Mass with ‘Nowhere Man’

An ex-student e-mailed me from Ireland. What he reported could have happened in many places, in many lands. His account follows: “I was walking down the street this Sunday in one of Dublin’s suburbs. I passed by a parish, whose name I liked. Mass was just starting, so I popped inside.” So far, so good. A time was when what went on inside was pretty much the same all over. It was a comforting thought that we could be at home almost anywhere.

“It was a beautiful looking church,” the student went on, “that is, until the annoying folk-group started playing some unrecognizable hippie song as the entrance hymn. That was followed by a downright Marxist sermon on the “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle” Gospel reading. The priest also lamented that there are not more female doctors of the Church, a rather obscure and irrelevant complaint, I thought. It is depressing that our modern obsession with quotas and ‘gender equality’ has made it this far.” Well, we know lots of things have made it to Ireland of late. We would only be surprised if they did not make it.

“The icing on the cake,” the young man concluded, “was ‘Nowhere Man’ by the Beatles as the Communion Hymn. I can’t remember walking out of a church so forlorn, aside from funerals, I suppose.” Had it been Schall, I think I probably would have said, “including funerals.”

The word “forlorn” struck me. It was the perfect word to describe a sane young man’s reaction to such a “performance.” I wondered if any of the local parishioners were equally “forlorn” – or the bishop.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a conference in Baltimore at which Father Joseph Fessio officiated at the Saturday-evening-Sunday Mass. Before Mass, there was a group of about twenty; he brought out the priestly vestments. As he put each on, he explained what it was, its significance in the Mass or life of the priest. He then explained that at Benedict’s private Masses, communion was now only given when the people kneel and on the tongue.

Father Fessio next said that the pope preferred at least some Latin at Mass. We could sing the Sanctus, Agnus Dei, or Salve Regina. When these well-known chants are sung, everyone joins in. Next, since the readings and homily are directed to the congregation, the priest faced them. But when it came to the Canon, the priest and congregation were to face the same direction, to the East, to the worship of the Father. The Canon was said in Novus Ordo Latin. I do not think there was any forlornness here. “Nowhere Man” was nowhere to be found.

“Nowhere Man,” I suppose, could symbolize a lost soul or a sheep. Christ was once said to have had “nowhere to lay His head.” The very logic of our being is that we find no rest in anything less than God Himself. But we are each somewhere and He is seeking us.

The Catholic is better described as a “Somewhere Man.” One might say that Christ, in Nazareth, was conceived in the “middle of nowhere.” Certainly it was not a popular tourist spot for visiting Romans or Greeks. But it was a place on the divine map, located easily enough by the Angel Gabriel.

Nor does it seem to be an accident that Christ was subsequently born in the time of Caesar Augustus in Bethlehem. We believe in the transcendent destiny of each human person. He will reach it whether we believe it or not. We are all born, or in the case of the aborted, killed, in specific, known towns, cities, and places.

I like to remind myself of what the Mass is. It is not a community celebration or buffet. It is not a place where we hear the latest ideology dressed up in Christian terms. Rather, it is where ideology hears what is revealed.

Only one Mass is ever celebrated in the history of the world. The Mass is in the now-time of the risen Christ. He told us to do this supper-leading-to-the-Cross in memory of Him. Golgotha was indeed a forlorn place. But we now look upon it at Mass making present the broken Body and the Blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. The Mass is the worship of the Father.

Again I think of the young man’s word on exiting the Dublin church. This is the last feeling that the Mass should leave in our souls. But if the Mass appears more like a folk picnic or warmed over ideology set to the latest tunes, to describe the reaction it leaves in our hearts, we can probably think of no better word than, yes, “forlorn.”

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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