It seems like a contradiction to say some positive effects arose from the various restrictions we endured while helping to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Those faithful people who did their best as far as possible, to attend Mass, were overjoyed when eventually they were permitted to be present actually and not virtually, for the Sunday celebration in their own parish.
One priest reported that the congregation spontaneously joined together in singing “Queen of the May” at the end of the first Mass they had attended after months of standing outside and listening in the car-park. Other places witnessed a genuine happiness pervading the church building. As the parish priest said when he welcomed his parishioners back “I can’t see your smiles because of the masks, but I can see your eyes smiling.”
The value of the Mass is beyond price and while we know this, in the past perhaps we did not think seriously enough about it. We could go to Mass on Sunday in any church we liked, while now in most places throughout Ireland, we are obliged to attend liturgical celebrations in our own parish. This makes us realise that Mass is the same everywhere in the Catholic world. Many disagree however and claim that a bewildering variety exists from church to church.
A lady staying in a New York hotel some years ago told that when she enquired about Mass at Reception, she was given a leaflet with information on “Catholic orthodox, Catholic liberal, Catholic charismatic, Catholic gospel, Catholic folk, Catholic Latin, etc. etc.” This is not too far from what we now experience in our own country. Nonetheless it is important to remember that even if serious liturgical malpractice abounds, the three conditions for a valid Mass remain, namely the intention of the priest and the bread and wine. This does not mean of course, that liberties may be taken with the liturgy in normal circumstances.
In “Five Loaves and Two Fishes” Archbishop (later Cardinal) Thuan of Vietnam recounts how he was arrested when Communist forces invaded Saigon in the 1970s. Although deprived of everything he owned, he was permitted to write to friends for necessities such as soap, toothpaste etc. and so he asked for “some medicine for my stomach.”
His friends of course realised what he meant and sent to the prison, a small bottle of wine labelled “stomach medicine” and also some hosts hidden inside a flashlight. The Archbishop was therefore able thanks to his friends outside, to celebrate Mass many times during his years of solitary confinement.
Our circumstances of course are not so extreme and it is often not only a challenge but a penance when we are obliged to be present at Mass when things are not to our taste. This is true especially when the liturgy does not respect all the rubrics and in several instances does not accord with the norms the Church has laid down.
We are dismayed and annoyed when the celebrant fails to adhere to the prescribed prayers and what passes for music is some dreadful and inappropriate recording. In addition, the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion often extend their duties way beyond what is required. Sometimes it is hard to pray and we leave the church afterwards in a mood less edified than when we entered. We would much prefer to have gone somewhere else.
At the same time we should not neglect to recognise one positive effect of the restrictions on Church attendance, namely that we are forced to appreciate more sincerely than before, being able to go to Mass at all. During lock-down, it was possible to turn a blind eye to some dubious practices in the liturgy when it meant that a certain priest was willing to celebrate daily Mass, despite the restrictions on people being present.
Some priests simply left the church door open or came out to those gathered outside to administer Holy Communion. We were grateful for the opportunity and reminded ourselves of the severe difficulties experienced by our ancestors during penal days.
As we do our best to practice our Faith in less than normal circumstances, the most important matter is to value the reality of the Holy Sacrifice above all else, including health issues.
As we know, each time we attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, our soul benefits from the grace it receives as it does with all the sacraments. Something more is happening at Mass than even the sacraments. The priest, acting in the person of Christ receives the special benefits of ministry and those people in attendance offer themselves to the Father with Jesus, the holy and spotless victim. In addition to this, there is a special intention “for whom the Mass is offered.” This brings us to the issue of having an individual Mass offered.
It is a laudable practice to offer Mass for a special intention. However this is of small value compared to the inestimable value of the priest offering the Mass for this intention, because in that case, it is Christ himself who is offering the sacrifice in the person of the priest.
When we decide to get a Mass said for someone it is usually because of some special reason. Perhaps a person has died and we want to have Mass offered to entreat God’s mercy on his soul. At other times a priest may be asked to offer Mass for the sick or the dying, to obtain employment or some other favour. Sadly the practice of individual Mass being offered seems to be on the decline.
In the past all those who attended a funeral had a Mass card in their hand. It is now however quite common that the name of the deceased or anyone for whom Mass is intended, is included in the Masses and prayers said by a religious community. This is not the same as having an individual Mass offered for a particular person.
In The Incredible Catholic Mass, Fr. Martin von Cochem OSF describes how the Holy Sacrifice is the antidote to all evil. Mass is the direct line to the heart of God. This book written in the eighteenth century and recently re-published, gives a timeless insight into the unique value of having Mass offered for an individual. No gift is as valuable as the gift of having a special Mass offered.
“All the Masses which you hear, or are said for you, will await you at your death: they will go to the judgement seat; they will plead for mercy for you”
The custom of having a Mass said for the deceased goes back to the early Church. Inscriptions found on the catacombs in Rome date from the second century. Saint Augustine who died in 430, recorded in his Confessions the wish of his dying mother, Monica who asked that wherever he would find himself that he would remember to pray for her at Mass. Another example comes from Pope Saint Gregory (d.604) who exhorted the faithful never to hesitate to offer prayers for the dead.
“One Mass said in your lifetime will do more to free the soul from the punishment of sin than many Masses after death. For our sojourn in this world is a time of grace, afterwards comes the time of just retribution; now it will be far easier to make our peace with our Judge than it will be hereafter.”
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