By Frank Wessling
If you’re Catholic you go to Mass every Sunday. That’s a law of the church.
Masses can be celebrated Saturday evening in “anticipation” of the Sunday feast, so the obligation is fulfilled that way, also. But Sunday or Saturday evening, Catholics are expected to show up for Mass. Missing Mass without good reason is a sin, which means it hurts us.
This part of being Catholic isn’t often expressed in such blunt terms any more. Maybe it should be – not to judge or condemn, but to get attention for some vital truth. The Mass is an experience that feeds Catholic muscle just as dancing feeds dancing muscle and running feeds running muscle.
Father William Dawson, veteran philosophy teacher at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, has laid out five ways we miss important nourishment when we miss Mass. He did this most recently in a homily at St. Anthony’s in Davenport on one of those Sundays when Jesus in the Gospel readings from John was promising that he would be food for those who stay with him.
What happens at Mass to nourish the spirit?
First, we are fed by the presence of others, all kinds of others, old and young, light skinned and dark skinned, male and female, lame and frisky, quiet and outgoing, those easy to like and the difficult ones. We aren’t alone. Each of these persons, like us, brings what they are and simply lets that be an offering before God.
As Father Ron Rolheiser pointed out in his column last week, there is a profound equality expressed in the community gathered for Mass, where all distinctions of rich and poor, powerful and weak are left at the door and everyone walks together to the Lord’s table for food.
Second, in church and in the Mass we can get in touch with the deepest part of ourselves. We can allow the faith in and around us to have its way for the moment, along with the hope and the love. The spirit that we keep tamped down so much in ordinary life can speak and sing during Mass.
Third, we are nourished by the Word. The life of God is heard in the words of men planted in us like a classic story that feeds our souls. It’s not like the news, good for the day but then part of the past. This is Word that roots deep in the imagination so it is always present while we grow and change and feel its meaning in new ways.
Fourth, we are nourished by the Eucharist, by the body and blood of Jesus offered to the Father and gift to us. Since the natural response to a gift is gratitude, we need regular involvement in the Eucharist to keep gratitude at the front of our response to life. A sour, ungrateful Christian is a contradiction in terms.
Fifth, the culmination of these nourishing streams is a realization that we are desired and desirable. God wants us. God pursues us. We are worth infinite attention and value. We are so important that we can even carry God’s presence and do God’s work.
The rule that Catholics should gather weekly for the celebration of Mass may seem easy to ignore because the quality of that celebration varies so much. We may get the idea that the human quality is a measure of its value: good ritual, good music, good preaching equals good Mass while poor quality equals poor and devalued Mass.
A poorly done celebration can certainly distract us, allow the charge of “boring!” and make it harder to gain those nourishing experiences, but they are still there to be had. That’s why the church expects us to make our own serious effort to grow through regular participation. Any poor quality is on the conscience of the ministers of the liturgy.
But we the members of the community are the ones hurt most when we don’t even show up. That remains most important.