Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
With Independence Day celebrations just behind us, the idea of freedom has been very much on my mind. In the spiritual life, we know that true freedom is a gift with which we are endowed by our Creator. We lose our freedom through sin. Because sin is contrary to God’s plan for us, contrary to our very nature, it actually becomes a limit on our freedom. Through a lively, healthy relationship with God, we find freedom from sin and that the appeal of sin begins to fade. Furthermore, as our love for Jesus Christ deepens, we experience freedom in a profound way. From the outside looking in, some might think that Christians are limited by many rules and regulations. But, in fact, to know Jesus is to know total freedom and joy. An ancient letter to Diognetus describes Christians in this way: “They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life.”
I was asked once by a friend who is a Protestant minister if I ever felt limited by the Mass. He is accustomed to arranging the worship of his community each week, and the idea that the prayer of the Mass is prescribed was somewhat foreign to him. The conversation was fascinating, as he came to appreciate the value of our formal worship and I came to appreciate the effort he made in leading his community in worship. My answer, though, never changed. Very simply, my answer is no – I have never felt limited by the Mass. On the contrary, in celebrating Mass, I find a great sense of freedom. The structure of the liturgy, the prescribed prayers and readings, the proper music called for in the liturgical texts…all this actually sets me free to pray the Mass without worrying if I have made a good or bad choice, to pray the Mass without wondering if I’m doing it correctly. More importantly, with every Mass, I know that I pray in union with the Church throughout the world. Many spiritual writers, philosophers, and theologians have compared Mass to “play.” Bishop Robert Barron is one of the most vocal contemporary voices for this image. A game is played well when we follow the rules. Following the rules gives us a sense of real freedom. Further, play is something done entirely for its own sake. Ask any child why they are playing and they won’t be able to pinpoint a specific reason. Ask a child psychologist, and they will tell you of the immense value of play in a child’s social, intellectual, and physical development. If the Mass is play, then by our “playing” correctly, we will not only experience great freedom, we will also grow and develop in our life of faith.
As Fr. Tim mentioned in his column last week, I have been learning to celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form. I have been particularly struck by the richness of the prayers and gestures, and how this form of the Mass helps me to better understand the Ordinary Form. Far from feeling limited, I feel like I have been given freedom to explore a territory previously unknown to me. The church nerd in me is thrilled. To experience Mass differently at my age and after 11 years of priestly ministry is an unexpected surprise and spiritual gift. As I experience it, I am also becoming more aware that the chance to understand the Mass differently and more profoundly is available to each and every one of us. All that is required is an open heart and mind and an interest in understanding the gift of the Mass more. In the coming weeks, I would like to begin hosting an informal discussion about the Mass on Monday evenings. Stay tuned for details. As we go through these summer months, may we all come to understand the freedom provided to us by the Mass, and how the Mass can lead us deeper in the freedom granted us by the merciful love of Jesus Christ!