New Series: Understanding the Mass

Going to church… can be a bit boring. Look out into the congregations of many churches and you will not find hoards of smiling faces, upbeat and excited about what they are doing. No, quite unfortunately, you will find many dour faces and low energy. The problem is so common, in fact, that Pope Francis even addressed it in one of his apostolic exhortations, bemoaning the loads of “sourpusses” he sees coming up for communion.

What a tragedy!

For me, there is nothing more life-giving in all the world than the community gathered for this sacrificial meal. It is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians, the inspiration and strength we need to go out into the world. Catholics do not attend mass simply to get into heaven, as if it were something to be endured before we received our reward; no, we attend mass because it is a small taste of heaven itself. For those who know what is happening at the mass, it is the highlight of their week.

And I think that’s the key: “for those who know what is happening.” When you know what is happening, when you can follow the internal logic of the rite and can enter fully into the mystery before us, the experience is anything but boring. While the execution of the rite (stylistic choices, skill, personality, ability to follow rubrics) can obviously have an effect on the congregation’s experience (there are such things as bad presiders and choirs…) the Mass itself will always give life to those who understand.

And since I cannot fix every presider and choir or force every parish to be filled with joy and energy… the only thing I can do is shed some light on the rite itself, hopefully instilling in others the same love for the Mass that I have. With this series, my goal is to break the whole liturgy down to its individual parts, explain what each mean, and put them back together to reveal a coherent, artfully crafted act of worship that gives glory to God.

There are many ways that this can be accomplished. Some would explain the Mass in two parts, separating the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist; others would build the series around the three processions found in the mass; others still might focus entirely on the complexity of the Eucharistic prayer, breaking that down into four parts, with the Liturgy of the Word and Concluding Rites as bookends. All of these would make for fine explanations of what is going on in the rite, but they are not what I have chosen.

This series will be divided into six parts, a double series of three, following the same structural arc: Called in and prepared, Given a gift, and Sent out. 

Beginning first with the Liturgy of the Word, the first arc will begin with the gathering, call to worship, penitential rite, gloria, and collect. Through this series of actions, the congregation will be called in from their disparate lives and prepared to enter the worship. This will give way to the reading of Scripture and the recitation of a psalm, reaching its pinnacle in the reading of the Gospel. In this way, the congregation will be given the gift of Christ’s true presence in the Word. Bringing the first arc to a close, the homilist will make sense of what has been given, offering practical applications for lessons, and the congregation will respond with the prayers of creed and prayers of the faithful. All three components focus the attention of the congregation to the outside world where they are sent out to live what they’ve heard.

The structural arc will begin again with the preparation of the gifts, in which the congregation literally prepares for what is coming next: they not only prepare the altar for the physical sacrifice, but prepare their hearts for a spiritual one. The Mass then reaches its high point in the Eucharistic Prayer and reception of communion, in which the congregation is given the gift of Christ’s very presence in sacramental form. Having received this gift, the congregation has not just eaten a meal, but has become what it received: they constitute the body of Christ themselves. In this way, then, they are sent out to live as such in the world, announcing the Good News with their lives.

Called in and prepared, Given a gift, and Sent out.

Obviously, the Mass is a complex act of worship filled with more rubrics, history, and symbolic significance than can fit into a six-part series of 10 minutes videos. In preparing for this series, I read multiple Vatican documents, three different commentaries on the mass, consulted liturgists, and built upon my four years of theological study. Regrettably, there was a lot that I had to leave out, and decisions had to be made as to what to keep in. This series will not be the end-all-be-all of mass commentaries, nor will it be without its own flaws and personal biases. Since I had to choose what to include and what to leave out, this series, like any project, will ultimately be incomplete.

And I’m completely fine with that. My goal in sharing this work is not to provide the most complete, objective recitation of facts possible. No, my goal is to share the love that I have for the liturgy so that others may have faith. I do my absolute best to stick to the facts, never outright sharing my opinion on any topic, but there’s no question that my own experience and theology is behind the whole creative process. This series is about telling a story, not about reciting the official rubrics one by one. My hope is that, in sharing my passion for this great communal worship and offering the foundation for its logic, that others will be inspired enough to study the documents themselves and come to their own conclusions of what each part means, why they’re important, and how to share that experience with others.

If that sounds like something you’re interested in, or maybe something that would benefit someone else, I encourage you to join me each Friday for a new installment.

2 Comments on “New Series: Understanding the Mass

  1. It’s been said (I forget my source for this notion) that one practical source of the Catholic Church’s longevity is that it can offer something to everyone.

