Blog # 258 More on the Mass
This will be the fourth in a series of blogs dealing with the subject of Catholic worship as it is experienced in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Catholic folks in my age category between the ages of fifty and eighty four will easily be able to identify significant changes in the experience of the Mass as it occurs Sunday after Sunday in our present year of 2012 and as it was thirty and forty years ago, as for example the change from Latin to the vernacular, Holy Communion under both species, the reception of Communion in the hand and in a standing position, lay readers of the first two lessons of the Mass, girl servers, permanent Deacons preaching the homilies, few people praying the rosary during Mass, more emphasis on congregational singing, use of missalettes and the entire congregation making the responses that were reserved to the altar boys years ago.
Some people had difficulty appreciating and accepting such changes. I know a few Catholics who stopped going to church because they viewed the changes as our 'becoming Protestant'.
The changes I have listed were significant but were not essential to the identity or definition of the Mass itself. They were in the category of what you saw and heard, what the Mass looked like and sounded like rather than what the Mass was. The ritual of the Mass and the Liturgical Year could be seen analogously as the wrapping in which the theological identity of the Mass was enfolded.
In the course of several recent decades of years new opinions touching upon the identity of the Mass appeared on the horizon and began to grow in popularity among some theologians and catechists. An example of this would be the common reference to the Sacrifice of the Mass both in our adult and elementary religious education programs and literature with greater and sometimes almost total emphasis on the Mass as a holy meal and less on it as a sacrifice in the context of a holy meal.
I found a typical manifestation and expression of this change in an article in a Diocesan Magazine that I had filed away about fifteen years ago. The various parts of the liturgical celebration of the Mass are identified and presented in a way that corresponds to the various elements that go into an ordinary family reunion. We agree to come together at a certain time and place, next Sunday at a nearby State park ( 10:30 Mass at St. Thomas'). We share out stories, what happened in our lives since the previous reunion ( Epistle, Second reading, Gospel). We eat our meal together (Holy Communion). We thank one another for the happy reunion and go home ( Go in peace! Thanks be to God!).
A short article in America magazine that I had filed away in March of 2000 gives evidence of a way of identifying a good fruit or effect coming from Mass attendance that should be recognized and cultivated but never to the extent of overshadowing or diminishing our awareness of the identity of the Mass as worship, directed to God alone as the primary goal and purpose of our celebration. After negatively criticizing the Bishops who had just attended their annual conference in Washington, DC and issued a document on art and architecture in the church in line with the theme of the Conference ( Domus Dei - The House of God), the author of the article I filed has this to say: "How refreshing and reassuring it would have been had some bishop stood up to say: "Jesus did not institute the Eucharist to change bread and wine into his body and blood, but to change us into his body. The Mass is not meant to transform elements, but to transform people. When he said, 'Behold I am with you always, until the end of the world,' Jesus was not referring to his real presence in the Eucharist; he was referring to his real presence in his people, the members of his body." I am well aware of and supportive of the power and intent of offering the Mass to sanctify us personally and as a community both in the experience of sacrificial worship and that of receiving Jesus into our lives in Holy Communion with the effect that experience should have in sanctifying our whole day. Both are gifts of God's redeeming merciful love and there is no conflict or competition between them. One is directed toward God alone and the other is directed toward those who offer the sacrifice and through them toward all of creation. One is in fulfillment of the first and greatest Commandment and the other in fulfillment of the second. The opinions expressed in the article I just quoted are dangerous and untenable in the light of our Catholic faith.
Another article in my file from America Magazine from May, 2003 contains ideas that are also dangerous and untenable in the light of our Catholic faith. Here is a quote from the article. " A common definition of sacrifice is "a gift to God in which the gift is destroyed or consumed". Symbolizing the internal offering of commitment and surrender to God, its purpose is to acknowledge the dominion of God, effect reconciliation with God and give thanks for blessings or petition for further blessings. That isn't bad. It may be what most people think of when they hear the word 'sacrifice'. But as a definition of Christian sacrifice, it is a disaster. Why? Because when Jesus Christ invited us into the paschal mystery he did away with this kind of sacrifice. To begin with the religions of the world in which the destruction of a gift or victim is the essential characteristic of sacrifice, and then try to verify this in the sacrifice of Christ and in Christian sacrifice - this is completely and disastrously backwards. Essentially, it is asking non-Christian sacrifice to tell us what Christian sacrifice is.." This is so clearly untrue that I would have had a very hard time imagining anyone taking it seriously and publishing it in a national Catholic periodical as an argument against the official practice of the Church recognizing the sacrifice of Calvary as an act of obedience to the Father and the greatest love for the Father Jesus could have experienced. "There is no greater love than this..."
There are several other serious errors in the article to which I am referring. If anyone 'out there' reading this blog would like further details in my thinking and response to them just drop me a comment and I will be happy to accommodate you.
One more example of what was going on in the recent saveral decades of the Church's experience and local catechesis as the percentage of Catholic regularly attending Mass went down, comes from the cover of a parish bulletin we were using in the parish where I was Pastor up in North Carolina in 1991. The brief article says: "studies show that the people who approached Mass with a positive attitude and a sense of purpose find weekend Eucharistic liturgies to be much more meaningful." The article concludes by giving five "Positive reasons for attending Mass" : a desire to find life's deepest meaning, a sense of belonging to a praying community, a hunger for the loving presence of Christ in Word and Eucharist. a need for forgiveness and healing, and a longing for renewed strength amid life's difficulties. " Worship was not mentioned among the motivating forces that give purpose and meaning to our attendance at Mass and the word sacrifice did not appear in the article! Meanwhile the percentage of Catholics who reguarly attend Mass each week continues to decline.
My concern is a question about whether and why the possible ignorance or unawareness of the nature of the Mass as sacrificial worship on the part of many in the congregation on a typical Sunday in our Catholic parishes may have come to be the actual situation throughout the country. As parishes in our large metropolitan areas have grown to memberships numbering in the thousands the role of the priest was expanded to require skills and much time and energy devoted to other forms of work than the primary identifying role of a priest, namely that of representing the people in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. At the same time qualified Catholic laymen and women began to activate their Baptismal covenant in the field of education, hospital staffing and administration, psychological and spiritual counseling, and the Church's ministry to the poor. There was a danger of the role of a priest , essentially and uniquely identified with sacrificial worship, becoming regarded as one among many roles in ministry a Catholic could choose.
The role of the priest is not to be seen as competitive or even compared with other roles of Christian ministry but in a category by itself. The meaning and value of the priesthood will be more or less depending upon a particular culture's knowledge, awareness, and response to God as the unique Creator of all that exists. To exclude or stand in ignorance or unawareness of sacrifice as the official God-given Christian method of worship would be like thinking sunshine comes from the moon!
Also there has been an emphasis on the suffering of Jesus on Calvary as plaating the wrath of God rather than on the part of Jesus our high priest as a joyful act of perfect unconditional trust and total love offered to the Father in sacrificial worship.