Posted by: joeystarke | March 12, 2009

Experiences at Mass

            I would like to take a little time to recount some of the sentiments that were expressed during class last week.  Most interesting to me was the tangent on experiences at Mass.  If I remember correctly, there was some concern that the experiences might be seen simply as chemical reactions, degrading the purpose of the Mass to our instincts to seek pleasurable feelings.  The conversation revolved around the type of music or the people sitting nearby, and I was, well, disappointed.  This is not the first time I have heard these types of beliefs and opinions.  I feel that the problem here is that we are not accurately focused on the Eucharist as central to our experience at Mass. 


My hometown of Jackson, Missouri is a smaller town in the southeastern part of the state.  I don’t think that we are officially part of the “Bible Belt,” but it sure feels like it at times.  To get straight to the point, the abundant Southern Baptist and non-denominational communities in the area are the source of “contemporary” services.  Long gone are the days of neckties, dresses, and a single piano or organ.  The contemporary service is set-up with a full rock band, blasting rifts and lyrics from modern songwriters, with the congregation clad in blues jeans, sandals, and “I Love Jesus” t-shirts.  This type of Sunday morning is very attractive compared to its established counterpart, especially among teens and young adults.  Not surprisingly, Catholic youth and youth ministers have jumped on this bandwagon, attempting to label Catholicism at “hip” or “cool” in an effort to keep young people coming to Mass each week.  I have seen this at countless retreats, and more recently parishes have created special youth Masses on Sunday evenings. 

            I find the goal of these groups in the Church admirable: keep the younger generations in the Church and possibly draw a few more sheep into the flock.  However, I think that this music based, casual dress approach is extremely shallow. At most, they are complementary.  The music, dress, and cultural aspects are implemented to add to our experience, but are items that we can do without.  Once they start to hinder our participation or concentration on the Eucharist, then they need to be remodeled or removed.  Some of you might be a little confused, or even mad at me at the moment.  After all, a change in music style or personal attire never hurt anyone, right?  I would say no, except that these items have become the FOCUS of the Mass.  When they become the focus, it is debilitating. 

            I have many friends who have been caught and drowned in this fishnet.  Teens get to a point where they can only attend this “contemporary” category of Mass. They are only spiritually fulfilled on retreats or at a “youth” Mass, and never at a “normal” Mass.  They only attend Mass with their friends; and never alone or with their parents/elders in the community whom they can learn from.  The priest (unfortunately in my opinion) is forced week-after-week to apply the Gospels solely to high school drama.  Does anyone besides me think it would be healthy for teen to be exposed to a so-called “normal” homily that is applicable to their lives as members of a larger community- you know, the one that exists beyond the walls of the high school?  (I will say that the “high school” homily would be OK once in a while, just not every week.) And what happens when these teens move on to college?  We are fortunate here at SLU to have the 10PM Mass; but the Newman centers at universities like SEMO, MIZZOU, MUST, Missouri State, and Truman do not have such elegant set-ups.  Of my friends from high school youth group who go to these public institutions- whom with I attended “youth” Masses, retreats, ant the such- only one attends Mass as a college student on a regular basis.  Out of 20 kids, only ONE!  What I hope this is showing is that the extra sensual aspects of the Mass are incapable of grounding one’s faith.  People who have been taught to make these aspects the focus find that once they are taken away, they have no motivation to attend Mass. 

Here are some things that can motivate us. 

            What I look for in a motivator is what I will call absolutism or universality.  In the examples I present, please look at how these motivators have 2 main aspects: consistency, occurring at every Mass, and a foundation that is initially derived outside of our own sensual experiences and original thought.  Rather than present a vague argument on the importance of the Eucharist and its liturgy that everyone has been subjected to before, I would like to bring forth a couple of specific examples of times during the Mass that can ground our contemplation and experiences of faith. 

1.) Water and Wine

            After the gifts are presented, the priest or deacon prepares the bread and wine on the altar.  This includes adding water to the wine.  As the minister adds water, he silently says the same prayer each time.  Sometimes I wish they would say it out-loud, so we can be reminded of its significance. 

“By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the Divinity of Christ.”

            Yes!  The Divinity of Christ!  It might be redundant, but I need to reiterate this quickly.  This gesture is taken from the scripture verse of blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side after the Roman soldier pierces him.  It is symbolic of Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity, connecting and renewing God and humanity.  It becomes more than symbolic, however, when we contemplate that sacrifice.  We actually partake in that divinity when we receive Holy Communion!  Christ’s nature allows us to truly and really enter into community with each other and with God.  Maybe, then, when you are bored by that dull repetitive hymn or are getting a headache from the rock concert, you can focus on this gift.  Watch the priest or deacon prepare the gifts; watch him pour the water and see his lips utter that important proposition.  Instead of focusing on the music, take the opportunity to prepare yourself to receive that sacrifice. 

2.) Our Father

            A few years ago, many people were in an uproar over a Vatican statement that discouraged holding hands during the “Our Father” and moving out of the pews during the sign of peace.  From talking with those who were upset at the news, I concluded that most were upset because they saw this as an attack on their interaction with family and friends during the Mass. 

