Discussion: the future of the Sunday Mass
1. The need for participation
Most homilies and sermons are not memorable because they do not connect with people’s real lives and actual concerns. Visit a megachurch and listen to how preachers connect scriptures and relationship problems, social issues and local concerns. Those churches grow because their preachers understand the spiritual needs of their members.
Contrary to what liturgists and theologian tell us, the meaning of any ritual is not found in the words of the ritual but in the life experiences of the participants. In the case of a ritual performance, this includes the audience, and in the case of a liturgy, this includes the assembly. A Sunday mass, for example, is meaningful to the extent that people are involved in the life of the parish. If they are not involved, the performance cannot be very meaningful—unless, like a play, the performance resonates with experiences and concerns of the audience.
Joseph Martos, Louisville, Kentucky, firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Participation by singingJoseph Martos is right: if people are not involved in the local parish community then the Mass will not mean much. We stress "meaning" too much: I do not sing the Mass music because it is meaningful; it is meaningful because I sing it. So the emphasis is on the Body and Doing (singing), not the theology of the song or text. I have now attended 38 Masses and took notes on the music: there was little participation because we never sang the same hymn twice.
The three great moments of collective engagement or collective effervescence were the response to the General Intercessions, the Our Father, and the Lamb of God because it was the same music every week. Simple: they participated if they knew the music or the words. Most people could not tell you the theology of the text—they didn't care—it was meaningful because they could sing it.
My parish has two hymnals with over 1500 songs–crazy I think. We need to be more radical about the ritual elements of Mass so that the assembly can know music BY HEART.
Michael McCallion, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, email@example.com
3. The internal and external focus of the liturgy
“The liturgy is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.”(Sacrosanctum Concilium). The liturgy has an inner focus that pertains to the life of the church and its members. There is also an external focus that has led me to pay close attention to what we do when we gather to worship. How does the liturgy help us create a world free from all social injustices in reference to segregation, discrimination, racial profiling, and so on? These were carried out by persons who embrace the Christian faith. And so was the Rwandan Genocide.
If we want our churches to be full and our liturgies to be vibrant, we must become embodied manifestations of the transformative power of the liturgy. I have found this to be the case with the parish I go to here in Portland, Oregon. Saint Andrews Catholic Church is a small parish with just two Masses on Sunday, one in English and the other in Spanish. What makes this parish a model faith community is its strong presence in the Pacific North-West Region and beyond. The community does not only welcome persons from different cultural contexts, sexual orientations, disabilities, and so on, it takes a very public stance in the region and the city celebrating our differences. In fact, the community has become the living word of God to and in the world.
SimonMary Aihiokhai, University of Portland, firstname.lastname@example.org
4. A good liturgy
I have lived in the Philadelphia region for many years and I would say it is quite difficult to find engaging liturgy and worthwhile homilies in this diocese. Personally, a "good" liturgy/homily is one that links the readings to whatever is going on in my life, in my community, in the nation and/or in the world. Good music and active lay participation are also hallmarks for me of inspiring liturgy.
Marie A. Conn, Chestnut Hill College, email@example.com
5. The need for tangible means of participation
I have filled in over the years at a number of first nations parishes, some quite remote. When the service includes something tangible (ashes on Ash Wednesday, a palm on Palm Sunday, a cemetery visit as on all souls day, or easter water at Easter) it attracts parishioners. Without such an assist, the pews go begging for worshipers.
Christopher Rupert, SJ, Pickering, ON, Canada, firstname.lastname@example.org
6. A typically American question
Here is my response to Meg Karraker’s question (St. Thomas University), “How have homily traditions evolved over the centuries in the Catholic Church?”
In the United States since the 60s, sermons became more evangelical protestant, as was the use of the bible in catechesis. In other words they became more “American.” The same can be said about the question, “What do I get out of it?” This is the typical American question for everything.
Way back in the mid 60s I was a member of an experimental parish in Northern Virginia. We had dialogue homilies, homilies from clergy of other religions, homilies by all kinds of experts. We had a band (really) of musical professionals. We tried all kinds of things and had fun doing it.
In the context of our discussion, perhaps it is not “What did I get out of it?” but what are the other rituals we are in conflict with, on Sunday?
