A great joy experienced by some few parish priests was the opportunity to concelebrate Mass with Pope St. John Paul II in his Vatican chapel. Msgr. Barry R.L. Connerton, pastor emeritus of St. Augustine parish, Providence, recalls that perhaps the only time in his life when he caught off guard was when the papal assistant at this chapel Mass, Archbishop Dziwisz, tapped him on the shoulder during a papal liturgy and, nodding toward the prayers of the canon, urged him, “Read! Read!’” According to papal biographer Peter Seewald, (Benedict XVI, vol. II), this celebratory event was not continued under Pope Benedict. “Another change was that, unlike his predecessor, he seldom or never had visitors to his morning Mass or lunch. Of course, in a way that was a deficiency, he said in our conversation ‘but I need silence and composure there, so that I can celebrate Mass without a lot of people and pray quietly.’”
Ah yes, the Roman Catholic Mass: a festive communal celebration involving the whole Mystical Body of Christ or a subdued private devotion nurturing the individual soul before God. The average believer has no doubt experienced both phases of Catholic liturgical observance. Hearty singing, effective preaching, elaborate ritual, and focused faith have stimulated many a worshipper to face life as an eager Christian. Then again, the tranquil, weekday Mass in a solitary pew at a local parish church with muttered responses, brief homily, and quiet time after Communion has offered substantial spiritual nourishment to many believers.
Indeed there is a time for organ and choir, incense and holy water, abundant acolytes and myriad con-celebrants. Yet there is happily also a time for taking some tranquil morning minutes to hear God’s Word quietly and to enjoy Christ Presence thoughtfully with a few fellow worshippers.
Essential to any Catholic Mass, whether it be solemnly high or sedately low, are the proclamation and hearing of God’s Word and the renewal and reception of Christ’s sacrifice. The Service of the Word and the Service of the Bread are at the very heart of Catholic life. Although fifty years have passed since Vatican Council II enriched the Service of the Word with broader vernacular readings, daily homilies, and the general intercessions, the liturgical spoken word has still has not reached its optimal resonance. Fostered by the core Catholic belief in the Real Presence, the Holy Sacrifice understandably outshines the Holy Bible in Catholic worship. The whole first half of the Mass often appears to be an introductory rite in preparation for a more serious ritual to follow. An ambience of routine rather than an aura of wonderment mutes the effectiveness of the Service of the Word. Speaking systems that echo throughout the nave of older and larger churches are likewise at fault. And, let’s be honest, well-meaning but soft-spoken lectors are not as rare as they should be. God’s Word needs attention – both interiorly and pastorally.
The Service of the Bread – presentation and preparation of the gifts, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Communion Service – continues Christ’s consecratory words and actions at the Last Supper. Catholics firmly believe that the saving sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was anticipated at that final meal in the Upper Room and is now renewed everyday and everywhere through the consecratory words at the altar. Whether in a private chapel or a papal basilica, the renewal of Calvary’s sacrifice constitutes every Mass. The Body “given” on the paten and the Blood “poured out” in the chalice, separate as at the moment of Christ’s death, give all believers access to Christ Really Present and to his saving redemption freely bestowed.
A happy balance between the Service of the Word and the Service of the Bread should evoke a similar stability between the Mass as a meal and the Mass as a sacrifice. As St. Thomas Aquinas lyrically states in his brief Corpus Christi antiphon, the Mass is a sacred banquet (sacrum convivium), in which the Body of Christ is actually eaten (Christus sumitur), his passion is renewed (recolitur passionis eius), and a pledge of heavenly glory is promised (futurae gloriae). The Mass is indeed a banquet, a sacred meal, as the simple words “take…and eat” and “take…and drink” undeniably attest, evoking images of both the Upper Room and the heavenly feast. Yet again, the “Body…given” and “the Blood…poured out,” as on Calvary, constitutes the Mass as a genuine sacrifice, an atoning action “for the forgiveness of sins.” Clergy and laity alike, as celebrants, must jointly appreciate both aspects of the Catholic Mass as “a time to weep and a time to laugh.” A sacrificial meal or a communal sacrifice: the Catholic Mass fulfills both needs.