This, I think, was mostly a misunderstanding.  First, the Magisterium never said we could not hold hands.  Their first priority was to ensure that priests were not directly asking people to hold hands.  Such a statement is not currently written in the prayers, and adding (or deleting) from the Sacramentary destroys the universality of the Mass.  Secondly, the act of unity in the community should more correctly be seen as the reception of the Eucharist.  It is through Christ’s sacrifice that the immediate community and the peoples of the world are united.  This is the beauty of the Catholic Church.  Individuals from opposite ends of the world share in the same Mass, the same sacrifice, and enjoy unity with the same God.  Essentially, holding hands during the Our Father or moving out of the pews to during the sign of peace, while acceptable, distorts this image of unity by presenting it at the wrong point in time in a limited (non-worldwide) manner. 

It may be fun when we attend Mass with people we know, and that’s great.  In fact, I believe Jesus wants us to celebrate with friends and family.  But again, this should not be the FOCUS.  What if family and friends aren’t there?  What if we must celebrate with strangers or even by ourselves?  Are you just going to decide not to attend?  The Church reminds us that those we intimately know are not the only people in our community.  We boast here at SLU about enculturation as an extension of the Jesuit mission.  What better way to express unity with others than to celebrate the Mass?!  I truly believe that recounting the universality of Catholicism can give us the strength to participate in the Eucharist in any circumstance.  After all, catholic is Greek for universal. 

3.) We Are Not Worthy

            The last thing I want to touch on is the prayer after the Lamb of God.  When the priest presents the Body and Precious Blood to us, we proclaim, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”  This line is taken directly from Scripture, from the story of the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:13).  In short, the Centurion (a gentile, nonetheless) recognizes the greatness of Jesus.  He realizes that not only does Jesus have the choice not to save his servant from death, but Jesus does not even have to go to his house to do so.  In fact, it would be an abomination to Jesus’ grandure to enter the Centurion’s house.  Likewise, we recognize that in our sinful state that God does not have to save us.  However, God has chosen to save us.  Not only that, but he voluntarily came into our world- “under our roof”- to do just that despite God’s ability to do it from God’s unseen realm!  Our actions and thoughts may make us unworthy of God’s grace, but God insists on treating us better than we treat ourselves.  Therefore, it doesn’t mater if Angrisano or Walker or Fr. Foley wrote the Lamb of God Mass part hymn or even how it’s performed: our focus should be on the gift we are about to receive that God has graciously and selflessly bestowed upon us.   


            How does all of this tie into our class discussion?  These ideas provide the consistency to ground our faith.  I know that not all the kinks are worked out, but I believe that this is an approach Dennett might have a harder time knocking down.  The experiences of joy we can receive do not come from external [sensual] sensations.  Most importantly, we do not create these experiences: God gives them to us.  No matter what variables exist- music, dress, company, cultures, etc.- these truths remain the same day in and day out.  Finally, we know the theology behind these acts, the Sacrifice, Transubstantiation, Scripture interpretation, etc. we have been studying for the last four years.  Now let’s make a conscious effort to incorporate these into our spiritual lives.                    



  1. I might easily fall into the category of those you think will become upset by this post, since I spent all four of my high school years attending the youth mass at my parish and am now a member of the Core team there, working hard with that ministry to keep those teens interested in their faith.

    That’s the thing, though: our focus is their faith, our faith, the faith of the Church. While I absolutely agree with your sentiments that the music and the homily and the style of dress should not be the center of the mass, I don’t think that is the intention or desire of any of these programs. For one thing, I think it is important that the Church meet people where they are at. These “sensual” elements serve a purpose in the same way candles or incense or colored vestments have worked for centuries to engage the whole person – body, mind, and soul. The Church is made of a myriad of personalities, all children of God, and I think it is important that as an institution established to make the love of God known on earth and to draw people into God’s love, it is vital that the Church reach out to all its members. Liturgies that feature contemporary songs instead of hymns help some people to focus their hearts and enter more deeply into prayer. That doesn’t mean the Eucharist stops being the center of the mass and the high point of Catholic faith.

    I know these things can be distractions, and I too am sometimes guilty of pouting when I see my least favorite priest waiting at the back of church or scan the songsheet and see that one song I cannot stand, but that doesn’t mean that these services are somehow invalid or don’t serve an important purpose in the Church. It means that I personally have lost sight of the reason I’ve come to mass, and it is my responsibility to refocus my heart and mind. I must develop a faith that would thrive on organ music or no music at all, and I think many of these youth ministry programs work to encourage their teens to do the same.

  2. Thanks for this post Joey, and I agree with the focus of the mass being the Eucharist. While I have some serious issues with the structure of the Church and the language used during the mass, the one thing that keeps me coming back is the Eucharist. The mass really is the Eucharistic celebration, whether we are remembering Jesus’ life through reflection on the scripture or Jesus’ death and resurrection through receiving his body and blood, the focus should be on bread broken and shared for all (and should actually be shared with all in my opinion even though it is not currently at least within the Catholic Church, but that is another discussion). I agree that many people have forgotten or maybe even never been taught the focus of the mass. One is told they should go to mass every Sunday, and since the structure is the same every week (which I think is a good thing in most cases) it is easy to lose focus on the incredible mystery we are invited to participate in.

