The following article on the importance of Sunday Mass attendance is an excerpt from Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s Nov. 20 pastoral letter “Jesus’ Eager Desire: Our Participation in the Sunday Mass.” While it was written for the Catholics of the Boston archdiocese, the cardinal’s perspective on Sunday Mass as the family meal of Catholics applies to all the faithful.
Jesus’ Eager Desire: Our Participation in the Sunday Mass
Pastoral Letter –
Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley
November 20, 2011 – Solemnity of Christ the King
A. Introduction: Family Meals
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year. Every year so many of us willingly endure highway traffic jams and overcrowded airports because we want to be with family members on Thanksgiving, even when we know the turkey might be overcooked, the stuffing barely edible, and the conversation boring. Why? We go because we know our presence matters to our parents, siblings, family and friends — and we love them. We each witness to this love for each other when we are present at table for Thanksgiving and other milestones such as birthdays, anniversaries, baptisms, first holy Communions, weddings and funerals. Our presence is a sign to each other of the gift and the importance of family in our lives.
As a young priest preparing couples for marriage, I always stressed the importance of the family meal. I look back at my own childhood and recall how we gathered each evening for dinner — the children, my parents and my grandmother who lived with us. It was a time of lively exchange when we recounted both the sad and funny things that may have happened during the day. We shared ideas and aspirations. But most importantly, it was a time to share ourselves. Prayer was always part of the gathering with grace before meals and often the Rosary afterwards. As a child, I would rather have been many places, such as playing outside or visiting friends. And, as for the food, well, as they say, the shortest book in the world is the Irish cookbook: boil everything and serve the potato with it! Looking back, however, I realize that those dinners with the O’Malley clan are where we discovered our identity and forged bonds that have lasted a lifetime. There we shared our own stories, and our individual stories were woven in to a history that we shared together.
B. Jesus’ Eager Desire – Do This in Remembrance of Me
The Thanksgiving meal of our Catholic family occurs every Sunday. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word (eucharistia), which means “thanksgiving.” Jesus himself instituted this family tradition on the night before He died. When he gathered the disciples in the Upper Room for the Last Supper, he told them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover meal with you.”1
He taught them the importance of humble service through washing their feet. Then he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and through his divine power transformed it into his own body, blood, soul and divinity. He told them, “Whoever eats this bread and drinks this blood will have eternal life.” He then instructed them to, “Do this in memory of me.” Since that day almost 2,000 years ago, the church has carried out Jesus’ command.
Jesus’ eager desire is to celebrate this thanksgiving meal with every one of us each Sunday. We pray in many good and helpful ways but none equals the prayer that is the Sunday Mass. It is the one that Jesus implored us to do in his memory. As St. Paul wrote to the 1st century Christians of Corinth, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes.”
We live at a time when many people state that they are “spiritual but not religious.” If this is the way that you see your relationship with God, I am grateful that you are reading this letter. You recognize your hunger for God and want to have a relationship with God because he created you, redeemed you and loves you. Perhaps you have drifted over time from the regular practice of our faith or possibly you have made a conscious choice not to join our family each Sunday. Please know that you are missed. Jesus instituted the Eucharist and founded the church to gather his chosen people and to foster communion with him, and through him, communion with each other.
Our culture today promotes an unhealthy individualism that has certainly crept into the way some members of our Catholic family practice their faith. But Christian discipleship is never a solo flight; it is a lifelong family pilgrimage. At the heart of that adventure is the Eucharistic banquet where the Last Supper and Calvary become present.
Pope Benedict describes what happens at Mass in this way:
At the celebration of the Eucharist, we find ourselves in the ‘hour’ of Jesus. . . [and] this ‘hour’ of Jesus becomes our own hour; His presence in our midst. . . By making the bread into His Body and the wine into His Blood, He anticipates His death, He accepts it in His heart, and He transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside simply brutal violence — the crucifixion — from is within becomes an act of total self-giving love. . . In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world. . . Jesus can distribute His Body, because He truly gives Himself. . . The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, His own Flesh and Blood. We all eat the one bread, and this means that we ourselves become one.
