Why get up and go to Mass?
One of my favorite childhood memories is returning from the 9 o'clock Mass at St. Symphorosa and Her Seven Sons Parish to the smell of bacon and eggs and the sound of show tunes on the hifi. Dad ushered at 7 o'clock Mass; like all the kids from the parish school, my brother and I went to the 9 o'clock; Mom took the opportunity to sleep in and went to the 10:15.
Having fasted since the night before, breakfast tasted fantastic. The show tunes, which I at first found corny, equipped me with an impressive repertoire for future parties, piano bars, and the morning shower.
Back then there was no question as to whether or not you'd go to Mass. It was the order of things. During the week you got up and went about your business-school, work, housework. On Sundays you went to Mass. St. Syms had seven Masses on Sunday, and they were all jam-packed.
In the decades prior to Vatican II, the Catholic Church took a carrot-and-stick approach to encouraging Mass attendance: going was good for you; not going would cause you to bum in hell forever. Some chose to go as some form of fire insurance. Lazying your way through brunch and the entire Sunday New York Times might seem like a blissful slice of eternity, but was it worth the certain eternal suffering awaiting you if you stayed away from church?
Today, the fear of hell as a motivating force seems to be on the wane. When it comes to whether or not to go to Mass, it seems people are no longer as motivated by the pains of hell.
Now less than half of the registered Catholics attend Mass on a given Sunday. In both Chicago and New York the official count is about 23 percent attendance on an average weekend. In some places it's higher; some, sadly, it's lower. Meanwhile, the Sunday-obligation law is still on the books. The Catholic Almanac includes the following under the heading "Additional Mass Notes": "Catholics are seriously obliged to attend Mass in a worthy manner on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Failure to do so without a proportionally serious reason is gravely wrong."
What's the basis for this serious obligation? On my first day of work at U.S. Catholic 17 years ago, the editors were preparing a Sounding Board/Feedback article in which then-Archbishop Joseph Bernardin argued infavor of retaining the Sunday-mass obligation. His words still make sense today, "Good laws do not create obligations as much as they express them and make them specific."
Bernardin's argument harkened back to the experience of the earliest Christians. He explains that "this law came into being as an expression of the seriousness of the obligation which Christians had always felt to participate in the eucharistic celebration. From apostolic times Christians have found their identity as a church in coming together to celebrate the Paschal Mysteries of the Lord Jesus on the day of his Resurrection. Even if there were no law, the obligation--the absolute necessity--of doing this would still remain."
In arguing for the Sunday-mass obligation, Bernardin wasn't naive. He acknowledged that people who see no value in weekly Mass attendance are not likely to gain an appreciation merely from a law, "but neither will they gain an appreciation by staying away from Mass." Bernardin said regular Mass attendance is a requirement if Catholics are to build their relationships with God.
Bishop Richard J. Sklba, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, sees the importance of Sunday worship in terms of Christian identity. He recalls a line from his biblical studies that has stayed with him, "When the people gathered, Israel came into being." Sklba finds that notion applicable to the worship of the church as well. "There are certain things we do because of who we are," he says. "Because we are church, we listen to the word of God. Because we are church, we look for signs of God's presence in the world, expecting to find them. Because we are church, we form a community that is bound together in faith. Because we are church, we gather in worship, not just for ourselves but for the world."
Many Catholics must see the value in regular Mass attendance. Reading the mail that comes across the desk of U.S. Catholic, I am continually impressed by how much our readers cherish Mass attendance. Better than 90 percent of our readers responding to a recent U.S. Catholic survey said they attend church at least once a week.
One reader, Jeanne Karabin, director of religious education at St. Viator Parish in Chicago, captures that feeling in a story: "I was traveling with my family in Europe, visiting all sorts of relatives. In every town we went to, we found a church and often went to Mass. My adult daughter typically found something else to do. One Sunday we were on a city bus traveling across town to find a Mass where we could attend. My daughter asked me, `Why don't you just let go of it? What's your problem? I can't understand why two intelligent people like you and Dad can't get past the legalities and just skip Mass one Sunday."
"I told her I was sorry she didn't realize it, but we like to go. We don't go because we have to, we look forward to it. I'm just sorry for her that she doesn't get the same value out of it that we do."
