Monday, January 16, 2012

The Sunday obligation

“I’m so tempted not to go to Mass,” Mom said as we prepared to pull out of the garage.  “I have so many things to do before we go over to Ted’s house tonight” — we were to celebrate the January birthdays together — “and I have a hard enough time hearing the Mass anyway even without Fr. George’s accent.”  (Mom’s hearing is severely impaired, though not completely lost.)

“It’s your decision, Mom,” I replied neutrally.  I don’t want to force her to go, but I don’t want either of us to fall back out of the habit of going, either, which we did while Bob was alive.

“Well, lead me not into temptation,” she sighed, and put the car in reverse.

The first reading, of course, was from 1 Samuel 3:3-10, 19, in which Samuel, called by God to be his prophet, responds, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!”  Deacon LeRoy gave the homily, building on that passage, telling us to listen for His voice, through all the noise pollution that surrounds us every day and in the stillness of quiet.  And, of course, the Communion hymn was “Here I Am”.

When we were walking to the car, Mom started talking quite enthusiastically.  Everything about this Mass had been perfectly timed to reach her where she was.  “I’m really, really glad I didn’t give into the temptation to skip,” she said happily.  “Well, next time,” I joked, “I promise I won’t give you an ‘out’.”

Of course, it would be nice if every Mass had this synchronic effect on everyone, where the confluence of theme, setting, actors and mood suited just perfectly to pull yourself out of yourself and into the embrace of God.  But more often than not, you have to do the heavy lifting of opening yourself up to Christ, especially when homily, liturgy and mood all suck rotten eggs.

But the synchronic effect isn’t really why we go to Mass in the first place, is it?  We’re not there to “have an experience” or to be entertained, which is the problem I have with charismatic communions and mega-churches.  It’s not all about us.  We go to worship God as a community; we go to be instructed in the Faith; we go to partake in the real Body and Blood of our Savior (1 Cor 10:16).  Anything beyond that is pure gravy … or, rather, unmeritable grace.

Now, you do occasionally hear about people who complain that they’re “not being fed” when they go to Mass.  It’s not all spiritual thrill-seeking.  Lukewarm, superficial preaching is all too common a complaint among Catholics, and has been for some time.  This problem can be corrected, but only when the bishops begin to recognize it as a problem.

Nevertheless, there’s no real implicit bargain which says, “If you preach a decent homily, I will come to Mass regularly.”  The Sunday obligation obtains whether or not Fr. Joe Schmuckatelli is a good preacher.  If Fr. Schmuckatelli falls down on the job, it’s no excuse for us to fall down with him.  If you don’t have the luxury to “parish-shop” — especially if, like me, you live in a part of the country where the next parish can be a couple dozen miles away — then, as Father Z has suggested, the first thing to do is give thanks to God that at least you have access to the sacraments of the Church.  As Fr. Ray Blake commented (in re Father Z): “I think this bit of advice applies to all who realise that most bishops and priests [] fall short of Christ the High Priest.”

This isn’t to advocate clericalism but rather to put first things first.  While laypeople are on the whole becoming better educated about the faith than twenty years ago, and are entitled to priests who don’t preach heresy or dissidence, the primary reason to go to Sunday Mass is not to play what Supertradmum calls “heresy watch” or to score priests and deacons on their zeal.  Nor is it — bringing up a fault of which I’ve been guilty — to pass judgment on the quality of the music and singing of the cantor and choir.  Criticisms have their place … it’s just not first place.

Since the laity is becoming better educated about the faith, and there are other faith resources available, perhaps we need a better model for the sermon.  Perhaps the homilist could spend less time drilling into the Scripture — that could be done on-line on the parish website, or in Scripture classes — and more into lighting fires under keisters, less time on reflection and more time on exhortation.  Perhaps the bishops could require so much attendance at classes and seminars on effective public speaking, especially if such a course could be specially tailored for Catholic preaching.

Nevertheless, staying away from Mass — or moving to a different faith community — just because the Mass at your local parish doesn’t particularly move you does you more spiritual harm in the long run than good.  You want to be “fed”?  You’re partaking of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist!  How can sleeping in or going to a big ol’ church with a great band top that?

Besides, you never know at which Mass everything will suddenly come together to give you that lightning-bolt epiphany.  It could very well be that same lackluster parish with the same boring priest and same cacophonous choir you’ve been attending more off than on for years.  It could be the one time you make your obligation while traveling, at (say) Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Or St. Columba’s in Conception Junction, Missouri.  Or Midnight Mass at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC on Christmas Eve.

Wherever you go to Mass, He is there, waiting for you to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!”