Have you ever wondered why Mass feels so different from a Packers game? I have never been to Lambeau, but I’m confident that all of the Packers faithful there are enthusiastic and passionate as they cheer for their beloved team.
The fans are on the edge of their seats, standing and even jumping about at every critical moment. They are deeply invested – intellectually, emotionally, socially and even physically – in the outcome of every nuance of every play. “It’s a game of inches,” they say. And the gathered fans seem to almost believe that by sheer force of their wills they can push a pile of players just a few more inches to pick up that key first down or stop an opponent from crossing the goal line.
Nevertheless, in the end, no matter how enthusiastic he may be, a fan is just a spectator.
My family was on vacation a few years ago (outside the diocese) and my wife and I couldn’t put our finger on why the Mass we attended felt so lifeless. The pews were mostly full and there were even a decent number of children in attendance. Finally, about halfway through Mass, I realized that very few of the attendees were saying the responses, let alone singing. And most of those who were participating were doing so listlessly. The tone among the faithful was one of fulfilling an obligation; they seemed to be checking a box, but not enthusiastically.
Could you imagine a Packers game like that? What is the difference? What do we bring to a sporting event that can be so sorely missing at Mass? In a word: our hearts.
The irony, of course, is that unlike a sporting event, the faithful at Mass are not mere spectators. The church teaches that the laity are not at Mass to watch the priest. Rather, by virtue of our baptism, we are there to actively participate in offering God our own sacrifice of praise.
I come from a fairly musical family. Growing up, it was normal for my dad and my grandpa to spend much of the day singing as they worked on projects around the house. Perhaps that is unusual, I’m not sure. Regardless, as I got to know my wife and eventually each of our four children, my heart naturally burst forth with songs of wonder and joy about each of them. They are admittedly absurd little songs, but they are songs of delight and love nevertheless.
Brothers and sisters, a would-be disciple of Jesus would do well to ask himself, “does my heart burst forth with songs of wonder and joy about the Lord?” If not, why?
Fr. James Mallon, the founder of Divine Renovation Ministries, writes that a turning point in his life came when he was walking down the aisle during his first Mass at a new assignment and he realized that he and the cantor were the only two people there who were singing. He spent some time reflecting on this sad reality and could only come to one conclusion: His parishioners had nothing to sing about. I remember being stung by that line when I first read it.
What does that mean? Fr. Mallon says, these silent attendees had not deeply encountered, received and responded to the love of God. In the end, the call to active participation in the liturgy is not about making sure more and more lay people have jobs at Mass. It’s a call to an encounter with Jesus that changes us and reorients our entire existence and calls forth a response of thanks and praise from our hearts.
Pope Francis wrote, “Let us look at those first disciples, who, immediately after encountering the gaze of Jesus, went forth to proclaim him joyfully (Evangelii Gaudium, 120).”
The Holy Father is writing here about the task of evangelization, but the sentiment applies just as well to worshiping God. Encountering the gaze of Jesus. Is there a richer way of describing what happens at the liturgy as we come face to face with the Lord in sacred Scripture and in the holy Eucharist?
Bishop Powers has frequently talked about the need to make our liturgies more reverent and more focused on the transcendent reality of what is taking place. This is why it is so vital that our liturgical music be directed as praise to God. It should not simply be about God – let alone about us. He has also talked more and more about the need to boldly preach the Gospel for deeper conversion in homilies.
Richer liturgy and more effective preaching will naturally move some into deeper worship, but as Josef Pieper said, “only the lover sings.” Only a lover’s heart overflows with songs of praise, glory and wonder at his beloved. It is up to us to open our hearts to the possibility of falling in love with the God who loves us, who seeks us, who delights in us, his beloved children.
“Our primary task,” says Bishop Powers in his Pastoral Letter on Evangelization, “is to re-encounter the power of the Gospel … When we encounter the fullness of this proclamation it leaves us overwhelmed by the radical love that the Father has shown in creating us for relationship with Him and restoring that relationship in Jesus. When we stand in awe of this love we are led to a decision to entrust ourselves to Jesus Christ by faith, to drop our nets, and to follow him.”
Celebrating the great Feast of Christmas, let’s take some time to ask the Lord for this grace – whether for the first time or for the thousandth time, saying, ‘my Lord and my God,’ and doing him homage.
If you have not yet, please read Bishop Powers’ full letter, “As the Father Has Sent Me, So I Send You.” The letter and a study guide are available at catholicdos.org/blank.
Christopher Hurtubise is the director of the Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship for the Diocese of Superior. He and his family live on a hobby farm outside of Rice Lake, where they are parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes, Dobie.