Some people say, “Mass is boring” or “I don’t get anything out of it” or “I pray in my own way.” Consider for a moment how parents would feel if their children said similar things about the family celebration of Thanksgiving or a birthday party. “I don’t get anything out of the celebration” or “it’s boring” or “I’ll celebrate your birthday in my own way.” We would feel disappointed, incomplete, and certainly hopeful that the family would be fully reunited at the next gathering. Similarly, Jesus’ eager desire is to have us all present each Sunday for his thanksgiving meal.
C. Sunday Mass: A Great Hunger Throughout the Ages
The Eucharist is Jesus’ great gift to us, and the fulfillment of his promise to be with us always until the end of time. It is a central part of God’s saving plan of infinite love for us.
Many Catholics today seem to take the gift of the Sunday Mass for granted. It is a great sadness to me as spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Boston to note that, on any given Sunday, so many Catholics choose to be absent from Mass. It was not that long ago that almost all Catholics went to Sunday Mass unless they were sick or incapacitated.
In the early days of the Church, Christians did not enjoy the freedom of religion that we do today in the United States. They were regularly persecuted by the Roman authorities for attending Mass. Pope Benedict XVI often tells the story of the martyrs of Abitene (in modern-day Tunisia). In 303, 49 Christians suffered torture and martyrdom because they defied the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s order not to celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday. When asked why they had disobeyed the emperor, one of them said, “Sine dominico non possumus” — “Without Sunday, we cannot live.”
In fact, for nearly 2,000 years Christians have risked their lives to participate in Sunday Mass. During the Reformation in England, priests were martyred when caught offering Holy Mass for English Catholics. Courageous lay people who gave their homes over as places of Catholic worship, and who harbored priests, suffered torture and death.
The witness of saints in our own lifetime testifies to the tremendous price paid by some of our Catholic family for celebrating the Sunday Eucharist. In the past century, Catholics in former Communist countries like the Soviet Union or Vietnam were persecuted for practicing their faith. Today in places such as Egypt, China, North Korea, Iraq, Sudan and countless other areas, Catholics risk their lives and travel for hours to attend Sunday Mass. We give thanks to God that we do not have to put our lives in jeopardy to attend Mass at our local parish. We rejoice that, unlike those in poor areas, we do not have to walk for miles, over hills or on inadequate dirt roads to attend. The vast majority of us can walk safely down the street or make a short drive to arrive at our beloved parish. But the ease, convenience, and legality of the Mass should not cause us ever to lose sight that the Mass is so precious that many of our Catholic brothers and sisters around the world are braving great inconvenience and persecution to receive what we, by God’s love, have available near us.
In his first Holy Thursday letter to priests, Blessed Pope John Paul II touchingly recalled situations of the faith triumphing over persecution from his own personal experience of living under religious oppression:
Sometimes it happens that [the lay faithful] meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy: and then, at the moment that corresponds to the transubstantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob … so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a priest can efficaciously utter.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta often spoke about how precious each Mass is. Frequently she would instruct newly ordained priests to “celebrate each Mass as if it is your first Mass, your last Mass and your only Mass.” In other words, she implored priests never to take the celebration of the Mass for granted and let it become routine. I ask the same of every Catholic in the archdiocese. Just as we should be grateful for each day God grants us, let us anticipate and participate in each Mass as if it could be our last or our only Mass. Let us never take for granted the wonder that is the encounter we have with God each Sunday that we celebrate the Eucharist together.
D. Why Catholics Come to Mass
Sometimes we become fixated on the reasons Catholics give for skipping Sunday Mass. These are important and the church needs to hear these concerns and respond. However, it is equally important to focus on and share the many reasons why Catholics throughout the church’s history have come, and continue to come, with eager anticipation.
1. We desire to respond to God’s love
“God so loved the world that he sent his only son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus’ love for us led him to offer himself on the cross for our salvation. The same saving love of Jesus leads him to continue to give himself through the gift of the Eucharist.
The word “love” in English, particularly today, has been stripped of much of its beauty and meaning. It often is reduced to a “feeling.” In Greek, there are seven words for love and the word for the love God has for us, agape, connotes action, a self-gift. The love we want to have for God is a self-gift in return, of our time, energy, worries, hopes and joy. The Mass is the best place to thank God for the gifts besides Himself that He gives us — especially life, family, friends, faith and love.
