AT THE CENTRE OF OUR LIVES IS THE MASS
By Fr.Paul Churchill.
Spiritual Director of Presentata Curia, Dublin
I heard recently of a person being invited to some “born again” Christian group. My Catholic friend was told they came together and read the Bible and sang hymns. And I thought to myself: what makes the difference with us Catholics? What makes us different from so many groups who claim to be Christians is that at the centre of our lives is the Mass. And how richer it is compared to so many because at its heart lies the greatest act any human has ever done.
To help understand I want you to come with me to Calvary. That act of Jesus in which he allowed himself be taken and wrongly condemned and treated shamefully before he died was an act of supreme love, unequalled in human history. Compare what Jesus did to any other figure in history and you will find none equal. Scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, yes. And that even today. But if you reflect on it and try and enter it yourself you will see its greatness. No wonder the centurion said, ‘This truly was the son of God”.
There too I note St. John and Our Lady standing, immersed in that awful moment. Do we have any idea what it did to them? Sometimes our artists try their best but miss. There is a modern term I want to use. It is the term traumatised. Post traumatic stress disorder can leave some people scarred for years. I wonder if St. John wrote his Gospel last of all because it took all that time for him to deal with what he had seen. After all he had been very young when he watched the way Jesus died. And perhaps when Jesus gave Our Lady to St. John, and he to her, was responding to their suffering which he recognised even in the midst of his own pain.
When St. John finally processed all the data he came to only one conclusion, that Jesus was the Lamb of God. He was the new sacrificial Lamb who took away the sins of the whole world, the one Isaiah had prophesied. By his sublime act of trust in God, his total forgiveness of what was done to him, his refusal to utter even one negative remark in the midst of such suffering, indeed to the contrary the goodness of his words from the Cross, not to mention his dignified bearing of it all, you can see why the hardened centurion was impressed. But so was God. And by this act he saved us all from damnation.
In our Mass we celebrate that great act. It is not just that we remember it as something past. In some mystical way we are brought into its presence. As the Blessed John Paul II said “Every priest who celebrates Holy Mass, together with the Christian community that takes part in it, is led back in spirit to that place and that hour” (Ecclesia de Eucharistica, n.4). It has become the one eternal sacrifice which Christ makes everlastingly to God and it is no longer confined to the limits of space and time. Christ, by his own plans, shared at the Last Supper with the Apostles, has given his priests the power to bring it to us so that we can tap into its graces.
We do not have to behold its trauma as St. John and Our Lady did. But we can make real contact with that event and with the great heart of love in God which is really what lies behind it all. We meet the level and quality of that love he spoke about at the Last Supper when he said that a man could have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends and asked that we love one another as he had loved us.
At Mass we are in the heart of an act of worship which differs so radically from prayer meetings or those other gatherings of Christians which just read God’s word and sing psalms and say prayers and have a good social occasion. This, our Mass, is about encountering Christ’s act of sacrifice which is frightening and awesome and difficult to grasp and challenging even to consider imitating.
But he did say, “Do this in memory of me”. Yes, those words mean that we are to re-enact his words and acts at the Last Supper. But there is also this challenge – that we too try to enter into his act and give up our bodies for others and pour out our blood so that sins might be forgiven.
So now our Mass becomes not just something to attend or be present at the way you would a concert or a film. It is an act of true worship in which I offer God my life and its energies to do his will and to trust him in all that happens, even to accepting a shore in the suffering of Christ if that be God’s will. Mass is where I consecrate myself before God and commit to follow Christ and imitate him in the way of heroic love. The Mass contains all the treasure of the Church for it is not just Christ but the Christ who is continually offering himself to God on our behalf in that sublime sacrifice of love which challenges and energises us. It is the source of all the love the world needs.
Receiving Christ in Holy Communion is both an identification with him but more the taking him into our lives so that he can strengthen us in our daily living as Christians.