So why do people choose to go to Mass? One reason is change. Going to Mass is all about transformation. When you go to Mass, you change--not always, but sometimes, profoundly. "Quite often, nothing much happens to me when I go to church," says Bernie Martin, a La Grange, Illinois attorney. "But when I get into it and listen, when I participate and am aware of the people around me and what we're there for, the Mass is pretty powerful. I reconnect with my values. The parish becomes not a random group of people but a family."
Sklba echoes this idea of chance transformation from Mass attendance. "You've heard the term falling into sin?" he asks. "I believe it's also possible to fall into grace. It won't happen every time, but whenever you go to Mass, you run the risk of falling into grace."
We need a change of heart
Change is at the heart of the Mass just as it was at the heart of jesus' life. It's the hope of change that attracts those who put down the Sunday paper and brave the weather and the terrors of the church parking lot to get to Mass each week. Jesus began his public ministry by changing water into wine. He turned a ragtag group of fishermen and drifters into apostles willing to die for their common story. He healed, he forgave, he restored. When people encountered Jesus, they came away different. He turned bread and wine into his own flesh and blood. He withstood everything that life had to throw at him and then changed death into life.
The actions of the liturgy speak power fury of change: bread broken, wine poured out and shared; timid voices raised in powerful song; the gathered turning to clasp hands, standing together and reciting a common creed. These are potent rituals that in and of themselves transform those who are present. We hear readings from an ancient and sacred book. We sit, stand, kneel, and process with people we would feel awkward speaking to in an elevator. Somehow we become more than the sum of our parts. This is transformation, and it's at the heart of why people go to Mass.
"A while back there was a popular poster that showed a loaf of bread and a decanter of wine. It read something like, `You are cordially invited to attend the Lord's supper.' You might look at that and say, `Cute,'" says Karabin. "But that invitation is more than an opportunity to spend an hour in church--it's an invitation to change your life, to become more than you are now." According to Karabin, attending mass regularly is a prime way for Catholics to accept that invitation.
Sometimes the attraction of Mass is to avoid changing in a way that you don't want to change. Martin finds Mass to be a way of remaining well-grounded, especially after the demands of his job. "The values of the marketplace are different from the values I want to live by," he says. "The marketplace emphasizes speed, a surface approach to life, material success, and competitiveness. Going to church emphasizes introspection, sharing with others, connectedness. It's alienation versus communion. I need to experience the communion."
Like much that is supposed to be good for us in life, there's a built-in resistance to regular Mass attendance. Chicagoan Father Dan Reardon has heard his share of opposition. "I hear people say they don't want to go to Mass because religious people are hypocrites," says the associate pastor. "I tell them, `So? And you're not? Why don't you join us?'"
"I know my actions don't always match what I profess. I'll admit I'm as susceptible to the seven deadly sins as the next person. But my question to those who say they don't go to church because there are hypocrites there is, `How do you deal with the gap in your life between who you are and who you want to be?'"
Ray Del Campo, a 71-year-old attorney, can relate to the need to work on that person you are and the one you want to be. "Sure I go to Mass each week. I go because I'm human," says Del Campo. "I tend to forget what I'm here on earth for and how I'm supposed to live. Going to Mass reminds me there's someone up higher than me I need to be thankful to. If I make a mistake, there's someone up there who will forgive me."
Unfortunately a number of Catholics stay away from Mass because they feel they're not worthy. Karabin says that she comes across this attitude when working with parents of First Communicants. "They got the message somewhere along the line that you had to be perfect before you are welcome at the table of the Lord. They think, `I want good things like Mass and Communion for my kid. He hasn't blown it yet. But how can I go? I've made such a mess of my life.'" (Somehow they haven't heard the second part of the prayer, "... but just say the word and my soul will be healed."
Mike Gorski, a funeral director, knows of the healing t obe found at Mass. "I go for myself and for my soul," he says. "I used to go just because it was the thing to do. Now I go because I want to grow spiritually." After experiencing a time of spiritual emptiness in his life, Gorski had what he calls a spiritual awakening. "Now I really have a desire to listen and learn from the gospels."
