What is The Mass? – Part I
Dear Friends in Christ:
For the last few weeks in weekday Mass we have been reading and listening to the Letter to the Hebrews. This is a unique and fascinating book of the New Testament. Although often attributed to St. Paul, the actual author is unknown. As the title suggests, this work has as its intended audience Jewish converts to Christianity. The purpose of the work according to the unknown author is to be “a message of encouragement”. This is a designation given to a synagogue homily and is therefore believed to be the written text of a sermon that was preached in a synagogue. Some sermon! Much of Hebrews deals with the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus. This epistle is a beautiful and rich meditation and exposition and is incredibly helpful in our understanding of what it means for us to be Catholic and what we believe about the Eucharist and the Mass.
Catholics everywhere, because of the restrictions enacted due to the pandemic, now have to face the issue of when and if they will return to the practice of attending Mass. I think it is fair to assume that after nearly a year of not attending Mass that not everyone will return. This, however, is not new. Mass attendance in the United States and throughout the world has fallen dramatically over the last five decades. There are numerous reasons and contributing factors for this; societal changes, confusion after Vatican II, scandals, etc. One of the contributing factors, and I would suggest a major reason, is that many Catholics, including regular Mass going Catholics do not actually know or accurately understand WHAT the Mass is or what the Eucharist is (for a fuller explanation please see The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1322-1419).
For too many Catholics we come to Mass and expect something the Mass is not. When those expectations are not met we leave dissatisfied, disappointed and unfulfilled. For many, over the years, the end result is that they come and get very little out of the Mass, or they drift away, attending Mass only infrequently, or they stop all together or go someplace else. What are some of the things that the Mass is NOT? The Mass is NOT entertainment. It is not a show. The Mass is not a play, theatrical production, musical concert, motivational lecture, an academic discourse or a bible study. The Mass is not a family reunion or a social gathering. Now there are indeed some aspects of the liturgy that can include a lot of these qualities. The Mass can be and hopefully is informative, motivational, affirming, pleasurable and even dramatic and inspirational. The Mass however, in its essence, is actually none of these. Some non-Catholic faith communities structure their worship to be akin to a bible study or motivational talk, a musical concert or a communal gathering of prayer. Many non-Catholic faith communities even include a communion service with bread and wine (or grape juice), often called a Lord’s Supper. None of these, however, are Mass. To be fair, those faith communities do not claim that their worship services are Mass. In fact, they reject the notion of the Catholic Mass all together.
A few more distinctions need to be made. Non-Catholic Christians truly worship and praise God. They gather and pray in the name of the Lord Jesus and authentically and sincerely pray to God. Some even pray using various forms of liturgical prayer. As Catholics, we too worship and praise God and have various forms of liturgical prayer. But not every act of praise, worship, prayer or liturgy is the Mass. When our parishioners gather for the Charismatic Prayer Group, the Legion of Mary, the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help or the Movimiento Familiar Cristiano, what they are doing is indeed worship and prayer but it is not Mass. When we gather to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, Benediction, attend a Baptism or participate at a burial and commendation of the dead in the cemetery, we are participating in the Church’s official liturgy but these are not the Mass either. Thus, while the Mass is always a liturgical prayer and an act of worship, not all liturgies, acts of worship and prayer are the Mass.
So what exactly is the Mass and what makes the Mass unique and special?
To be continued next week.
In pace Christi,