Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Community Gathers
Why do I go to Mass? The way I answer this question reveals an important
change in the way I understand the Eucharist.
One of my earliest childhood memories is that of going to Mass every day.
(Actually, it was my mother who went to Mass every day; she took me along.) We went
to Mass to pray. Mother had her prayer book, which was filled with holy cards containing
her favorite prayers. Sometimes we said the rosary out loud with the other daily Mass attendees.
But all of these prayers stopped at the moment of consecration. Thats when Mom put
down her prayer book, and we looked up to the altar as the priest raised the host that
had now become the Body of Christ.
I treasure these memories and I want to speak of them not only with nostalgia
but also with great reverence. That style of praying the Mass has formed countless generations
of holy women and men. But if you ask me today, Why do you go to Mass? I will
answer, I go to Mass, first of all, to come together with other Christians.
This answer may seem strange, or forced, or just made up to go with the
title of this article. (And I must admit it even sounds strange to me when I hear myself
say it because this is still new for me too.) But the first thing we Catholics do when
we go to Mass or celebrate the Eucharist is we gather!
All of the ritual elements that we experience at the beginning of Massthe
Sign of the Cross, holy water, song, greeting, silence, prayerhave one purpose: to
gather us together into the one Body of Christ so that together we are prepared to hear
the Word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist. The holy water and the Sign of the Cross
remind us of our common Baptism.
The cross was signed on our foreheads when we were baptized into the Body
of Christ. The naming of Father, Son and Holy Spirit speaks of the Trinitarian
life of grace we share as a baptized community. The gathering song joins our voices, our
thoughts and our words into the one voice of Christ. The prayer that concludes these gathering
rites joins all of our individual prayers, petitions and praise into the one prayer of
the Church. The Latin text of the Roman Missal names this prayer Collecta because
it collects or gathers all of our prayers together into one.
We come together
The words to gather, to come together, to assemble are
frequently used in the Bible to describe what we Christians do on the Lords Day.
In perhaps the earliest written text we have regarding the Eucharist, St. Paul speaks of
how the Corinthians are to come together to celebrate the Lords Supper
(1 Cor 7:5; 11:17-18, 20, 33; 14:26, etc.).
On the Lords Day, the community gathered for the Lords
Supper. St. Luke writes: On the first day of the week when we gathered to
(Acts 20:7). In the second century St. Justin, explaining what
Christians do on Sunday, wrote: On the day we call the day of the sun, all who
dwell in the city or country gather in the same place.
Gathering did not play a prominent role in my experience of the
Mass during the years before the Second Vatican Council. The Mass was very personal but
it was also somewhat private and individual. I went to Mass to prayto say my prayers
while the priest at the altar said his prayers. The moment of Consecration was the
only time that the priest and the people were actually together. (Perhaps this
was not the case for all Catholics, but it certainly was my experienceand the experience
of many sisters, laity and priests with whom I have discussed these issues during retreats
Today, my experience of the Eucharist is somewhat different. It is communal
and social rather than private and individual, although it is no less personal.
For us Americans, the distinction between private and personal may
be difficult. In our culturewhich stresses independence and individualitywe
tend to identify personal experiences with private experiences. But this does not necessarily
imply that all communal experiences are impersonal. The Eucharist is both communal and personal.
It is something we do together, communally; and together, we each personally encounter
Gods loving grace.
To make the Church visible
By the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist we are initiated
into the Body of Christ and we become Church. But it is when we come together to celebrate
the Eucharist that we make Church visible in a special way.
For example, a jigsaw puzzle, even while it is in the box, contains a picture.
But you cannot tell what that picture is until you assemble the puzzle. When you take the
puzzle out of the box and fit the pieces together, the picture then becomes visible.
This is what we do at Eucharist. We gather, we assemble and we make visible
who we are as Church. At the beginning of the very first document promulgated by the Second
Vatican Council we read that the Eucharist is the outstanding means whereby the faithful
may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real
nature of the true Church (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #2). The Eucharist
is the visible expression of the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church,
While I believe all that I have written here and while I have been studying
and teaching the documents and theology of the Second Vatican Council for the past 40 years,
I must admit that I am still not always comfortable with these new ideas. When
I go to Mass on Sunday, part of me would still prefer to find a secluded spot in a pew
where I can put my head in my hands, block out the sounds and the faces around me and pray
silently to my God about my concerns and my needs. Perhaps it is my personality or my pre-Vatican
II upbringing, but gathering is not always comfortable for me.
