So what is the Mass? What happens during this paradigmatic prayer? Why is it the beginning and culmination of what it means to be a Christian? In the course of this brief article, I will share just a couple of basic insights.
First, the Mass is a privileged encounter with the living Christ. Christianity is not a philosophy, ideology, or religious program; it is a friendship with the Son of God, risen from the dead. There is simply no more intense union with Jesus than the Mass. Consider for a moment the two major divisions of the Mass: the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. When we meet with another person in a formal setting, we typically do two things. We get together and talk, and then we eat. Think of the first part of Mass as an exchange, a conversation, between the Son of God and members of his mystical body. In the prayers and interventions of the priest, and especially in the words of the Scriptures, Jesus speaks to his people, and in the songs, responses, and psalms, the people talk back. There is, if you will, a lovely call and response between the Lord and those who have been grafted onto him through baptism. In the course of this spirited conversation, the union between head and members is intensified, strengthened, confirmed. Having talked, we then sit down to eat, not an ordinary meal, but the banquet of the Lord’s body and blood, hosted by Jesus himself. The communion that commenced with the call and response during the first part of Mass is now brought to a point of unsurpassed intensity (at least this side of heaven), as the faithful come to eat the body and drink the lifeblood of Jesus.
A second rubric under which to consider the Mass is that of play. We tend quite naturally to think of play as something less than serious, something frivolous and far less important than work. But nothing could be further from the truth. Work is always subordinated to an end beyond itself; it is for the sake of a higher good. So I work on my car that I might drive it; I work at my place of employment that I might make money; I work around the house so that it might be a more pleasant place to live, etc. But play has no ulterior motive, no end to which it is subordinated. Hence, I play baseball or watch golf or attend a symphony or engage in philosophical speculation or get lost in a sprawling novel simply because it is good so to do. These activities are referred to in the classical tradition as “liberal,” precisely because they are free (liber) from utility. When I was teaching philosophy years ago in the seminary, I would gleefully tell my students that they were engaging in the most useless study of all. Invariably they laughed—revealing the utilitarian prejudice of our culture—but I always reminded them that this meant the highest and most noble kind of study.
The Mass, as an act of union with the highest good, is therefore the supreme instance of play. It is the most useless and hence sublimest activity in which one could possibly engage. Recently, I had the privilege of attending the Mass for the installation of new members of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher. For the solemn liturgy, the Knights wore dashing capes emblazoned with the Jerusalem cross and jaunty black berets, while the ladies donned elegant black gowns, gloves, and lace mantillas. Two bishops, in full Mass vestments and tall mitres, welcomed the new members into the order by dubbing them on both shoulders with impressively large swords. As I watched the proceedings, I couldn’t help but think of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that children often dress up when they engage in their “serious play.” Capes, hats, ceremonial gloves, vestments, and swords for dubbing are all perfectly useless, which is precisely their point. So all of the colorful accouterments and stately actions of the Mass are part of the sublime play.
Why is the Mass so important? Why is it the “source and summit” of the Christian life? I could say many more things in answer to these questions, but suffice it to say for the moment that it is the most beautiful encounter between friends and that it is an anticipation of the play that will be our permanent preoccupation in heaven.
My prayer is that, if the cause of Black Elk moves forward, we might one day invoke him as a real icon for catechists in the Catholic Church. There is an army of volunteers across our country who give generously of their time to pass on the faith to our young people, but I wonder how many of these laborers in the vineyard of the Lord truly realize the sacredness of their task. Without good catechists, more and more of our young people will fall into secularism and indifferentism. And as these unaffiliated in ever greater numbers come of age, our society will be adversely affected, for Christian ideas and values will be less and less at play.
So what can catechists today take from the example of Nicholas Black Elk? First, they can commit themselves to the assiduous study of the faith. As I have argued before, huge numbers of the young identify intellectual problems and questions as the reasons they are leaving the faith: religion in relation to science, the existence of God, the objectivity of moral values, etc. Without smart catechists, the kids abandon the faith. It’s as blunt and as simple as that. My nephew, who is starting his first year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) this fall, went through religious education as he was coming of age. To be frank, he found the vast majority of his training superficial and remembers almost none of it. But one year stays in his mind. In his sixth grade religious education class, he had a catechist who had a master’s degree in theology and who took the young people, with some rigor, through a study of the Bible. Please don’t tell me that the kids can’t handle that sort of challenge; on the contrary, it’s what they remember—and savor.
To which I say, “Amen!” We badly need well-formed lay catechists!
Section 17 of Humanae vitae concludes with a startling act of prescience regarding the political implications of countenancing artificial contraception: “Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” What might have seemed exaggerated, perhaps even slightly paranoid, in 1968 is now a commonplace. The HHS Mandate, which would require even Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception and abortifacients, has been so aggressively pursued that even the Little Sisters of the Poor found themselves battling for their rights in court. Pope Francis, an ardent admirer of Paul VI, has picked up on this theme, bemoaning the “ideological colonization” that takes place when the Western powers attempt, through threat of economic sanctions, to impose their sexual program on the underdeveloped world.
As P.J. O’Rourke famously put it, our policy toward the developing world is “just enough of me, way too much of you”.
And he asks, very reasonably…
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