What does the Mass mean to you? That's probably a tough question for many modern Catholics in this country. Is it an obligation to be fulfilled each week at a convenient time slipped in between sporting events and family obligations? Is it our one hour of spiritual nourishment and prayer for the week? Or is it a life-giving experience that helps transform our lives and make us ready to take up our Gospel challenge.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap, of Denver recently gave an inspiring and thought-provoking lecture on liturgy and the ways our culture and even our Church have, in a sense, watered down the "cosmic" element of the Mass, taking it farther and farther away from the celebration that the early Christians loved so much they were willing to die for it.
At a lecture at the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois yesterday, Archbishop Chaput questioned whether modern men and women are capable of "real worship."
"We live in a society where the organizing principle is technological progress, conceived in narrow, scientific and materialistic terms. Our culture is dominated by the assumptions of this scientific and materialistic worldview. We judge what is 'true' and what is 'real' by what we can see, touch and verify through research and experimentation.
"In this kind of culture, what meaning can there be for the traditional Catholic notion that the human person is created in the image of an invisible God; that the person is a creature of body and soul, infused with 'the Spirit of sonship' through the liturgy and the sacraments?
"In practice, almost nothing of what we believe as Catholics is affirmed by our culture. Even the meaning of the words 'human' and 'person' are subject to debate. And other tenets of the Catholic worldview are aggressively repudiated or ignored.
"The question becomes: What implications does all this have for our worship -- in which we profess to be in contact body and soul with spiritual realities, singing with the angels and saints in heaven, receiving the true Body and Blood of our once dead and now risen Lord on the altar?"
The archbishop went on to outline four points necessary for a renewal of liturgy:
-- the need to "recover the intrinsic and inseparable connection between liturgy and evangelization"
-- that liturgy be seen as a "participation in the liturgy of heaven" in conjunction with the worldwide Church and communion of saints
-- the need to "strive to recover and live with the same vibrant liturgical and evangelical spirituality as the early Christians"
-- that liturgy is a "school of sacrificial love...We are to become the sacrifice we celebrate."
In what is perhaps the most powerful portion of his lecture, Archbishop Chaput talks about the significance of Mass in the lives of early Christians and in our lives today:
"I won’t take the time here to rebut these claims. The problem with all such nostalgic-primitivist reconstructions can be summed up in one thought: Nobody risks torture and death for a meal with their friends. And torture and death were the frequent penalty for being caught celebrating the Eucharist in the world of the early Church.
"There are countless stories we could point to. One that especially moves me comes from the year 304, during Diocletian’s great persecution. A congregation in Abitina, a village near Carthage, was rounded up. The account of their torture, written by a witness just a few years after the fact, is brutally raw and graphic. What shines out is the people’s Eucharistic faith.
"Interrogated about why he disobeyed the Emperor’s decree, a young lector named Felix said this: 'As if one could be a Christian without the Mass or the Mass could be celebrated without a Christian! … The Christian exists through the Mass and the Mass in Christians! Neither can exist without the other. … We celebrated the glorious assembly. We gathered to read the Scriptures of the Lord at the Mass.' "We notice in this confession the same themes we’ve been talking about. The Mass for these disciples is no mere meal. It’s a 'glorious assembly,' a heavenly liturgy. This liturgy defines their identity as Christians. And it also defines the identity of the Church; so much so that one of Felix’s fellow martyrs would confess: 'We cannot live without the Mass.'
"This is the kind of faith that should inspire our worship. And this is the kind of faith that our worship should inspire. Can we really say today that we’re ready to die rather than not celebrate the Mass?"
Food for thought this Friday morning. Read Archbishop Chaput's full lecture HERE.