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July 15, 2008
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
By Bishop William L. Higi *

By Bishop William L. Higi *

PRAISED BE JESUS CHRIST!
(Now and Forever)

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) recently released a survey of self-identified adult Catholics in the United States. The primary focus of this survey was adult Catholic participation in the sacramental life of the Church, as well as beliefs about the sacraments. There is an admitted margin of error, but on the whole, these surveys reflect reality.

A part of the survey that caught my eye was the section on Mass attendance. Catholics, of course, as a primary responsibility, are expected to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, week after week, convenient or inconvenient. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason, the faithful are obligated to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (No. 2181). That notwithstanding, the CARA survey suggests that only about three in 10 adult Catholics (31.4 percent) attend Mass in any given week and only 23 percent attend Mass every week (once a week or more often).

Several years back, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati wrote a series of articles titled Keeping the Lord’s Day. I pulled it off the Web at the time (I think it was back in 1998), thinking it could serve as a personal meditation. The summer disappearance of far too many children enrolled in our parish religious education programs, as well as the annual October pew census, have long underscored the quasi-optional approach to Mass some folks take. That should not be, of course. Fidelity to Sunday Mass is a serious obligation, so serious that the person who fails to be faithful to Mass should not receive holy Communion until they have faced up to their defect in the sacrament of reconciliation and resolved to get with it. Holy Communion is the ultimate sign of and participation in the unity we share with Christ and his Church. Failing to keep our basic responsibility to participate in Mass on a weekly basis separates a person from that unity.

Those who are not motivated by laws rarely are persuaded when an appeal is made to “obligation.” The need, then, is to look beyond “the law.”

It’s obvious from the New Testament that Sunday Mass has always been the centerpiece of who and what we are called to be as Catholics. We need to be faithful to Mass. Otherwise, we lose our identity as a people of the Lord. It has always been so. The reflections of Archbishop Pilarczyk are, I believe, most helpful.

He points out that already on the first Easter Sunday evening we find “the 11 and those with them … gathered together … saying, ‘the Lord has been raised and has appeared to Simon’” (Luke 24:34). A week later they were gathered together again when Jesus invited Thomas (who had been absent the Sunday before) to a deeper level of faith and commitment (John 20:26f). Within the very first days after the resurrection, the Sunday gathering had become a custom for the community of believers, and it remained so.

A few years later, we find St. Paul telling our Catholic ancestors to take up a collection “on the first day of every week” (1 Cor. 16). Shortly thereafter, Paul was in Troas at a gathering that included instruction and the breaking of the bread “on the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7-12).

About 50 years after that, the Didache (a collection of moral, liturgical and disciplinary practices in the early Church) invites believers to “come together on the Lord’s day, break bread and give thanks.”

At roughly the same time, Ignatius of Antioch finds the Sunday assembly the distinguishing sign of the Christian believer: “Those who used to live according to the old order of things have attained to a new hope and they observe no longer the Sabbath but Sunday, the day on which Christ and his death raised up our life.”

From two centuries later comes the story of the Tunisian martyrs. Thirty-one men and 18 women were arrested and charged with illegal assembly. Saturninus, a priest, told the Roman proconsul, “We must celebrate the Lord’s Day. It is the law for us.”

Emeritus, in whose house the group had assembled, said, “Yes, it was in my house that we celebrated the Lord’s Day. We cannot live without celebrating the Lord’s Day.” And Victoria, one of the women present, said, “I attended the meeting because I am a Christian.”

What is the characteristic action of the followers of Christ? From the very beginning it has been faithfully joining together for Mass on Sunday.

But why do we gather on Sunday? We gather to meet Jesus, to make contact with the Risen Christ and in the process to make and experience Church.

The point of the Lord’s Day Mass is not primarily to remember or commemorate the resurrection, but to experience the Risen Lord, even as the 11 experienced him on those first Sundays recorded for us in the Gospels. That’s what makes the day holy.

The way in which we celebrate the Risen Lord is different from the way the 11 experienced him on the first Easter. They saw Jesus and touched his wounds. We come into contact with Jesus in his words and in his sacramental sacrifice, but the contact is no less real.

But there’s more than just contact. The purpose of Sunday Mass is not just to provide a nice religious experience for people. It is a gathering with an agenda.

The Lord’s Day agenda is to make us aware of our own participation in the life of the Risen Christ in order to refocus our activity and to commit ourselves to helping to transform the world in which we live into a better place. This Sunday encounter with Christ is what gives meaning to all other days, past, present and future. In sum, we are a people who come into contact with the Risen Christ each Sunday to stay aware of who and what we are, so that we might live our Catholicism with enthusiasm; so that we might fulfill our baptismal assignment of reaching out to others in proactive ways, inviting them to join us in professing the Catholic faith to which God has called us; and so we will have the courage and determination to take the values of Jesus Christ in which we are formed by the Church into our daily lives so that the world in which we live can be transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ.

The Catechism says that attendance at Sunday Mass is a testimony of belonging to Christ and the Church, a testimony to God’s holiness and to our communion in faith, hope and charity, as well as a source of strength that we receive from one another. This makes it clear why deliberate absence from Sunday Mass is sinful: It is a refusal to give testimony to our Christian faith. Going to Mass on the Lord’s Day maintains our identity. It is the way we stay Catholic.

We are a people called to a joyful encounter with the Risen Christ each week, on the Lord’s Day. It was so in the beginning, is so now, and will be as long as the Church is the Church. We would not be ourselves without it.           

Coming together for the Lord’s Day Mass is the action that gives the Church its identity. But what are we supposed to do when we get there? Is it enough just to be present as if for some sort of roll call? Is it enough just to show up? Lots of people seem to think so. Unfortunately, the “showing up for roll call” mentality is why so many people find going to Mass on the Lord’s Day to be a burden instead of a joyful experience of the Risen Christ. We are not just supposed to be there, we are there to do.

I’ll take that up in my next column.

Printed with permission from the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana.

Most Rev. William L. Higi is bishop of the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana
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