The CATHOLIC THING: What ‘on earth’ are Catholics doing at Sunday Mass?

I am what people call a ‘cradle Catholic’.  Twelve days after I was born, my parents took me to St Columba’s, Adamstown, where I was baptised by Fr Doran.  Since then, Sunday Mass has been a regular part of my life.

As children, my brothers and I were taken to Sunday Mass. As an adult, I had to make my choice about Sunday Mass.  ‘To go or not to go, that is the question.’  I decided to go.  And for the most part, I decide to join with the community every Sunday.  What on earth for?

For me, Sunday Mass is about faith. I join with the community because I believe in God. I believe God creates me, loves me, is with me and is always leading me and nudging me to be my best self. I know God, I don't just know about God. I want God in my life and I want to be part of God’s life. So important is my relationship with God that I want to become like Christ.  Therefore, I need to listen to God’s word and be shaped by God’s wisdom, which is love. That’s how I keep growing, not just as a follower of Christ, but becoming a member of Christ’s body and living in a way that makes the kingdom of God present. Participating in Sunday Mass is an expression of my faith. I need to be there, so that week by week, I am changed as I continue to “put on Christ”. This is the desire and the promise that impel me to participate in Sunday Mass. Without this relationship with God, Sunday Mass makes no sense to me.

This foundation in faith grounds my understanding of what I think I am doing when I participate in Sunday Mass. We are there not so much to get something (communion) as to become something (a holy communion). Through our participation in the actions of the Mass, we join ourselves to Christ so that by doing what Jesus did, “through him, with him and in him”, we are changed or renewed. At Mass we learn the steps that will enable us to live through, with and in Jesus outside Mass. 

We do this at Mass in two main ways. Firstly, together, we listen to the readings. Catholics believe that Christ is really present to the community in the readings. So our job is to listen attentively for what God is saying to us; for the Word we are to live during the week. The pattern of the Mass helps us do this: the Word is proclaimed well; there is silence for me to ponder the Word in my heart, so I will be ready to join my voice to the response of the community. The whole Mass is patterned as a dialogue. This helps me to understand that Christian life is lived in dialogue with God.  God speaks to us through the events of our lives and the Mass trains our ear “to listen like a disciple” so that we learn to recognise the voice of God amidst the many voices that clamour for our attention.  A Christian listens, then ponders on that Word before responding. In the Mass, God is shaping us to become the living Word of God in the world during the week.

Having listened to the Word, the community’s main response is to celebrate the eucharist. Catholics believe that in our remembering of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we join ourselves to Christ so that “through him, with him and in him”, we offer ourselves to God. At Mass we too are taken by God, blessed by God, broken open and given for the life of the world.  We are changed so that when we come in procession to receive communion, as St Augustine says, we are receiving what we have already become. So when we say ‘Amen’, we are saying ‘Yes’ to being a member of the Body of Christ and to living as Christ during the week.

Sunday Mass helps me deepen my understanding of Christian life as communal. Mass is not primarily ‘me and God’ time, Mass is ‘us and God’ time. God calls us into community and Mass shapes us to become and live as a ‘holy communion’. This is what one of the main liturgical documents means when it says that it is from Mass that we derive the “true Christian spirit”. We celebrate Mass together, stand, kneel, are blessed, acknowledge our failures, are offered mercy, exchange peace, listen and process, share in the same meal and are sent together as living words and sacraments to bring the love and compassion of God to everyday life. 

I am constantly amazed when I ponder what we are doing together at Sunday Mass. In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard wrote, “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offence, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” 

No wonder we bless ourselves with holy water as we enter the church to participate in this amazing action!  I need to be there. I need to join myself to Christ in the eucharist so I learn how to live as Christ; to offer myself to be taken, blessed, broken and given by God every day, for the life of the world. It is through participating in Sunday Mass that Catholics continue to become more than we can possibly imagine. 

Recently we have seen communities in Sydney and France become more than they ever imagined they could be. Whatever drew thousands to Martin Place after the attack in the Lindt Cafe, and more than three million to the Paris rally in January, the experience of being there changed not just the participants, but also the observers. We are different. We are clearer. We are stronger. “I will ride with you.”  “Je suis Charlie.”  Who could have imagined all those people standing together, arms linked, holding pens as a sign of strength and unity? 

The world needs us all to be more. And it needs all of us – Christians of all varieties, Jews, Muslims, people of all faiths – to celebrate our faith in the way that is uniquely ours. The world needs all of us to dig deep into the source of what inspires our lives. If we all do that, strengthened by our difference, we will live together in ways that bring justice and peace to all nations and people. For Catholics, the way to do that is to participate in Sunday Mass.

Louise Gannon rsj is the Diocesan Co-ordinator of Liturgy and Adult Faith Formation.

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Louise Gannon rsj

Louise Gannon rsj is the Diocesan Manager of Worship and Prayer.

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