Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In the Mass, the Church invites us to a conscious and active prayer, while simultaneously reminding us that the act of participating in liturgical worship is itself a participation in “sacred mysteries.” In every Mass, we encounter something of the tension between that which we understand and can fully comprehend, and that which is mysterious and unknown. How is it that the Mass is meant to be something in which we participate, while it is also something that we may not always understand?
It’s important here to clarify what is meant by “participation” and what is meant by “understanding.” Participation refers primarily to our presence and interior disposition, and less to our external action or speech (though those are both legitimate and important elements of participation). Understanding refers primarily to our knowledge of what is happening and less to our comprehension of every word spoken. An example: in high school, I went on a class trip to Quebec and we attended Mass in French. Only a handful of the group took French class (I took Spanish) and so most of us could not comprehend anything that was said during Mass. But lack of verbal comprehension, I realized, did not prevent me from participating, nor did it prevent me from understanding. I participated by being at Mass, by praying interiorly, by following the cues of the French-speaking congregation so I could sit, stand, and kneel when appropriate. I understood the Mass by virtue of my experience-based knowledge of what happens at Mass: Jesus is made present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity on the altar, the community of believers gathers together to worship, and grace is poured out in abundance. Even though I would not have been able to describe it in those terms, I knew that I was participating, I knew that I understood.
Now the tension. There was yet something I did not understand, something in which I could not participate. The mystery of the Mass became more evident when my linguistic comprehension was taken away. I was unable to do anything (other than sit, stand, and kneel). But I realized I didn’t have to. What was necessary was a bare minimum: I was physically present, I was awake, and I knew that I was at Mass and so I prayed accordingly. That bare minimum, though, should never be satisfactory. And it was not for me that day. So began a time in my life when I desired more than ever to know what was happening at Mass, and to be in a position to participate and understand ever more fully.
In the years that followed, I had many opportunities to learn about the Mass. My understanding increased. I learned to speak other languages (in fact, it was attending Mass in Spanish that helped me grasp why the subjunctive verb tense exists!), which allowed me to comprehend more. I was exposed to singing the parts of the Mass in Latin on occasion. With each linguistic twist, I found my understanding of the spiritual foundations of the Mass growing in breadth. I found certain prayers of the Mass as expressed in non-English languages more profound. And simultaneously, the mystery was ever more present to me. The mystery of what we celebrate at the altar, the unity we have with believers throughout the world, the fact of the presence of Jesus Christ…all became more evident the more I experienced the positive tension between conscious participation and absolute mystery.
A few years ago, I had the chance to go to Lourdes, France. There, I concelebrated at a Mass in the underground Basilica of St. Pius X. Surrounded by priests speaking a variety of languages, I wondered what the Mass would be like. Readings were proclaimed in several languages, the homily was simultaneously translated on a big screen, and then we reached the Eucharistic Prayer. Gathered around the altar, hundreds of priests together prayed the words of consecration in Latin. Using the Church’s language, all of us from every corner of the world were able to pray together. Every person gathered for the Mass was able to pray along, even if they did not know the language. For we knew what was happening, we knew the action. When we came face-to-face with our limitations, we knew that we had really come face-to-face with the mystery of God, the Mystery of Faith that unites us in Christ. The tension of the Mass was beautiful.
I would like to invite you to dive deeper into the Mass, especially during the Lenten season. We will offer a special study series every Tuesday evening in Lent, using Bishop Robert Barron’s The Mass as our guide. Each session will include a video presentation from Bishop Barron, followed by discussion and Q&A, and will last approximately 90 minutes. The cost of $25 covers a workbook for each participant and gives you online access to the videos. Information about registering is available in this bulletin. I hope you’ll join us!