Chris Gucwa, an office manager, found strength and comfort at Mass during a difficult time, also. "Near the end of my mom's life, being at Mass meant a lot to me," says Gucwa. "People were all very supportive. At her wake, I was very moved to see so many of the people there were people I'd come to know at church."
Another one of the attractions of Mass is the possibility of experiencing what Sklba calls a "quiet time in an hour of mystery."
"I believe it's important to have some `still time' in our busy lives," says Andrew Lyke, a parishioner from Matteson, Illinois. This appreciation of quiet is something most modern Americans need to cultivate. According to Lyke, "Our family has a time set aside for quiet at home, and Mass together is really an extension of that. At home, mealtime is our still time together. It's our official family prayer time. On our table we have a list of folks, people who have asked for prayers. We mention their names, any special challenges facing any of us, and what we are thankful for."
Mass maybe that one hour during a hectic week to slow down and reflect. Allen Tobiaski, a high-school junior, runs track and holds a part-time job at a neighborhood restaurant. That time at Mass is a "chance to relax. For one hour I can be quiet. I get a lot of answers in the silence."
My 15-year-old daughter, Judy McGrath, likes the quiet, too. "At Mass, I just get this opportunity to not worry about what's going on." What does she usually worry about? "Tests, my friends, my parents bugging me about everything." Oh.
Many people cite their children as a main reason to go to Mass. There seems to be something almost instinctive about it. A new couple starts coming to church on Sunday. Pretty soon it's clear that they're expecting their firstborn. It's exciting to have the Baptism at Mass and to welcome in this newest hope of the future. In his book An Experience Named faith (Thomas More, 1983), Father Jack Shea writes, "Effective communication within any tradition is always a matter of one generation holding the next to its heart." That literally happens at church, too. Parents hold their children close, sway to the hymns, whisper explanations, and force-feed Cheerios.
Jeannie Pitzen recalls the years of attending Mass with her six children. Her parish priest said something that stuck with her, "If you want your children to go to church and have faith, set an example."
That setting-an-example business worked for John Torres, a computer consultant, and he hopes it will work for his own children. "My parents never forced us to go," he says. "They simply explained why it was important for us to go, and we ended up going with them." Torres says there are plenty of places in the world where you experience disconnection. But the church is a place he and his family encounter a sense of belonging. "A big reason we go is to make sure that our children--Clare in particular since she's old enoug--have a sense of community, a sense of a broader world brought to their attention."
Lyke also enjoys going to Mass as a family. "I believe our being there as a family is a sign to others that families can work." Of course this works both ways, Lyke adds, "We notice other families who are at church together, and they are a sign to us."
Lyke and his wife, Terri, are involved in marriage-preparation programs and meet many couples just starting out. He knows how important it can be to see others who are in the same boat. "As an African American family, I think it's especially important to be seen as a unit--father, mother, children. There are a lot of negative images about African American families, and this shows another side. There's a real desire to share that gift we have as a family."
Of all the reasons cited for going to Mass, the one mentioned most often is the desire for community. "When I go to Mass, I meet my mentors and my models," says Gucwa, who heads the contemporary choir at her parish. "For me, church is the community place. It's where my key relationships are and where I find much of my support in life."
Connectedness is a key element with both Gucwa and Regina King, an office worker with the National Safety Council. King, who is, ironically, stuck at home recuperating with a broken leg from a car accident, truly misses attending Mass because it's an opportunity to share in the support of the community. "Sunday Mass is my time," she says. "I see the Mass as a meal where we come together to share the Body and Blood of Christ. And a lot of the Sundays after church my husband, Jim, and I just stay and talk with people. We feel as though we're not going through life alone."
The Kings would enjoy meeting the Lykes. "They have to kick us out each Sunday," says Andrew. "Mass can be pretty powerful, but over time we come to know the service so well it can become familiar. But each week the fellowship is different. There's always something new going on in the lives of the people I meet with after Mass. I love talking with other Christians., getting those hugs, catching up with their lives."
Martin feels the same way. "If I'm on a trip and in a strange church, the Mass may be interesting, but it's not the same as when I'm in my own community worshiping with people I know and care about. I look around and see my kids' friends and their parents, some of whom have become my friends. There's a feeling of belonging that I otherwise lack."
