WHY CATHOLICS GO TO MASS
Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P.
Secretary, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P.
Secretary, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
Why get out of bed in the morning? Why eat breakfast? Why sleep seven to eight hours a night? Why run six miles a day? And so on. These activities are so much part of the fabric of everyday life that asking why we perform them seems almost pointless. The answers are self-evident.
Another reason not to think about these questions is that the answers are too complicated. There are too many reasons for doing these things.
The question “why do Catholics go to Mass?” is not unlike these sorts of questions. The answer is obvious. That’s what we do. We go to Mass on Sundays and, if we can, other days too. Why? For lots of reasons.
But sometimes it is a good thing to ponder the supposedly obvious answers to questions like these. In any case, the John Carroll Society asked me to take on the question “why do Catholics go to Mass?” I hope you will forgive me if, in the short time allotted to me, I give only some of the reasons.
Communion with the Blessed Trinity
Let me provide the first and most important reason in the words of Pope Benedict: “The Sacrament of Charity, the Holy Eucharist is the gift that Jesus Christ makes of himself, thus revealing to us God’s infinite love for every man and woman” (Sacramentum Caritatis §1).
The Holy Father continues: “The Eucharist reveals the loving plan that guides all of salvation history (cf. Eph 1:10; 3:8-11)” (ibid. §8). The triune God desires to share the communion of trinitarian life with us, with creaturely persons.
No one has ever desired anything more than the triune God desires this, and nothing makes sense apart from this. Christ himself has revealed to us (for how could we otherwise have known about it?) that “God is a perfect communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (ibid.) and that his desire to make room for us in his own communion of life lies at the basis of everything: creation, incarnation, redemption, sanctification and glory.
Through the Mass we begin to see—indeed to experience—everything in the light of this divine intention to share the communion of trinitarian life with us. Looking at things this way—looking at them the way that Christ himself has taught us to do—we understand why we were created, why the Word became flesh, why Christ died and rose from the dead, how the Holy Spirit makes us holy, and why we will see God face to face. We were created so that God could share his life with us. God sent his only-begotten Son to save us from the sins that would have made it impossible for us to share in this life. Christ died for this, and, rising from the dead, gave us new life. To become holy is to be transformed, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church, into the image of the Son so that we may be adopted as sons and daughters of the Father. Glory is the consummation of our participation in the communion of the triune God—nothing less than seeing God face to face.
“In creation itself, man was called to have some share in God’s breath of life (cf. Gen.2:7). But it is in Christ, dead and risen, and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, given without measure (cf. Jn 3:34), that we have become sharers in God’s inmost life” (ibid.).
For this reason, “in the Eucharist Jesus does not give us a ‘thing,’ but himself. He offers his own body and pours out his own blood. He thus gives us the totality of his life and reveals the ultimate origin of this love. He is the eternal Son, given to us by the Father….In the bread and wine under whose appearances Christ gives himself to us in the paschal meal (cf. Lk 22-14-20; 1 Cor 11:23.26), God’s whole life encounters us and is sacramentally shared with us” (ibid.).
This is the most important reason why we go to Mass. But we might well be tempted to ask ourselves, and we should not shrink from doing so: how can Christ make himself present to us in this way? How can this be possible?
According to St. John's Gospel, the first people to hear Christ proclaim the Eucharist asked exactly that question. Some embraced our Lord’s words in faith, but others were put off by it. When they heard Christ say: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh," they asked, incredulously, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (John 6:51-52).
How can this be indeed?—a perfectly natural question from the human point of view, the sort of question frequently voiced when people hear about something that God is said to have done or to be doing.
But suppose that we adopt Christ’s point of view. Suppose that instead of maintaining a human point of view we adopt his. When we do this, we may find that our troubling "how can this be?" becomes an awestruck and faith-filled "why not?"
We have seen that God desires to share his life with us in the most intimate manner. The Catholic tradition has not hesitated to describe this participation in the divine life as a true friendship with God. Given this truth of our faith, is it not in a sense appropriate that God should be moved to send his only-begotten Son into the world and, in the breathtaking divine condescension of the incarnation, to take up a human existence to be known and loved among us as Jesus of Nazareth? Was it not fitting, as the Scriptures say, that the Son of Man should offer his life to his Father on the Cross in a reconciling sacrifice of love for our sake?
For St. Thomas Aquinas it is but a short step from the Incarnation to the Holy Eucharist. In this connection, St. Thomas wrote: "It is a law of friendship that friends should live together….Christ has not left us without his bodily presence on our pilgrimage, but he joins us to himself in this sacrament in the reality of his body and blood" (Summa Theologiae III, 75, 1). In effect, Aquinas is saying that it makes sense, given what we know about God's plan to bring us into the intimacy of his divine life, to leave us the extraordinary gift of the real and substantial presence of his Son in the Eucharist. In the light of the entire mystery of faith, we can see the Eucharist as the gesture of our divine friend. Pope John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia de Eucharistia: "It is pleasant to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 13:25) and to feel the infinite love present in his heart" (§25).
