Photo courtesy of www.altarworthy.com

This Lent has been a very different Lenten experience than years past. I have had occasion to attend Holy Mass at three different parishes. The first Sunday of Lent we attended the High Latin Mass at St. Stanislaus in Milwaukee. Arriving moments after the procession had already begun due to a logistical error in locating St. Stanislaus Church, we were relegated to the rear pews amongst the families with toddlers and babies sitting underneath the choir loft. We must have looked out of place as a kind and attentive usher sitting behind us handed us prayer books so that we could attempt to follow along with the liturgy. Many women wore veils, and the men wore suits. Even the children were dressed in their Sunday best. The Sanctuary and Tabernacle were ornate, beautiful, and filled with the light of many candles to illuminate them. The beautiful stained glass told Christ’s story, and the Stations of the Cross lined the walls leading us through His Passion. The chanting of the choir was breath-taking, if a bit subdued due to our sitting under the loft. But, there was no mistaking the prayer that was lifted up by the voices of the choir. I closed my eyes and let the glorious prayer settle in my heart which was in great need of its healing sound.

As the Mass progressed, unfortunately all the toddlers coming and going followed by anxious mothers or older siblings and the babies fussing made it difficult to concentrate, so we quickly lost our place in the liturgy. Alas, we just sat back and observed the liturgy unfold in all its reverent dignity. There were two or three priests and at least 10 acolytes in attendance. Incense drifted back to us and filled my senses. Being so far in the back, it was difficult to hear everything as the priests face the altar and they do not use microphones. One is expected to follow prayerfully along. We did our best.

At one point, I heard English as one of the priests suddenly appeared in an elevated ambo off to the left to read the Epistle and share the Gospel. The priest’s homily spoke of Jesus’ temptation and how we are to resist that evil that visits itself in our daily lives. It was relevant and meaningful. The Eucharistic Rite was something to behold. Such reverence I have not witnessed in a very long time. There was no Sign of Peace or other activity attended to by the people. No hurrying to be found here. The entire Communion Rite took the fullness of time and suspended it as the priest was Consecrating the Host. It was palpable. As faithful parishioners approached the sanctuary there were communion rails lining the foot of the Sanctuary. As we took our place kneeling in silent and reverent prayer, the priest elevated the Host saying something I did not understand, having little to no knowledge of Latin. But, as he placed the Host on my tongue, a first for me having been taught to receive the Host in my hand, I felt for the first time in a long time the true presence of Christ enter my being. I momentarily forgot myself as I felt rather than just said “Amen.” I felt the Amen enter me. I returned to my pew and knelt in silent and tearful thankfulness as I broke down in shudders as a release from the desert I had been living in for some time took hold. We stayed for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Again, we were astounded by the reverence given to the Blessed Sacrament. As we left, my husband commented to our son that this was how he used to attend Mass when he was a child. Growing up in pre-Vatican II Chicago, he attended daily and Sunday Mass with his grandmother. Even after Vatican II brought many changes to the Mass, St. Ferdinand’s held onto its orthodoxy and retained many of the traditional parts of the Mass even into the 1970s. This is the parish where I was welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church in 1992 and, even then, it still rang the bells at Communion and held a real Midnight Mass at Christmas.

The Second Sunday of Lent we spent visiting our son at college for Parents Weekend. Our son attends college in a small Michigan town that hosts a Catholic Parish named for St. Anthony of Padua. This parish blends the traditional with the post-Vatican II norms and remains a strong, vibrant parish. The priest, deacon, and acolytes sit sideways facing the altar, and the acolytes wear the cassock rather than the simple alb. The Sanctuary holds a large crucifix on which to rest the eyes and the church is oriented properly so to keep your attention on the Sanctuary. There was a mix of Latin and English in the liturgy, and the Extraordinary Ministers and Lectors dressed for the occasion. The Word was proclaimed by lectors, and the Gospel proclaimed by the Deacon. The priest shared a meaningful and powerful homily. We heard bells during the Consecration as we knelt in silent prayer and contemplation. Here, once again, I was moved to receive the Host on the tongue, perhaps due to the reverence and importance placed on the moment by the Priest and his example.

The Third Sunday of Lent we attended Mass at our home parish. We are newer members at this parish, but know the priest rather well. He is also new to this parish being recently assigned to serve as its administrator and pastor. The church is of modern architecture with lots of open clear windows, and pews in five sections forming a semi-circle around the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is a raised dais which boasts a wooden altar, with the ambo to the right, and a clear etched glass half wall separating the Sanctuary from the Tabernacle which resides behind it. Nestled in front of this four paneled glass wall sits a small processional crucifix; the only crucifix to be found inside the church. High above the Sanctuary is a rounded stained glass sporting St. Gabriel, the patron saint of the parish. The lighting is bright and the environment is airy. The musicians and small group of singers are placed to the left of the sanctuary. The altar servers process in wearing the simple alb, followed by the lectors and then the priest, the processional cross is carried into the Sanctuary by one of the lectors and placed in its holder behind the priest’s chair and then the Book of Gospels is placed on the altar by the other lector. After they have left the Sanctuary, then the priest enters the Sanctuary and kisses the altar. During Lent, the processional is silent, and no music is played. For some reason, the glass half wall is now covered from behind in purple cloth fully obscuring the Tabernacle from view. The priest and the acolytes kneel on the steps of the sanctuary and he invites the parishioners to kneel as well. We all sing the Kyrie Eleison. Then the priest enters the Sanctuary and the Mass begins. There is a mixture of men and women who attend the ambo to read the Word or cantor, and the parishioners follow along participating where appropriate. But, this particular Sunday, the third in Lent, I was paying special attention to the reverence, or lack thereof, during the Eucharistic Rite. While the priest was properly reverent during the Consecration, there were no bells, and the parishioners were fidgeting and toddlers and babies were crying leaving me in a distracted mood.

