And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him.”Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” -Matthew 22:35-39
We have Company
|Pope Francis at Easter Mass|
Years ago when I taught at a Catholic high school in New York State I was the faculty moderator of the student newspaper. On one particular occasion I had brought some of the students on the newspaper staff on a trip to another school, which had at one time been a convent school, and still had a number of the good sisters in residence. We were casually conversing in a hallway when an elderly nun began furiously shushing at us as she pointed to an open doorway. Looking through the door I noticed, for the first time, a tabernacle on the far wall with a red presence lamp glowing next to it. We were standing in front of the chapel, and sister wanted us to quiet down out of respect for Christ in the reserved Sacrament. When I recounted the incident to my lovely bride, she told me that the exact same thing had happened to her a dozen years or more before when she had visited the same school as a student. Whether it was a sort of tradition there, or the same sister had made a life’s mission of hushing boisterous guests in front of the chapel I don’t know, but the incident has stuck with me.
I was reminded of this incident yet again the other day, in fact, when I saw this post [here] on Michael Seagriff’s blog, in which he recounts his sadness at the disrespect shown Our Lord at a Church he attended while travelling. He says:
The loud chatter and laughter before and immediately after the end of Mass each day made silent prayer an enormous challenge if not an impossibility. The conduct of those present gave no visible evidence that His Presence among and within them was of much importance.
I think he hits the nail right on the head here. If we knew that an important man or woman were in the room with us – the President of the United States, for instance, or some other high-ranking official – would we carry on as if he weren’t there? And wouldn’t he command at least as much of our attention as our friends? Surely when the Lord and Creator of the Universe is in the room with us (as He is in the consecrated Eucharist), we should show even greater deference. In fact, shouldn’t we by all rights fall to our knees in awe-struck silence? And yet what Michael Seagriff describes above is all too common; he could have been describing a church I know near me, but the same thing happens, often to a lesser degree, just about everywhere I know of (to a much lesser degree, I must admit, where the Mass is being offered in the extraordinary form).
Maybe sometimes we should "sweat the small stuff"
I’m not just being the President of the No-Fun Club here (although I do bear that title, and proudly); the issue of reverence before the Holy Sacrament, and at Mass in general, is no small matter. We’ve all heard some variation on “God doesn’t care what I’m wearing/ doing, etc. . . . He just wants me to be there . . . He’s a big Guy, he can take it . . . blah,blah,blah”. God’s not the problem: no amount of irreverence, in fact nothing we can do at all, can harm Him. The problem is that it’s bad for us to disrespect God, we are not honoring and obeying our Heavenly Father, the One who told Moses “Take off your sandals, the place where you’re standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). It’s right to behave differently in the immediate presence of God.
There’s also another problem, as Michael indicates when he says “The conduct of those present gave no visible evidence that His Presence among and within them was of much importance.” If you asked them, I’m sure the chatterboxes from the back of the church would insist they had enormous respect for the Divine Presence in the Tabernacle, and they would probably mean it. We Catholics know, however, that mind, body, and spirit all work together. “The Word became Flesh” (John 1:14) John the Evangelist tells us, and the Apostle James assures us that “Faith apart from deeds is dead” (James 2:26). We cannot separate what we do from what we believe, and if our behavior says, not just to others but to ourselves, that being at Mass is no different than being at a business meeting or a cocktail party, sooner or later we’ll believe it. And that is why, after all, we have all the “smells and bells”, beautiful churches and colorful vestments, because we flesh and blood mortals need tangible signs in order to absorb spiritual realities. Why else should the Word become Flesh? Why else have sacraments?
Summit and Source
The spiritual reality we’re meant to absorb when we’re at Mass, of course, is the True Presence of Jesus Christ. The first commandment is to love God (see the quote from Matthew's Gospel at the top of the page); loving our neighbor is similar to that, but subordinate. Our purpose in going to Mass, then, is not to meet our friends but to meet God Himself, face to face, and even to take him physically into our bodies. That’s a big deal. We need to know it, to feel it, and to live it. The Vatican II fathers tell us that the Mass is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; and at the same time, it is the fountain from which all her powers flow” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10). Isn’t that worth asking your friends to wait a little while?
I don’t doubt that most of the natterers in the pews intend no disrespect. Most have been mislead by an elite group of liturgical ideologues who really do want to de-emphasize the Divinity of Christ, and have been acculturated to a societal ethos that has made a fetish out of informality. We all need to do our part to model appropriate reverence, and educate others (recall that “Instructing the Ignorant” is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy; this definitely qualifies). We should also encourage our priests, many of whom apparently think that lay people are put off by reverence, formality, and the like. Share with them resources like this post [here] from Fr. John Zuhlsdorf on ways to improve the celebration of the Ordinary Form of the Mass; I’m willing to bet that any church that followed Fr. Z’s advice from this article would be bursting at the seams. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and our profound encounter with Him in the Mass, is too big to ignore.
(An earlier version of this Throwback appeared on August 27th, 2014)