Pope Benedict has said the same thing: “In the sacrament of the altar, the Lord meets us, men and women created in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:27), and becomes our companion” (Sacramentum Caritatis §1)
But there is more. This is a friendship that expressed itself in the ultimate sacrifice of love in which Christ gave his body and blood up for our sake. When he instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, according to Pope John Paul, "Jesus did not simply state that what he was giving them to eat and drink was his body and blood; he also expressed its sacrificial meaning and made sacramentally present his sacrifice which would soon be offered on the Cross for the salvation of all" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §12). By overcoming the effects of sin, the sacrificial passion and death of Christ and his glorious resurrection—the Paschal mystery—restored our friendship with God. In this connection, Pope John Paul made a striking point: "This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after he had left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, § 1). Not only does our divine friend want to stay with us; he wants to do so precisely in virtue of the power of the Paschal mystery which guarantees what must now, always and everywhere, be a reconciled friendship won at the price of his blood.
No wonder that Pope John Paul II could write: "I want once more to recall this truth and to join you, my dear brothers and sisters, in adoration before this mystery: a great mystery, a mystery of mercy. What more could Jesus have done for us? Truly, in the Eucharist, he shows us a love which goes 'to the end' (cf. Jn 13:1), a love which knows no measure" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §11).
An extraordinary promise comes from the lips of our Savior: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever”(Jn 6:51). This is another important reason why we go to Mass, but we have to admit that nothing in our experience prepares us to believe such a promise. On the contrary, our experience seems to teach us the opposite. We know of nothing that lasts forever. Certainly, we know of no food or drink that do not themselves run out in the end, and so could not in themselves be the source of endless life for us. This is the lesson our experience teaches us, and it is one that we learn very early in life.
Remember when we were children. In the center of the dining room table, there is a scrumptious homemade apple pie from which we have each received a slice but which is not big enough to provide seconds for all of us. We think to ourselves: whoever devours his first portion in the quickest time has the best chance at getting a second. We thought this as children, and we think it still. The lesson is clear: if nothing—and certainly no food or drink—lasts forever, and if we are not to be left with nothing in the end, we must be work hard at acquiring what we need to survive and, indeed, to flourish.
It is all the more remarkable that Christ would use bread and wine as the sign that contradicts our ordinary experience at the same time that it transforms it. Christ takes up perishable bread and wine to signify the imperishable food which is his most holy Body and Blood, and which is the source of the unending life that no ordinary bread and wine can ensure and that only a divine gift can provide.
The miracle of the feeding of the multitude provides us with some insight into this mystery. From five loaves and two fishes, our Lord feeds five thousand people. We learn from the Gospel that, even after the hungry crowd has been satisfied by this miraculous multiplication, the disciples are nonetheless able to gather up leftovers. What does this super-abundance signify? Surely, that Christ could have fed five thousand more, and, indeed, an indefinite number of people. Why? Because he is an inexhaustible source of food. There is no bottom of the barrel here. The Church has rightly seen in this wonderful miracle a sign of the Eucharist in which we receive, not loaves and fishes, but the very Body and Blood of Christ in sacramental form. Recall the verse of the Lauda Sion: “Thousands are, as one, receivers, / One, as thousands of believers, / Eats of him who cannot waste.” The food and drink which Christ gives to us can be the source of unending life because it is itself his inexhaustible Body and Blood. Only this great gift can finally allay our anxiety that, in the end, there may not be enough for us. In Christ, there is enough, and more than enough.
For it is nothing less than the unending divine life which Christ shares with us in the Eucharist: “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” The “heavenly banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, and the soul is filled with grace” is a participation in the divine life itself and an intensification of our communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and with one another in them. As we sing in the Pange Lingua: “Faith alone which is unshaken / Shows pure hearts the mystery.” Only faith can overcome our doubts and anxiety, only conversion and repentance can open our hearts to Christ’s promise that “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Becoming the Body of Christ
Another important reason why we go to Mass is this: through the Mass we become the Body of Christ. For the Eucharist is the Body of Christ and that the Church is the Body of Christ.
It is from St. Paul that the Church first learned to speak this way. “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:16-17). About this, St. John Chrysostom’s wrote: “For what is the bread? It is the body of Christ. And what do those who receive it become? The Body of Christ – not many bodies but one body. For as bread is completely one, though made up of many grains of wheat, and these, albeit unseen, remain nonetheless present in such a way that their difference is not apparent since they have been made a perfect whole, so too are we mutually joined to one another and together united with Christ” (Homilies on I Corinthians, 24,2).
