Why Go to Mass?

(First published in First Things, August 1998)

It wasn’t in my contract, but it I really think it should have been.

Because I know for a fact that I spend at least seventy-five percent of my day as a Theology teacher in a Catholic high school answering one question, endlessly, day after day, year after year.

Why go to Mass?

They could have at least warned me.

All it would have taken was one little clause:

“Employee agrees to dedicate from one-half to three-quarters of her teaching time discussing why sitting in one’s room and thinking vague thoughts about God while watching a tape of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not an adequate alternative for attending Mass.”

And I don’t mind, really I don’t. After eight years of doing this and now dealing with two teenagers living under my very own roof who ask the same question, I’ve got the answers down pat and can dismiss my students at the bell confident that they have at least a hazy sense that maybe going to church next Sunday wouldn’t be a complete waste of their time.

I only wish the Church could give me a little help here. Just a bit.

For no matter how hard I try, however eloquent, dynamic or (at desperate moments) guilt-inducing I may be on Friday afternoon, on Monday morning, my arguments have fallen flat and sunk into the muck, idealistic words overwhelmed by a depressingly powerful reality:

Sunday Mass at the parish.

There are, I understand from what I read in cheery features in the Catholic press, parishes that are “alive” and “vibrant,” mythic places where the pews are spilling over with youthful joyous faces of the Future of the Church.

I’m beginning to wonder if they’re not just making it all up.

They must be.

Because by the time my Catholic high school students in my little part of the world reach me as seniors, if I were to take a poll on any given Monday (and I have), out of a class of twenty, perhaps five had attended Mass the previous weekend.

There are a lot of reasons, much studied by the “experts” in pastoral ministry.

Adolescents are marginalized in parishes. Catholic churches don’t put enough resources into youth ministry. Homilies are over their heads. The poor babies feel (gulp) left out. They’re rebelling. They’re busy.

Sometimes to all of that. But underlying teenager’s complaints about how they “don’t get anything out of going to Mass” is the same experience that drives adults away in droves - including many friends of mine, most of whom have gone through periods of being very “active” in faith, but now, well out of that emotional, post-conversion, post-Cursillo or whatever high, find themselves barely able to drag themselves to church on Sunday.

The Latin Rite Roman Catholic liturgy as it’s offered in most American parish at the very end of the twentieth century is so stunningly, astonishingly trivialized that it is indeed, taken on the surface, a stultifying, uninspiring and even faith-sapping experience.

This was Easter Sunday Mass at my parish this year.

First, the setting. It’s a beautiful new church - barely a year old. The environment is spare, but flawless. Everything works.

There’s no excuse for anything less than a prayerful, joyous liturgy here, even if it is 7:30 in the morning.

The church is packed with the usual Easter crowds along with the normal padding of snowbirds who’ve been with us since after Thanksgiving and will fly back up to Michigan and New Jersey next week.

I have no doubt that even those of us who’ve come out of no more than a sense of obligation and fulfillment of the Easter Duty have brought hearts open and ready to be touched by God.

We’ve come with our joys. We carry new babies and stand with people we love. We’re filled with gratitude for health and love and life itself.

We’ve carried our sorrows with us here as well. We are alone because of divorce and death. We grieve for children on self-destructive paths. We struggle with alcohol or live with those who do. We watch our own health slip away and death approach. With Jesus, we have confronted death, and we are wondering, hoping - is there resurrection for us too, beyond our sorrows, beyond this darkness?

And we are ready - all of us - to have someone point to what is in our midst and say - there it is - the peace you yearn for - everlasting Love given to you in what looks to be but mere bread and wine - gift, pure gift- questions answered, wounds healed, loneliness vanished and death of every sort conquered.

But what is it we hear on this day?

A priest stands up to preach. He reminds us that it is Easter. That Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. He asks us if we believe in Jesus. Yes, the congregation answers wanly. He asks if we accept him as our personal savior. Yes, we respond a bit more strongly. Do you love him? Yes, again. I wonder if at any moment, Tinkerbell is going to rise, revived and twinkling from behind his robes.

It being Easter, we’re now ready to renew our baptismal vows.

At the end, the priest thrusts misallette he has been using as his reference in leading us in the vows high up in the air.

“This is our faith - “ he says, waving the misallette like he’s bidding at an auction.

I am struck by the symbolic power of the book in his hands - it is red and flimsily and flops weakly in his grasp. This is our faith....we are proud to profess it.

Mass continues. We are in the liturgy of the Eucharist, now, which doesn’t have much room for improvisation, and therefore, damage, so we are blessed.

Up until the Communion meditation song, of course.

The cantor - a middle aged man with a pleasant voice - has centuries of Catholic musical heritage to select from for this celebration, including some very good contemporary compositions of depth and beauty. His choice, warbled along with an organ accompaniment, is nothing else but one of the classic 1970’s youth group- holding hands - end of retreat monstrosities called Pass it On:

It only a takes a spark to get a fire going
That’s how it is with God’s love
Once you’ve experienced it
You want to pass it on.....

At the end of Mass, the priest does a very odd thing. He asks us to stand and raise our right arms in a gesture of blessing - a practice that’s become increasingly popular in Catholic churches and is distressing not only because of its questionable theology, but also because the net effect of the sight of a thousand people, right arms stretched forward seems unsettlingly -well - fascist, to put it bluntly.