There is a very interesting set of words communicated at the beginning of Chapter 6 of the Acts of the Apostles. There you will read how the apostles discussed the burden of work they had with the whole body of the disciples. As a result, the deaconate was founded. But just after this we are told that a large number of the Temple priests came over to join the apostles. In other words we find in that very description of the early Church the basic structures of the Church as we have it today: the body of the disciples, the apostles whose task was taken over by the Bishops, the deacons and the priests. I am not sure what exact role the disciples gave those Old Testament priests but what we do know today is that the task above all that the New Testament priests have is not to offer spring lambs in atonement for our sins but to offer the spotless Lamb of God by bringing the sacrifice of Calvary into our present moment.
And on this Vocations Sunday it is worth reflecting that without the priest there can be no Mass. Priests are called to be special people. It is their vocation in a special way to enter into the mystery of Calvary, to be identified with the sacrificial Lamb of God so that they can more fittingly make present to the Church that great act of salvation Christ brought to us. In a way St. John, standing there at the foot of the Cross, represents the spirituality of priests if I may put it like that. Like John each priest is called to meditate deeply and try to emphasise with that self-giving in love by Jesus. It is in reflecting on the deep meaning of what he celebrates that priest will better grasp his vocation. It is no surprise that when the Church is persecuted the first and main thrust of the attack will be directed against the priests. And anyone contemplating priesthood must reflect that it will chiefly be in sharing in the injustice and hate directed at Jesus that he will be proved to be priest. If he is a hireling he will look after his skin and run. Each priest must be a lamb for God, someone innocent of heart and with only good intentions, with a heart fixed on the will of God, who will suffer because of misunderstanding and sometimes malice from those who hate the message of the Gospel.
John calls himself the beloved disciple. He above all had a deep sense of the love, the understanding and forgiving love in the heart of Jesus. That too each priest must come in contact with. I find it interesting that Fr. Gobbi, who founded the Marian Movement of Priests, should put on the front of his blue book the words, “Our Lady’s beloved sons”. Perhaps her ministry to the young disciple also helped him to grow to see this truth in his life.
Our Lady, whose vocation is that of wife and mother, represents the lay participation in Mass. When you share in some trauma, suffer with people who experience tragedy, carry your burdens and stand with Jesus in a world that howls out its hate of the Word and his Church, then you stand with her at the foot of the Cross. And where better to celebrate this and share with Christ in it than at Mass.
There, with him, you can also offer up your life in dedication, offer up the pains it cost you to follow him, including the jibes and sneers of others who just use modern idioms of “if he is the Christ let him come down from the Cross!” And with him we offer up the suffering for the forgiveness of sins as we forgive those who offend us in any way.
But perhaps there is another truth here worth reflecting on that Our Lady took John into her heart and care as if he were a son, indeed a beloved son. And if John made a place for her in his home then I believe it was more than reciprocated by her. This also points to another reality in the heart of the Church and certainly one experienced in the Legion of Mary and that is the love of the faithful for the priests. It is my experience, and I suspect that of so many of my brother priests, that I find myself at home in the Legion. I have found a home and support over the years in the Legion which is unparalleled.
On this Vocation Sunday, I thank you on my own behalf for your witness to Jesus and your love for him and his church and for your great encouragement you give to Priests. And while I say this on my own behalf I also suspect that thousands of priests everywhere would echo my sentiments.
Vocations Sunday is above all vocations in the Church. It is not just about getting people to hear their vocation and follow it. But it should include a prayer and support for those living their vocations. So I ask your prayers over these days not just for those who are called to be priests but also for those already priests that they will grow in their vocation and keep faithful to it.
On Calvary, Mary and John stood in solidarity with Jesus. But by his words to them he showed that he was in solidarity with them too. May our Mass become a place of solidarity too where we commit to support each other in our various Christian vocations as we listen to God’s call and strive to follow the way of Jesus, Son of Mary. Amen.