If It’s Not the Mass, It Doesn’t Matter

During my many summers as a student, I maintained a vision that my teachers and professors somehow disappeared…perhaps morphed into a state of semi-existence during the hiatus of the summer months.  This fantasy lasted even through graduate school; I distinctly recall my shock at seeing a liturgy professor shopping for groceries in July.  Now, on the other side of the classroom, I know that teachers do, indeed, exist outside of class and regularly buy groceries.  I also know that the main task for college teachers during the summertime is not only taking advantage of that long-awaited respite for research, but conference-going.

I’ve been to two conferences over the past week, the College Theology Society’s (CTS) annual meeting, in Kansas City, MO, and the Association of Franciscan Colleges and Universities’ (AFCU) bi-annual meeting, held in Indianapolis, IN this year.  The audience for each conference is quite different: the CTS is attended almost exclusively by teachers of theology and religious studies, while the AFCU attendees comprise a much more diverse set of administrators, staff, and faculty.  Yet, in each setting, I’ve run into several repeating themes pertinent for Catholic, and Christian, theology.  First, theology courses are often considered a “burden” by students at undergraduate institutions.  In fact, a recurring mantra amongst students is “I didn’t hate theology as much as I expected.”  Second, many institutions have watched the sad, slow decline of many of our historic religious orders, particularly of women religious, and seem to be accepting this loss as fact.  Third, and finally, Catholics are obsessed with Mass.

While each of these threads is fascinating, it’s the last—this Catholic “Mass obsession”—I’d like to consider.  The theme for the aforementioned CTS conference was “Liturgy + Power”—a purposely ambiguous title which might invite, and did invite, a multiplicity of interpretations.  How much is the liturgy an “arena” for power?  Whose power is it?  Does one stratum of the People of God have more “power” than another?   Or, is the liturgy a symbolic system which invites us to celebrate and identify God’s power?

One of the more interesting twists, in my opinion, is the “powerful” place which the Eucharistic celebration of the Mass holds for Roman Catholics.  As our CTS plenary speaker, Bruce Morrill, SJ, aptly described, “If it’s not the Mass, it doesn’t matter.”  That is to say, Catholics look to the Mass, and the Eucharist, as the heart of their faith life, as opposed to any devotional practice, and that they prefer attendance at Mass to any other parish-sponsored prayer activity.

My first thought was, “Good!  Look how the liturgical movement succeeded!”  First fueled by Pope St. Pius X and his call for frequent communion (Sacra Tridentina 1903), the celebration of the Mass, intimate knowledge of the prayers and lectionary cycle, and full, active and conscious participation catapulted the Mass to the pinnacle—or should I say summit—of the faithful’s Catholic life.  Identifying this sacramental experience at the heart (or source) of the Body of Christ makes a great amount of sense.  The Mass has more “power” than the stations of the cross, my rosary, or even Eucharistic adoration.

At the same time, the powerful, centripetal force afforded to the Mass, which drew the faithful’s liturgical-devotional attention into it, has also left a vacuum.  While the Mass might be the most powerful location of sacramental experience in the journey of Christian life, it is not the only one.  And yet, at both conferences I attended, the pursuance of a wider and more varied set of worship experiences seems to be routinely neglected by Catholics, as well as by Catholic institutions who regularly provide worship opportunities for their campus communities.

This monolithic attention to “the Mass” does not match up with liturgical renewal, of course.  For example, a quick review of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy turns up an entire chapter devoted to the Divine Office, daily prayer fueled by psalms and canticles, which is described as a “duty of the Church” which is also her “greatest honor,” offering “praises to God” unceasingly (SC 83-85).  Particularly on more solemn feasts, the faithful are encouraged to come “in common” to church to celebrate Vespers (SC 100).  So, too, are services of the Word recommended, likewise on these more solemn feast days, or during weekdays in Advent and Lent.  Such services are particularly suitable when no priest is available, and call for a deacon, or other person authorized by his or her bishop (perhaps a lay ecclesial minister), to lead (SC 35).

​Lest we assume that a vision for a more holistic liturgical life was a pipe dream designed for Roman Catholics alone, I have been reflecting about how these same calls for liturgical prayer and contemplation of Scripture are appropriate for a much wider Christian context: ecumenical worship services.  In the midst of the scandal of division, the Directory on Ecumenism (1993) notes that prayer in common is itself “a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity” and expresses the “ties which still bind Catholics” to other Christians (Directory 108).  The Liturgy of the Hours provides one such structure for common prayer.  Likewise, reading of Scripture, in translations mutually acceptable to all Christians gathered, emphasizes the spiritual life “shared by all Christian people” (111).  Even further, sharing of resources, from a common heritage of hymns (111), to a utilization of common space (103) emphasize a real “if imperfect” communion amongst the Christian churches (104).

Yet, in my experience of Catholic institutions of higher learning, whenever two or three are gathered, then ye must have Mass.  The lack of daily prayer in the Catholic tradition, and of services of the Word, result in a double loss:  not only do Catholics continue to dwell in a limited understanding of their own liturgical traditions, but Christians from other denominations are not involved in the source and summit of the liturgical life at their college campus.

Perhaps particularly for institutions with a Catholic identity who have a large body of other Christian denominations (as many of my AFCU conference colleagues are experiencing), Roman Catholic liturgical services which have the possibility of ecumenical participation have a powerful potential for cultivating unity in the midst of Christian diversity.  This is not to say that a Catholic campus is not blessed to have adoration regularly, daily Mass, and confession.  Nonetheless, the possibility of a liturgical life which is both authentically Catholic and yet non-exclusive is not sufficiently realized for many Catholic institutions.  The Mass is not and should not be about power—or about emphasizing exclusion.  Perhaps enriching our liturgical life with multiple forms of liturgical expression would “empower” Christians to walk towards Christ’s hope, that all might be one.