2. We desire to encounter Christ in the most profound way possible
At Mass, eternity and time intersect. It is part of God’s plan of salvation that we would be able to meet him directly and receive his grace through the sacraments. Because he is all loving and truthful, we believe him when he and the church he founded teach that he is really present with us in the celebration of the Mass.
The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy explains that Christ is present to us in four ways during the celebration of Mass: (1) in the community celebrating; (2) in the Word proclaimed; (3) in the priest presiding; and (4) in the Eucharist.10 Dr. Tom Curran elaborated on these four forms of Christ’s presence at Mass in a way that is very helpful.
First, we encounter Christ in the community of the faithful. Each one of us is made in God’s image and likeness. The kindness we show each other in Jesus’ name is a way we show kindness to Jesus Himself. Also, by joining in the community of the faithful, we are included in Jesus’ prayer of thanks and praise to God the Father. It is a holy encounter with Jesus and with our fellow communicants.
Second, we encounter Christ in his Word. The readings proclaimed from sacred Scripture are truly the words of everlasting life and the letter from a loving God to his people. What is truly amazing is that, if we pray before Mass for guidance in a decision and we intently listen to the proclamation of Scripture and the homily, God will often speak to us in words we most need to hear.
Third, we encounter Christ in the priest. Jesus chose to have His sacrifice re-presented on the altar by an ordained priest or bishop. When the priest speaks in the first person during the Consecration, and says, “Take this, all of you and eat of it, for this is my body,” Jesus is speaking through him. He stands in the person of Christ, the Eternal High Priest. Through the priest, we are able to participate in the greatest event in history, the one that saved us from our sins and opened up the possibility of spending eternal life with God in heaven.
Fourth, and most importantly, we encounter Christ in the Eucharist. We take Jesus’ body and blood within us, and Jesus transforms us. We become one with him by receiving him in holy Communion, and through him, with each other.12
Because of these direct encounters with Christ at Mass, we seek to be active participants — not passive spectators — in listening to his Word, sharing in the Offertory, joining in the singing, and proclaiming a reverent “Amen” (“truly, I believe”) when we worthily approach to receive Jesus in the Eucharist.
3. We desire to gather and pray with our parish family
The celebration of Mass, like life, has vertical and horizontal dimensions. This parallels the great commandment, which instructs us to love God and then to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Christian life is a pilgrimage we make with our brothers and sisters in Jesus. Jesus set the example by gathering all the Apostles at the Last Supper instead of having a dozen individual meals. God foresaw from all eternity that we would be placed in our particular community at this particular time and that discipleship is lived in friendship and fraternity with those for whom and with whom we pray at each Sunday Mass. Our presence to each other is a symbol of our solidarity and unity with God and with each other. It is the fullest expression of our Christian identity.
Liturgy means, “work of the people.” The greatest work we will do each week is to worship God and pray for, and with, our parish family.
4. We desire to strengthen our particular family
Father Patrick Peyton, the great “Rosary Priest,” instructed us, “The family that prays together, stays together.” He advocated praying a family rosary daily. In the same way, I recommend that attending and praying at the Sunday Mass together will strengthen your family to confront the various challenges today that often tear families apart.
During the sacrament of baptism, parents are reminded that they are called to be the first and best teachers of their children in the ways of faith. Knowing that the Mass is Catholicism’s central prayer and that it is the source and summit of Christian life, we teach our children and grandchildren one of the most important lessons of all when we attend Mass with them.
Recently I attended a dinner at which the principal of one of our local Catholic high schools was being honored. In his remarks he said: “I grew up in a family where going to Mass on Sunday was about as optional as breathing.” Many of us in the audience could identify with those words — it was not a matter of authoritarian parents or social pressure, but rather a sense of how important the Sunday Eucharist was for our family identity and survival. To miss Mass is to stop breathing; it is the sure path to a spiritual asphyxiation.
The rest of Cardinal O’Malley’s pastoral letter on Sunday Mass participation can be found at www.bostoncatholic.org/Pastoral-Themes/Feature-Story.aspx?id=22302