As a Catholic priest and pastor, a great source of sadness for me is the large number of Catholics who do not attend Sunday Mass as they ought. These are not just “fallen-away” Catholics, but even more those who attend Mass on an irregular basis. The excuses given for this sporadic attendance often vary: too busy, overslept, a family gathering, intended to make the evening Mass but were unable to make it, etc. However, what I find more bothersome than their irregular attendance is the attitude that many of these individuals have toward their Sunday obligation. Too often they will confess missing Mass numerous times over several months, and confess it with an air of nonchalance, as if failing to keep the Third Commandment is not grave matter. Yet most of them, if not all, know that it is. Unfortunately, the frequency of such confessions demonstrates that many Catholics do not take seriously their obligation to regularly attend Holy Mass each Sunday and on Holy Days.
The roots of this problematic attitude, rare during the years before the Second Vatican Council, are certainly manifold today. The likely suspects are often identified as the influence of secularism and materialism, poor catechesis, perfunctory practice of the faith, and simple laziness. However, we would be remiss not to put a significant portion of the blame on the priests and pastors and their irreverent and apathetic celebration of Mass. By his very words and deeds, such a priest states that the Mass is trivial. Consequently, the faithful, seeing this poor example, adopt the same lackadaisical attitude. These priests have failed to demonstrate that Holy Mass, as well as one’s attendance at it, is to be taken seriously. Again, if the sheep do not see their shepherd taking Sunday Mass seriously, it will inculcate in them a similar attitude.
Think for a moment of all of the “experimental liturgies” that took place in the years after the council. Though the “Clown Mass” has thankfully become a cliché, it demonstrates the depths of un-seriousness to which the celebration of the liturgy often sank. How often have priests tried to make the Mass more “entertaining” in order to attract younger crowds. As a result, the celebrant often becomes the center of attention instead of Christ, who acts in and through the priest. Can we not trace this problem to another development in post-conciliar pastoral care—the desire to de-emphasize the sacrificial character of the Mass in favor of stressing the “meal” facade?
This is the heart of the issue—the Mass is above and beyond all else a sacrifice, a renewal of the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the High Priest, on Calvary. It is serious business. Indeed, the sacrificial character of the Mass, defined by Trent and Vatican II, instills in the sacred liturgy a gravitas not granted it by its character as a memorial meal. Before his election, Pope Benedict poetically and emphatically expresses this fact when he writes, “The Eucharist is far more than just a meal; it has cost a death to provide it, and the majesty of death is present in it. Whenever we hold it, we should be filled with reverence and awe in the face of this mystery, with awe in the face of this mysterious death that becomes a present reality in our midst…. The Christian feast, the Eucharist, plumbs the very depths of death. It is not just a matter of pious discourse and entertainment, of some kind of religious beautification, spreading a pious gloss on the world; it plumbs the very depths of existence, which it calls death, and strikes out an upward path to life, the life that overcomes death” (Ratzinger, God is Near Us, p. 44). We can confidently say that the Mass comes to us as a result of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. If we truly believed this fact, then our attitude toward the Mass would surely become much more serious.
Since her foundation, the Church has understood it. Just look at the lives of the saints and martyrs. The celebration of the Holy Mass was so utterly serious to them that many risked their lives in order to celebrate it. Examples abound throughout Christian history. In the third century, Pope Sixtus II and companions were captured and subsequently martyred while celebrating Mass in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. In the sixteenth century, St. Margaret Clitherow and other members of the laity were brutally murdered during the persecution of Catholics in Reformation England. Their crime? Harboring priests who would travel around in secret to celebrate Mass. In the twentieth century, Blessed Miguel Pro and other priests during the Mexican Revolution often had to wear disguises and travel by night in order to celebrate Holy Mass in the homes of faithful Catholics. Many priests and lay faithful were killed or imprisoned. How serious is Holy Mass? Even though it is not evident in all parishes, it is the same sacrifice that, in imitation of Christ, has driven so many to shed their blood in order to celebrate and safeguard it. If we as priests would be more conscious of this fact when offering Holy Mass, this attitude would be imparted to our parishioners.
