Celebrating the Mass

One of the issues encountered by those who care about the Catholic mission of a university is how to welcome new faculty and staff into it. In an age when many who work for, not to mention many who are served by, Catholic institutions are not themselves Catholics, I imagine many Catholic institutions—not only universities—face some version of this question: “How do we best welcome and energize people about our Catholic identity and mission without scaring them or watering the whole thing down?” The answer, it seems to me, says quite a bit about how the institution thinks about its identity and how it is best put into practice.

Recently, I found myself on a committee that had to undertake such a task as part of planning for new faculty orientation. A bit of history is in order here. A few years ago, our president wisely called together a task force on the Catholic and Setonian Mission of our university. Seton Hill in southwest Pennsylvania was founded in 1918 by the Sisters of Charity, the order begun by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

For some time, the university’s Catholic identity has been described as resting upon four pillars: welcoming, learning, celebrating, and serving. One of that taskforce’s recommendations for enhancing our mission and identity was to begin a multi-level formation program for faculty and staff. We recognized that the first step of such an initiative has to be revising orientation, which previously had little content on Catholic identity.

The shape of the entire orientation is beyond what I want to get into here, but we decided that the first day should begin with Mass at the sisters’ motherhouse. This is important to us.

Assumption Chapel, Caritas Christi, Greensburg, PA

Nevertheless, planners are sensitive to the fact that this may be the very first experience of Mass for some. There may be misconceptions or nerves about that. There may be some who are enthusiastic about beginning the day with Mass. Tragically, there may be some who have been harmed in some way by the church or who have fallen away from attending Mass for other reasons. While in some cases we may have a sense of the religious background of our new colleagues from discussions with them, we certainly don’t know all there is to know. The awkwardness that some potentially feel can be exacerbated by the sisters’ routine that visitors are welcomed to sit in the front seats, left side, facing the altar where choir stalls might typically be (you can see these in the image above). Yikes. At least one avoids the embarrassment of inadvertently sitting in a sister’s routine seat. But walking all the way to the front and not knowing when to stand, sit, and kneel can be penitential in itself.

For all of these reasons, we want to provide some context for this opening liturgy. So we settled on a letter. Daily Mass begins at 8:30am. Since asking new faculty to arrive at such an ungodly hour in early August is already something of an imposition, we couldn’t ask for an 7:30am chat on the allure and virtue of beginning the day with Mass.

I’d like to share some of the fruit of that labor as it currently stands for your insights, comments, suggestions, and critiques. Although I wrote an initial first draft of the note, a dear colleague of mine revised and polished that draft to get it into the form you see here. Without further ado:

A Note About Starting the Day with Mass

A special welcome for each of you to the Seton Hill community—we look forward to meeting you and sharing a day of orientation to the mission and identity of the University.

As you will well come to know, Celebrating is one of the four pillars of Seton Hill’s Catholic identity. Celebration typically brings to mind commemorations, award dinners, parties, or cocktail hours—all of which are abundant at Seton Hill.  But it is the root and first meaning of celebrate that is referenced in the title of this pillar: to honor publicly and with appropriate rite, typically in a religious context. Seton Hill is a celebrating community because we acknowledge and honor the presence of God in all peoples, all moments, and all creation. We recognize that all of our other smaller gatherings of joy or grief, hope or accomplishment are rooted in this deeper, foundational orientation of finding God in all things, and celebrating that presence. This is an incarnational spirituality, a sacramental imagination.

So indeed, our day of orientation together on August 6 will begin with the celebration of Mass at 8:30am in the Chapel of the Assumption at Caritas Christi, the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.

The celebration of the Mass is the heart, the source, the summit of Catholic identity. Gathering for Mass affords the time and space which cultivates “that free, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them” (Centesimus Annus 37). In other words, Mass stands at the heart of our work for the students and community of Seton Hill University. It is for this same reason that the university will cancel morning classes on September 14, and mark our academic year with an Opening Liturgy.

Seton Hill is a diverse community of scholars and professionals who come from a variety of religious or philosophic backgrounds. It is another facet of our Catholic identity that all members of our community are welcome at campus liturgies and a variety of Setonians regularly participate to the extent that they are comfortable and able. Though we long for the day when all peoples shall be one, we respect Church teaching that restricts reception of communion to suitably prepared Catholics. Any participants not receiving communion may choose to join the line and receive a blessing instead, indicated by crossing the arms across the chest.

We hope that you will enjoy celebrating the opening of orientation with us, whether the Mass is completely foreign or deeply familiar to you. Your presence is welcome and treasured. So too are any questions or concerns or observations you may have before or after. We look forward to the time together.

