The Catholic Thing
Mass and “The Holy” Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Monday, 20 September 2010

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A man who has lived in many parts of the country wrote: “The Mass is becoming less and less about the Mass and more about the music, special prayers for individuals, and announcements. Our Mass is always the short form. Somehow we seem to have lost the sense of the ‘Holy’ that we once had at Mass.” Benedict’s The Spirit of the Liturgy echoes this concern about the Mass. The Mass has often become subordinate to other agenda. We are not an independently existing “Christian community” of which the Mass expresses our “feelings.” The Mass, because of what it is, causes the community that is gathered to worship God in the manner God, not the community, has indicated.

The most “unsuccessful” additions to the current Mass are, it strikes me, the Psalm after the Epistle and the made-up prayers of the faithful, almost all of which are already in the Roman Canon. I cringe when I hear us pray for the pope or the faithful departed twice, once in the prayers of the faithful and repeated in the canon. Do the people who compose the petitions ever pray the canon? And, of course, the so-called “kiss of peace” needed dropping long ago: wrong signal, wrong time.

People once joined the Catholic Church encouraged by a sense of holiness that was manifest in the music and demeanor of the congregation. In many places, children have a modified rite from adults. This is often the case for college students worshipping in campus ministries in comparison to their home parish. You dress up to go to most Protestant services; we seem to dress down to attend Mass.

The translation of the Mass used for the past quarter of a century down-plays many noble and elevated things found in the Tridentine Rite or even in the Novus Ordo. The new translation that will go into effect in 2011 finally addresses the weakness in the newer liturgy, which was originally based on the premise that Catholics in general are a little slow. You cannot use too exalted a language with them. The older assumption was that Catholics were in fact rather bright and could learn things they did not already know. They could appreciate beauty when they saw or heard it. As I never tire of saying, Catholicism is an intellectual religion to its very core. Why obscure it?

The Mass is the Sacrifice of the New Law. Our music, announcements, and intentions are not to distract us from what is actually happening. But one Mass exists in the history of the world because the Sacrifice of Christ was the Sacrifice of the man-God to whom all times and places are present. The proper way to worship God is not of our making, but of God’s making. “Unless you eat this bread and drink this cup you shall not have everlasting life in you.” The Lord does not fiddle with us.

Downgrading things like silence in Church, the presence of the Blessed Sacrament at all times, genuflecting, and solemnity has made the environment of Mass seem rather like an ice cream social. Now I know about the drums and dancing at African Masses as well as the lengthy solemnity of the Byzantine liturgies. All of these customs surrounding the awe of Mass had to be gradually learned and lived in actual parishes.

On the Word side of Mass, something also was lost. We have no real room for doctrinal sermons. Valiant efforts have been made to convince us that homilies on the changing cycles of readings are all we need, without any real connection of one passage to another in a systematic way. But this emphasis has produced generations of doctrinal illiterates.

Schall has no easy answer for this, of course. The Mass is not the only place we can and should hear the doctrine of faith spelled out to us. But again, to be a Catholic is to belong to an intellectually challenging revelation that in its very Scripture, as Benedict points out, uses Greek philosophy to explain itself more clearly.

With Mass being said at any time of day or night, moreover, it has tended to become the only way of praying. The pope is often is present at Vespers or Benedictions to remind us of a broader heritage available to us. The same might be said for novenas, retreats, and rosaries. However, I heard recently of a school retreat at which it was decided not to have Mass at all! That too is the logical conclusion of elevating society over cult.

The basic point remains. The Mass is the presence of “The Holy” among us. If we do not know this, it gradually becomes a series of musical scores, announcements, greetings, and prayers for your friends and sundry causes. Such things have their place, but if they are the focus, we grope for the “The Holy” elsewhere. Briefly, the Mass is “The Holy.”

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Ars Artium, September 21, 2010
As recovery from illness resulting from a powerful virus can be painfully slow, so also is recovery from a "virus" of false ideas. If God were not in charge, we might despair, but something new is happening - something small but powerful, like growth from a mustard seed.
written by Amy Joy, September 21, 2010
"Catholicism is an intellectual religion to its very core." and "to be a Catholic is to belong to an intellectually challenging revelation..." How wonderful, but not at all surprising coming from Fr. Schall. Many Church documents are finally addressed to "... and All People of Goodwill" This gesture is based on the assumption that "All People" are intelligent enough to understand the oft intellectually challenging text. I love that about the Church, they expect us to use our God-given intelligence. One can never be bored with Catholicism...
written by Louise, September 21, 2010
Wonderful column. Thank you. It brings to mind Browning's "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"

