Bolzano is an Italian Alpine city not far at all from the Austrian border. A recent tour of northern Italy meant Saturday night in this mountain climbers’ and ski enthusiasts’ favored town. The parish vigil Mass at 5pm at a local Catholic church and then supper on the piazza were obvious choices. Bolzano’s imposing Gothic cathedral was the handy choice for Mass. The Duomo was empty of worshipers upon arrival so a chance to tour the historic building, severely damaged during WWII but aptly restored, took up a few moments before taking seats towards the center of the middle aisle.
The first worshiper to enter the church took the inner most spot in the first front pew. The next participant entered and sat alongside in the next spot. Then one after the other, worshipers and parishioners, both individuals and families, filed into church filling the pews in this obviously consecutive manner. No one sat randomly throughout the church. There were no favorite pews. Each worshiper entered and took the next available seat and that was that. Our smiles at one another indicated our thoughts: “Hmmm, must be Germanic influence.”
Although most likely many of the worshipers were strangers to each other, a sense of Christian fellowship guided them instinctively to sit side by side as a worshiping community, a priestly people, an assembly of the saved. An appreciation of the Mass as a communal exercise instilled into their minds and hearts through local tradition was evidently effective. They were not just in church on their own; rather they were there a body, gathered to praise God through Christ and in the Spirit. Corporate worship indeed!
Mass attendance in the USA offers a quite different slant on American piety. American Catholics, for the most part, still experience the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as a private devotion. Loosely scattered throughout the church nave, never sitting too close to anyone unknown to them, jealous of one’s favored pew, indifferent toward much participation, Americans Catholics are in church on a Sunday morning to offer their individual, if heartfelt, worship to God through Christ’s memorial sacrifice. Attending Mass is not much different from a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. A full church or a sparsely attended service would not make much impact on their own fervor. For the most part, Mass in America on a Sunday or a weekday is still a “Jesus and Me” experience. An appreciation of being in church as a people, as a community, as a corporate enterprise still has a long way to go in much of North America and certainly in New England.
In the passage from Thessalonians to be read at Mass this coming Sunday, St. Paul prays that his readers will grow into a fuller awareness of the need to love one another effectively and communally in preparation for the return of Christ at the end of time. The Apostle writes, “Brothers and sisters: May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we have for you, so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.” An deep, personal love for God as Father, Christ as Redeemer and the Spirit as Advocate is the foundation of all genuine Christian experiences. However, this Trinitarian love must in due course open the believer’s heart, first of all, toward the brothers and sisters who are equally favored by the Father, saved by the Savior and anointed with the Spirit. A common faith should lead to common goodwill and truly communal worship.
Guided by the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the universal Church has greatly encouraged rites and ceremonies that evoke a “love for one another and for all,” as lauded by St. Paul to the Thessalonians. The official Church has urged a deeper sense of community, togetherness and fellowship at Mass while never ignoring the sacrificial nature of the Mass or the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Hymn singing, vernacular responses, regular homilies, presenting gifts, signs of peace, frequent Communion, a regular sequence of standing, sitting, kneeling, along with a deeply shared faith are some of the vehicles for building a parish partnership. Yet after a half century of reform, such partnership in worship is proving an elusive goal. Catholics still come to Mass hoping for “a closer walk with Thee” rather than anticipating “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” Maybe roping off the back pews is the answer.
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