I have been reading a book by Fr. James Mallon entitled: Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish. While reading one chapter in particular I found myself shouting out, “Halleluiah!” At last I’ve found someone else who agrees with me and sees what I have been complaining about going on in churches every Sunday. I’ve reproduced the one segment here. The entire book is worth reading.
Giving Priority to the Weekend:
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118: 24)
Over the years I have been accused several times of turning the celebration of Mass into a production. As often happens in such moments, what I could have said came to me later – responses that would have been amusing, if not necessarily charitable. To the accusation that everything is a production, I am tempted to say, “Thank you, I’m so glad you noticed.” Duh!
Eleven years ago, after being a priest for six years and a pastor for three years, the obvious occurred to me. The only time we see 80% of our people is on the weekend, yet only 20% of my time in any given week was invested in planning, preparing and executing weekend Masses. It is the classic 80/ 20 rule. In pastoral ministry, it is easy to expend the other 80% of time and resources on a small number of people. I remember thinking that if the Church was a business, it probably would have gone out of business a long time ago with this kind of strategy. The Church is, of course, not a mere business, it is mystery, but grace still builds on nature and there is an essential truth here. The priority of any parish, and any priest, ought to be about preparing for and celebrating the Sunday Eucharist to make it the best possible experience for the maximum number of people. Too often in my own ministry, and in many parishes, the weekend, and everything that happens, had merely been an afterthought, a mild interruption to the real work of ministry that takes place from Monday to Friday. Sunday Eucharist ought to be a “production” in the best sense of the word. It deserves to be so. I presume here, of course, a positive connotation to “production.” We are not speaking of showmanship, or anything shallow and insincere. We are speaking about being intentional about every aspect of the Sunday celebration. To give our best for the Lord so that people who come to our church can leave with a sense of “Wow!” Why not? If I can go to a sports event or a concert and say “wow,” why shouldn’t this utterance be genuinely on the lips of those who have been sent from Church to “glorify the Lord with their lives”? The days of the 50-minute get-it-over-and-done-with Mass must end. Jesus told us that the Kingdom of God was like a wedding banquet. (Matthew 22: 1-14) The Eucharist is to be a foretaste of this banquet, and so it ought to produce an exclamation of “Wow!” It ought to be “a production.” Many of the values and examples that follow in this chapter do refer to the experience of Sunday morning, so I will refrain from giving any detail here. I do wish to say, however, that if the weekend celebrations are to be a priority, then we must have sufficient time on Sunday mornings to gather, celebrate and connect afterwards. This can be a real pressure on priests as we see the quality of Sunday mornings compromised because of our tight Mass schedules. The parking lot must be emptied on the hour so that those coming for the next Mass can arrive, or the priest must sprint for his car and play loosely with the speed limit to get to the next location for the next Mass. We need to honestly look at our Mass schedules, and ask what we truly value. Do we value meaningful and transformative celebrations of the Eucharist, or is our primary value convenient and static Mass times? Are we willing to change our Mass times so we can have more breathing space during and after each Sunday Mass? In some pastoral situations, due to the size of the building, this may not be an option, but then there is another question: do we value our buildings over a meaningful and transformative experience of Sunday Eucharist? Saint Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians, “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Ephesians 4: 5) I sometimes think that the typical Catholic version of this scripture would read, “There is one Lord, one faith, one hour.”
In all my years studying Scripture, theology, the history of the Church, and canon law, I have not found any reference to Sunday celebrations having to be no more than one hour “or else.” Furthermore, in all the times I have crossed over (God forbid) the one-hour mark, I have never seen a single person turn into a pumpkin. Never! Where does this value come from? Sports events are never less than an hour. If we went to a concert that was only an hour long, we would demand our money back. Movies and theatre productions are usually about two hours long, but “Thou shalt not go over one hour for Mass!” Where Did That Come From? During my first year of ordination, I was assigned as an assistant priest at the Cathedral. Every other weekend, I found myself filling in around the diocese. I enjoyed this very much, as I was able to get to know the lay of the land. I will never forget my first experience of Palm Sunday as a priest. I was sent on Saturday afternoon to fill in at a local city parish. I was so excited about my first Palm Sunday celebration: a procession of palms, singing, the reading of the Passion and a chance to invite the people to enter into the riches of the Sacred Triduum in the days to follow. I arrived at the church and was met by a very grumpy usher who told me in no uncertain terms that there would be no procession and that there would be no homily. When I asked him why, he told me that people “were on medication.” By the time that liturgy was over, I needed to be on medication! I was the only person in the whole church, other than the cantor, singing Hosannas during the entrance, and in spite of the glares of the usher and his companions, I did dare to preach, even if only for five minutes. So much for my first Palm Sunday celebration, which did conclude, by the way, within the one-hour mark. My friends from Africa tell me that in their countries, people bring their lunch to Mass, and their celebrations can last well beyond the three-hour mark. I have been to Masses in the Vatican that regularly go beyond two hours. When Eastern rite Christians, Catholic and Orthodox, celebrate Divine Liturgy, it would be unspeakable to even try to bring it to completion before the 90-minute mark. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians will sing for an hour, and you know that the pastor is not going to preach for any less than half an hour. So why are we so different as Catholics in North America and in Europe? The answer is so simple: habit. We formed the habit of fast-track Masses due to constrictions of pastoral practice at a time when our churches were full and it was a societal value to go to church. In 1950s North America, it was not uncommon to find urban parishes that had eight or nine Masses on a Sunday morning. These Masses would be on the hour from 6: 00 a.m. until noon, often with two different celebrations at once – one in the church and one in the basement. Parishes had to schedule in this manner for two reasons: 1) the sheer number of people who came to Mass, and 2) the discipline of fasting at that time. Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics receiving the Holy Eucharist were required to fast from food and water from midnight the night before until they received the Eucharist. This explained the prevalence of early morning Mass, after which the faithful could break their fast at “break-fast.” It also explains why Masses did not usually go later than noon. Senior priests who remember those days have told me stories of how fainting and collapsing parishioners were a common occurrence. Today, we have vigil Masses on Saturday evening as well as Sunday evening Masses. The Eucharistic fast is only one hour before receiving Holy Communion, and we do not have the sheer numbers of people attending Sunday Eucharist as we did in the past. The context that conditioned Catholics in the Western world to get addicted to the 45-minute Mass no longer exists, but the practice lingers on. In the end, it is not really a question of how long the Mass ought to be or could be, but whether this value leads us to health. I believe it does not. It contributes to a “get it over and done with” mentality that turns our Eucharistic celebrations into something to be endured rather than something that endures. Serving the unspoken value of “convenience” may be the reason why, in spite of the change in context, we continue to value the one-hour Mass. I remember as a young teenager going to a Saturday afternoon Mass in town with a friend of mine. This Mass was held in a retirement home and was a Sunday Mass. Presumably, the residents of that home did need food and medication, and somehow the priest was able to move through the entire Sunday liturgy from beginning to end, including a brief homily, in 20 minutes (after being a priest for seventeen years, I still have no idea how he did this). The point of this story is not the amazing feat of rapid worship, but the fact that there were at least a hundred non-residents of all ages who crowded into the small common room and lined the hallways outside in order to avail themselves of the fastest Mass in the West. I cannot be too indignant on this matter as my best friend and I were there for exactly the same reason.
A Culture of Minimalism:
The fast-Mass addiction continues to be played out in parish after parish all over the Western world. During my first months at Saint Benedict, I had to address what I considered to be a major problem at our Saturday vigil Mass. We used to get about 600 people at this Mass, and at least 25% of them would leave as soon as they had received the Eucharist. That was bad enough, but the back wall of our church is all glass, and you can see the entire foyer from the front of the church. I will never forget the first time I saw this: I could not believe my eyes. Hundreds of people were leaving while I was still giving out Holy Communion. Over the weeks that followed, I addressed this phenomenon in the parish newsletter and during Mass. I was bold enough to say that, although there were indeed exceptional reasons to leave Mass directly after receiving communion, anyone who left at that time every week needed to seriously consider what they were doing. I suggested that they refrain either from leaving early each week or from receiving the Eucharist. This earned me a stream of anonymous letters, including a letter to the bishop and even a letter to the pope (a first). Some of these letters informed me that if Mass was not so long, then people would not feel compelled to leave early. Two weeks later, the priest who was assisting at the parish was presiding at the Saturday Mass. I was planning to make a few announcements at the end of Mass. I pulled into the parking lot at 4: 45 p.m. (45 minutes into Mass) only to see the usual flood of people heading for their cars. That’s why I am convinced that this phenomenon has little to do with the length of Mass and more with a desire to just get it over and done with. The sad truth is that we as pastors have often catered to this minimalist culture, but what other option did we have when we were working within a model of pastoral care that required the feeding of people who had no appetite? Remember that we come from a tradition that would discuss this question: How much of the Mass can I miss and still have it count? A commitment to the priority of the weekend means declaring this frustrating capitulation to be over. Minimalism and convenience cannot be the primary values of a healthy church. Minimalism and convenience have no place in the life of the disciple who is called to save his or her life by losing it. Someone once said that Jesus doesn’t ask for much – he asks for everything. If our liturgies are to be meaningful and transformative “productions,” they need to be able to breathe and not be constrained by a rigid one-hour rule.
Likewise, there needs to be enough time between Masses so that those who are hungry for God are able to linger with one another after Mass to encourage and support one another. We as pastors are called to facilitate this, even if it means – horror of horrors – changing Mass times, eliminating under-attended Masses, or even acknowledging that we are being confined by buildings that no longer serve the needs of this new pastoral context.
Mallon, Fr. James (2014-09-01). Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish (Kindle Locations 1417-1421). Novalis. Kindle Edition.