Holy Mass is both an act of worship and partnership

Father John A. Kiley

The cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston was recently renovated, welcoming parishioners on Palm Sunday to its bright and expansive interior. Like our own cathedral in Providence, Holy Cross is a Keeley designed, Gothic edifice that happily retains much of the old charm but can gladly claim considerable new appeal for worshippers. The altar, the pulpit and the baptismal font, fabricated alike of white marble with yellow inlaid crosses, are visible at a single glance, underscoring the highpoints of Catholic worship. Most striking however are the expansive cascading sanctuary steps that flow gently from the altar down into the community of believers. Ezekiel’s awe at the water that flowed out generously from Jerusalem’s Temple renewing all within its regenerating path comes easily to mind. Then again, Jacob’s ladder, ascending into the heavens, is certainly recalled as the faithful in the pews are vividly invited to ascend toward the sacrificial banquet celebrated at the altar. Thus the to and fro, the give and take, of the Church’s sacramental life are admirably portrayed in gleaming stone.

The cathedral’s renewal, respectful of the past but open to the future, suggests how fortunate our present generation is be able to celebrate Mass with the “full and active participation by all the people,” an “aim to be considered before all else,” as the Second Vatican Council solemnly decreed. Mass well celebrated “…is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit,” the Council wisely noted. This “true Christian spirit” derives certainly from worship directed toward God but also from the mutual experience of the believers themselves. Consider the Mass in broad outline.

Congregational singing, whether in chant or hymn, (and certainly going beyond the customary two verses experienced in most parishes) is a universal instrument of praise and worship. “He who sings prays twice,” is a lesson still to be learned by most Catholic worshippers. The congregation suitably gathered after a confession of sin, the proclamation of the Scriptures in the expansive format that now includes both prophecies and epistles, spoken well by a lay reader, introduces the Service of the Word. After the Gospel, a daily homily should certainly be delivered, with discernment but also with dispatch. A moment of reflection on the Word of God is duly recommended. A vociferous pronouncement of the Creed is suitably followed by the Prayer of the Faithful, imploring heaven for the practical needs of the local worshipping community as well as of the universal Church, reminding parishioners of God’s providential interest in their daily lives.

The presentation and preparation of gifts at Mass admirably highlight both lay involvement and the Mass as a true meal. The bread and wine, gifts of nature and of human industry, when brought to the table of the Lord from the community, truly signify the laity’s significant contribution to Church life. They provide the resources! The visible arranging of the altar by a deacon or lay server — unfolding the corporal, unveiling the paten and chalice, arranging the paten and purificator, tending the water and wine, washing the celebrant’s hands — signify preparations for a meal, a sacrificial meal, soon to be celebrated by the whole community. “My sacrifice and yours,” the priest reminds the worshippers. Incensing the prepared table of the Lord on solemn occasions underlines the significance and importance of the meal aspect of the Mass.

Once the banquet is set, the elements of bread and wine, clearly visible on the altar, are sacramentally transformed by the priest’s words into the Body and Blood of the Savior Himself, the sacred elements significantly separated on the paten and in the chalice as at the moment of Christ’s redeeming death when blood poured from his mortal body. At Mass, Calvary’s sacrifice is perceived once again just as surely and as manifestly as at that tragic moment witnessed by the Virgin, the Magdalen, and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross. The priest’s offering and the community’s offering are seconded by a resounding great “Amen” at the conclusion the canon.

The Communion rite, commencing with a collective Lord’s Prayer, joyfully celebrates the oneness of the people themselves through the communal Sign of Peace exchanged among the congregation as well as the oneness of God with his people through the worthy reception of Christ’s sacramental Body and Blood. A moment of reflection after Communion underlines the solemnity of the occasion. Finally blessed, the community leaves the church to “love and serve the Lord.” Today’s Mass, an act of worship as well as an action of partnership, is certainly one of the Second Vatican Council’s great achievements.