  1. My observation (not necessarily an endorsement of the views): Mass gives believers something tangible, something “incarnational,” something they can see and touch. The Hours are about time, and that is a very abstract thing, especially in a culture that has virtually conquered night and darkness and obligates many of its citizens to a clock.

    The aspiration in many places to Communion services is part of this. When I was the pastoral minister in a priestless parish, I was lobbied hard for Communion services. But the bishop and the pastor said no. So I said no. Many of my progressive liturgical friends also say no, but I wonder. Are we afraid of ordinary lay people having the “power” of distribution, but also presidency, preaching, and the like? When we did adoration, we got about a half-dozen, and when we did morning prayer once a week, we got three.

    As a person of faith, I know what happens when two or three gather, even for “just” the Hours.

    The one experience I did have of daily Communion in that parish was when one of the parishioners was dying. I included the family in the sharing of the Eucharist. A Lutheran daughter did not receive, but later told me she was “almost” moved back to the Catholic Church by the experience. I would like to know how that turned out …

  2. I think that what Katharine is talking about is the syndrome known as “Mass and chips” (US = “Mass and fries”), i.e, this weird assumption that the only thing Catholics can do when they get together is “have Mass”.

    This spills over into other areas, too. I know of parish clusters where, when the priest arrives for a Tuesday evening meeting, people say “Oh, Father’s here. Let’s have Mass” because they don’t have a Sunday Mass at that particular church. That makes an assumption that all the priest can do is preside at Eucharist and ignores all his other roles within the community.

    We are, in fact, suffering from the rendering of the Mass accessible to people via the postconciliar reforms and in particular the use of the vernacular. Many other forms of prayer and devotion have gone out of the window because Mass is now so fulfilling, compared with how it was before Vatican II, when many other liturgies and paraliturgies were dreamed up to supply what was felt to be lacking in the Mass. This pendulum swing is, I think, on the way back to the centre, but in the meantime we have lost a sense of balance.

    Go to any Catholic conference lasting a few days. Twenty years ago you’d have had a Eucharist as the culmination, the climax of the week, with other liturgies (services of gathering, of the Word, of anointing or reconciliation, Vespers, of sending forth….) in the days leading up to and maybe following it. Today, you’ll find a daily Mass, which not only effectively takes the steam out of that great climactic celebration but which is often experienced as a personal devotion rather than a communal celebration.

    It’s rather like having caviare at every meal. In the end, the palate is stultified and, I believe, our prayer life is weakened as a result. Even a monastic regime of daily Office and Mass can have the same effect over time if we do not have the contrast with other celebrations and forms of prayer.

    I have nothing against the Mass, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that, anthropologically, most humans need variety as well as routine.

  3. Perhaps this is only a natural result of the Latin experience of daily Mass and multiple Masses on a Saturday night / Sunday, frequent Communion of laity at Mass, and other services such as Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage and Funeral often being commonly situated within the Mass.

    In contrast, Catholic patterns and experiences outside the Latin Church may look quite different. Eg, in some Byzantine Churches: one Divine Liturgy a week, preceded by Third and Sixth Hours, Vespers/Vigil on Saturday nights, less frequent Communion, and other Services (eg, molebny, panakhidy) dominating at other times. Also, the fact that non-eucharistic eating occurs during Divine Liturgy and other Services (antidor, zapivka, artoklasia, kolivo, etc) and afterwards (trapeza), as well as other “tangibles” (eg, anointings), might psychologically dispose the participants more favourably towards other Services “mattering”. Just a thought.

  4. Vide the Vesperal Divine Liturgy for the vigil of a feast in the Byzantine liturgy and the section in the General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours on joining a liturgy of the hour (especially Lauds and Vespers) with Mass.

  5. Many years ago a Protestant friend liked to remind me of the difference between them and Catholics: Catholics, with their devotionals, know how to pray alone whereas Protestants are much better at communal worship.

    Things may have changed somewhat but I think Protestants are still better at communal worship. Why? Most of their worships centers on the Word. Preachers spend days preparing. Hospitality and fellowship are prime virtues. They sing songs they know. In all, the focus is Jesus.

    I’m afraid that Jesus is not always the focus at Mass. Mass is used as a backdrop for graduations, stewardship rallies, conferral of honors, etc. How often do we think of Mass as sacrifice and Calvary and covenant, that Mass is when we give worship to God and not just seek solace or identity for ourselves?

    “If it’s not the Mass, it doesn’t matter.” If that’s true, we never really understood the Mass.

  6. In the Eastern Code of Canon Law “the Christian faithful are bound by the obligation to participate on Sundays and feast days in the Divine Liturgy, or according to the prescriptions or legitimate customs of their own Church sui iuris, in the celebration of the divine praises (i.e. the Divine Office).”

    A modification of the Latin code could allow Vespers or Lauds to fulfill the Sunday obligation. This would accustom people to the Office (and perhaps allow for more deacon and lay preaching if this is your cup of tea) and may lead to the greater use at other functions. This would be appropriate especially when a sizable numbers of non-Catholic Christians are in attendance.

    Liturgies of the Word with communion IMHO should be infrequent because of the separation of communion from the eucharistic prayers. I also feel that the Divine Office emphasizes a dialogue with God and the sacrifice of praise much more so than celebrations of the word alone.

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