Once when I was in Westminster Cathedral in London for Mass a homeless man came up the center aisle. At the transept he fell prostrate and then on the hard marble floor he crept up on his belly making slow and painful progress to the foot of the altar. After lying prostrate for a time a server came and helped him up and away.
Then I remembered a Baptist who said to a friend of mine after the doctrine of transubstantiation was explained to him, “Well, if I believed what you say you believe, then I would fall on my face as soon as I stepped into any Catholic Church and would crawl to the altar.”
Are you concerned about reverence at Mass? So am I. Sadly, the discussion too often ends up not being about reverence, but about rubrics and self righteousness. “Oh Father you really must say Mass in this form or that form. You really must have this kind of server and this sort of music and that sort of architecture and those sorts of vestments. I simply do not accept that one form of words automatically makes a celebration of Mass reverent and another form of words does not, and those who are convinced that this form or that form is magically better and more reverent are fooling themselves and (understandably for we all do this) falling into the error of thinking that what they experience as reverent must be so for everyone else and that anyone who doesn’t have those same preferences must be second class or simply wrong.
G.K.Chesterton said every argument is a theological argument. Here is where we must agree: the real reason for lack of reverence at Mass is the erosion and eventual abandonment of a real, solid and actual belief in the Real Presence of the Body Blood Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. Behind this is an even more insidious abandonment of the Catholic faith–a gradual ignorance of and denial by neglect of all the cardinal doctrines of the faith from which a belief in the real presence is derived: that is to say, the central beliefs of the Immaculate Conception, the Incarnation and Virgin Birth, the Atoning Work of Christ on the Cross of Calvary, the Resurrection and Ascension into Glory and the Hope of his coming again.
The real reason for lack of reverence at Mass is because huge numbers of Catholics just don’t believe that stuff. They’ve never been taught it (except in some vague theoretical manner which implied that it was all some ancient system of symbolism) If they have been taught it they’ve forgotten it. They never hear it preached from the pulpit and they’ve never been fully catechized. If priests and people really believed that Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, who really took human flesh and died for the redemption of the human race and who really rose again on the third day and left a sacrament of the memorial of his suffering and death to be re presented by his mystical body the Church, why then, like the homeless man in Westminster Cathedral and my Baptist friend, there would suddenly be reverence in church.
The real reason why so many Catholic masses are irreverent and why people come to Mass chewing gum wearing flip flops and T shirts and skimpy shorts and sing shallow hymns to saccharine music is because to many of them simply don’t believe the Catholic faith. If the priests and people really believed what we say we believe, why then, Mass would be reverent immediately because the reverence is not something produced like some ecclesiastical stage production: “Do it with these words and these gestures and stand this way and you will produce the emotion called reverence.”
I think rather that reverence is something we bring to worship based on what we believe is happening there. It is not something we experience because of external forms. Oh, yes, the external forms may amplify and enable the reverence we bring to worship, but if we do not bring that reverence with us (which is, of course a gift of grace) we will not find any form of worship to be truly reverent. Indeed, if we are not careful, we may find that instead of reverence all we experience is self righteousness.
And then we’re really in trouble.