Saturday, June 25, 2016

Some Musings About Mass

I will have to admit two things up front: 1) Vacation allows me much time to ponder things, and 2) In said ponderings, I come to the conclusion I am not a fan of being passively entertained.  I do not watch TV.  I do not go to the movies.  Video games leave me cold for the most part.  I do like live music.  More often than not, I prefer to use my time chatting and interacting.  What has this do to with Mass?  In my ponderings, I go to thinking about responses I got to a couple questions that I had posted.  There was  thread of answers about making Mass speak more to this or that group.  In general it has troubled me that  this response is so common.  It is not said by bad people or by fools.  It is said by people frustrated with the emptying pews, especially when those pews no longer have their family and friends sitting in them. This phenomenon is nothing new.  Statistically we have seen a steady decline for decades.  In these ponderings, I am thinking out loud.  I wish there were simple answers.

It's not about entertainment

Disposition matters.  When I go into a movie I am looking for a little escapism or to get some emotion going.  My job is to sit back and wait for it to happen.  The merit of the movie comes in what it does for me.  If I like it, then I will watch it again.,  If not, I will not.  Once a TV show goes in a direction I do not care for, I will cease watching it.

This happens in churches.  We will see people flock to a church because of the show.  Whether that show is on the stage of mega-church or a local church, we will go where we feel we get something. I read the book, Rebuilt.  I thought they analyzed the situation on the ground well.  What disappointed me was they fed into the mentality of providing a bigger bang and more activities.  That certainly has been the prevailing consensus.  What I want can be a fickle thing.  Entertainment is always a matter of taste.  Some like older stuff, some like newer stuff.  The things is this: if your orientation going into Mass about what you can get, feel, or be satisfied...then the orientation is wrong.

Mass is not about what I receive primarily, but what I give.  Our primary task in going to Mass is to give thanks to God.  What of Communion, then?  Because we are supposed to be in a relationship with God, we show our love for Him through our thanksgiving, He shows His love for us by giving us His Body and Blood.  Mass is supposed to be an exchange of love; a precursor to heaven.  What we offer is paltry in comparison to what we are given.  However, if we do not even see giving God thanks as our primary job, then Mass will lose its meaning.  When Sancrosanctum Concilium ( the Constitution on the Liturgy from Vatican II) asked for the members of the church to give 'full, active, and conscious participation, it was an acknowledgement of our task in the Mass.  Thanksgiving can hardly be given by merely being in a place where Mass is happening.  It would be like going to friend's home for dinner, ignoring the friend, eating his food and departing.

Mass is about this interchange of love.  Indeed at the end of the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus reminds us that it was those who did the will of the Father, not those who just showed up, but those who entered into a relationship with God who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  How much more can God come to know us (as if he doesn't already) than through this exchange of thanksgiving for Communion? 

This can be done in the most humble of circumstances.  Such masses have been done in the most glorious of Cathedrals and on the battlefield.  Trying to make Mass accessible is saying that this holy exchange isn't enough.  That is a rather blasphemous thing to say.

To whom shall we turn?

This topic has bothered me for some time and is sure to get people riled.  The Church allows for Mass facing the People.  In fact, this seems to be the practiced norm.  I have tried to find why this was decided.  People like to cast dispersion and accusation as to why.  I am one who looks to the writings of the Church herself.  I want to believe it was done for the best of intentions.  I do not think it was a wise thing though.  Before you get your feathers in a ruffle, hear me out.

Posture matters.  In Catholicism we use a number of postures during Mass.  They can connote prayer, listening, adoration.  The position of the priest points to something.  Namely, it points to orientation.  Where is the focus and what is his job?  When the directionality is to the people, such as the readings, homily, and such then it is appropriate to face the people as the priest is acting as teacher.  But the priest has another role as well: that of intercessor.  He prays for his flock and that prayer is not directed at the flock, but is directed to God.  Many priests will forget that and morph into a showman. I think that Mass facing the people facilitates this.  It can feed into the 'entertain me' mode.  It can feed in the orientation being away from God.

I am not saying this necessarily happens.  But the focus of Mass is not to be the priest.  Neither is to be the people.  Our focus is on God...His focus is on us.  Our focus cannot be on any person in that room.  Consider how we believe that upon ordination a priest soul is changed because he must be able to share in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.  The priesthood of Christ was not to put the focus on Himself.  Rather, He was the great teacher and intercessor for us before the Father.  That is the priest's role in the Mass.  I believe that perhaps at certain times during the Mass, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer, we would be better reminded of this reality were the priest facing God at this time.  People like to say in a deriding fashion that priest has his back to the people; except at the moment the focus isn't the people and it isn't the priest.  The focus is God.  I believe our posture should give witness to this and introduce an understanding that the whole entertainment motif has no business in our masses.

I sincerely believe that this has hurt priestly vocations.  There is something greatly noble about being that intercessor between God and His People.  This isn't a power trip, but a powerful witness to the manly role we take in being an intercessor.  If the priest comes across as a holy showman, it will be to the detriment of the flock; the focus is dangerously taken away from where it should be. Being the showman is intimidating.  It is not something most young men want to do.  It places the success of the Mass on the priest and not on God.  Who feels able to that?

The Roman Missal itself presupposes that the priest is facing the same direction as the people as it gives the instruction 'the priest turns to the people'.  I have good friends try to explain this away; but I have found their explanations widely insufficient. 

These musings are by no means exhaustive treatises on Mass, but written thoughts on a couple of matters for the reader.  Like them, don't like them...I am not Moses coming down from Mt Sinai.  I am saying that both of these things merit further prayer.  I challenge the reader with this parting thought:  Try going into Mass with a disposition of giving thanks to God as your primary reason for being there.  See where it takes you.  God can be given thanks just as easily in the maelstrom as He can in agreeable circumstances; it comes down to our willingness to try.


  1. You've presented an interesting expose on Mass and its gift to us. I agree with you on the observation that some folks want to come and be entertained so they get something out of it and yet have done nothing to prepare themselves for the feast.
    As an Audiologist and Sacristan, one of the advantages of having the priest face the people is that they can understand speech better with the use of lip reading, and gestures. We gather together as a family around the table to give thanks for the Feast and so the posturing of the priest preparing this would make more sense if we are facing each other.
    I appreciate your viewpoint about people not attending Mass because they don't get anything out of it. It's heartbreaking to see the crowds dwindle and their behavior prevail unabated.

    1. I agree that when the parts of the Mass (reading, greetings, homily, for example) are directed specifically at the people, then the priest should face them. Perhaps pointedly not facing the people when prayers are directed not at them, but at God would drive home the fact the gathering around anything but in the presence of God. I am thinking out loud of course. I think in eliminating any posture that connotes we are gathering in God's presence has not served us well.

  2. I converted to Catholicism in 1978. In my memory, priests have always faced the people during Mass. Last December, I attended Mass at the Oratory of SS Gregory and Augustine in St. Louis. I'm glad I participated, but found it somewhat cold and less engaging than modern Masses. I think that was at least partially due to the posturing. Still, both approaches have merit. I find Alice's comment very interesting from the audiology perspective. Not something I had previously considered. Thank you both gor the good gor thought on this Sunday morning!

  3. Correction: Thank you both for the food for thought on this Sunday morning! (Too early for typing on an iPhone, I guess?)