Over the past week, while visiting my wife’s family up in the Pacific Northwest, I had attended Mass a couple of times. First, for Easter Sunday, which was of course packed with people, and then the following Sunday for the Second week of Easter. The contrast in attendance was staggering and yet somehow not all that surprising. On Easter Sunday, there was practically not even standing room available. Not a soul was going to miss out on Easter Sunday. And yet, for some strange reason, that same love for the Mass (or for God) didn’t seem to cross over into the following Sunday, when perhaps only a few handfuls of people showed up for Mass. It was a somber reminder of the sad state of affairs for our Holy Church.
I was also reminded, however, of what St. Athanasius said about the “handfuls” of faithful Catholics when he wrote, “Even if Catholics faithful to Tradition are reduced to a handful, they are the ones who are the true Church of Jesus Christ.”
This isn’t a new problem though. Years ago, when I was younger, I wondered why so many people, often called “two-timers,” came to Church only on Easter and Christmas, and left the Church “high and dry” during practically any other time during the liturgical year. Even up until a year or two ago, I really didn’t get it. It wasn’t until I sat down with a close friend (who stopped attending Catholic Mass) and asked him point blank, “why don’t you go to Mass anymore?” that it really clicked. To paraphrase, he said, “I just don’t get anything out of it. When I go to protestant services, it just seems more interesting.”
As any good Catholic would, I wanted to jump over the table and strangle him (just kidding). From my point of view, there is nothing more intimate, more beautiful, more incredible or even more interesting than the Catholic Mass. A sacrificial celebration in which God comes to us in the flesh and permits us to partake of him in such an intimate way seems like the most mind-blowing experience anyone could possibly hope for. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how somebody could leave the Catholic Church for anything, and I mean anything, else.
But, as I said, something indeed clicked. I realized that, over the years, I had heard people making similar arguments about why they didn’t go to Mass anymore, sometimes even “changing religions” in order to pursue a faith system that they “jive” with, or rather, a faith system that jives with them. So, while I certainly didn’t agree with this mentality, I was at least able to understand that there was a disconnect, and it’s causing thousands, perhaps even millions of fellow Catholics to abandon the Church to find something that suits them.
Now, in previous posts I have touched on the dangers of seeking our own “truth” and why it isn’t prudent to “shop” around for the church that agrees with us. I’ve already gone into why we should stick to the Church and amend our own lives rather than becoming “a la carte” Catholics who pick and choose what they agree with. That simply causes more problems of faith, and obviously leads us down a very destructive path.
So, instead of rehashing things we’ve already covered, I am going to list off 5 ways that anybody, especially Catholics, can get “more” out of the Mass. My hope with this post is that my fellow brothers and sisters can see the inherent value of what the Catholic Church has to offer, and why it is the only Church that has the fullness of the truth. Without further ado, here are my 5 ways to get more out of the Mass:
1. Pay Attention. A few years ago, I attended a Byzantine Divine Liturgy for the first time. I was at the Religious Education Congress and I wanted to go to the most traditional Mass I could find and boy did I love that Liturgy. One thing that particularly caught my interest, however, was the invitation from the celebrant to be attentive. “Wisdom! Be attentive!” the Celebrant exclaimed just before proceeding with the Liturgy. I thought to myself, “how clever.” Reminding us, the faithful, to be attentive to the wisdom that would be shed during the Liturgies, and truly listen to the words that are spoken. More than that, it was an invitation to be attentive to the Holy Spirit during the celebration in order to enrich our contribution to the sacrifice of the Mass.
Although it may come as a no-brainer to many, I think the idea of “paying attention” at church sort of falls by the wayside. Sometimes even I seem to drift off into a daydream for a moment if I don’t keep myself in check. Obviously we should pay attention in Mass, right? But it isn’t so easy to put into practice unless we know what to pay attention to.
So, on the surface, of course we should be paying attention to the entire Mass. One of the best things about Catholic Mass is that every single part of it has a purpose, a meaning, or at least deep roots in tradition. It’s easy to keep our appetite for curiosity at bay by considering what different parts of the Mass mean, or why we do them. For example, the incense, while giving off a nice Catholic aroma, is actually intended to symbolize our prayers rising to God, just as smoke rises to the sky. Candles, of course, provided a dual purpose in the ancient Church. Having no electricity, the multitude of candles we see at Mass is an ancient tradition that sort of “stuck” even after electricity was commonplace, but the fire also resembles the light of Christ, of course.
Paying attention to the Mass is incredibly beneficial. It sparks our curiosity in a healthy way that
2. Participate Appropriately. Something we hear regularly at Mass (in many parishes) is the need for continued participation on the part of the faithful. We’ll hear the Celebrant express the need for ushers, lectors, choir members, and altar boys. As nice as it is to assist in the Liturgy where permitted, active participation in the Mass isn’t actually intended to mean “jobs” that we can perform during the Liturgy. Rather, the faithful is invited to participate in a far more intimate way. Namely, “by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 30).
Primary means of participation according to Sacrosanctum Concilium, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, are roughly highlighted above. Notice that “participation” isn’t determined by individual jobs that are performed by a select few parishioners. While many of those jobs are indeed necessary, they aren’t the definition of “participation” in the Liturgy. In fact, Sacrosanctum Concilium goes on to say, “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14). Surely, if everyone must participate, the tasks we are supposed to perform must rise above exclusive responsibilities.
