Over at Aleteia, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP has a piece titled “5 Reasons to Stay Until the End of Mass.”
The headline made me hope for a helpful piece on an important topic.
But already the subtitle made me wonder: “We hope our pastor and friends won’t notice if we leave early, but Someone does.” The capital S in “Someone” gives away the tenor of the piece – Mass is about one’s individual relationship with God/Christ.
To be sure, Mass is about that. But it’s not only about that. And making it only about that is how we got to the problem in the first place of people leaving Mass early.
Here are the five reasons Sr. Theresa Aletheia gives for not leaving early:
- Communion Is About Communing (she means with our Lord and Savior).
- It’s Not Nice to Be Rude (she means to Jesus, Creator of the Universe).
- Mass Is Not An Activity on a To-Do List.
- The Final Blessing is Important (because it comes from a priest who is configured to Christ).
- You Get MORE Grace (emphasis in original).
If this article helps people reflect on their liturgical manners and stop leaving Mass early, I suppose that’s a good thing. But not really, for the reasoning used to get there just compounds the problem.
The problem is that Catholic laity ever found it normal to leave Mass early, that their liturgical worldview saw no problem with leaving before the community’s celebration was completed. How did that strange problem arise? What went wrong over the course of the centuries? What got distorted in people’s sacramental-theology-in-practice?
Or to put it another way, why would it not occur to a Lutheran or Mennonite to sneak out habitually after they ‘got’ their Communion?
I’ll name three problems in Catholic liturgical history that are, still, deep in the Catholic psyche:
- Individualism: the belief that Mass is mostly about your relationship with God/Christ, that the Body of Christ is the consecrated Host but not the congregation.
- Clericalism: the belief that clergy are first-class followers of Christ, and laity are second-class citizens in the church.
- Legalism: applied to sacraments, the belief that you should calculate the legal minimum required to get the amount of grace you’re after. (This one could also be called quantification – and any time one starts talking about “more” or “less” or any other measure with respect to grace, something has gone off the rails.)
The antidote to these three problems – and to the problem of leaving Mass early – would be a renewal of our sacramental and liturgical theology along the lines advocated by the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reform. It would be a renewal of our sense that the liturgy is a communal, corporate act that unites us more deeply to one another in Christ, that it is carried by the entire assembly under the servant-leadership of its ordained ministers, and that the grace it gives us is the personal and communal transformation of us for the sake of the world’s transformation.
I suppose someone will think that I’m pushing the horizontal at the expense of the vertical, the congregational at the expense of ordained ministry, and the psychological and political at the expense of the spiritual. This is a misunderstanding – but the fact that it arises shows our problem. We’re stuck in a world of false oppositions.
Do you see why I think Sister’s advice compounds the problem? She more or less says that Mass is (only) about a relationship with Jesus, which would be deepened by staying until the end; that the priest’s ordination makes his blessing really valuable and worth staying for; and that you should think about how to get more grace by staying until the end.
Catholic laity long since learned to think along those lines -in fact, it set in already in the first millennium. People did the calculation, weighed the pros and cons, and quite reasonably concluded that it wasn’t worth staying until the end.
Here’s the real challenge: to grasp the communal, social, transformational aspects of the Eucharist so deeply that these do not lessen, but rather deepen the personal and spiritual aspects.
It’s what the reformed liturgy calls us to.
If we get that right, the problem of leaving early would take care of itself. Then we wouldn’t have to to scold or encourage people to behave a bit better. Instead we would call them to be, as St. Augustine put it, the Body of Christ that they receive.