My two friends have been searching for a long time. They need a place to worship. He was brought up in a rigid Baptist tradition; she was brought up in a rigid Catholic tradition. I am not reporting on their search, because, after all, it is theirs. While I can identify with their search in many ways, my own search has never taken me outside of Catholicism. So I cannot speak about their unique experience and what they are hoping to find.
But today they told me they went to Mass at my parish. I was quite surprised, but, of course, delighted. When you are happy with your home, you want to gather people in. And when you are secure in your belief that yours is Truly Home, well, you want to make sure people not only feel welcome, but you want to make them comfortable enough to stay and share your food.
What did you think? I asked.
She commented on how much the liturgy has changed since she last attended Mass more than 30 years ago. Not realizing the difference between the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed, she felt confused. He wondered if there were any prayer books, and if so, where were they kept; he had wanted to follow along.
Then we got to the serious stuff. I felt as if I were in a bus station, he confessed. And, before the service was over, people apparently knew the buses were getting ready to leave, because half the people in the church filed out. She said the congregation struck her as being very preoccupied.
What’s 7:30 a.m. Mass like? she asked. Before I could respond, he interjected, Is it more reverent?
I mumbled something about liturgical styles, suggesting 7:30 was unquestionably more quiet. But I felt sick. Suddenly I saw my parish as my friends saw it: noisy, distracted and distracting, irreverent, badly dressed and appearing nonchalant about what was happening at the altar.
My friends are not complainers. They softened their remarks by telling me they had visited a neighboring Catholic parish and observed the same bustling, casual atmosphere. I knew they spoke the truth. I have been troubled by such concerns for years. Yet I’ve pushed these thoughts to the background. Be glad people volunteer, I say to myself when I see eucharistic ministers dressed as though they had just rushed in from working in their gardens. Be grateful that they bring the kids at all, I think when children unload snacks, Legos, crayons and coloring books, dolls and toy trucks from their backpacks. Teenagers are going through a stage, I insist silently when the girl in the pew ahead of me combs her hair all through Mass and others talk and giggle audibly during the eucharistic prayer. Focus on her lovely voice, I remind myself when the young woman leading the congregational singing raises her arm and with it the short sweater she has on, which invites everyone in the church to stare at her navel.
But what about the hospitality of this parish? its defenders would protest, and I become one such defender. Every warm body is welcome here, not only to worship with us, but also to sign up for anything at any time. At least a third of the registered adults are involved in some kind of parish activity. And the financial support is extremely generous. As a parish, we dig deep, and dig often. We contribute unstintingly in good times and in bad. Our largesse is immune to the ups and downs of our nation’s economy and our nation’s bishops.
But do we pride ourselves on our hospitality, social service activities and financial generosity at the expense of reverence? And, a companion question, has reverence been a casualty of the revision of the liturgy that followed the Second Vatican Council? Could it be that increased lay participation, which makes liturgies lively and full of activity, has led us to forget that these are still the sacred mysteries, holy Mass celebrated in the sanct-uary. Isn’t it still, Holy, Holy, Holy?
As I ponder these things, without coming up with satisfactory answers, suddenly I am struck with another questionone more challenging yet: why should my friends expect to find reverence at Mass? They are seasoned church shoppers. I know they have tested every denomination known to urban humanity. They know there are lots of different styles of worship. They have been to churches that literally rock with contemporary music. They have been to churches where the community simply sits in meditation. They have heard rousing preachers. They have done it all. But they expected reverence in this Catholic parish. Do they know something that we, as a Catholic community, don’t comprehend, something we may have forgotten, or something we have taken so much for granted that we have become inured to its reality and its power?
Even if we come to Mass harried, frazzled and time-starved, isn’t it the holy-holy-holy that we genuinely seek, deep down, as do my friends? We come to get our food for the week, the ultimate take-out, the spiritual nourishment that sanctifies the work we do and the sustenance we need to bring the good news to others. Yet how can we invite others to share in the sacred mystery of this bread, this cup, if we don’t demonstrate by our reverence that we believe this mystery is true and awesome?
The solution is really simple, a variant on a comment Father Cletus, our associate pastor, made one morning at early Mass. As he was about to begin the eucharistic prayer, he told us that as a seminarian, he was told he should, for the rest of his life, celebrate every Mass as if it were his first. How would it be then, for us, if we attended every Mass as if it were our last?