I can’t remember the exact occasion, but during a telecast of an important Mass (it might have been a Catholic Funeral Mass of an important person, or Papal event), a Protestant commentator said to the emcee, “Let’s face it: there is nothing as fulfilling or as beautiful as the Catholic Mass.” I was struck by the candor of that remark, especially coming from one who was from an ecclesiastical tradition that had rejected the use of the Mass almost 500 years ago!
It is true that we don’t appreciate what we have in the Eucharistic Liturgy or what the Orthodox call ‘The Divine Liturgy’. In a half hour (daily Mass time), we have the Word of God, proclaimed and explained; prayer for the needs of the entire world; the consecration of bread and wind into the Body and Blood of Jesus; and the divine command, once the Mass is ended, to go and to proclaim in peace the kingdom of God. The conciseness is breathtaking! The ideal historically of the Roman Liturgy is a kind of “noble simplicity”. When compared with other rites of the Eastern Churches, whose length and complexity is off-putting to the modern sensibility, the Roman Rite is a marvel of clarity and brevity.
This is not said to diminish the beauty of Greek or Russian Orthodox liturgies, to give two famous examples. They have their own splendor that captures the subtlety of Divine Revelation; but the Roman Rite (and by extension all the Protestant expressions of worship) shares the tradition of ancient Roman jurisprudence, which values clarity, brevity and practicality. One might say that much of the Protestant Reformation’s problem with the Catholic Mass was that, before the reforms of the Council of Trent, it had gotten to be very complicated and impractical in its Latin form to be of spiritual value to the majority of the people who then spoke vernacular languages.
Hence when we try to appreciate the Liturgy, as we know it, it is very important to see how it stacks up against the other expressions of Christian Faith in the history of the Church.
So it is my intention in this essay (and in subsequent articles) to try to deepen our understanding of the Liturgy that is so familiar to us. For this, I will concentrate on a typical Sunday Liturgy since that is the experience most Catholics will have. Daily Liturgy and Ritual Masses (Funeral and Nuptial for instance) are either variations of the Sunday Liturgy or elaborations of its basic dimensions.
So the bell rings alerting the congregation and we all rise from our seats. What does this mean?
It presupposes that we are aware that this is the most important activity of our entire week. It will be a deep thanksgiving for the week just past and a humble request from God to make the coming week a time of divine favor and instruction. Because of this importance, it is inconceivable that a person be habitually late for the Sunday Liturgy. Everyone is occasionally late through circumstances beyond our control, and some people with babies and small children have special concerns that make tardiness a fact of life; but for most people, we can get to church on time if we tried. However, to be habitually late is treating the Liturgy as unimportant. If we were meeting the President or the Pope, would we be late? And for that matter, would we be dressed sloppily? To be on time for Sunday Liturgy and to be dressed appropriately for this encounter is a statement made to God and to the community. To be late habitually and to be dressed in a shabby manner is also a statement, in this case of the unimportance of what we are doing.
I remember with great fondness my time spent living in a parish in East Flatbush in a West Indian and Haitian neighborhood. To see the faithful attend Mass so beautifully dressed showed the importance of Sunday worship. And these were not wealthy people! They thought highly of the Sunday Liturgy and dressed accordingly.
Being on time is, in a way, not enough. If possible, coming a little early for Mass enables us to pray before the Mass and to look over the readings that will be proclaimed. This can be hard even for the Celebrant due to the multiple liturgies that priests must celebrate; but, even at my age, I have started to pray before Mass so that I can make a clean break with what has gone on before.
So the bell rings and I, having prayed and read over the readings of the Mass, stand at attention to greet the Celebrant of the Liturgy and to begin the most important event of my week.
Suggested Resolution: I will arrive for Mass on Sunday 10 minutes early and, through prayer and looking over the readings of the day, I will prepare myself for the most important event of my week.