Nathan Kollar, St. John Fisher College, email@example.com
7. Why does anyone ever come back?
I recall visiting a parish in Texas. As I sat in the pew–in a very packed church with lots of families–I wondered why does anyone ever come back? The music, the sound system, and the preaching were all dreadful.
As a priest presider/preacher, I do spend preparation time trying to be attentive and thinking about what people might be experiencing. With a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and individual experiences that the congregation brings, I try to be provide examples/connections of various kinds. I know, unfortunately, that not everyone will connect. Hopefully, connections are made more often than not.
It is also important for all of us to spend time thinking about our personal lives. What is God attempting to do? How have I been experience the presence of the Holy One? What are my hopes, dreams, disappointments, or fears? What are my prayers? What do I need or long to hear? What would I prefer not to hear so that I don't have to change?
There is another issue with Sunday Mass and church participation in Protestant churches. The culture no longer supports Sunday worship or Sabbath observance for any religion. Collectively and individually many of us have given ourselves over to a fully secular lifestyle. As a friend sometimes puts it, we've come to treat church participation like membership in a country club. We stay if we like the amenities and membership is completely optional.
Frank Berna, La Salle University, firstname.lastname@example.org
8. Here are some reasons why people in the pews do not connect:
2. there has been a steadily growing mistrust of institutions and authority figures;
3. there is much more competition for our attention on Sundays than there used to be;
4. many of us preachers tend to speak in vague generalities or platitudes in our sermons and homilies that fail to connect with people;
5. there is not the sense of urgency in the US that there is in, say, the so-called developing world, where Christianity has been more hungrily embraced.
David von Schlichten, Seton Hill University, email@example.com
9. Asian and ethnic churches
I want to share my experience as an Asian-American living in California. Many Asians (Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese, Asian-Indian) come to the Eucharist not because of the homily, but ritual familiarity and extra-liturgical activities, such as Marian devotions, benedictions, rosary, festivals, etc. If you go to any church with a sizeable Vietnamese or Filipino community, you don't see empty pews. These churches, like the ethnic churches of 19th-century America, are not only a place for worship, but also for socialization. It is quite common in these multi-cultural parishes in California, that a Sunday might have 6 to 10 Masses, all attended.
As Christopher Rupert wrote, the tangible elements attract people. The sermon is no longer the only source of inspiration; people yearn for something deeper, not necessarily verbal expressions.
Anh Tran, SJ, Santa Clara University, firstname.lastname@example.org
10. The celebration of the church-body of Christ
What I get out of Mass is a function of what I put into it, and what I am looking for when I go, and whether homilies make contact with my/our life experiences. I would like to add something genuinely theological to the discussion.
When asked why they do not go to Mass, many of my students respond that they do not believe in transubstantiation. They are surprised by the fact is that they do not have to. Trent declared that the word transubstantiation was a very apt (aptissime DS 1652) way to speak of the presence of Christ in Eucharist, never that it was the only way.
Personally, I find the biblical notion of "body of Christ" (Eph 1:23; Col 1:18) much more participation-involving. I belong to a congregation for whom attendance at Mass is a celebration of the church-body of Christ more than the bread/wine ritual, and that celebration empowers the body of attenders to go forth to serve the suffering body in its experiential world.
Michael G. Lawler, Creighton University, email@example.com
11. Why I go to mass
I go because I need to be there. I need to enter into prayer and remind myself of my need for God, my dependence on God. I need to be there so that I stop on a regular basis and remind myself that my strengths can lead me into sin, and that I do not have to deal with my limitations on my own.
At the parish we currently attend, we are blessed to have three priests and two deacons who know how to give a good homily. Sometimes their preaching is excellent, but sometimes it is only average. Yet, I always go away inspired by their efforts to connect with the people and provide spiritual nurture. We have had in the past two priests who regularly misinterpreted the Scriptures or misrepresented the teachings of the Church. I avoided going to liturgies at which they presided.
