It's hard to pay attention at Mass. On the spiritual side, you have the hymns and prayers. On the more earthly side, you have crying babies and long (and sometimes, but only sometimes, boring) homilies. Sometimes it's hot. Other times it's cold. And somebody or something smells.
Even if those factors aren't present, the Mass is such a step outside of our usual daily lives it can be jarring. In what other place and time do we sing, pray, stand, kneel, and eat together? Moreover, our use of modern technology makes long periods without notifications or opportunities to mindlessly scroll through social media almost unbearable. Oh, and I forgot to mention the million things running through your head all pop up at once when you finally have a few moments of quiet and prayer.
It's no wonder we struggle at Mass to pay attention but, as I mentioned last week in the build up to Mass and the week before about our daily life, our preparation for Mass helps the actual experience. Once in the doors, however, there are some helpful tips to get more out of Mass.
When I make my daily holy hour, I always have a particular intention for whom I offer the hour. Now, I'll pray for a lot of other things and people during the hour, but there is always one particular person for whom I pray during the hour. This helps me when my mind starts to wonder to draw myself back, to stay focused, and, during especially difficult hours, to know I at least got something out of my prayer.
For instance, the past few months, I've prayed often for my two new nephews. When I start to get a little distracted, I think of Glenn or Liam, how cute they are, how much of a blessing they are, how beautiful it is to see the joy they bring my siblings and their spouses, all of that. No matter where my mind wonders, that intention draws me back to the reason for being in the chapel.
To get more out of Mass, have and keep your spiritual offering, your special intention at the forefront of your mind from the moment you step into church until the moment you leave. Mass can get a little stale at times, but when your attendance is for someone or something, the power and importance becomes so much stronger.
My first job was as a middle school teacher. It was great preparation for religious life because I became so comfortable with silence that year. For example, I'd ask, "Who is the President of the United States?" and the room was completely quiet. Oftentimes, at weddings and funerals, the same thing happens when I say, "The Lord be with you."
Conversations of any substance require two people listening and responding. Thinking, talking, listening, a back-and-forth.
To get more out of Mass, say the responses and prayers. The Mass is, in many ways, a dialogue between the priest and the people, as well as, and more importantly, between God and you. God speaks to you and wants to hear back.
The oft quoted line is "He who sings; prays twice." I don't really like this phrase, as it is used, because it seems a somewhat deceptive way to convince people to sing. However, in the Scriptural and liturgical tradition of the Church, song plays an important and pivotal role in worship of God. As Pope Paul VI notes, "Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song, with the ministers of each degree fulfilling their ministry and the people participating in it."
To get more out of Mass, sing. Sing the hymns, the Psalms, and encourage your priest to sing the prayers. We are worshiping the Living and Loving God, God who deigned to dwell with us. If that is not worthy of song (even bad singing) I don't know what is.
I am usually the first to argue many contemporary Masses use too many minister. Whether they be acolytes or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. In fact, I once attended a Mass with no more than 50 people. There were 15 extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. However, there are many ways to serve the community during Mass both within the Liturgy itself as a lector, in the choir, as an acolyte, or an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and in the pews as an usher or simply helping those around you. For instance, you can read at Mass or you can help the family with a few young kids by offering to hold a bag (or even a child when mom or dad's hands are full). The Eucharist always pushes us outward toward God and neighbor.
To get more out of Mass, serve other during Mass; use the gifts Our Good Lord has given you to build up the community and yourself.
How we prepare for something tells us so much about the value we place on a particular task or event. When I was a middle school teacher, I scripted the entire first week of classes before the first day of school. Everything from the example sentences I would use in English class to the jokes I would make in Religion class were there.
That job and those students were incredibly important to me so I prepared for months. As prepared as I thought I was for the job, I quickly learned I was barely one step ahead of the students. However, my willingness to come each day prepared -- to know the material and even to anticipate possible questions -- made it increasingly fruitful and fun.
The same mindset applies to our participation at Mass. When we come prepared to pray, to encounter the Lord, we get something out of it. On the other hand, when we come without any preparation, it shouldn't be a surprise we get so little out of it.
At 8:55 pm every Sunday, there are never more than 50 people in St. Paul's. By 9:05 pm, there are usually around 200. There have even been Sunday night Masses when I start up the aisle and discover the congregation has doubled by the time I reach the altar.
