The Desire to Worship Well

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My husband and I were in the Nashville area recently, closing on our new home. We attended Mass at a church where we have previously worshipped. This particular Sunday, though, we were looking through different eyes. Would this be the parish we soon joined? These might be the priest and deacon who will guide us spiritually; those hymns could be the music we will sing weekly; these people may be future friends.

As with any parish, there is much to consider. One of my concerns is the tendency of half of the parishioners to leave immediately after receiving our Lord in the Eucharist. We have witnessed this every Mass we attended there, and I find it disconcerting.

On the plus side, it was a full house again. The building holds a large number of people and has an overflow area, and still tends to fill up. They seem to worship well, actively singing and praying.

As one would expect, there are several children in the congregation. A number of my friends with youngsters struggle with how they are sometimes treated at Mass. Nobody likes it when parents ignore disruptive young ones, but in many cases, parents do their best and still find themselves judged if their children are not perfectly behaved.

I still recall an incident at Mass over two decades ago, when my daughter Marissa was about six months old. Since there were only two elderly women sitting on the balcony, I decided to join them. I brought out a quiet toy for Marissa. She dropped it a couple of times, but it made very little noise.

The women behind me chattered during the entire Mass. They did not much like it, though, when Marissa dropped her toy. It was ironic, considering they could not stop talking. Their words about me were, “She has no control over her child!”

Many of my friends with children have similar stories to tell. Any sound from children disturbs some people. They do not seem to remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:14 (NABRE): “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

On this particular Sunday, a young girl who I would guess to be about two years old taught me something about the parish. During the Mass, she began to shriek. It was not long before the mother picked her up to carry her out. The child, however, was having none of it. She struggled and yelled, having a temper tantrum in her mother’s arms.

Looking around me, I saw people smiling. I saw no looks of judgment, no expressions that said, “My child would never do that!” Parishioners were grinning so much, in fact, that as the mother was trying to exit rapidly, she smiled back at them. When she was almost out the door, her daughter loudly proclaimed, “I don’t WANT to go home! I don’t WANT to go home!”

With those words, that small child brought down the house. The priest and the deacon had to compose themselves before Mass could continue.

I loved the heartwarming response from the clergy and parishioners. It is much easier to bring your children to Mass when you are not worrying about being judged for perceived parental failings.

There was another message here, though. How many times are we at Mass, going through the motions, just waiting for it to end? When Mass is over, do we ever think “I don’t WANT to go home?”

People who leave the Catholic church for other forms of worship give a host of reasons. Many say they never heard Scripture there. I do not understand that excuse. Even as a child I was well aware that there are readings from the Bible at every Sunday Mass. Much later in life, I learned that  Scripture is referenced throughout the entirety of Mass. The Aleteia website has compiled a list of 125 Bible citations you will hear each Sunday. To leave the Church because of lack of Scripture at Mass would seem to indicate either you were not listening or you did not recognize Scripture when you heard it.

Some people insist they get nothing out of Mass. I do not understand this sentiment, either. I would submit that we get a great deal out of Mass, whether we realize it or not. To hear the word of God and receive Christ himself are both very big somethings.

To “get nothing out of” Mass implies one was looking to be inspired or entertained. Neither of these is the point of worship. Mass is not even about learning about salvation history, or about feeling closer to God, though both are good things that can happen.

In fact, Father Mike Schmitz would say that to get nothing out of Mass is a blessing. When you get nothing out of it and continue to show up, you are no longer going for yourself. You are attending Mass for God.

In a talk given at the Arlington Diocese Men’s Conference 2018, Father Mike reminds us that our pews are not akin to bleachers where we sit to observe the priest pray. Giving a sports analogy, he tells us that being in the pews is equivalent to being on the playing field.

People often consider religion to be about rules relating to morality. While religion can teach us these things, it is not why we come together every week. Father Mike tells us that the heart of every religion is worship. He goes one step further and says that the heart of worship is the sacrifice.

When we worship, we give the best of what we have. Sometimes our minds might be wandering despite our best efforts. Other days we might be fighting fatigue or trying to keep young children relatively quiet. We might think we are not giving much.

Remember the story in Luke 21:1-4 of the woman who only had two coins to give, but gave from her poverty. Those days we think we are not worshipping well, we still chose to be there. At a minimum, on those days we gave of our time, the time spent at worship and the time devoted to traveling to and from the parish. We also gave of the time we prepared for Mass. We will never get this time back to do something we might prefer to do.

One day in 2007, I was at a daily Mass because the Mass intention was for my mom. I remember looking around at others in attendance and thinking, “Is it wrong that I wouldn’t want to come to Mass every day?”

During the next year, something changed. In 2008, I began attending daily during Lent. I grew to look forward to Mass. If I could not go for a couple of days, I missed it. I did all the things I equated with worshipping well; I participated, I learned, I found that God was on my mind in a way He never used to be. To clarify, God was not just more on my mind during Mass; He was on my mind all the time. One might say I was on fire with a deep love of God and the Mass.

Ten years later I still attend Mass daily. I would still miss it if I could not participate frequently. Over the years, though, I have become less attentive. My mind seems to wander, even though I am trying not to let it. While God is still my priority, the intensity is less in my daily life than it was a few years ago.

I used to think that if everybody understood the fullness of what Mass is, we would all be attentive. If we, as Catholics, believe what we claim to believe about Eucharist, should we not desire to be there as often as possible?

I do believe, and yet I am less on fire than I used to be.

There are many good books to read for those who would like to understand Mass better. I highly recommend Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass As Heaven on Earth. There are also good videos, like the one with Father Mike Schmitz that I linked to above. Learning about Mass inevitably teaches you more about salvation history and can help you develop a closer relationship with God.

Some reviewers of Scott Hahn’s book say it changed their lives. I highly suspect what they mean is it helped them be more attentive at Mass. Sooner or later, though, we all succumb to being human. We all have those days when we cannot keep our mind on what is happening as we worship.

After viewing Father Mike’s video, I am more aware that the effort is everything. To show up when I am tired and not in the mood for Mass, when I cannot participate well or even listen well, is in itself an act of love of God. Some people will say they go every week only because of the obligation. There is some goodness in this as well. If they are trying to do the right thing, even though they would prefer not to, they are putting God over themselves.

I agree with Father Mike. When your goal in worship is to get something out of it, you are not giving your all to God. Worship becomes about you. In that respect, maybe my struggles to pay attention are more meaningful than the days I was consistently inspired. It is something I can give to God as a sign of my love.

As for the young child who did not want to go home, she made quite an impression. As Mass was ending, I noticed how full the pews still were. I like to think it was no coincidence that this time, the majority stayed until Mass ended. Maybe they, too, did not want to go.

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