During vacation this summer I followed my normal practice of attending Sunday Mass as a “private citizen,” that is, in secular attire, with the congregation, in the pews. Even though I truly cherish the privilege of leading the liturgy as I do almost every Sunday, it’s also refreshing once in awhile to be on the other side of the altar.
Doing so allows me to avoid the public spotlight, eliminates the pressure of having to prepare a homily, and helps me to return to the ministry relaxed and ready to go.
Whenever I join the rank-and-file, it’s amazing how quickly I assume the characteristics of what might be considered the “typical Catholic.” I planned my schedule so I wouldn’t arrive at church too early. I sat toward the back of the church to avoid special involvement. I complained, at least mentally, about the length of the sermon. I was dismayed to learn there would be a second collection – and yes, I did pry open my wallet to contribute to both! And I was appropriately irritated by the log jam of traffic in the parking lot after Mass.
Forget my need for “full, active and conscious participation.” I was on vacation. I wanted something short, sweet and to the point, just enough to fulfill my Sunday obligation.
These bad habits aside, there were also some more beneficial lessons to be had from sitting in the pews. Doing so created a broader perspective for me and a renewed appreciation for the truly “faithful” who come to Mass Sunday after Sunday. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the Church and the function of the liturgy.
As I sat in the Florida church that warm summer evening, I was gratified by the large number of people who took time out of their vacation to attend Mass. While a few were obviously local residents, it was apparent that most of the people in church were visitors from other parts of the country, even other nations. In the congregation were young couples (I imagined them to be on their honeymoon), families with restless kids and sullen teen-agers, college students participating silently, senior citizens, and folks with disabilities for whom it was a real personal sacrifice to attend Mass. But there they were!
Reflecting on the assembly I asked myself: Why do these people come to Mass Sunday after Sunday? What are they looking for? What do they want? What do they need?
I believe, first of all, that people come to Mass on Sunday to be part of the church, part of the Christian community. Please understand that by community here I don’t mean a “hello, my name is _____, what’s yours?” experience, but something far more profound, an ecclesial community. Sometimes in the practice of liturgy we confuse the two.
The last time I attended Mass on vacation, the priest began by announcing: “As we begin today, folks, let’s take a few minutes to get acquainted with the people around you. Tell your neighbor your name, where you’re from, and what you do for a living.” And so the congregation sat down for this banal banter while the priest assumed his talk-show host persona and worked the middle aisle greeting people. Please…that’s not community; that’s a cocktail party!
People want to belong to a Church community to be with and pray with other people who share their faith, their moral values, their liturgical practice. They want spiritual companions who will break bread with them and accompany them on their life’s journey. Ecclesial community doesn’t depend on personal, intimate knowledge of others, but on shared vision and values. As a member of the Church I am in community with people I’ll never know, never meet. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, nonetheless.
Secondly, it seems to be that people come to Mass on Sunday because they long to hear the Word of God preached with conviction and enthusiasm. They want homilies that are doctrinally sound, personally prepared and relevant to contemporary life.
It’s a frequent complaint that our preaching has lost its spark, its zeal, that it has become too bland, cerebral and generic. Good preaching, on the other hand, needs to be clear, direct and simple. People seek moral guidance and want to learn the tenets of our Faith. They want to hear about the Ten Commandments, justice and peace, human life and family relationships, final judgment and eternal salvation.
In short, the faithful want preachers to preach as Jesus did, with power and conviction, challenging people, not avoiding difficult issues. People should leave Sunday Mass motivated to live the gospel throughout the week, but confident they possess the spiritual means to do so.
Thirdly, Catholics come to Mass on Sunday because they want to receive the Eucharist. This is a foundational element of Catholic life. Although national surveys have suggested that some Catholics lack proper understanding about the manner of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, I’m convinced that most practicing Catholics have a core belief that the Eucharist is really the Body of Christ. This “holy communion” is extremely important for them. Most members of the Church, while being unable perhaps to articulate the exact theology, know that the Mass is related to the Last Supper of Holy Thursday as well as the Cross of Good Friday.
It’s true that our celebration and reception of the Eucharist is far too casual at times. It’s true that we’ve tended to neglect the wonderful presence of Christ in the tabernacles of our churches. But I don’t think our carelessness is a crisis of faith as much as a manifestation of our normal human nature. After all, we take many of our best gifts for granted all the time. Catholics believe in the Eucharist and fully realize how important it is for their spiritual lives. That’s one of the reasons they keep coming to Mass.
Finally, I believe Catholics come to Mass to find sanctuary from the turmoil of daily existence. Our lives are active, busy and noisy – but empty. We come to Mass to be refreshed, to find peace, quiet and fulfillment. Catholics come to church on Sundays to pray not party, to converse with God, not chit-chat with their neighbors.
The church is, or should be, a true sanctuary. I’m convinced that some semblance of sacred silence is crucial, even when the community gathers together. I’m troubled that some of our churches have a free-for-all before Mass, with loud and distracting conversations and laughter, making it nearly impossible for people to pray, to be recollected before they enter into the presence of the holy.
The recently revised “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” makes the same point: “Even before the celebration itself, it is praiseworthy for silence to be observed in church, in the sacristy and adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves for the sacred rites which are to be enacted in a devout and fitting manner.” (#56)
People have enough, indeed, far too much, noise in their lives and the pilgrimage to church on Sundays should be peaceful, restful and refreshing. Churches should be a spiritual oasis in the midst of our secular desert.
So – authentic community, effective preaching, the Eucharist, and sanctuary – these are the things Catholics are seeking when they come to Mass on Sunday. It’s what they need for a faithful living-out of their Christian vocation. It’s what the Church should give them.
(This article was previously published in “The Catholic Exponent.”)