It is one of my great joys as a priest to serve the Mass and I am grateful for each and every person who comes to Mass on a campus where it has almost negative social value. I also realize people are coming from chapter, meetings, you name it. But, I have to ask: Can you really get that much out of Mass when you come running in at the last minute each week?
Last week, I covered some basics on how our daily life enhances our participation at Mass. This week, the focus is our immediate preparation for Mass which starts -- believe it or not -- the moment we leave Mass the preceding Sunday. In no particular order, here we go.
Read the Readings
Every college student has been there: attending a lecture when you have done none of the reading for that day's class. Even if you are paying attention, it might take the entire class for you to form your own ideas and opinions on the readings, but, by then, it's too late to contribute. At Mass, we move so quickly from readings to homily it is almost impossible to take in what the Word is saying to us unless you come prepared.
Moreover, for many people, the homily is one of the most important elements of the Mass. In its essence, the homily is a reflection upon the Word of God we have just heard. If the Mass itself is the first time you have encountered the readings for that Sunday, you are probably still trying to make sense of the first reading by the time of the homily.
To get more out of Mass, spend time reading and meditating upon the Scriptures for the upcoming homily earlier in the week. Then, on Sunday before you head to Mass, read them once more. Come into Church ready to go even deeper into the Word.
Dress the Part
We tend to get dressed up for important occasions. When you see a friend in formal business attire walking around campus, you can most likely assume she has a presentation or an interview. In other words, she has something important. Otherwise, why get so dressed up?
Before I go any further, it's important to state I would rather someone come to Mass under dressed than to skip Mass altogether. However, to get more out of Mass, dress the part.
We believe Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Incarnate Word, physically and literally is made present on the altar during Mass. We encounter him in His Word and in His Sacrament. He feeds us His flesh and His Blood. We are going to the most important Supper we will ever attend each time we step foot in Church.
To get more out of Mass, dress the part. It's called "Sunday Best" for a reason. At an interview, you dress up to show the interviewer you are serious about the job. At Mass, you dress nicely to show Our Blessed Lord how much He means in your life.
Fast before Mass
It's Church law for each of us to fast from food for one hour before receiving the Eucharist. (Water and medicine are exceptions.) We do this to prepare our hearts and our physical bodies for the reception of Jesus in the Eucharist.
A few years ago, I spent the summer in Vietnam teaching English to the Dominican Friars there. A big adjustment for me was the diet. I had never really eaten much rice before going to Vietnam and dairy was almost completely absent from their diet. When I returned to the US, my parents offered to take me anywhere for dinner. I chose Italian. I had a huge portion of pasta and plenty of cheese. It was one of the best meals of of my life. Why? I had to wait for it. By denying myself cheese and pasta for three months, my experience of cheese and pasta was amplified.
To get more out of Mass, deny yourself (for an hour or more) food and drink so when you eat the True Food and drink the True Drink of the Eucharist your soul's eternal hunger and thirst will be satisfied.
Arrive Early. Prepare a Spiritual Offering.
In the early Church, the offertory consisted of bread and wine (obviously) as well as the gifts of the people. Farmers offered the first fruits of their harvest. Milk and honey were often offered too. The people gave what they produced for the life of the Church. They offered the very best of what God had given to them back to God.
These offerings also symbolized the spiritual offerings of the people of God. The farmer's first fruits were also a sign of his offering of prayers for his family and friends. The sacrifice of the Mass was joined by the sacrifice of the people.
Today, this is very much still the case. All of our prayers, all of our offerings are united with the priest's and with the Church's on the altar. When the priest offers up the bread and wine, he is offering to God all of our prayers and our needs.
To get more out of Mass, arrive 10-15 minutes before Mass. Silently prepare yourself for what the Lord is about to do in your life and in this Church. Prepare and offer to God your spiritual offering for the Mass. Unite your prayers for your sick family member or a friend in need to those of your brothers and sisters and to the perfect offering of Jesus Christ on the altar.
Invite and Encounter
No one is truly alone at Mass. Sadly, so many people go to Mass and sit alone. Even worse, too many Catholics alone at Mass are left alone, never greeted, rarely invited into an authentic friendship with someone more connected.
To get more out of Mass, invite a friend to go with you and prepare to encounter someone new. Whether you are already socially involved or are one of those who flies solo, make a commitment each week to greet someone new; to invite an acquaintance out to lunch or coffee; to sit with someone you've never met before and get to know his or her story.