This being said, one might wonder where to begin in recovering the sacredness owed to the liturgy. First and foremost, I believe this renewal must begin with the priests themselves. It is vital that the priest understand his primary role is to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Letter to the Hebrews is clear on this point. After the Second Vatican Council, a great number of priests lost this fundamental cultic sense of priestly identity. They wanted to be “one of the people” and concern themselves with social work rather
than saving souls. Even for the devout priest, it is so easy for him to get lost in administrative duties and organizational tasks that he gradually forgets that he was ordained to offer sacrifice. This is not to diminish the importance of pastoral care; but it is the sacramental character he received at his ordination that enables him to act in persona Christi and enables him to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It also primarily defines his existence as a priest, not any pastoral action undertaken, however noble it might be.
In addition, priests must offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with solemnity and sobriety. This will have a powerful and lasting effect; though it will not necessarily be immediate. Many in the pew, used to substandard liturgy, are likely to complain that Mass is too long and boring. The priest must be willing to persevere. Lay Catholics who understand the seriousness of it all will stay and flourish. And without a doubt, others will be drawn to this serious and reverent celebration of the liturgy. The Lord did not adjust his teaching on the Eucharist to satisfy the tastes of his fickle audience (cf. John 6). Neither should priests adjust their celebration of it to fit the low expectations placed upon it.
One might conjecture that this need to illustrate the seriousness of the Mass to the Catholic populus was a driving force behind Pope Benedict’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum. One can have no doubt that the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite is very serious. There exists little room for entertainment or innovation within its celebration. Its structured unfolding instills a sense of respect and awe in the priest and the congregation. Its sacral dimension is self-evident. Greater access to the extraordinary form may go a long way toward renewing an attitude of seriousness in Catholics toward the Mass and their Sunday obligation.
Realistically, the extraordinary form will not be celebrated everywhere. Most Catholics will still encounter the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. The priest can celebrate this liturgy with the appropriate seriousness and still have a tremendous impact on the attitude of the faithful. His comportment and gesture during the Mass should be serious and focused. He can refrain from starting every sermon with a joke and acting as a color-commentator throughout the Mass. The decoration of the Church and the vestiture of those in the sanctuary can communicate the care and respect we have for the liturgy. And of course the music chosen for the liturgy—more organ and chant-based and less contemporary and emotionally charged—can have a far-reaching impact. The faithful need to be made to understand that they are there primarily to worship and not to have their interest held or “get something out” of the liturgy.
Finally, the priest must do everything in his power to directly instill an attitude of seriousness and reverence in the faithful. Most importantly, he will do this through solid catechesis on the nature of the Mass and our comportment in Church. This is a difficult task because we live in a very “laid- back” society and over the years many bad liturgical habits have been allowed to take hold in many parishes. The chief problem is the casualness of dress seen at many parish Masses. People often look like they are headed to the beach or the health club instead of Holy Mass. In many parishes, the presence of sacred silence before and after Mass has been lost. People talk and mingle freely as if they were meeting in any public place. And of course, there is often a great lack of respect shown in the reception of Holy Communion. Acts of reverence are often cursory, the host is often received improperly, and there is rarely a period of personal prayer or thanksgiving after returning to the pew. Priests will regularly need to take appropriate measures to cure the lay faithful of these bad habits. It must be done in charity, but something must be done and the faithful must be held to a certain standard.
Priests and pastors cannot expect the lay faithful to take their Sunday obligation seriously unless they offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in a reverent and serious manner. If priests want them to take it seriously, they must show them that it is serious business! When the lay faithful see the priests taking Sunday Mass seriously, it will rekindle in them a sense of the seriousness of their obligation. I have seen this take place in my parish. I attempt to celebrate the Mass in a reverent and serious manner and over time have seen the numbers of the parishioners increase along with their involvement in the parish. Especially after more solemn liturgies, such as Christmas Midnight Mass or Easter Vigil, parishioners have commented on how they felt like they “really went to Mass.” It is a simplistic statement, but it communicates a deep truth.
In all of this, the priest cannot lose his sense of joy that flows from his relationship with Christ and the inestimable honor that comes with being allowed to offer the Mass. As priests we must show the faithful how serious and important Mass is through our proper celebration of it. Mass is a sacrifice, but we receive the crucified and risen flesh of our Lord. Therefore the joy of the Resurrection should also flow through our solemn and serious celebration of the Mass. This joy that should otherwise mark our priestly existence should be a powerful attracting force that draws others deeper into the mystery of redemption.