This is what Mass is about? Really?!

Pope Francis gives a blessing during an audience with participants in Italy's National Liturgical Week in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 24. (CNS photo/Giorgio Onorati, EPA)

Having a young Jesuit as a teacher naturally piques the interest of high school sophomores. Does it mean you can’t get married? Who do you live with? How long does it take to become a priest?

But the one part of Jesuit life that tends to provoke a strong response is that we go to Mass every day.

“Really?!” they usually ask in disbelief.

In many parts of the world, the response would be “Really?! Where?” or “Really?! Wow, you’re lucky”, because Christians could be killed for going to Mass.

But here the sense of the response was more like “Really?! Why would you do that?”

That’s understandable. Ask anyone who doesn’t regularly go to Mass why they don’t and one of the top answers you will get among youth is because it’s boring (among young adults, that response turns into “I don’t really get anything out of it”).

Who can blame them for that answer? We go to the movies to be entertained. We go to concerts or the opera to enjoy music. We go to sporting events to watch our team beat their/our opponents. As spectators, we expect to sit back and get something out of the performance, or else it’s a waste of our time.

However, seeing the Mass as a performance at which we are merely spectators misses the point. Mass is about how we participate actively in remembering and celebrating our purpose in life: eternal life with God.

Recently, the media picked up on some comments Pope Francis made about the liturgy, fuelling the flames of an apparently ongoing “liturgical war” between two camps. One camp is caricatured as wanting to bring back the form of the Mass celebrated only in Latin, with Gregorian chant, incense, and all the bells (literally) and whistles (figuratively), and with the congregation mostly in silence. The other camp is caricatured as wanting Masses celebrated in every language you can think of, clapping and dancing, a band consisting of guitars and tambourines, where Marty Haugen’s “All Are Welcome” is sung every week.

Sadly, focusing on the liturgical war misses the Pope’s point.1 It also misses what anyone serious about liturgy is focused on.2

Some of the most important words in Mass are, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” Upon hearing these words, we the Church exclaim “Thanks be to God!” not because we’re glad Mass is over, but because having experienced the joy of our destiny of eternal life with God, we can’t help but start living it out. In the words of the Irish Benedictine monk Blessed Columba Marmion, we can’t help but get caught up in the “divine current,” which rushes us towards God, starting from the Eucharist at Mass to encountering our Creator in his creation.

The focus of liturgy is therefore primarily on what God has done for humankind and how he invites us to actively participate in it. Jesus came to serve especially those whom society ignores.3 How do we participate in this ministry of mercy? Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God.4 How do we prophetically proclaim this same Good News that Jesus redeemed all of us, the children of God? Just as we offer up bread and wine to God during Mass with the priest, are we offering up our own lives to God the other 167 hours of the week?

I hope so, because that’s really what being an Ignatian “contemplative in action” means. It doesn’t mean that we have quiet time and busy time; that would just mean we are at times contemplative and at other times at work. Being a contemplative in action means that, while we recognize the importance and necessity of quiet personal prayer, we live out that prayer. Similarly, as Christians, we must live out our communal prayer at Sunday Mass. After all, the Eucharist is a Sacrament, a visible sign of an unseen reality. When we receive Communion, it is a visible sign of the unseen reality that God has chosen us to be with him eternally and we have chosen to respond to his love.

Are there problems with the liturgy that need further discussion? Absolutely.5 But while we wait for the theologians to figure it out, we can begin and continue to participate actively in liturgical life – a life that is a ceaseless giving of ourselves to God in every thought, word, and action of ours. Only then will the “work of the people” as liturgy take root in the deeper meaning arising out of the Second Vatican Council.

Who knows, maybe what we experience just might surprise us enough to make us want to ask Jesus, “Really?”

  1. “Liturgy is life and not an idea to be understood. Indeed, it leads us to live an experience of initiation, or rather transformative in terms of how we think and behave…Liturgical worship ‘is not primarily a doctrine to be understood, or a rite to be performed; naturally it is also this, but in another way, it is essentially different: it is a font of life and of light for our pilgrimage of faith’.” (Audience with the participants in the 68th National Liturgical Week, Pope Francis, 2017/08/24)
  2. “This was what the orientation of prayer meant: that the Redeemer to whom we pray is also the Creator and, thus, that the liturgy also always contains a love for creation and the responsibility for it. I would be happy if the new edition of my liturgical writings could help others see the greater perspective of our liturgy and put petty quarrels about external forms in their proper place.” (“On the Inaugural Volume of My Collected Works,” in Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works Theology of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI, 2014)
  3. Mt 20:28
  4. Lk 4:18-19
  5. “There is still work to be done today…in rediscovering the reasons for the decisions made regarding liturgical reform, overcoming unfounded and superficial readings, partial acceptance and practices that distort it.” (Audience with the participants in the 68th National Liturgical Week, Pope Francis, 2017/08/24)

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