A Christ-Centered and Eucharistic Life
It happens to almost all of us at some point: The Mass, the centerpiece of our Catholic life, gets stale, difficult, and (dare I say it?) boring. You go, you believe, you try, but, man, it's more an experience of going through the motions than the source of summit of our Christian life you know it to be.
The English essayist and convert to Catholicism, G.K. Chesterton once quipped, "The Mass is very long and tiresome... unless one loves God." These words of G.K. Chesterton cut right to the heart of the question and the problem: Do I really love God in all of this? Does the Mass invite me more deeply into that love? Is my life a preparation and thanksgiving for my encounter with the living God in the Eucharist at Mass?
Like most activities we do regularly, the Mass, as powerful and beautiful as it is, can lose its shine and importance in our lives unless we make intentional efforts to go deeper, ask more questions, and strive after greatness and holiness.
To be clear, because of the power of Christ in the Eucharist, one moment in Mass can change everything in our lives. One glimpse of the Blessed Sacrament, the smallest portion on our tongue (received in a state of grace) changes (and can change) our lives forever. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, "The Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith: 'Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.'" (CCC 1327). In other words, our life is Eucharistic.
Therefore, to get the most out of Mass my life Monday through Saturday should in some way be oriented toward the Eucharistic Mystery. This first (of four) post is an effort to help develop the kind of life and virtues necessary for a meaningful and consistent encounter with Our Lord in the Eucharist and in the community at the Sunday Mass.
A prime example of what this life should like is St. Francis de Sales. When St. Francis de Sales prepared for ordination to the priesthood, he had a simple request of God -- he wanted his life to be preparation and thanksgiving for the Eucharist. It's simple, but it gets our Christian life just right. We are made for communion, we are called to greatness, we receive God Himself in the Eucharist.
Firstly, for the Eucharist (i.e. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, made physically and totally present on the altar) to mean something important on Sunday, Jesus has to be important each day of the week. This starts, not with grand or heroic acts, but with a relationship, with a conversation, on our knees, walking down the street, in prayer.
There is an old saying, "You can't love what you don't know." For us as Catholics, how can we love God in the Eucharist, when we do not know him in our daily lives, when we do not see Him in our friends and family, when we do not speak with Him daily?
There is, however, quite an easy remedy to this lack of personal relationship and knowledge of God: Invite Him into your life. Spend 15 minutes (1% of your day) quietly reflection and meditating upon Scripture. Ask Him for help as you walk to a test. Give Him thanks when you see His loving face or feel His loving touch. Hold hands with His Mother by praying a Rosary or carrying one in your pocket. The possibilities are endless. I'm not going to say it doesn't matter how you pray (for it does in some sense), but don't worry about being a little reckless, a little informal, or maybe even quite unsure of yourself. The point is, Pray!
Secondly, just any meaningful relationship is not simply intellectual or social, you must serve God, especially in the poor, the downtrodden, the needy. Now, I am not asking you to be the next Mother Teresa. Rather, you have myriad opportunities to serve others, just as you have myriad opportunities to pray. In your classes, you can be kind and considerate; you can even sit next to and chat with the nervous loner. In your apartment/dorm/fraternity/sorority you can clean up messes you didn't make. On a more consistent note, you can join a service group. Our lives are not our own. We are called to serve one another and in giving we become and receive more than we ever could on our own.
Make Catholic Friends
Lastly, we need friends in our journey of faith. When I was in college, I had two friends who always invited me to Mass. They held me accountable. When they both graduated a year before me, my system of support disappeared. Mass just wasn't the same when I wasn't going with friends. So, I stopped going for a couple of weeks. Then, out of nowhere, some other friends called me out; they told me they missed seeing me at Mass and joining me afterward for dinner. Just as quickly as my system of support disappeared, it reappeared in the form of new friends. I was part of a community that cared for me, a community that supported me, a community that held me to the highest standard.
Short story even longer, friends are a necessary part of the Catholic life. At Mass, we may go to Communion alone, but we always do so and act as a part of the entire Body of Christ. When the guy on my left and the girl on my right know me and love me, my place is with them and my joy is their joy. I see myself at Mass, in the congregation as a vibrant, necessary piece which makes the community a better place.
In the end, Sunday Mass is a part of a life of prayer, service, and community. When the other parts are strong Monday through Saturday, Mass on Sunday is no longer a chore or a bore, but a place where I not only encounter and consume the Living God, but a place where I matter, where everything comes together, and where a little slice of heaven is made present on Earth.
Next week: What to do before Mass.
Fr. Patrick is a Dominican priest and the Campus Minister.