The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates that some 30,000 people came into the Church at the Easter Vigil Masses this year. That is wonderful news for the Church and for those who have joined the Church! We welcome everyone to Holy Mother Church and pray for the greatest blessings upon them. As Catholics we are blessed to take advantage of sacred rituals and prayers, including Holy Mass. What sort of example are we setting for our newly baptized and confirmed brothers and sisters when they attend Mass with us?
Whether we are new to the Church, or seasoned veterans, are we aware of the awesome sacredness of everything related to the Mass? Far too many times, we may find a less-than-sacred atmosphere in church before Mass begins. People are carrying on conversations in the pews—some even standing up and talking out loud. After reception of Communion, some may be talking or whispering with their neighbors, anticipating the end of Mass and the dismissal. Now, there’s nothing wrong with greeting one another. Acknowledgement of our neighbors is good protocol. There’s nothing wrong with catching up or building relationships–at the right time and place. The chit-chat simply should take place in the gathering space or the parish hall before or after Mass. The church proper is sacred space, set aside for sacred activities, including quiet prayer before and after Mass.
In Solomon’s temple at the time of Jesus, the highest, holiest place in the temple, the Holy of Holies, housed the Ark of the Covenant. It was so sacred that only the High Priest could go in there, and at that, only once a year. When he did enter, he had to have a rope tied to him in case he died. That way the others could remove his body without violating the sacred space. It’s interesting to ponder the difference between the reverence shown to the Ark of the Covenant back then with the reverence shown to Our Lord, Jesus Christ, today in our parish churches.
First, though, just what does “sacred” mean? Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary tells us:
SACRED. The holy or divine. The sacred is that which pertains to God, as distinguished from what pertains to human beings; that which is eternal, in contrast with the temporal; the heavenly as opposed to the earthly; the mysterious and therefore not the rationally explainable; the infinite and not the finite. In all religions, the sacred is the Absolute, which does not change, whereas the profane is the relative, whose essence is to change. (Etym. Latin sacrare, to set apart as sacred, consecrate.)
Our faith is all about the sacred—the holy or divine—related to God. From a practical perspective, consider the space in which we worship God. The church space itself is sacred. This is not only where we worship—it’s also where the God of the universe, Jesus Christ, resides. He really is present in the tabernacle, in His transubstantiated, Real Presence. The Lord, in His body, blood, soul and divinity, rests in this sacred space, waiting for us to come to visit, worship and adore Him.
Sacred Vessels and Furnishings
The altar in the church is not just a table or some liturgical furnishing. It is sacred as well—this is where the priest, in persona Christi, through the Holy Spirit, consecrates the offerings of bread and wine that become the transubstantiated body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. It is the place upon which the un-bloody sacrifice of Jesus is re-presented at every Mass. It is from the altar that Our Lord breaks the bonds of time and space to bring us all to Calvary at the Mass. How awesome (and sacred) is that?
The various vessels the priests and deacons use at Mass are sacred. The chalices, patens and ciboria are not just cups, plates or dishes. They are blessed instruments used in the holy sacrifice that takes place there. They will end up holding Our Lord’s precious body and blood. The real, transubstantiated presence of Our Creator and Redeemer goes into these vessels. In fact, only ordained priests and deacons, or instituted acolytes, are allowed to perform the initial purification (rinsing after Communion) of these vessels.
The ambo, the stand from which readings and preaching take place also is sacred. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal 309 indicates as much and states that, “…The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the word should stand at it.” In other words, this sacred furnishing is intended solely for use in the proclamation of the Word.
Recollection, concentrating on the presence of God, is the least we can attempt to do when we come to the sacred space of our local parish church. Particularly as we enter church, to prepare for Mass, we ought to be seeking a prayerful disposition, open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Through the course of the Mass, we should, as an act of will, stay focused on the readings, the homily, the prayers and the actions. It means that we need to silence ourselves, externally and internally and practice the presence of God. This means we need to be quiet and listen, while of course, praying out loud the liturgical responses and joining in the singing as appropriate.
We are so unbelievably blessed to be able to receive the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist! This fact alone should have us in reverent silence, inspired with awe, after receiving Holy Communion. We should be silently thanking Jesus for all of the blessings we’ve received and that we will receive, being grateful for this wonderful opportunity. This is a time to bask in the light and warm love of our God. It’s not a time to be chatting up the neighbor next to us. There’s plenty of time for that after Mass, outside the church.
Practices to Make Our Mass Participation More Sacred
We might want to consider the following basic practices to help us get more out of Mass:
- Prayerfully read the scripture passages for the upcoming Sunday Mass throughout the week, meditating on them and what they say to you.
- As you prepare to leave home for Mass, place yourself in the presence of God and ask for the graces you need to be attentive to Him at Mass.
- Arrive 15 minutes early for Mass so you can quiet your mind and focus on God. Thank Him for the opportunity to be there; ask Him for the grace to participate worthily, attentively and devoutly.
- Prior to the readings and homily at Mass, ask Him to open the ears of your heart and let His holy Word puncture and soak into your heart and soul.
- At the offertory, offer up all you are and have to Him, united to Jesus crucified, for His greater glory.
- Before receiving Communion, ask the Blessed Mother to make room in your heart for His merciful love.
- After Communion, give thanks and praise to Jesus for allowing you to receive Him and be one with Him.
- Spend a few moments in silent prayer after Mass ends, in gratitude and openness to Him.
We all have only a short time here on earth, and limited opportunities to spend time with Jesus in the sacrifice of the Mass. We ought to guard this time with Him zealously. Let’s ask Him to help us get the most out of our time with Him. We can always catch up with our friends and relatives after Mass is over–meanwhile, let’s give ourselves 100% to Him during Mass.
Resources on the Mass
There are a variety of really good books on the Mass that can help us get develop a deeper understanding of, and devotion to, the Mass. We ought to take advantage of one or more of them for some spiritual enlightenment. Following are a few that I like:
- A Devotional Journey into the Mass, Christopher Carstens
- A Biblical Walk through the Mass, Edward Sri
- The Lamb’s Supper, Scott Hahn
- The Mass, Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina
- The Holy Mass Explained to Catalina by Jesus and Mary, Michael Journal
- Calvary and the Mass, Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
- The Prayers and Ceremonies of the Most Holy Mass, Dom Prosper Gueranger
(The last two are written on the Tridentine Mass, but they may be informative, nonetheless, for those of us who attend the Novus Ordo Mass.)