    As a former Catholic, and current agnostic/atheist/unenthusiastic-self-labeler, the focus of this series on knowledge of “what is happening at the mass” offers me an occasion to reflect on my experience of mass, which can be broken down thrice, in terms of my knowledge of theology, society, and myself.

    I.

    Admittedly, my theological knowledge of what happens during mass is largely informal, auto-didactic. Of the sliver of writings on religion that I’ve read only a spec has referred explicitly to the mass, and much of that in passing.

    As I recall, for example, Marshall McLuhan opined that the introduction of the microphone caused many to lose faith, which if at all true testifies to the gravity of liturgical knowledge for Catholics, especially those who have the authority to give liturgical direction (if not top-down instructions per se).

    In my experience, Catholic mass can be sublime (if not divine) even with the microphone, though the latter can indeed be a distraction if too loud, too staticky, etc. But the point that I take from McLuhan is that all forms have an effect. If the forms of liturgy are meant to effect divine communion, knowledge of such forms should partake in that effect.

    One means of this partaking, no doubt, occurs when people who are initially ignorant of the formal structure of mass become knowledgeable of it. In this sense, I understand the goal of this series: to help make the mass more understandable in formal terms on the grounds that “the Mass itself will always give life to those who understand.”

    At the same time, there are various dimensions of understanding, and the formal dimension in my experience is not necessarily preeminent.

    For example, one of my most sublime experiences of the mass occurred in my childhood when I realized on one particular Sunday that the Gospel that day had a direct connection to the first and second readings. Suddenly, in realizing this fact, I caught a glimpse of the mass’s structure (without formally thinking of it initially in structural terms) in a direct way that no explanation in the abstract had done (I presume that I had been told about the connection in one way or another, though to no such effect). Perhaps preceding explanations had laid the groundwork for my realization; but my point is that the realization itself was not one that I experienced immediately on a formal level. Rather, I experienced it as a recognized pattern, as distinct from a pointed out pattern.

    This example, in other words, does not negate the point of formal instruction, but it does suggest that formal instruction is not necessarily what’s needed, even for the formally ignorant, for the Mass to “give live to those who understand.” My example, moreover, reveals that recognition can be more effective than formal cognition, or cogitating.

    The overall point of this section: focusing on formal instruction as a response to people’s perceived lack of understanding risks overlooking forms of understanding that go beyond formal thought; people who appear to be “sourpusses” at Mass may be out of sorts with the liturgy for reasons that have nothing to do with their formal theological knowledge or lack thereof; perhaps they simply don’t recognize the structure, whether or not they’ve had it formally pointed out to them.

    II

    When I was a Catholic, the sort of things that made Mass alive to me had to do with structural patterns and related ideas, hence my example of recognizing the liturgical order of readings upon noticing direct connections among them. Once I recognized patterns, I became more interested in the formal ideas about them.

    But not everyone who recognizes patterns is interested in their formal dimension, insofar as the latter pertains to ideas or the abstract side of theology. Others are more interested in the immediately social or communal side of things.

    For example, consider this: it’s safe to say that everyone who has attended mass immediately recognizes that the priest is an authority figure of some kind; however, belief in the priest’s authority is not dependent exclusively on formal theological knowledge; it may also depend on feeling immediately welcomed or part of the particular parish of which the priest is the formal head (in the alter Christus sense).

    And feelings of not being welcomed are not necessarily related to theology directly. Last Christmas, I attended mass with a family member and someone behind me nearly choked me out for the perfume they wore. Perhaps some of the “sourpusses” the pope is talking about merely feel physically uncomfortable and, by extension, technically unwelcome at a particular church that hasn’t recognized their sensory experience at the collective level (e.g., in the form of a ban on perfume).

    Of course, feelings of not being welcome can be inherently theological too. For some who feel unwelcome the source may be a lack of formal understanding of what’s going on; but it also could be that what’s going on does not include certain people on more immediately social levels (again, for some these levels may include formal instruction, but for others “social” may mean more obvious forms of communal activities, such as the collective act of choral singing).

    III

    The main reason for my departure from Catholicism is that I’ve since recognized myself in patterns of being — personal and social — that are formally external to the Church. I say “formally external” because many of the patterns of being that I experience and think of differently outside the Church can be found inside it. One pattern is the gap between gatherings that promise the gift of being “live” yet fall short on experiential levels for many participants at times. I agree that formal knowledge of gathers can go a long way to bridging such a gap. My overall point, in brief, is that formal knowledge may be beside the point, which may be not so much a point as a subjective/sensory/social level of understanding.

    Best wishes.

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