The Liturgy: Where God Enters Our Lives

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Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Although you wouldn’t know it from the reporting of the secular and even the religious media, Pope Benedict’s book-length interview, Light of the World, contains some beautiful and impressive reflections on topics other than the use of condoms.

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One of the most interesting chapters opens with a discussion on the importance of liturgy in the life of the Church. In his response to a question about the renewal of the Church, the Pope places liturgy right in the heart of the Church, in the center of its mission and ministry:

The Church becomes visible for people in many ways, in charitable activity or in missionary projects, but the place where the Church is actually experienced most of all as Church is the liturgy. And that is also as it should be. At the end of the day, the point of the Church is to turn us toward God and to enable God to enter into the world. The liturgy is the act in which we believe that He enters into our lives and that we touch Him. We come into contact with God. He comes to us – and we are illumined by Him.(p. 115)

That little paragraph summarizes so well what Catholics instinctively know and believe about the liturgy but seldom articulate. In these words we also hear the unmistakable echo of the Second Vatican Council that said that the liturgy “is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can match its claim to efficacy, nor equal the degree of it.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #7)

The Pope teaches that in the liturgy “God enters our lives and we touch Him.” That’s a dramatic claim and it leads to this question: What does this encounter with the transcendent, living God mean for us – the people in the pews? Well, in a nutshell, it means that we should always approach the liturgy with all the reverence and awe we can muster; that the liturgy should be for us a solemn prayer, a sacred expression of faith.

That prayerful, reverent spirit begins with the ministers of the liturgy, most obviously with the priest (or bishop) who is celebrating the Mass. We need regularly to examine our conscience on this point, lest we fall into the habit of approaching the altar of the Lord with a careless, humdrum attitude.

Here I think of the excellent sermon of St. Charles Borromeo who preached: “A priest complains that as soon as he comes into the church to pray the office or to celebrate Mass, a thousand thoughts fill his mind and distract him from God. But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for the office or for Mass? How did he prepare?”

More than once I’ve heard the laity comment on the irreverent, careless attitude of the priest at Mass. “He seems bored, disinterested, hurried” is the most common complaint. Isn’t it curious that we priests, who spend a good chunk of our life in the seminary waiting to get to the altar, after ordination sometimes look like we can’t get away from it fast enough?

But this pointed examination of conscience applies equally to the laity. How often we hear them complain that the Mass is boring, lifeless; that they “don’t get anything out of it.” But it’s also fair to ask what they’re putting into it. Dear people in the pews, you too have to think about your liturgical attitude.

Do you prepare well for Holy Mass, or do you pile into church at the last minute, your hearts and minds filled with a thousand distractions? Do you really try to create some sacred time and space for yourself or do you bring a just-got-out-of-bed, ready-for-the-beach, bottled-water, gum-chewing, cell-phone accessible, get-the-end-seat-of-the-pew, how-long-will-it-take-me-to-get-out-of-the-parking-lot attitude with you into your encounter with the Living God?

And during the Mass do you pay attention to the reading of God’s Word and preaching of the homily? Do you try to apply the lessons of the day to yourself and your own spiritual journey? Do you really pray the words of the Mass or simply mouth them in a doleful routine? And as you process forward to receive Holy Communion are you careless and distracted, or really focused on, excited about receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?

I hope that this little examination of conscience for priests and people doesn’t seem too harsh or critical. But because we sometimes take our best gifts for granted we need to step back once-in-awhile and understand and appreciate the wonderful, precious gift we have in the liturgy – especially in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

In the coming months we’ll hear a lot more about the impending changes in the liturgical texts, in the language of the Mass. The implementation of this reform will present some real challenges for clergy and laity alike. As I’ve written before we’ll all need to be patient and humble; we’ll need to keep a sense of perspective and humor.

But the implementation of the new texts is much more than a simple change in wording. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us, for the whole Church, to renew our understanding and appreciation of the liturgy. It’s a perfect opportunity for us to enter into the liturgy with a refreshed spirit of holiness and prayer. If we do that, the liturgy will once again become for us, as our Holy Father said, “the act in which God enters our lives and we are illumined by Him.”