Catholic Setonian Mission Orientation Task Group




  1. Certainly mass is a good option. Perhaps a better option would have been Vespers or Lauds? As you state there are many non-Catholics, so the issue of Eucharistic communion is avoided among other Christians with a non-Eucharistic service.

    1. Great point, Devin. Thanks. Yes, lauds would be lovely. However, we’re meeting at the motherhouse and are joining the sisters for their morning routine. If they have communal hours, they’re likely in the wee hours.

    2. I actually think mass was the better option, even with so many non-Catholics. Liturgy of the Hours is unfortunately still rather obscure to even dedicated Catholics (I didn’t learn about it until late in undergrad). Mass though is universally recognized in the public consciousness as uniquely and fundamentally Catholic. The campus ministry at my alma mater began its annual ecumenical retreat with a mass, and non-Catholics were very receptive to it. Communion can obviously be an issue, but that non-Catholics face challenges fitting in at a Catholic college is to some degree unavoidable, and I think most understand that.

  2. The letter admirably achieves the first part of the criteria — being welcoming. I am not sure how well it achieves the second, not watering down the faith. After all, the first instruction of the founder of the Christian faith in the oldest gospel is “repent.” The second command is to “believe the gospel.” If taken seriously, both require change on the part of the listener.

    People who choose to associate themselves with your institution must know of its religious character. It may be ok for them to feel somewhat out of place in a Catholic institution if they do not also “believe the gospel.”

    1. If some of the non-Catholics in attendance are Christians, they have already heard and followed “repent and believe …” Some individuals have done so with a comparable or superior vigor than some of their Catholic sisters and brothers. Repentance and belief are celebrated at liturgy, but the true fruits will be found in the example of daily life. Do members of a community, especially its Catholic members, have the maturity and freedom to say, “I’m sorry” to another human being, especially one of a “lower” status? Does their belief in the Gospel show in their actions?

      On a liturgical note, I find it interesting that the days selected for these Masses are significant celebrations in the Roman calendar. They put the focus squarely on Christ and his Paschal Mystery. Among Christians, Christ’s cross and his glory are among the most deeply shared aspects of faith. And for non-Christians, they present the faith quite well.

  3. I am a graduate of Seton Hill College (now University). When I am in western PA, I frequently go to Mass at the chapel at Caritas, the community mother house and retirement center, to see friends and former professors. Many of the sisters who live at Caritas are former professors or administrative staff at Seton Hill, or they were teachers in the Catholic schools who received their education at the Hill. Perhaps you might invite some of them to be part of a welcoming committee – to chat with the current faculty and staff as they come in, escort them to seats, sit with them during Mass and offer guidance about the communion procession etc.. That could continue with shared breakfast if a meal at Caritas is part of the plan. I think many of the sisters would be thrilled to share memories of the Hill in earlier times.

    1. Thanks so much for your reply, Juliana! I recognize your second name and guess that you’re the “sister in academia” I heard about a few years back. I’ve run into Bibby a couple of times in the past years and it’s always a pleasure to see her.

      As part of the program, we have 4 sisters who present on St. Elizabeth, the order, the archives, and the institution, but I like the idea of widening their involvement through accompaniment during Mass, etc. Thanks, I’ll look into it.

      1. Yes, Bibie is my sister and I’m the retired professor who now does full-time ministry in a parish including liturgy. She loved her time as interim president.

  4. Great welcoming tone and I don’t think you ‘watered’ the faith down. A couple of thoughts/suggestions:

    -There is no mention of Christ in the letter. You do say God, but not Christ. I think it is important to help others know that Mass is not just a meditation/contemplation of God, but a worship and celebration of God through, with, and in Christ, who is the center of all things Christians do.
    -Some wording is rather technical. While I applaud you for not watering it down, I don’t know if even the proverbial Mrs. Murphy could explain all of the words in it. To me, a good guiding question would be: If a faculty member’s only explanation of the Mass/Catholic worship is this letter, will they at least have the most foundation understanding of the Mass?
    -You mention the benefits of the Mass and why the Mass is important from a very broad sense, which is good. However, I would want a view included that that gives me a taste of what will happen and why. So for example, “In the Mass, the faithful gather together, remember God’s saving actions in history by reading passages from the Bible/Scripture, join their lives to Christ through the offering of bread and wine, which becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. This Body and Blood of Christ nourishes the faithful, who are then sent out to continue the mission of Christ.” Obviously that needs cleaning up, but something like it gives a hint as to what to expect during it and why it is done.
    -Similar to the previous, I would highly suggest that you include some type of worship aid that does include further detail. Nothing over the top, but something that quickly gives the person an idea as to what is happening and why.

    Hope this helps! Great work so far!

  5. I am grateful that Seton Hill is taking this approach rather than a “least common denominator” approach .

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