When Karabin works with young people preparing for Confirmation, she recommends they reflect on the final scene of the movie "Places in the Heart" for a sense of the true spirit of Communion. In this scene all the characters are in church passing around the Communion plate. Everyone is there--the heroes and the villains, the living and the dead. They all take Communion. "When we go to church, I don't believe that God comes down to meet us," she says. "I believe that we reach out to each other, and when we find one another, we find God is already there as well."
It used to be that the Real Presence of the Eucharist was perceived as limited to the consecrated bread and wine. Now, the action of the liturgy encourages worshipers to see and experience the presence of Christ in the readings and in the gathered group itself.
Gucwa sees Mass as one way the church can bring generations together. Because of her work with the teenagers who have joined the choir, she thinks that "having some teenagers actively involved in such a noticeable way influences many of the kids in the parish. It shows that they have a place in the work of the church as well."
I asked a group of my daughter's teenage friends if seeing some of their contemporaries on and around the altar encouraged them to be more involved in the worship at their parishes. Teresa Marino, a high-school sophomore, was certain. "When you get involved and see other kids involved, you get to know people," says Marino. "Then it's not like going to church is some big chore. It's like going to see everybody you want to see anyway."
What, besides other teenagers, brings teens to church? Mike Guidi says, "I go because I was raised to think it's right to go. It's something my household just does. And the school I go to reinforces it."
Some teens go for the quiet and peaceful prayer time. And, of course, as Missy Wade adds, "Oh, and the music. I like the music."
What's these teens' favorite hymn? The response was unanimous: "On Eagles' Wings."
The Word at work
Good liturgy is an important work of the church. And when done well, it supports people, such as King, as they do the work of the church throughout the week. "There are times when I leave church thinking I didn't even hear the homily--it had so little impression on me," says King. "But then maybe something happens during the week to jar me, and the words of the reading or sermon come back to me and help me in some substantial way."
Dick Gillespie, an insurance agent, says it was through his attendance at church that he got involved in the homeless ministry at his parish. "They announced at church that they were looking for volunteers. A friend and I signed up, and we've been doing this for a couple of years now. I'd been hearing about the problems of the homeless on TV but never thought I could do anything about it. Now it affects the way I vote and the way I look at people who are down and out."
Sklba says it's not surprising that Mass attendance would change not only your Sunday but also the rest of the week as well. "I once estimated that there were over one million Christians--in Wisconsin alone-hearing the same scripture readings on Sunday. I presume if they are really listening, then Monday is going to be different." He says the split between what goes on at church and what goes on in the rest of life is really a false reading of reality. "Saint Catherine of Siena once said, `All the way to heaven is heaven.' A friend of mine alters that to, `All the way to church is church.'"
Some have complained, and rightly so, that the hour in church may be the most segregated hour in the week. But church, at its best, can bring people together the way no other institution can. Jesuit Bryan Hehir thinks the Catholic Church is in a unique position to address society's problems in the years to come because Catholics are both insiders and outsiders, corporate executives as well as migrant workers, and solidly upper class as well as those on society's fringes. How can Catholics--those in power and those with little-make a difference in bringing about the kingdom? By making real during the week what happens on Sunday.
In a speech he gave to the Texas Catholic Conference, Father Rosendo Urabazzo, C.M.F., of the Mexican American Cultural Center, talks about what he sees when he celebrates Mass: "They enter and sit where they may. The haves and the have-nots sit side by side on the same bench. In God's eyes we are all equal as human beings." The church serves as a refuge for many, Urabbazo says. "Would that it would be that way outside of church. Some of my people would be politely but firmly asked to leave other large buildings in our city, like hotel lobbies, theaters, ballparks, and stadiums. Without the price of admission, they are not welcomed. Only in the church can they come and find rest."
Torres once felt the church was more like an exclusive club than a welcoming family. He stayed away from church for a number of years when he was in high school and college. "Around the age of 22, I felt that maybe there was something philosophically right about religion. But I was trying to do it on my own as an individual," he says.
