On Sundays, while my mother was alive, I would visit her after celebrating a parish Mass. She would usually greet me by asking, “How was church today?” With typical Irish wit (or brashness), I would reply, “He came, He died, He rose again – same as every week.”
Of course, she was wondering if the music was beautiful, how well the ministers served, and, especially, whether the preacher was any good that day! Aspects like these typically function as our rubric for determining the quality of the Mass. We use them to situate our liturgical experience on a continuum somewhere between the extremes of joyously uplifting and dreadfully boring.
The introduction of the third edition of the Roman Missal intended to enhance that quality. The new translations sought to render the language in a way befitting its sacred character, with more stylized phrasing and less commonplace vocabulary. Though parts remain uncomfortable to many an English ear, the words we now speak at Mass are becoming more familiar. Still, one wonders whether the changes improved or impeded our shared liturgical experience.
What's Meant by a Change of Heart?
At last month’s plenary assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Pope Francis addressed that question. He highlighted “the indispensable role the liturgy holds in the Church and for the Church,” reminding the participants that “The liturgy is in fact the main road through which Christian life passes through every phase of its growth.”
But the pope also noted “that it is not enough to change the liturgical books to improve the quality of the liturgy. … For life to be truly a praise pleasing to God, it is indeed necessary to change the heart. Christian conversion is oriented to this conversion, which is an encounter of life with the ‘God of the living’ (Mt 22:32).”
That conversion involves the whole of one’s life, as it draws from and contributes to worship of God. But it also entails a change of heart with regard, specifically, to our experience of the sacred liturgy. Recent research supports this need.
A Need for Conversion
Data from more than 122,000 respondents to The Disciple-Maker Index indicates the critical role that Mass plays in people’s estimation of parish life and its effect on their spiritual growth. The Sunday experience is a key driver in respondents’ sense of progress in the faith; those having a strongly positive experience are 1.8 times more likely to believe they are growing as disciples.
Yet the parish experience on Sundays appears to be wanting. Of the 55% of respondents who strongly agree that they would recommend their parish to a friend, only 59% of them strongly associate that with their Mass experience. Worse still, 90% of all respondents say they attend Mass weekly or more often, but only 37% of them strongly agree that the parish helps them grow spiritually by offering vibrant and engaging Sunday liturgies. This may explain why 31% of all respondents have never invited someone to join them for Mass in the past year, and 42% have done so only once or twice.
Conversion seems desperately needed. Where can we begin?
What’s Being Celebrated?
It would be easy to say we need better hymns and homilies – and we do! It would likewise be true that we can improve the quality of other liturgical aspects, from the sacred beauty of the environment to the functioning of all who minster there (cantors, lectors, servers, ushers, etc.).
But these elements do not touch upon the heart of the matter. For that, all of us – clergy and faithful, alike – need an inner conversion with respect to how we approach the Sunday experience.
The celebration of the event (i.e., the “staging” of the Mass) provides an important focus, but this limits the concern to what we do. Focusing, instead, on the event being celebrated shifts our regard to what God is doing for us.
What Awaits Us Each Week?
In this respect, every Mass is wondrously the same: through the power of the Holy Spirit, the “God of the living” speaks his Word of salvation and offers that to us through the most blessed sacrament that memorializes the death and resurrection of His Son. Every Sunday, as I tried to tell mom, Jesus comes again to be God-with-us.
When a parish approaches the liturgy in this way, it will be inspired to devote all the resources at its disposal to the celebration of vibrant and engaging Masses. And when each of us realizes that God’s saving presence is what awaits us in church each week, we can’t help but be uplifted.