For an even deeper description of our duties as Catholics, the Church offers a document called the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM), also referred to as the rubrics, that standardizes the duties, actions, norms, and formal requirements of the Liturgy. Of course, it covers far more than responsibilities of the faithful and the clergy. It addresses everything from material requirements (like what the altar and vessels should be made of) to vestment procedures, and even goes through the entire process of the Mass, from start to finish and describes the purpose for the various actions that the Celebrant and laity perform.
For the faithful, the GIRM addresses proper gestures, responses, times to reflect and pray, the job requirements of duties like Lectors, Altar Boys, and Ushers, and it even describes appropriate postures for certain moments during the Mass.
Participation in the Mass, with special regard to our duties as the GIRM describes, is a fool-proof way to enrich our prayer lives, especially during Mass. I would highly recommend taking a look at the GIRM, and even reading about what Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us of true Liturgical participation in greater detail than we can cover here.
3. Remain Prayerful Throughout the Mass. The Mass, from start to finish, is one fluid prayer to God, complete with appeal to his mercy, a sacrifice, thanksgiving, and personal reflection. When Mass begins, just after the procession, the Celebrant opens the Liturgy by making the Sign of the Cross. We do this as Catholics every time we begin to pray. Likewise, at the end of Mass, he closes with the Sign of the Cross, signifying that the prayer is complete, just like we do when we pray outside of Mass. The prayerful nature of the Mass is embedded into the Liturgy, and therefore must be kept in mind at all times.
Personally, I find that remaining in prayer helps keep my focus in check, and reminds me that the Mass is a time of reflection and thanksgiving, but also a time to remember the sacrifice of our Lord and to observe the ongoing sacrifice of the Mass.
4. Observe the Moments of Sacred Silence. One part of the prayer we pray during Mass involves observing the prescribed moments of Sacred Silence. Throughout various times during the Mass, the faithful and the Celebrant are invited to take advantage of “Sacred Silence.” These moments of silence serve different purposes depending on the particular moments during the mass. The moments of Sacred Silence for reflection and recollection are:
Penitential Act – “I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters…” This moment of Sacred Silence is an opportunity for the penitent person to examine their conscience, to inform themselves of their inherent need of God’s mercy, and to appeal to their fellow brothers and sisters about the need for forgiveness, which reminds us of our commonality as members of the Body of Christ; an accountability. This is a time to recollect ourselves.
Oremus –This is an Invitation to pray from the Celebrant. During the Oremus, the Priest or Bishop says, “let us pray,” and the faithful are to use this as a chance to quietly and prayerfully contemplate the prayers said by the priest. This is also a time to recollect ourselves.
After Homily –During the reading of the Gospel, the faithful employs their attention to the word of God. After that, the Celebrant offers the Homily which should serve as a reflection
on the readings heard at the Mass and might also may offer insight and guidance that relates to our personal lives. After the
Homily, the priest usually, and indeed should, sit down and meditate on the readings for himself, and contemplate what has been said and heard. During that time, the faithful should join the celebrant in this sacred silence, and “meditate briefly on what they have heard” (GIRM, 45). This is a time to reflect.
After Communion – The Eucharist is the focal point of the entire celebration of the Mass. As such, after receiving Holy Communion, the faithful should “praise God in their hearts and pray to him” (Ibid.). This, too, is a time to reflect.
Before the Mass Begins – The GIRM also outlines a time just before the Mass, which allows the faithful to “dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner” (Ibid.). This silence is a true opportunity to prepare for the mass, but it more specifically requests that real silence (no noisiness) is observed in the church, the vesting room, the sacristy, and even adjacent areas, to give due respect to those who are preparing themselves for the Mass.
If the moments of silence are observed, the overall peace that is sure to overcome you will be a satisfying reward that can enrich our exposure to the Mass. Not only do these practices exercise our self-control, they reel us back into a place of true reverence and love of God, which certainly helps to remind us that we are there to worship our Creator.
5. Don’t Try To Get “More” Out Of the Mass. Finally, and maybe most importantly, be certain that the reason for attending Mass revolves around God and not us. It’s so easy to allow ourselves to become bored and disinterested, especially these days, with things that don’t revolve around us. Things like social media and the distractions that come with our culture constantly try to convince us that we should always be entertained. Of course, the Mass is not meant for entertainment, but rather it serves as an offering to our God to show our gratitude for the gift of life, and the promise of salvation to those who follow the teachings of his Church.
If we only aim to “get something” out of the Mass, we will surely miss the big picture. The Mass is not our plaything, and God owes us nothing. For that reason, the fun music, the state-of-the-art sound systems, the projector screens with the lyrics, and the long keynote speeches that you can find at any local run-of-the-mill worship service are not what drives the Church. Mass, by its very nature, provides to us a channel to God. It brings us to Christ in a way that no other church can, by his real flesh and real blood, shed for us and given at the Mass as a constant, but fresh reminder of what is to come.
The Mass is not meant to entertain us, it is meant to enrich us. “Feel good” talks and emotional songs are only surface level respites to the more important goal of seeking an intimacy with God that can only be achieved by worship, prayer, and faithful followership to the Church that he founded. So, ask not what the church can do for you, ask what can do for the Church (and for God).