Mass and “The Holy”

NOTE: Our thanks to all the generous readers who responded to our appeal yesterday. Your expression of support for the work of
The Catholic Thing is as valuable to us as the financial contribution. But we need to hear from more of you. Our regular Fall fund drive continues all this week. Please make a donation of $25, $50, $100, or more – which is fully tax-deductible – to help keep writers like Fr. Schall and our other regulars at TCT coming every morning to you and readers all over this country and around the world. – Robert Royal

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 XVI’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. (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.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019