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Worship Must Lift Us Up
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Mass Should Be More of a Celebration
Indulgences for the Year of St. Paul
Why No Incense at Mass?
Why a Translation Into Armenian?


Q: Your first answer in the August issue (“Why Acknowledge Our Sinfulness When Mass Begins?”) concerns me. My wife and I have 11 grandchildren, seven of whom do not attend Mass any longer. Most of them go to large, very popular community churches near them. One has 14,000 people every Sunday, filling two auditoriums. There are probably many Catholics there.

When I visited this church, I observed the people singing loudly with the band; it’s their kind of music. After Scripture readings proclaimed by several members of the congregation and a song, the pastor delivers a homily that has a message they can take with them. After a benediction and song, the people leave the auditorium, talking happily to each other—and then go to different rooms for discussion. They have a celebration that they talk about after they leave!

Contrast that with how our Mass begins. After we open with a song written hundreds of years ago and played on an organ, the priest says, “As we prepare to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins.”

Wow! Talk about a downer! That really grabs your interest if you are a young person—or any person, for that matter! If you were in your teens, 20s or 30s, where would you go the next Sunday?

And that’s just the beginning. Our Mass needs to be more of a celebration! Of course, we have the Eucharist and that makes a huge difference—to you and to me—but not to some of the young people.

My wife and I are members of a small faith community at our parish. The 12 members, including five couples, meet every two weeks at someone’s home, read the Scripture for the following Sunday and discuss its application to our lives.

Each of these couples laments the fact that many of their children and grandchildren go to megachurches or have stopped going to Mass. They love their new church. Wow!

Can’t we adopt some of the methods that make these megachurches extremely popular? Can’t we do that and still feature the Eucharist? I am confident that we can.

A: You are clearly concerned for how we as the Church are doing in sharing and living out our faith. Our cover story last month described how one high school senior experienced World Youth Day in Australia; she found its Masses to be genuine celebrations. Those who attended Masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit last April to the United States found them to be very moving celebrations. Cardinal Ratzinger’s celebration of the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II probably had the largest TV audience for any act of worship.

Admittedly, Sunday Mass at your local parish is quite different in many respects—yet identical in others. Whom do we celebrate at Mass? What are we encouraged to take away? The more we emphasize the differences between papal Masses and the ones that we normally experience, the more we are in danger of missing what is identical in all of them.

Every Mass celebrates Jesus Christ as the Word-made-flesh and as the fullest revelation of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each Mass is part of our growing individually and together as disciples of Jesus Christ. Every Mass sends us out to share the Good News of Jesus Christ that we have heard and seen. For all of that, we need continuous conversion to the Lord’s ways. Songs and silence, discussion and action will always be part of that conversion.

Could the Catholic Church overall do a better job in its Mass celebrations? Yes, and I don’t know a celebrant, lector, song leader, musician, usher or liturgy planner who would deny that. All of them would welcome more active participation at Sunday and weekday Masses. Many people in the pews would probably agree.

Worship in any church can become superficial if it celebrates more the people who pray instead of the God who makes their prayer possible. At its worst, worship can become an inoculation against conversion rather than a stimulus toward it. That’s what prophets like Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah complained about.

Are our celebrations challenging the Pharisee praying at the front of the Temple, who needs deeper conversion (Luke 18:10-12)? Are they encouraging the tax collector praying at the back, who needs to be reminded that God’s mercy calls for even deeper conversion and more generous actions (Luke 18:13-14)?

All Christians need to ask these questions. Are megachurches stronger on “feel-good” religion and weak on challenge and conversion, which is emphasized throughout the Catholic Mass?

I share your deep concern for young Catholics who are not joining in Sunday Mass regularly. We can and should make Mass inviting to participants, but I wonder if some people are asking the Mass to be what it was never intended to be: an exaltation of self rather than a celebration of God’s challenging love for a community of disciples.

Q: I read a news item a couple months ago that Pope Benedict XVI is granting a plenary indulgence for people who participate in various events connected to the Year of St. Paul (celebrated from June 28, 2008, until June 29, 2009, for the 2,000th anniversary of his birth). Which events? Under what conditions? What is a plenary indulgence?

A: A plenary indulgence is a full remission of the temporal punishment for sins that have already been forgiven. Some bad effects of sin remain even after a sin has been forgiven in confession.

The usual conditions for an indulgence are prayers for the intention of the pope, confession of one’s sins and reception of Holy Communion—usually within two weeks before or after the event.

Last May’s decree covers three types of actions: 1) visits to and prayers at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome (where St. Paul is buried), 2) participating in a liturgy or other public event in any local church on the opening or closing day of the jubilee year—or on other days in places designated by the local bishop, or 3) for Catholics impeded by sickness or other serious causes, joining spiritually in a jubilee celebration honoring St. Paul and offering their prayers and sufferings for Christian unity.

Q: In recent years, it seems that the use of incense at Mass has become increasingly rare. Why? It’s a custom that many people I’ve talked to would like to see restored.

A: The use of incense draws on the Jewish roots of Christianity. Psalm 141 proclaims, “Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening sacrifice” (verse 2). Many non-Christian religions use incense, a custom that the Church accepts.

At funeral Masses, the casket is usually incensed as a final sign of respect for the body of the deceased person.

Incense is used at the Easter Vigil and often at Masses for special occasions, such as weddings, ordinations, religious professions or anniversary Masses.

Some people with respiratory problems, however, are very glad that incense is not used more often than it is. What supports one person’s prayer may hinder someone else’s!

Q: On the feast of St. Irenaeus last June 28, I was reading your company’s book Saint of the Day and noticed that the writings of this saint (130?-220) were translated into Latin and Armenian. I understand the Latin, but why Armenian? Was it a widespread language then?

A: St. Irenaeus was martyred in Lyons, France, where he was bishop. He wrote in Greek to oppose gnostic Christians, who claimed to have secret information about Jesus, information not intended for all Jesus’ followers. Gnostics had developed a parallel church; their honored teachers were not in communion with the local bishop.

Because the gnostic heresy eventually spread throughout the Roman Empire, the writings of Irenaeus were translated into Latin. Armenian was not a widespread language in the Empire, but Armenia became the first country to become entirely Christian after King Chosroes III was baptized in 303 A.D. When St. Gregory the Illuminator preached the Good News there, the gnostics were still very active. Today there is an Armenian Apostolic Church (www.armenianchurch.org) and an Armenian Catholic Church (www.armeniancatholic.org). See also Michael La Civita’s article in the September 2006 issue of ONE (www.cnewa.org).

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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