The Mass — Is it still the Same?

The Mass — Is it still the Same? October 26, 2019
A Communion minister places the consecrated host into waiting hands.
Catholic experience of Communion today (and of the Mass as a whole) is different from the days before liturgical reform.

If you’re a traditionalist Catholic looking at the modern Mass, you might think the liturgical reforms changed the Mass beyond recognition. But let’s try to imagine a more neutral observer. My imaginary observer is going to be an alien from another planet. This being will have superb powers of observation, including the ability to read minds. He/she/it/they came to earth in the early ‘60’s and happened to take in a Catholic Mass. A certain Jack Hartjes was there. Returning 50 some years later “she” (to simplify things)  found the same Jack Hartjes worshiping at another, but somewhat different, Mass.

This is the first in a series that will take a look at the way the Mass is celebrated in Catholic churches today.

After about half a century, most Catholics have gotten used to the new way of celebrating the Mass. Its new features don’t startle us anymore. In fact, we either don’t know or don’t think about the way the Mass used to be. But, as an older Catholic, I find that having a past to compare our liturgies to helps me see better what we’re doing today. This series on the Mass will take advantage of that double perspective.

A look inside one believer

My imaginary alien with the special powers of observation peers inside the Catholic that I was just as he’s getting up from the Communion rail. What does she see? The host is still on his tongue.  The worshiper is having a little trouble swallowing that host, without chewing it, of course. That wouldn’t be reverent. He’s remembering what he was taught—that the real presence of Jesus remains just as long as the host maintains the appearance, the outward properties, of bread. He’s wondering, “What if the host dissolves in my mouth? Is Jesus still there, and will I still have received Communion if he isn’t?”

Getting back to his pew, having successfully swallowed the host, he kneels in silent contemplation. He’s trying to keep his mind on Jesus, who will be really with him for whatever seconds or minutes it takes to digest that host. (It’s a small, thin wafer, designed seemingly to guarantee that the real presence of Jesus lasts as short a time as possible. Or else it’s just economical.)

Same believer, older now

Liturgical reform has changed the experience of receiving Communion. My imaginary observer, on her second tour of earth notices the difference. This time the worshiper receives a larger host and chews it before swallowing. He still believes in the Real Presence of Jesus as bread, especially as reserved in the tabernacle. But he doesn’t think chewing is irreverent. He doesn’t concern himself with a scientific question like how long ingested bread stays bread. He has a more expansive Real Presence in mind, the presence of Jesus in the assembly’s sharing of a meal. Instead of privately meditating, he joins the other worshipers in song.

Memory can be an exercise in nostalgia, but there is good reason to think back on the details of our pre-Vatican II experiences. Those details and the way they have changed with liturgical renewal show in what ways our understanding of the celebration has changed. Remembering the changes can help us notice things about today’s liturgy that might otherwise be taken for granted. Finding the reasons why these things changed can help us understand Eucharist better.

The new Mass and the old, briefly

Coming posts in this series will examine each of the major parts of the Mass. It will be as if seeing through the eyes of that imaginary observer. She is not accustomed to seeing things like this, but she remembers what she saw 50 years ago. It looks like a change from

  • individual piety to communal celebration,
  • attendance to participation,
  • small symbolic objects to large symbolic actions,
  • respite from last week and preparation for the next week of life in the world to the actual work of enacting harmony and unity in the world now.

Is this a new Mass, or is it simply the Mass, showing more clearly to Catholics and to the world, which just might be watching, how God’s Kingdom becomes real in the world?

Image credit: “Liturgical Reflections” blog

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  • MurphsLaw

    And your alien no doubt could see that…..but what about others aliens? My alien would also see apples and oranges Mass too….like….

    -Personal Atonement through Sacred tradition to an inattentive laity, boring liturgy where I ultimately decide what is important in my Faith.

    -Adoration and Worship of the Resurrection tracing back to the ancient to an entertaining social hour controlled by a select few parish “club” members imposing their will on the Mass.

    -Reverence to a Real in the Presence Eucharist to feel good symbolic and secular thinking of I’m Ok now, your Ok…and The Eucharist is just a symbol

    A Mass to drawn you deeper into and closer to God through The Eucharist to making sure you remember to be part of secular world harmony- even if making everyone “happy” disregards what Christ told us….

    Can one alien be more wrong than the other?

  • fritzpatrick

    You have a point, though your experience of liturgy seems to be rather unfortunate. Anyway, that’s not where I’m going in the coming posts. My alien will be viewing a more or less ideal liturgy. I’m not so much interested in the ever-present all-too-human as in what liturgy means how liturgical reform fosters that meaning.

  • MurphsLaw

    Nor should you go that direction….. Liturgy, in my opinion should “foster” growth as it’s fruit… If the Church exists to bring people into Christ, then it’s Liturgy should be a means to grow those unto higher levels. Meaning is too relative an animal to chase….. and moot if meaning becomes priority.
    Growth is what God wants from us…. From our animal form to be re-clothed into something greater…. Liturgy, the Sacraments the Mass are functions that aid in that growth….or are even necessary for it. We cannot become more like Christ, and stay as we are. The state of the “new Mass” has proven its inability to sustain growth in the face of modern secular culture. We (The Church) are losing that fight. And regardless if there are those who want the Church to lose in the end, and there are, meaning becomes secondary to the reality.
    I say this as someone who had been lost in a dark wood once…..and now see another tree line fast approaching.

  • Bev Mabry

    I’m similar insofar as having been away for many years and have returned … and now thinking maybe I need to attend one of the 2 Latin Masses in my area. and, after the recent Synod, I fear for the Church as a whole. I loath that we have to greet each other while preparing for Communion: it is extremely distracting from the reverence of preparing for Communion. I keep trying to sit away from people so I can avoid it. I think I’ll try the cry room.

  • fritzpatrick

    A lot of people think that this gesture of peace is another greeting. If so, it’s funny that it comes here instead of at the beginning. Actually it’s a gesture of “making peace,” of reconciliation, of coming together from all our distances. It really is appropriate at Communion, during which Jesus reconciles us to himself and each other.