What a strange sight it is to return to your seat after communion only to find half the people in your pew no longer there. They walk up to communion with jackets on, purse in hand, and in one fluid motion receive communion as they’re walking out the door.
They got what they came for, so what’s the point in staying any longer?
When I see this happening each week I just want to shout, “Wait! Don’t leave yet! Mass isn’t over yet!” I wouldn’t… because, you know, I have tact. Also, I hate confrontation. But it doesn’t stop some priests. There was an infamous priest we used to see every summer on vacation who would literally call people out each week if they tried to leave early. If he saw people heading for the door before he made it down the aisle, he would actually call to them and tell them that mass wasn’t over. He would make an announcement either before communion or before the final dismissal that mass was not over until he processed down the aisle, so people were to remain in their pews. (Which… is not even correct. The procession by the priest down the altar isn’t technically a thing. The final part of the mass, according to the GIRM, is the reverencing of the altar. A procession to the door is simply a practical reality of getting the priest outside so he can greet the people, and there is no requirement that the congregation stay until the song is over. But I digress.) If I remember correctly, I think he even preached about it.
Okay, so it’s not that big of a deal…
But it is a little bit of a deal. Mass may not end with the priest processing down the aisle, but it also doesn’t end immediately after receiving communion. If this is something that you do, or think is fine, here are a few things to consider:
1. Communion, by its very nature, is a communal activity, not a personal one. If all we’re focused on is getting mine, regardless of others, I think we miss something about the experience. As I mentioned in the last video, the communion hymn begins when the priest receives and ends after the final person receives. Why? Because none of us truly receives until everyone receives. It’s a holistic, communal act. To leave the church before everyone receives turns the whole event into a personal experience, which is a shame. (If you’re going to leave early, maybe consider waiting until the end of the communion song.)
2. There are still prayers to be said. Sure, receiving the Eucharist is certainly the high point of the mass, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the mass doesn’t matter. Just as the penitential rite is not the most important part of the mass but still serves an important purpose, the prayer after communion serves the purpose of bringing the event to a close, giving the Father thanks for what we have just received. We did just receive something amazing, right? It only seems polite to say “thank you.”
3. Our prayer is a continuous whole, beginning and ending with the sign of the cross. To leave before the blessing leaves the prayer sort of hanging. We opened it but never brought it to a close. The symmetry is lost, the acknowledgment of the act is skipped over. Something about it seems incomplete if we leave immediately after communion.
4. And finally, much to the point of today’s video, the dismissal gives insight to the rest of the Mass. In being sent out—not just as a practical, “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here,” but as a Christological imperative—we see that our Christian life does not reside within the walls of the Church. To fulfill our discipleship, we must go! Too often we think of Church as the place to find God, to be a Christian; we come to Church to find refuge from the world. But it’s so much more than that. God is just as much in the world as in the church, and our duty is not to hide from the world, but to take the church to the world. In being sent out, we see that the reason we gather is not so much an end in itself (at least not the only end) but the means for discipleship: we gather together so that we can have the strength and inspiration to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations.
I think that it is in this act that we find our true identity and purpose. As many theologians say today, we are not a Church that has a mission, but rather a people of mission that happens to have a Church. The Church—the institution, its prayer, its worship, its leaders—is not the complete end in itself for which the mission must support by raising money or gathering new members. It is the other way around: the mission we share—our call to follow Christ, making disciples of all nations—gives us our primary identity, and the Church exists to support and drive that work.
It is through this lens that we see the purpose of the Eucharist. Obviously an end unto itself in that we are in communion with God, it was also given to us as a means: to offer the guidance of knowing where to go and the strength to actually get there. The Mass is not an end in itself in the sense that our lives as disciples would not be complete if we remained in the liturgy our entire lives. It may be the “source and summit” but it is not the entire journey. By its very nature, by its dismissal, we are a people that goes forth, returning with new prayers, experiences, pains, and hopes, but ultimately so that we may go out again.
We are a people on a mission, and this is our prayer.