How refreshing. Remember that awful artifact from the '70s? "Meeting people where they are"? The problem was, they never got beyond "where they are", and I imagine that they are still there. Thank you so much.
(Think "ephemeral". Bishop T., we know what "ephemeral" means.)
written by Ray Hunkins, September 21, 2010
Thank you Fr. Schall for reminding me why I was attracted to the Catholic faith a few years ago. My conversion came not because of the Mass as practised in many parishes (with shorts,flip flops,guitars, et al)- but in spite of it. I long for the cultural roots,traditions and ideals to be on display on Sunday as they are in this piece. My check is in the mail!
written by Achilles, September 21, 2010
Incisive succinct. The simple answer? humility!
Thanks Fr. Schall!
written by Dan, September 21, 2010
I often despair at the state of the liturgy in most parishes. It would help things tremendously if there were simply an edict that prohibited the use of drums and electrified guitars and banned any song that one could imagine Lionel Richie singing. Once full compliance with that edict was achieved, the Church could move to eliminating guitars entirely.
written by Clare, September 22, 2010

Very well written article, thank you!

Regarding some of your points, the key for good liturgy to me is good guidelines, set out by the priest. I agree that hearing 3 or 4 bidding prayers with the same content makes us cringe, in our parish we have a team of writers to do them, and they are checked by the priest before they are used in Sunday worship

Another major issue is appropriateness of music, it is perfectly possible, and I speak as one who sings/plays the guitar in a parish choir, to create a prayerful atmosphere and to enhance the liturgy

In essence, in common with all human community events, it is vital that decent communication is provided. It is also vital that decisions about music, prayers of the faithful are done in a prayerful manner, and in keeping with the Order of the Mass. If this can't be done, drop the guitars and music accomp. if necessary. We need to remember we are all the body of Christ.
written by Graham Combs, September 22, 2010
I was raised, not on the Roman Missal, but the Book of Common Prayer. One of my early disappointments when I first attended Bishop Foley High in the sixties was the prosaic tone of the "Peoples' Mass Book." My mother was Southern Baptist and after my father died we attended that denomination for a while before returning to the Episcopal Church. The Catholic kiss of peace is identical to a moment in the Baptist service of the 50s and 60s when everyone shakes hands. My own response to the kiss of peace is that it literally slams the mass to a halt. Some parishoners leave their pews to shank hands, hug, and kiss others throughout the congregation. During Lent of 2009 (the year I was confirmed a Catholic), I had the good fortune to attend several different Catholic rites practiced in Southeastern Michigan. The Chaldean mass in particular was shameing in its solemnity and seriousness. The Latin Rite Mass is still celebrated in this area at a couple churches by an 80 plus year old priest. I had the opportunity to attend that mass. I was struck by the similarities between the English translation of the Latin mass and my father's BCP (1929 edition). The pastor of my parish, a monsignor, has already begun speaking of the new ICEL translation with enthusiasm at mass. After hearing Bishop Trautman's vocal criticisms of it at a USCCB conference, I worry that many parishes will resist it. And with quiet episcopal support. In Britain last week, the Holy Father demonstrated his own support for the new missal. We'll see what happens next year. In the Detroit News, one elderly but "progessive" Catholic has called it "too Anglican." She also wanted bishops elected by the laity! A Jesuit priest was quoted as saying "we can't go backward!" And so it goes...
written by Hiram, September 22, 2010
It´s refreshing to find a sound doctrinal opinion from a Jesuit these days. I humbly invite the readers of this commentary to pray for the Society of Jesus and its return to the genuine ignatian spirituality. If there is no return the Jesuits would simply vanish in about 40 to 50 years. More are dying than new vocations are admitted. And this decay has to do with the abandon of the sense of Holy as Fr. Schall rightly explains. Thanks to Fr. Schall.
written by AHR, September 25, 2010
Last Sunday I had the privilege of attending the Beatification Mass for John Henry Newman in Birmingham England. 60,000 people gathered on a rainy day to participate in this special celebration. Pope Benedict led the celebration. Not being a Roman Catholic, Latin is truly "Greek" to me, as I am certain it was foreign to many people in attendance. But we got plenty of Latin and no one complained. We followed our English translations of the Latin sections and the beauty of the occasion was magnified.

The following morning at the Birmingham Oratory we got another does of Latin and of the holy mysteries of the Mass. On both occasions the central focus was on the primary purposes of celebrating the Mass.

If Newman had been attendance I am certain he would have been in heaven.
written by Paul Boer, September 25, 2010
Thank you, Fr. Schall for a wonderful meditation.

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