Dear Donagh,

Thanks for the opportunity of meeting with you last week.  I found our conversation a great help…. [My husband] and I went to Mass for the first time in 3 or 4 years on Sunday, but we came away stone cold.  All the people there were locked in their own worlds. Nothing happened at that Mass.  I said it to a neighbour of ours when we met outside, and she said, “Ah, nothing happens in this parish.  On Palm Sunday they didn’t even have palms. No palms, no choir, and no microphone for half the Mass.”  There’s a palm grove a stone’s throw from the church, so it’s down to pure neglect.  I need to talk to you again….  What can lay people do to keep their faith going…?  Marie

Dear Marie,

I know the parish you are talking about, and it doesn’t come as a great surprise to me.  Yes, it is a depressing scene, but I can assure you that there are parishes that are alive.  The best are ones in which lay people are deeply involved.  It’s sad to think of all that energy and good will locked up in people just because the clergy don’t know how to release it – or don’t care to. 

The demoralisation of the clergy is a whole chapter in itself.  Many feel lost and isolated.  The lasting shadow of the child-abuse scandals hangs over us all, and many live in deep gloom.  Still, the clergy are not the Church.  If we fail, it doesn’t mean that the Church has failed.  Through the centuries it has survived many Judases.  I have heard of parishes that came alive only when they no longer had a resident priest.  Only then did they fully realise that the parish was their parish.  Priests come and go, but they remain, often through several generations of their families. 

In my village, years ago, the priest one day got his paint-brushes and his cans of paint and his ladder, and began to paint the exterior of the church (badly needed).  The very next day he was joined by half a dozen sturdy farmers, and the job was finished in record time.  That priest found his way into the hearts of the people – so much so that a woman asked him to paint her chimneys.  He spoke their language, which was the language of manual labour.  No amount of preaching could have done it.  The moral of the story is that it doesn’t take much to release the energy and goodwill of people.  He didn’t even have to sit through a meeting.

I haven't forgotten that you are asking specifically about Mass.  It can become a routine performance – which is strange when you stand back and think about it.  The original was the most emotional experience imaginable.  I saw a harrowing piece of video showing a mother holding the socks and shirts of her son who had been executed.  What theory would she (or anyone) have to describe her relationship to those items?  Were they signs or symbols of her son?  She didn’t need and wouldn’t want any theory of any kind.  But we get entangled in the theory of transubstantiation, turning it almost into a piece of magic.  We would have to be cold-blooded creatures indeed to be satisfied with that.  If we think the essence of the Eucharist can only be expressed in Aristotelian language (or rather a corruption of it), we haven't been reading the New Testament.  The presence of Christ has to be pervasive in every possible way at Mass.  The Second Vatican Council tried to broaden the picture, rather than letting it be focused exclusively on the consecrated elements.  It mentioned four ways in which Christ is present: 1. In the Eucharistic elements, 2. In the Word proclaimed in the readings, 3. In the person of the minister, and 4. In the assembled People of God.  (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 7). 

If we could be encouraged to enter deeply into these, it would surely make a difference.  Take the fourth one: Christ is present in the people at Mass.  I met someone who follows Mass only on television because he finds the real presence of people in a church a distraction.  Well, the real presence of people is also the real presence of Christ.  And yes, some people are distracting, and distracted, all of the time, and all the people are distracted some of the time; but that's us, that’s God's people, just as we are.  The first thing we do when we come to celebrate Mass together is to proclaim that we are all sinners.  That is surely an unusual way to begin any celebration.  If we did that at wedding breakfasts, for example, it would be very odd.  Why do we do it at Mass?  I think it is because we know we should bring our real selves there, not an edited version, not just the nice bits.  We need to come there, just as we are, and stand in the place of mercy.  We come to Mass, not because we think we are good but because God is good.  “Jesus is the hand of God's mercy stretched out to us,” wrote Leo the Great in the 5th century.  “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,” wrote his distant successor, pope Francis.  In the document announcing a Jubilee Year of Mercy, pope Francis went on: “Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and humanity, opening our hearts to a hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.” 

You can download that beautiful letter; it is called Misericordiae vultus, “the Face of Mercy.”  Keep going to Mass and try to see beyond the failings of the priests – that in itself would be an expression of mercy.  It may be, Marie, that the Year of Mercy, to begin on December 8, will wake up the clergy in your parish. 


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