Next door to my parish is maybe Duluth’s closest thing to a megachurch. I have never been there, but from what I have been told, there is exciting contemporary music and an espresso bar.
This is quite a stark contrast to Catholic worship. Maybe it seems especially so given that my parish has become likely the most liturgically traditional parish in the Diocese of Duluth, complete with one Mass every Sunday almost entirely in Latin and chock full of Gregorian chant.
But even compared to a parish on the opposite end of the liturgical spectrum, there is still an unmistakable difference. And I know there are many people who find this a stumbling block. If it were just a popularity contest, we would probably be losing.
I have known Catholics who have decided they find Catholic worship boring and decided they enjoy the other thing more. They may like the easygoing feel or enjoy the music, or they may feel they are learning about the Bible or the preacher is really engaging.
On the other hand, I know there are people who have been drawn to the fullness of the Catholic faith but who, coming from another Christian tradition, find themselves unsure of what to make of Catholic worship.
In some ways, maybe I’m the wrong person to speak to this, because (perhaps apart from the espresso bar) my own personal sensibility goes so decidedly in the Catholic direction. I’m sociable and like talking to people, and on the right occasion I will even enjoy a noisy get-together, but at heart I have an introverted, introspective temperament.
And though I am a convert, I was raised in a strongly liturgical Lutheran tradition. Not only was the Catholic emphasis on liturgy never a problem for me, it is something I want to see universally cherished, recovered, deepened, and lived, in all its simple beauty and joyful sobriety.
I certainly mean no disrespect to our separated brethren in other Christian communities. We share so many good things, and some of those good things are reflected in their worship and in ours.
And I don’t take for granted that my personality might make approaching the liturgy easier for me; I respect and sympathize with those who find it more challenging. Having experienced liturgical practices in parishes countless times that I have had to “offer up,” I can relate very well, even if different things cause us suffering.
But for me, the question that has to come first is not what I prefer or what others prefer, it’s this: Does God have anything to say about how he wants to be worshiped?
The answer to that question is an emphatic “yes.”
Unpacking what he says and what it means for us even in a library full of books would fall infinitely short of reality. We behold it in heaven. But the essence of it can be stated in a single word: “Eucharist.”
Jesus, when he instituted it, handing over to his Apostles himself — his body, blood, soul, and divinity — at the Last Supper while establishing their priesthood, literally said, “Do this.”
The Old Testament is rife with foreshadowings of it; all four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and many other New Testament writings allude to it or speak of it explicitly; the earliest church fathers write unmistakably of it, for instance Justin Martyr, who gave a famously recognizable description of the basic parts of the Mass within living memory of the Apostles; the Second Vatican Council called the Eucharist the “source and summit of the Christian life.”
Once you see it, it’s everywhere. This is the worship God commands.
At every Mass, the “Paschal Mystery” — the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, which is the hinge of human history and the means by which God reconciles fallen humanity into communion with himself — comes miraculously bursting through time and space into our here and now, into the midst of our joys and sorrows and triumphs and brokenness, with all his mercy and tender care.
What could possibly be more spectacular? And then we actually consume him, receive life from him into our very bodies. What could be more intimate, more personal?
But to our senses, it does not look spectacular at all. There are no fireworks, no angelic trumpets. It looks and tastes like bread and wine, in much the same way that God incarnate, dwelling among us, looked like any other baby or boy or man, and, when he reconciled the world to himself on Calvary, looked like a criminal being executed.
If the stupendous things that happen in every Mass were obvious to our senses, it might be easier for us in some ways. But we can take consolation and courage from the fact that God willed it to be this way, and he always wills such things for our good.
This tells us that he means for us to spend our lives learning with the eyes of the heart, with the eyes of faith, to participate “in spirit and in truth” more and more deeply in what he is doing in the liturgy that we have received from him.
Put another way, as my pastor likes to say, we’re meant to “practice our faith.” When my daughter received her first Communion this year, he told the children that their best Communion should be not their first but their last. That’s worthwhile advice even for the most devout daily communicant, isn’t it? Make tomorrow’s Communion better than today’s. Be more attentive to his presence, to what he is doing in the Mass, and more receptive to his grace, more willing to let him convert and heal our hearts.
All the other stuff, the music, the silence, good preaching, loving community, and especially reverent proclamation of the sacred Scriptures, is vitally important. But in the Mass, the whole point of those things is always the Eucharist. They are always at the service of that central act of worship — the one he explicitly commands.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.