Over the course of years I have gotten to know other families who attend the same Sunday mass as my family. I have watched their children grow and mature, and they have watched mine grow and mature. In the time we spend together at mass, the secrets of their families are revealed in the ways family members interact, and the secrets of my family are revealed through my interactions with my spouse and children. I have seen their family joys and struggles, and they have seen the joys and struggles of my family. We experience a special bond as we celebrate liturgy together. I also have what might be called mass friends – a librarian who has given me some of the best book recommendation ever, an elderly man whose children have grown and moved away and who sometimes needs to talk and from whom I have learned much, a women with a chronic illness who sometimes needs a helping hand getting out of church but who helps me discover strength in adversity, the young people for whom I served as a religious education teacher and who now stop me to tell me about their lives. So, I go to mass because I meet my friends there and our friendships are enriched by the experience of shared prayer.
Harold Horell, Fordham University, firstname.lastname@example.org
12. An Informal survey
On our campus, we have a Sunday evening liturgy hosted by Campus Ministry. It has been very successful for years. Hundreds of students come. They invite their friends, Catholic and non-Catholic. It is seen as normal and good to go to the 9:00 p.m. mass on our campus.
I informally canvassed two sections of an upper level course asking questions. Here are some excerpts…
I don’t have the time being involved in multiple clubs and 17 hour credit classes and be able to go to mass when I would need to use that time studying to attempt to get to graduation. College is hard and 24 hours with no sleep is common. Catching up on sleep is a necessity. I do not regularly attend 9:00 pm mass because it is past my bedtime. I usually go to 4:30 pm or 10:30 am on Sundays
The church has become a place that you have to be perfect to show up and when you aren't, there is a level of shame. It feels like an old man's club and until that changes and there is some effort to meet the people of the church where they are at, I think they will continually lose members.
The 9:00 pm mass is always one of the highlights of my week. I go to the 9:00 pm mass– and any mass during the week or on Sundays– because I understand the importance of receiving and celebrating the Eucharist not only within my own faith, but because of the effect it has on my day-to-day life.
I go regularly to the 9:00 pm mass because there is such a sense of community. It is so amazing and humbling to see the people I go out with the night before sitting in the pew across from me in mass. In other words, it is so powerful to observe that mass is such a central aspect in ALL students here … I see athletes, science majors, business majors, law students and more all in mass despite their rigorous schedules. What's more magical is that each one of these students are singing and engaged in the prayers of mass.
What might we accomplish with exit interviews among our fellow Catholics or former parishioners? We must keeping conversations going.
Dan Finucane, Saint Louis University, email@example.com
13. Is Sunday still a viable day for worship?
Sunday has become like any other day, except for schools and well-to-do people. For a lot of middle class to poor people, Sunday is just another day of work for those in the retail, restaurant, and entertainment business. Sports and shopping are the main activities of the well-to-do in America.
The Sunday meeting is now a cafeteria of Mass possibilities, some better than others. Instead of a local one-time meeting of the local community, everyone chooses their time and place.
The lectionary was put together in haste after Vatican II. Some of the Old and New Testament readings are really forced together. So how can you have good sermons about hem?
How can a priest know his cafeteria audience and its needs? Can they at least memorize and put some emotion into their 10-15-minute oration? Why are there never any political actions mentioned in sermons? All we want is an honest effort. We are a divided country, there is no way that a Sunday service will appeal to everybody, especially when it comes to music, but just keep on trying. Speak clearly! Keep the sound system working! Move with dignity! Respect the community!
Eugene Finnegan, Calumet College of St. Joseph, firstname.lastname@example.org
14. A lived experience
Everyone who comes to church has a role to play.
- Celebrants must do their job: lead a prayerful and engaged celebration, take seriously their responsibility to pray and ponder over the scriptural texts of the day to produce a good homily.
Readers and music ministers must do their jobs: miscellaneous mumbling doesn't make it, nor does bad music.
- Those of us in the pews must be participative. Mass is not a spectator sport, where we expect a 'treat' each time and offer nothing of ourselves
My husband and I have had the good luck to have communities of worship that approach this model. We care about each other and generally know the work and woe of the small group that comes each week. As the face of the institution changes and propping up the tired and aging male clergy gets harder and harder, so does the achievement of the ideal liturgy. Yet we must never forget that God' presence and grace is not confined within the walls of the cathedral and–perhaps this sounds like heresy– not to the pale bread and wine that anchors our Mass. God lives, God loves, God will overcome.
Dee Christie, email@example.com