Torres' future wife suggested he try a local parish known for its welcoming style of worship. "What I liked about St. Clement's was they preached a very special message about inclusion, not exclusion. This was something I was looking for. The exclusive attitude I had experienced in the church had kept me away for a while. The new parish showed a welcoming attitude. It was a place to connect and to attend again on an ongoing basis."
Catholic churches would be fuller if they went out of their way to be more welcoming, believes Torres. "I appreciate the small things that can help people feel more welcome. Some parishes have people greet the people around them before beginning the Mass. It's a small thing, but it breaks down barriers."
Another way to fill the churches and welcome back those who have left is through something as simple as a personal invitation. Lyke was away from the church for a number of years, and he remembers, "I was angry with the church. It was a flawed institution that let me down."
Though not married in the church, the Lykes decided to attend a Marriage Encounter, and it was a turning point for them. "Marriage Encounter brought us back to prayer and a sense of church. One of the couples we met extended an invitation to Terri and I to attend Mass with them. This simple gesture was very profound. It touched me deeply. I later told these two people how important their invitation was for us. They didn't even remember it. I think a lot of folks are just waiting for an invitation."
People often say they nourish their spiritual lives in ways other than attending Mass. King agrees that's quite possible. "I love being in different kinds of prayerful situations with other people. I know I get a lot out of that." But as for reliability, King can count on Mass. "It's there for me week after week. The other experiences just don't happen that often."
Martin likes the regularity of weekly Mass attendance, too. "As I get older, I find I'm more and more a creature of habit. I want to develop habits that reinforce good things in my life. If I left going to Mass to a weekly decision, I suspect I'd drift away over time. I'd rather keep the habit of going, so I'm there for the good times."
Karabin puts her commitment to weekly attendance this way, "It's like a thread. I feel I am one small part of a tapestry of faithful people."
People miss a lot when they don't go to Mass. Sklba says that "they miss a source of energy to get them through the humdrum of the week; they miss being connected to a group of people whose lives are exciting because of the underlying truth they've discovered about life."
But sometimes it's so bad
There are times in my own life when being at Mass is anything but exciting. The music is banal, the sermons are trite. The people in the pews around me are irritating, and I couldn't utter a decent prayer to save my life. And then, there are times when it's the perfect place for me to be. The music is uplifting, I hear just what I need to hear. I feel a sense of oneness with my fellow parishioners and in communion with my God. And sometimes both of these sets of feelings occur at the same Mass!
Why go to Mass? Certainly not to participate in an empty charade or a mere feel-good exercise. And I don't believe the purpose is to placate an angry God. Eucharist is a gift. What is the nature of that gift? What good is it?
While interviewing people who attend Mass regularly, I found a trait common to all. It's a characteristic of openness and expectation. People who go to Mass faithfully truly expect that God can and will meet them at the place where people gather in faith. It's not theory but fact for them. It doesn't matter for them that the service is poorly executed, the sound system fuzzy, or the ushers grumpy. It doesn't even matter that most of these people have deep and sometimes painful disagreements with a fundamental element of church teaching or practice. None of that can negate the value of coming into intimate contact with Jesus and the people who strive to follow his way. The essential consideration is to take to heart the words Jesus spoke to the woman at the well: "The water I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."
Why do I go to Mass? At Mass I get fed. I know I am weak. I want to be more selfless, more charitable, more kind. I want to be braver when I hear a racist remark, stronger when my children need a firm response, purer of heart when tempted to take an easier, softer way. I want to absorb the patterns of the life of Jesus. The Host on the tongue gives strength to run the race. The wine gives heart and willingness to continue.
Does it feel too difficult to go to Mass, too boring, too burdensome? Think of the Russian proverb, "Bread on a journey is no burden." Better yet, think of the words of Jesus, "The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have life everlasting." Now if that won't get you out of bed, what will?
Reprints of this article are available at the following costs: 500 or more, 20[cts.] each; 100-499, 30[cts.] each; 10-99, 40[cts.] each. To order, phone Sylvia Sanchez at 1-800-328-6515.
By Tom McGrath, executive editor of U.S. Catholic and Salt of the earth magazines, who learned to appreciate regular Mass attendance in third grade from Miss Betty Schmidt.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 1994|
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