First of all, gatheringthe realization that Eucharist is essentially
something we do together as Churchplaces new obligations on me, on all of us. Among
these obligations I would like to mention three: hospitality, singing and silence.
The realization that Eucharist is something that we do together as
a community has led many parishes to place greeters or ministers of hospitality at the
doors of the church to welcome us as we arrive for Sunday Mass. But hospitality is everybodys ministry.
Each one of us must make an effort to be a welcoming Church. Perhaps all
we need to do is smile or move to the middle of the pew so that those who come after us
can easily find a place. Perhaps we might lower a kneeler so that the person in the pew
ahead of us can kneel more comfortably. Perhaps we can share our hymnbook. These are all
little things, but it is important that we say with our bodies that we are happy that others
are there to worship with us so that together we can form Church!
Often at the beginning of Sunday Eucharist we are invited to sing a hymn.
But for most of us today, music is not something we do but something we listen
to. Singing is something done by professionalswhether a pop star or an operatic
diva. If you find yourself thinking that way when you are asked to sing the gathering hymn,
dont think hymn or music but think first of gathering.
When invited to sing the gathering song, we are asked to join our minds
and our hearts with all those present by saying and praying the same words at the same
time with the same melody, rhythm and pitch. It is a gathering activity, gathering
our individual voices into the one voice of Christ praising the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Even if a beautiful singing voice is not one of your gifts, it is still
important to pick up the hymnal, to form the words and sentiments in your heartand
with your lips, even though charity to others might suggest a certain restraint when it
comes to volume. (But even this problem dissolves once the entire parish takes gathering
seriously and everyone begins to sing.)
During the gathering rites at Sunday Eucharist we are invited to pray for
a few moments in silence. This is not just a pause. It is an important element of
gathering. We come together to worship God and need to shift gears from our ordinary world
of efficiency and production, earning a living and caring for our families. We enter into
the world of symbol and sacrament, of prayer and worship. This shift can only be done in
silence, and silence can only be created if everyone is silent together.
Presence of Christ
Even if it is difficult at times to welcome others, to join in the singing
and to create a silent space for communal worship, there is an even greater difficulty
that comes with gathering. We believe that when we gather, we make visible the Church,
the Body of Christ.
Consequently we believe that the community itself, the assembly of these
people here, in this church, is the first sign and sacrament of the presence
of Christ at the Eucharist. Jesus is truly present in the gathered community. Jesus promised where
two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Mt
18:20, italics added). Yet when I look around me, I sometimes find it difficult to see
the presence of Christ. It is often easier for me to see Christ in the consecrated bread
and wine than to see his presence in some of the people within my view.
This is the first challenge, the first scandal that the Eucharist
presents to us. In order to celebrate the Eucharist well, I must recognize this body,
I must acknowledge the Body of Christ in my fellow parishioners. For unless I am willing
to gather with these peoplesaints and sinners, rich and poor, all seeking to follow
Jesus as they try to discover Gods way for themI eat and drink judgment against
myself (see 1 Cor 11:29).
And what if some in the assembly have this same problem with me? What if
I come to Mass and attempt to gather with people whom I have hurt or insulted or cheated? If
you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against
you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift (Mt 5:23-24). Gathering gives us a lot to think
Why do we go to Mass? When you answer that question from now on,
I hope you will say, I go, first of all, to gather together with other Christians. And
what do we do once we have gathered? We remember. And that is the subject of the
next article in this series.
Next: Do This in Memory of Me
Why do you go to Mass? How might your attitude and presence
at Mass be different after reading this article?
Father Tom says that gathering with others to celebrate the
Eucharist gives us the responsibilities of hospitality, singing and silence. How
well are you living out these responsibilities? Which one is most challenging for
Identify one person in your worship community in whom it is
difficult for you to see the presence of Christ. What can you do to improve this
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