It is a discouraging experience to witness apathy, impatience and even boredom among persons supposedly participating in the worship of Holy Mass. Some will admit to “not getting much out of Mass,” but they are willing to endure it each week as long as the whole ceremony is brief enough: less than an hour long, so they can get on with “life” when the Sunday obligation is over. Active members of the parish might lament together how hard it is to get people to “come out” for anything other than Mass! Neither religious activities nor “fun-fellowship” activities manage to attract many members to come out and support the programs – though certainly the “fun-fellowship” offerings are the larger draw. One partial solution I’ve heard is “Feed them and they will come!” But the “food” in mind is sadly NOT the “Bread from heaven” that ought to be the vital center of parish life.
In the celebration of the Mass, for example, how can so many not be completely overcome by the miracle of Holy Communion? The Church teaches that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life! As the Mass is ending, how can so many so quickly begin flooding out of the doors even before the Recessional is completed, the Lord Himself still lingering on their tongues, still being swallowed into their persons? How can so many, of those still in the building, launch immediately into the most banal and secular of conversations, even as the organ is still filling the sanctuary with the closing hymn? In other words, what is happening, in Catholics, during and after and as a result of the sacrifice of Holy Mass? What is really, actually happening?
Something is NOT happening, and the Catechism helps us focus on what is needed:
CCC 1098 – The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord and to become “a people well disposed.” The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the assembly, especially of its ministers. The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will. These dispositions are the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward.
These four sentences deserve individual attention, with serious reflection:
- The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord and to become “a people well disposed.”
- The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the assembly, especially of its ministers.
- The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will.
- These dispositions are the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward.
One important word written here is “precondition” in item (4): right disposition is a necessary precondition for the fruitfulness that the Liturgy is intended to produce. The Catechism repeats this necessity for right disposition:
CCC 1131 – The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.
Again, the sacraments bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.
It is my sense – my reflection and observation – that many Catholics who are physically present for the Mass are not rightly present spiritually. In particular, they are not “rightly disposed” for Holy Eucharist because they were not rightly disposed to really hear the Word, in the Liturgy of the Word. The written and spoken Word comes first, to prepare us for the Living Word Jesus Christ! Many physically present in the Mass, however, are not prepared by the words for the Word – they are not prepared for Eucharist by the Liturgy of the Word. And – they were not rightly opened to the words of the Living Word by a heart rightly humbled in repentance at the beginning of the Mass, in the Penitential Rite:
I confess to you, almighty God,
and to you my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do…
(And, striking their breast, they say:)
through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault;
therefore, I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.
Lord have mercy!
Christ have mercy!
Lord have mercy!
Our vocation into a human part in the blessed Communion of God the Holy Trinity begins with a call to deep and sincere repentance – as the Mass continues to remind us. On the other hand, a soul hardened against true humility – hardened against repentance – is also hardened against the Good News of salvation in Christ: His Gospel. And a person hardened against His Gospel is not rightly disposed for the Holy Communion He offers us in the Eucharist. The Mass is salvation history! The Mass is our salvation story, personally.
Persons apathetic, distracted, bored in the Mass are failing to become engaged in a process designed to carry them from inner emptiness to God – from hunger to banquet – from an interior deadness to a personal participation in divine and eternal life. But if we fail from the beginning to be present spiritually to the Liturgy, it is very difficult to be present to its end, Communion. Those bored and interiorly absent to the process at work as the Liturgy proceeds through its movements, will find it almost impossible to be present to the glory of its end. The Mass is designed to carry us into worship.
Thus it is possible that in the Liturgy of the Eucharist – in the Source and Summit of the Christian life – the hearts of many are not ready, not prepared, not rightly disposed for Him. They do not hear the prayer of epiclesis calling down the Spirit, nor are they aware of the sacrifice of Christ on the Altar, nor are they awake to the supernatural miracle of Christ come before us – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. And thus the great tragedy: the Source and Summit of the Christian life, though a present reality, remains experientially far, far away. Jesus remains distant; the people remain untouched, distant, individuated, isolated. So many remain mere spectators at a ceremony, present but yet absent in the supernatural Liturgy of Salvation.
I would suggest that the way to renewal is plain:
- We need to repent. We need the ministry of John the Baptist – we need to come face to face with the ugliness and horror of sin: my sin, each man and woman – we have sinned even as the all-holy God awaits us, calling us to our destiny in Him.
- Such a humbled and hungry heart can hear the good news of the Gospel. Such a heart can hear the message of the New Covenant proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word. Scripture can come alive, igniting the heart with the fire of holy Truth – transforming one’s life! And preparing the heart and soul and body for the foretaste of heaven: Holy Communion.
- Such a heart could and would fall on its face in worship – worship! – worship in spirit and truth, such worship as the Father seeks.
How beautiful it would be, to be part of such full, conscious and active worship of our God. The Liturgy is “designed” to facilitate such worship: repentance to Good News to the Altar of the Cross, and Holy Communion. Such worship deserves to be offered – but the people need to become awakened to it! The people need to be formed – taught – led to Faith alive, that they (we) might live. Would tomorrow be too soon to begin again, Church, and do what we were sent by Christ to do?