Maybe this was an unusually bad day, but, three things happened during Communion that left me feeling empty. The first was overhearing the priest comment to a woman about her new hair cut while he was offering the Sacrament, the second was noticing the perfunctory way the Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers dispense the Host as if it was merely a transaction, very little eye contact and only a slight elevation, if any, of the Host as it is offered. The third thing that truly struck me profoundly on this Sunday was when Communion was drawing to a close and the Extraordinary Ministers were rushing to and fro through the Sanctuary to return their extra Hosts into the Paten, the Sacristan, who was one of the Extraordinary Ministers, took 4-5 Hosts in his hand from his own plate as he put it on the small credence table reserved for the empty vessels and then walked over to the organist and choir members to offer them communion. He took the Hosts in his own hand rather than in the plate. I was shocked, and it gets worse. As the Priest was walking around the half wall carrying the Paten to the Tabernacle, this Sacristan reached over as the priest passed him to place an extra Host on the pile. It seemed as if he was returning an extra potato chip to the bowl because he was done. How much more irreverent could he be? I thought to myself no wonder there is a waning belief that what we receive each Sunday is actually the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ when the Sacristan cannot even show proper reverence. If Communion and the Blessed Sacrament cannot be held to a reverent standard of behavior, what hope is there that any of the Mass remains for prayer, penance, praise, and worship. I wonder.

When parishioners wear attire more suitable for a summer picnic than Church, and the Extraordinary Ministers wear jeans and tennis shoes in the Sanctuary and treat the consecrated Host as if it was no more than a cracker, is it a wonder such an emptiness is permeating our Church and the Mass seems more like entertainment than the Holy and Reverent Worship it is supposed to be?

The contrasts between these experiences are so strong that I took notice. In moments of reflection, as an Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister myself, I have borne witness to some of the most reverent and faith filled people as they receive the Blessed Sacrament. Personally, I find meeting the eyes of the person receiving as I reverently hold up the Body of Christ is a spiritual connection between us that is sacred and special. I’ve also had people grab the elevated Host out of my hand and put it in their mouth as if it was no more than a chip. No bow, not even a head nod to acknowledge the presence of Christ in the Eucharist they are about to receive. No Amen. If Communion is to be reduced to a transaction with all the new norms that are placed on us, such as bowing to the back of the person in front of us so as to save time, and the Extraordinary Ministers and Sacristans pay no more reverence to the Host than they would to handing out crackers to children and then scurry about the Sanctuary cleaning up, what hope is there that we will become what we receive?

The Latin Mass was beautiful; full of worship, veneration, and praise, and I truly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit even if I didn’t understand the words. The Mass at St. Anthony’s was reverent, prayerful, and I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit as I received the Blessed Sacrament. I appreciated hearing the Word and the Gospel, and the homily was meaningful and relevant. I could say the prayers with the congregation. The Mass at St. Gabriel’s left me unsure and very, very empty. There is no large Crucifix to gaze upon and to contemplate the ultimate sacrifice, no solace to be found in the sanctity of the Sanctuary, and the frenetic but casual manner of the lay people defies explanation.

While I’ve attended yet another local parish on the other two Lenten Sundays where the liturgy is reverent, the environment is traditional, and the Priest is exceptional; I have found that the people in the pews are rather indifferent to the strangers among them. There was very little silent prayer before Mass began and instead I heard a lot of chatting and catching up going on. Several people were up and about during the Consecration as if nothing special was happening. I saw that the Priest noticed, too, and he was momentarily distracted from his Prayer. Yet, hope springs eternal.

I’ve also recently attended a Latin High Mass at Aquinas Academy. Over one-hundred school children were still, silent, and reverent for 90 minutes. Perhaps it was the novelty of the Mass, but, in my heart I know it is because these children are well formed and know that what was happening required their hearts to be attentive. These children are becoming what they receive.

What are the faithful supposed to make of this dichotomy of the Liturgy? How are we to develop a relationship with Christ through the Eucharist when the presence of Christ is not elevated and revered? How are we to prepare our hearts for Easter when the most iconic image of Christ Crucified is not just missing, but deliberately not there (I’ve asked) in the Sanctuary? How are we faithful Catholics supposed to enter into the Mystery of Christ’s Passion if the environment is sterile, the liturgy is lacking, and the people are busy and irreverent? How did the Church lose so much and can we get it back?

~Observations of an Accidental Catholic