    In a culture of images and sound and entertainment, these are the marketing tools being employed by many churches across the country. Jesus has become a hot commodity when sold on big screens in mega churches with accompanying rock band. Now I love music, and often find great connection to the divine through the movement of the spirit through music. I do not think music is an impediment to focusing on God, Jesus, and the beauty of the Eucharist. In fact, I think it often adds greatly to a sentiment that to me can be more powerfully expressed through the dynamic movement of music rather than the sometimes static nature of words. But like you mentioned, it all depend on how it is used and what it focuses on. Music can be used and abused as just another tool to fill the seats or create a certain psychological opiate to pacify attendees.

    When the focus is participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the incredible challenge we are called to respond to as participants in this mystery, the mass becomes a powerful and authentic experience in and of itself. As someone who has my fair amount of criticism for the Catholic Church, one of the cornerstones that has kept me part of the community is the weekly celebration of the Eucharist. Coming together to share in Jesus’ own body and blood is a reality more powerful than words, music, images, or other sensory perceptions. It is participation in the divine mystery that moves beyond these sensory perceptions into the realm of the unspeakable, where while at a loss for words the overwhelming sentiment is a deep, profound thank you.

  3. Joey,

    I enjoyed your post, as it was an opinion that I rarely hear from my peers, especially during the present time when movements in religious services seem to be away from the traditional ways of the past and toward more aesthetically pleasing worship.

    I think that it is important to realize that trends in religion toward livelier services are not just present among younger generations or even solely in the United States. My aunt, who is fifty some years old, recently began shopping for a new church, hoping to find something livelier that “spoke to her.” Also, while traveling in Central America during winter break, I was surprised to learn of the rapidly growing Evangelical and Pentecostal trends there. In an area which I always assumed was strongly Catholic, I wondered why these kinds of “feeling” worship were becoming so popular.

    In these examples and from our discussion in class, it seems to me that people are looking for more concrete contact with God. I assume that these feelings are easier to obtain in livelier services especially for people who have not spent time studying or engaging deeply with their faith on more personal levels. Overall, I do not see these trends as bad. However, as Joey stated, if aesthetics become the focal point of worship, something valuable is lost.

    I think the real issue here is how the Catholic Church will respond to these trends in aesthetic worship. I believe, as Joey stated, that a renewed emphasis on the Eucharist as an experience of God and reminding Catholics of the importance of tradition will help to show Catholics that their traditional mass has much to offer. While it might be more difficult for some to experience God in a traditional Catholic mass, I will contend that if practiced and reflected upon, the mass can be more beneficial in connecting one to God than a more contemporary service.

  4. First off Joey, I know that we jump all around in class and before we can really get into something we move to the next, but I really want you to speak in class man! Even if it’s just one little point, that could launch us in a whole new direction. I think what you are saying needs to be present in our discussions.

    I also admire your courage to put your convictions out there and to challenge us and call us back to the Eucharist. I also think that the mass goes through a huge series of stages. Let me briefly explain.

    The Eucharist is the fulfillment of the celebration, but we go through songs, readings, psalms, repentance, signs of peace, incense, creeds, etc. all of which are important. I think that we got to be present to all of these, ending on the Eucharist, and then we have celebrated a mass.

    In your effort to keep the Eucharist as the focus of mass, don’t let it keep you from entering into the many other ways we as a faith community express ourselves. Cause then your really only present for 1/5 of the mass.

  5. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what everyone has said. As many people have expressed, I agree that aesthetics should not be the focus of mass. It is unfortunate that it has gotten to the point where the emphasis on music and worship style has begun to detract attention from the central message of the Eucharist. However, I feel that it is difficult to pay attention to that central message if the rest of the mass does not speak to you as well. A common complaint I have heard about Catholic mass is that it feels too stiff. If de-stressing appropriate dress and opening the possibility of slight alterations in worship style keeps people at mass, then I think they are necessary. But again I stress that these changes should be slight.

    One thing I have always loved about the Catholic mass, and many of my Catholic friends share this sentiment, is that whether at your home church or visiting a new one, the mass is consistent. There are no surprises. The tradition of the mass is the same no matter where you go. This is not found in other denominations (at least to my experience, and I have tried to expand my horizons by experiencing other Christian worship). This is not to say the other denominations do it wrong in any way. In fact I have to admit that some of the services I have gotten the most out of have been outside of the Catholic tradition. The point here is that there have been little changes in the Catholic mass. While overall I think this consistency is good, I think it is also negative in the fact that it is failing to appeal to Catholics. I do not think that making someone fell more comfortable in a less formal mass inevitably takes away from the message. Someone cannot experience the Eucharist if they shy away from mass all together. It’s a balancing act.

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