Father then - and please remember this is Easter Sunday - plants himself in front of the altar and says,

“I would like you to bless me. Please pray silently as I speak”

“Jesus, I love you. I recommit myself to your service. I believe you are my savior. I love you.”

The Theology teacher splits before the closing song even begins.

Lest we forget, the Passion Sunday liturgy of the previous week had ended on a similarly bizarre note. After the celebration marking the beginning of this holiest of weeks, following the lengthy reading of the Passion of the Lord, at the end of Mass, before the final blessing, the local Boy Scout Pack leader lumbered up to the podium and called up Scouts to receive awards, followed by a school representative who reminded us that there was still plenty of time to shell out a hundred bucks for a ticket to the spring fund-raiser.

Go in Peace.

No wonder my students don’t want to go to Mass.

Sometimes I don’t either.

This year, I have begun taking my students to a Benedictine monastery about 30 miles away for their days of recollection. It’s not a big monastery, and it is, in comparison to say, Gethsemani, rather informal.

But we take our vans up there, I preach at the kids, give them some activities, preach some more, let them “discuss,” and then take them to noontime Mass in the monastery chapel.

It is by far the most memorable part of the day for them.

And mind you, this is not any high liturgy we’re talking about here. It’s in a beautiful little stone church, the monks straggle in as the bells ring, there’s not a lot of chant, but when they do sing, their voices are clear and strong and unwavering.

After lunch, we gather before we leave to talk about the liturgy.

Almost all of them say they like what they’ve experienced much more than Sunday Mass at their parish.

“There’s not all that other stuff going on.”

“You could pray better.”

“The music was cool.”

And, unbelievably, on the last retreat a month ago, an eighth grader came out with this one:

“In church on Sunday, it’s like it’s about all about us or something. This was about God.”

What’s happened of course is that over the past thirty years, the central purpose of Catholic worship has been diminished to a tiny, insignificant speck in a sea of concerns about community building, lay ministry, liturgical language, battles over music and statues and yet more community building.

That speck is Eucharist.

That’s what my students experience at the monastery. I love going to monasteries because, even though the monks are friendly, they really don’t care whether you’re there or not. There’s no need to welcome you and make you feel at home and involve you because that’s not what they’re there for, and they’re assuming you’re not either, so they treat you as a mature adult who doesn’t need to be manipulated and cajoled into religious experience.

They know that the only source of authentic community and vibrant, meaningful worship in the Catholic context is Eucharist.

This is what my students are experiencing, even though they can’t articulate it. In their lifetimes - my seniors were born in 1980 - church has been about everything else in the world except Eucharist.

My students - most of whom have attended Catholic schools since kindergarten, have absolutely no sense that Eucharist is a reason for going to Mass, unless they were raised in a very religiously observant home. I get maybe one or two of those a year.

And, I maintain, it is not their fault.

They don’t want to go to Mass because they don’t, indeed get “anything out of it” in the way they’ve been taught to expect to benefit. Few parishes are Eucharist centered. Few priests preach any kind of meaningful spirituality, much less one with the presence of Jesus in Eucharist as a focus. These kids have been taught - by words, and more importantly by silence- that religion is basically an emotional response - either to good music, effective preaching, or a feeling of belonging to a community.

The problem is, they can find all those other things elsewhere - better music, preaching and youth groups in the Protestant churches, better community with a group of friends they’ve freely chosen. Further, even when they come, open and willing to be touched by God, we throw trivialities and distractions at them and everyone else.

This is, by the way, not about Latin, the Tridentine liturgy, statues or which way the priest faces. Before the reforms of Vatican II, Flannery O’Connor wrote of a man she knew who had converted to Catholicism because, he came to believe, Jesus must really be present in the Eucharist - otherwise, since the Catholic liturgy was regularly so dreadfully and mechanically done - no one would keep coming.

It is, as Thomas Day wrote in Why Catholics Can’t Sing, more about ego than anything else. The liturgical reforms, as they evolved, at least in our country, had the effect of putting ourselves- the presider, as well as the congregation - at the center of liturgy, pushing God enthusiastically out of the way with our own efforts at creativity and community building.

I’m here to testify that it didn’t work.

When I first started hearing that question - “Why go to Mass?” I understood it as nothing more than argumentative teenagers looking for a fight.

But now, after years of teaching, reading spiritual journals and listening to their very real struggles to find God, I hear the question much differently. I’ve come to see that these kids are like all of us. They’re asking because they want me to give them a reason to go- they know there must be, but it’s just not evident to them in their experience of parish liturgy. Why - they’re asking me - we see all those people, we know it connects us with Jesus - but how? Will someone please tell us so we can have it too?

Those Vatican II grandbabies are desperately hungry.

The tragic thing is, the nourishment they need to is right in front of them, but those of us with the power to share it with them are too busy feeding them trifles of our own creation to be of any help. It’s junk food that looks attractive for a moment, entertains and satisfies the egos of those in charge, but has left an entire generation empty, groping and vulnerable.

The feast is there, but we’re blocking their view of the table with our own arrogant presence, demanding that they bless us and our own shabby efforts instead, rather than trusting in the simple, profound gift God’s already given to do the work of grace in the joys and sorrows of our children’s lives.

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