A couple of 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 directly clarify this common misconception that the Mass is a dialogue between the priest and the congregation.
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 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 to God the Father.
(A parishioner made this after my homily this weekend)
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.”
As we attempt to plunge into the unfathomable and sacred mystery of the Mass, it is crucial that we first understand the very nature of the liturgy and to whom it is being directed. If we are to truly 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.
Msgr. Marini explains on this point that, “the reason why everything in the liturgical act, through the nobility, the beauty, and the harmony of the exterior sign, must be conducive to adoration, to union with God: this includes the music, the singing, the periods of silence, the manner of proclaiming the Word of the Lord, and the manner of praying, the gestures employed, the liturgical vestments and the sacred vessels and other furnishings, as well as the sacred edifice in its entirety.” Everything that is done, or supposed to be done at Mass is directed to helping us lift up our hearts and minds to God.
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 teenagers, even though they may express 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?”
Over and over again, I came to the same conclusion which is twofold. On the part 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 divine 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 to actively 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 to first 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?”