I wrote last time about attending Mass for the third time and how I experienced it differently after reading and learning more about the Mass and the Catholic faith. I found Mass to be incredibly beautiful, breath-taking even, and experienced it much differently than I had ever experienced it before.
I wanted to write more, much more, but I calmed myself down, poured a cup of tea, and broke that post up into two. So, in this post, the second, I want to piggyback on the experience I had going back to Mass and tell you what I learned at Mass, after I learned about Mass.
The first thing I learned at Mass is that the Mass is reverent.
I’d read about the Mass, the structure and the form, so I knew what to expect and when. I knew most of the things I was supposed to say and do and it wasn’t as foreign and flabbergasting as it was when I attended the first two times. What I learned, however, was that the Catholic Mass holds an exceptional reverence for all things holy. A reverence I have never experienced before.
First there is the genuflection. At Mass, before a Catholic sits down in the pew they’re supposed to genuflect, bow down on the right knee, in the direction of the altar. Why the ritual? Because Catholics believe Jesus is present in the tabernacle, where the Eucharistic bread is kept. Historically, people genuflected when coming into contact with people in places of authority like kings, queens, and emperors. In our society, the genuflection is kept intact, outside of the Catholic church, when a man drops to one knee to propose, it’s a sign of honour and respect.
To sit in a pew and watch hundreds of Catholics file into Mass, each genuflecting to show honour and respect to Jesus, was astounding.
But Catholics also bow. Whenever a priest, deacon, altar helper, or layperson passes by the altar at the front and centre of the church they bow. As I watched and participated in the unfolding of my third-ever Mass I was equally astounded by how often people were bowing. As the priest crossed the front of the church, he bowed. When the altar helpers crossed the front of the church, they bowed. So many folks moving back and forth throughout the Mass, bowing.
Catholics bow to the altar as a sign of reverence for the sacrificial act of Jesus, which is re-presented in the Eucharist and takes place on the altar. Imagine the altar as a present-day re-presenting of the cross. This is held in such high esteem and respect that in just passing it a Catholic bows. To watch this take place, over and over again, to see such reverence and respect was incredible.
As a Protestant worshipping in a non-denominational church for most of my Protestant life I found this reverence to be awe-inspiring and, with all respect, something we do not even begin to grasp at in the faith tradition I was raised in.
The second thing I learned at Mass is that the Mass is reflective.
Although I’d read plenty about it, I was struck by just how many times, throughout the Mass, there were opportunities to pause, pray, and reflect. It occurs so often and begins the minute we enter the sanctuary. There, at all entrances, are dishes of holy water. The blessed water is applied to the forehead as Catholics make the sign of the cross in remembrance of their baptism. Before even entering into the service of the Mass, Catholics are already remembering what brought them there—their history, how God saved them, their journey. It’s incredibly reflective, right from the get-go.
I was astonished, too, at how often in the Mass there are opportunities for private, prayerful reflection and how powerful that could be when surrounded by hundreds of others doing the exact same thing.
The Mass also allows Catholics a chance to reflect on their faith with the recitation of the Nicene Creed. The Creed reminds us, Catholics and Protestants alike, what we believe in the form of an ancient apologetic tradition—and allows us to reflect on that. In other higher-church Protestant denominations like Lutherans and Anglicans, the Creeds form a more central part of their worship. As a non-denominational Protestant, I’ve said the Creed maybe half a dozen times in church.
On a Sunday morning at most Protestant churches that I’ve been to there’s an opportunity to shake hands and say ‘hi’ with the people around you. It’s only polite. Sometimes, although rarely, there are opportunities for prayer requests from the congregation to be read out. In the nominally Pentecostal church I grew up in the faith in, these requests were relegated to a Sunday evening service or mid-week service. On a Sunday, rarely, a personal prayer request might be read out by the pastor or he’d sneak a personal political chide into his opening prayer.
Mass does both of these things only, in my opinion, better.
At Mass there’s a chance for the “sign of peace” where you wish those around you, “Peace be with you,” or exchange a holy kiss. This comes straight from the epistles of Paul, and is still being done today. Rather than just saying “hi” you’re actually wishing that someone would have peace in their lives—meant sincerely, this is like saying, “I’m praying you’d experience peace.” It’s pretty profound.
Likewise, at Catholic Mass there’s an actual opportunity to put forth prayer requests and intentions that the priest can read to the whole group assembled. At my third-ever Mass we prayed for peace in the Middle East, for our domestically fallen soldiers, for those that were ill. We prayed for them by name and the congregation responded, “Lord, hear our prayers.” Not only is the priest himself praying—which also takes place in the Protestant services I’ve experienced—but we are praying too. The hundreds of us. I’d read about this, to be sure, but to experience it is something else.
For all the reading and study one can do, for all the talking and thinking and reflecting, it’s another thing entirely to experience a Catholic Mass. We all come with preconceived notions. Before reading and studying, before really learning about Catholicism, I dismissed it as a plethora of dusty rituals and rites. I’ve learned a lot since then. Catholicism is a religion with Christ at it’s centre, and with a lot of good and holy things that point to him.
If part of my mission with The Cordial Catholic is to politely and clearly explain the Catholic faith then I need to make this abundantly clear. My aim is not to say, “Look, the Mass is so much better than an evangelical Protestant church service.” My goal is to explain what I’ve learned, and then what I’ve experienced.
What I learned at Mass after learning about the Mass was that it’s beautifully reverent. At Mass I experienced a reverence for Jesus Christ that I had not, absolutely, ever experienced elsewhere. Were all Catholics in the pews next to me equally amazed and reverent? I don’t know, nor is it my business, but the opportunity exists for that reverence, it’s built in, right there, and you can take it if you want. I also experienced opportunity for reflection that we seldom allow for in the evangelical Protestant church services I’ve been a part of. How often do we enter the church, reflect on our faith journey, and spend time just privately praying? And, finally, I experienced a community of people and prayer.
This last point is the most difficult.
As I move towards Catholicism I inevitably move away from a faith tradition in which all of my friends and family find their roots. I move away from a community that I’ve long been a part of—that I can deeply relate to and worship within. I find this very difficult. But it was bolstering to find a community, at Mass, that genuinely cared about each other and that raised up each other’s intentions and prayer requests. That actively interceded for one another. This, as I said, is something often relegated to the background in the Protestant traditions I’ve been a part of.
What I learned about the Mass after I learned about the Mass was a lot, and it was eye-opening, even after all the reading and studying I’ve done, to experience it.