting the Last Supper. The Mass is a dialogue between us and Almighty God, a dialogue in which the priest is leading, but one in which everyone is (or should be) participating.
Maybe we have never thought of it in these terms. Maybe we were formed in a way of thinking that leads us to believe that Mass is essentially about “us,” about what “we” get out of it, about how it makes “me” feel. But if we listen closely to the prayers that are said during the Mass it becomes abundantly clear that we are speaking above all to God the Father.
Msgr. Guido Marini, pontifical master of Liturgical Ceremonies, spoke of this very topic, explaining that, “theologically speaking, the holy Mass, as a matter of fact, is always addressed to God through Christ our Lord, and it would be a grievous error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is the community.”
Pope Francis has in essence invited us to plunge into the unfathomable and sacred mystery of the Mass! To do so, it is crucial that we first understand the very nature of the liturgy and to whom it is being directed. If we are truly to encounter our Lord in the breaking of the bread as did the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our hearts and minds must be open to and formed by the liturgical actions and prayers themselves. The Mass is ultimately about the worship and adoration of God, not about any emotional response it may invoke.
As a former high school chaplain, I often heard from the students, “I don’t get anything out of the Mass” or “It is so hard to pay attention or stay focused.” I don’t believe for a minute that this response is limited to teen-agers, even though they may express it in a more straightforward manner. The same is true, however, of any event or activity that we attend. If we are unfamiliar with what is happening or to the real beauty in how it is executed, then, certainly, we will not appreciate or be able to enter into it.
For example, I remember the first professional soccer game that I went to in Italy. I knew the basic point of the game was to kick the ball into the opponents’ net and I knew that you couldn’t use your hands, but that was the extent of my awareness of the game. I didn’t understand strategy or the concept of being off-sides or how the individual players functioned together as a team. There was an initial excitement about being in a huge stadium with thousands of screaming Romans, but after that initial excitement faded away, I was quite bored.
I imagine that this feeling is similar to that of those who “get nothing out of the Mass” or find it “boring.” When one is unfamiliar with the beauty and the sacredness of such an encounter with God, then that response is almost natural. The question that I continually asked myself as a high school chaplain, trying to foster in the students an appreciation and love for the Mass, was “How do we reclaim the sense of wonder and awe of the Mass that the generations of Catholics before us experienced?” How do we restore the sense of the sacred?
Over and over again, I came to the same two-fold conclusion. On the part of ministers of the Church, first we must persistently provide and embrace an ongoing catechesis for Catholics of all ages and states of life. How can we live out our faith and celebrate it liturgically if we are unaware of what we truly believe as Catholics?
The second thing that is necessary is to provide reverent and solemn celebrations of the Mass allowing its natural beauty to lead us into contact with the presence of God. There is nothing I or any other priest can do to make the Mass more beautiful or engaging or interesting than it already is on its merits. At each Mass Jesus Christ becomes truly present — there is nothing more awesome than that.
These are the things the Church provides. Each of us, however, has the responsibility actively to seek to grow in our faith and not just go about things as passive members of the Church. If we are to “get more” out of the Mass, we ought first to strive to understand the Mass by reflecting upon how we approach Mass in the first place. We need to ask the question, “Is this about worshiping and praising God?” or “Is it about me and how it makes me feel?”