The truth is that the eucharistic Body of Christ is source of the mystical Body of Christ. We who receive the eucharistic Body of Christ during Mass become the Mystical Body of Christ. In the terms of St. John Chrysostom’s analogy, just as many individual grains of wheat go together to make the bread that becomes Christ’s body, so the Church is made up of all those individual persons who are united to Christ and to one another in Him. The Church is nothing other than the Mystical Body of Christ that is initiated by the sacrament of Baptism and continually built up by the participation of its members in the eucharistic Body of Christ. Pope John Paul II sought to capture this profound truth by entitling his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucaristia: “the Church from or out of the Eucharist.”
The Mystical Body of Christ is a spiritual reality. The adjective “mystical” is not intended to suggest a contrast with “real,” as when we speak of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. The Church speaks of the presence of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine as real “not to exclude the idea that others are ‘real’ too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man” (Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, §39). The Church is called the “mystical” Body of Christ because its members are joined not in a physical manner, but in a spiritual union in and with Christ which, though invisible, is nonetheless real.
The Holy Spirit is active in constituting both the eucharistic Body of Christ and the mystical Body of Christ. The prayers of the eucharistic liturgy makes this clear. Take the third Eucharistic Prayer for example. Before the consecration of the Mass, the priest offers an invocation (called the epiclesis) in which he prays: “Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” After the consecration, the priest offers a parallel prayer: “May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.” It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that the bread and wine are transformed into the eucharistic Body of Christ, and, furthermore, that we are joined together to form the Mystical Body of Christ.
To grasp that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ and the Church is the Body of Christ, brings us back to where we started: the Blessed Trinity.
If you pass close attention to all of the prayers at Mass, you will notice some intriguingly beautiful patterns. The invocations of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic Prayers, like those quoted above, are themselves always set within the context of a larger prayer addressed to the Father. The context is always a trinitarian one, with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit being mentioned in turn and in a certain order that reflects the deepest structures of the economy of salvation itself. The Father sends the Son, and the Father and the Son together send the Holy Spirit. Where? To us. Why? So that the Holy Spirit can return us through the Son to the Father. In other words, the goal is to bring us into a life of communion (aka: friendship!) with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and with one another in them.
The key moment in this remarkable movement of the Blessed Trinity towards and into us, and of ourselves towards and into the Blessed Trinity is our transformation in the image of the Son. In his humanity, Christ not only exemplifies the perfect sonship but also transforms us in his image. Christ, the Head of the Body, causes his transforming grace, above all in the Eucharist, to flow into all of the members of his Body so that they are conformed to him by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Father thus sees and loves in us what he sees and loves in Christ, and our union with them and with one another is achieved. The eucharistic Body of Christ—which we receive at Mass—is at the heart of the mystical Body of Christ—which we become at Mass. Amazing, isn’t it?
I’ve given three of the most important reasons why Catholics go to Mass. Allow me a concluding word on how Eucharistic Adoration prolongs the Mass for us.
Conclusion: Eucharistic Adoration
In his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis—from which I’ve quoted several times in this presentation—Pope Benedict wrote: “ I heartily recommend to the Church’s pastors and to the People of God the practice of eucharistic adoration, both individually and in community….In the Eucharist, the Son of God comes to meet us and desires to become one with us; eucharistic adoration is simply the natural consequence of the eucharistic celebration, which is itself the Church’s supreme act of adoration” (Sacramentum Caritatis, §67, 66).
The Holy Father notes that the “inherent relationship between Mass and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was not always perceived with sufficient clarity.” He notes at times one hears the objection that argued that “the eucharistic bread was given to us not to be looked at , but to be eaten” (Sacramentum Caritatis, §66).
In order to respond to such objections, just recall that at four important moments during the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest elevates the sacred host and the precious blood of the Lord: first, during the consecration when the priest elevates the sacred host and the chalice containing the precious blood; then at the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer, the priest raises the host and the chalice together; again, before the distribution of Holy Communion, the priest presents the sacred host and the precious blood to the entire congregation with the words “Behold the Lamb of God…;” and finally, in a more personal moment, each communicant is invited to behold and adore the sacred host just before receiving “the bread of life.”
It is in these significant moments of “elevation” that we must find the roots of Eucharistic exposition and adoration as well as the profound connection between the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass and Eucharistic devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Christ, who was raised up on the cross for our sake, who rose from the dead and ascended to the right of the Father, is raised up again at Mass so that we may look on him and be saved. In the solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, this “being raised up for our sake” is prolonged and extended. In exposition, adoration and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, we have the contemplative extension or prolongation of the Mass itself.
The Christian faithful who behold, adore and receive Christ in the sacrament of the altar desire to continue, in a more contemplative and protracted manner, to look with love on Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament. It is not that Christ becomes more present to us, as Aquinas points out, but rather it is that we become more present to him. In beholding him exposed to us in the monstrance, our attention is more focused and concentrated. In that sense, we become more present to him.
The Holy Father recommends “a suitable catechesis explaining the importance of this act of worship, which enables the faithful to experience the liturgical celebration more fully and more fruitfully” (Sacramentum Caritatis, §67). In a word, the more we adore Christ in the Eucharist, the more deeply we will understand why Catholics go to Mass.