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The Greatest Celebration -- Holy Mass

by Bebe Kennedy

If a survey were taken, how many Catholics would accurately define the meaning of the Mass? When I was an elementary school student, my classmates and I memorized numerous facts about Catholicism from the Baltimore Catechism. We learned that the Mass is “the unbloody sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ”. But I question the depth of impact this made on most of us who learned that answer by rote, even though the nun giving us instruction explained the meaning. (During my era there was no shortage of nuns filling teaching posts in Catholic schools.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which He gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which He ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (CCC 1365). On every altar there is a crucifix, which serves as a reminder that Jesus shed His blood for us. In addition, the liturgy is begun with a sign of the cross, which also calls to mind Christ’s sacrifice.

“But the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union with Christ through communion” (CCC 1382). It is beyond our comprehension that, in receiving Holy Communion, we receive Christ Himself. In spite of our unworthiness and sinfulness, Jesus, because of His love for us, desires this union with us.

Although the Mass is the reenactment of Christ’s supreme sacrifice, too many Catholics are negligent in attending Mass regularly, if at all. Some only show up on Christmas and Easter. Another sign of disregard is making an exit immediately after receiving Holy Communion, which expresses reluctance to remain for the final prayers. On the other hand, there are also many who have a deep appreciation of this sacrificial memorial — and are willing to endure hardship in order to regularly participate in the celebration of the Eucharist.

I once heard about an African-American male teacher who attended Mass on a daily basis. Fortune smiled on him and he was offered a higher-paying teaching position in another locale. After resettling, he resumed his practice of going to daily Mass. Upon his leaving church after Mass one day, he was approached by several parishioners who asked him to stop attending their “white” parish. (This was during the time when the lines of segregation were rigid and strictly upheld.) Being present each day at Mass was a higher priority for the teacher than monetary reward, so he returned to his previous lower-paying position. This faithful Catholic man began every day by receiving the Body of Christ, an opportunity he cherished, putting behind him worldly interests. There are very few who are willing to make such a sacrifice!

For some, the experience of the Mass seems remote. However, Vatican II expanded the role of the laity, stressing deeper involvement, thus making the Mass more meaningful for many. The reading of Scripture by lay members of the parish and taking gifts to the celebrant at the offertory are examples of “lay participation” in Mass. But translating the sacred texts of the Mass into vernacular languages also led to greater understanding and actual participation in the Sacred Liturgy by lay people.

We have the example of many saints of past centuries who witnessed to the truth and power of the Mass. Saint Louis IX, patron of St. Louis, understood that the Mass is the most significant form of prayer, and attended two or three times every day. Saint Lawrence Justinian of Venice said that no prayer is more pleasing to God or of more use to us. Saint Gregory spoke of the glorious accompaniment of angels: “The Heavens open and multitudes of angels come to assist at the Holy Sacrifice.”

Saint John Chrysostom also described the presence of these beatific beings: “When Mass is being celebrated, the sanctuary is filled with countess angels, who adore the Divine Victim immolated on the altar.”

There is a great need for Catholics to be awakened to the magnitude of the greatest and most powerful of prayers. Saint John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, expressed it well. “Put together all the good works of the whole world of mankind, including those of the saints, the martyrs and of Our Lady herself. Compare them with a single Mass and they are as nothing.” How fortunate we are to be able to avail ourselves regularly of this great prayer!

Let us participate fully in the Mass and be joyfully receptive to God’s love for us as expressed in the greatest of all prayers, the Holy Mass.

Bebe Kennedy, a former columnist for the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, is a retired public high school counselor who also taught in the behavioral studies department of a local university. She has written for many professional journals and has lectured on adolescent sexuality and pro-life issues on national, state, and local levels.

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