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25 January 2015
Learning Lessons from the Unity Service
It was only after the Unity Service, last Wednesday, when I was standing in the porch saying Goodbye to the many people who had attended it, that I thought of lots more things I should have said in my sermon!
The leaflet which we followed during the week posed, for Wednesday’s reflections, a penetrating question. It wanted us to consider what we esteemed most holy in our own tradition and what we considered most holy in the other Christian denominations. The answer to it was my sermon, and it posed no problem, for it sprung to mind immediately. What do I consider most holy in Catholicism? The Mass, of course; the holy Mass.
I told them something I have, perhaps many times, told you, that I find it a minor miracle that the Mass never gets stale despite the constant repetition of its prayers. I have been a priest for forty-eight years and almost every day I, like every other priest, have celebrated Mass, and on Sundays, usually two or three times. Despite the bulk of the prayers and actions being the same, day after day, our holy Mass just refuses to get stale. And you who come regularly to daily or Sunday Mass must find it so as well, otherwise you wouldn’t come. The Mass is, as the old BBC hymnbook used to call itself, New Every Morning.
Now that surely breaks all the rules of human behaviour! It’s cold and you take to porrige. You think: This is great. Why did I ever stop eating it? I’ll have it always for my breakfast in future. But before the packet is finished, you’re back on your bacon and eggs. I, for one, can’t watch a film twice, though I know some can, nor read a book for a second time; nor yesterday’s paper. Boredom sets in immediately. But the Mass….it breaks all the rules.
Why? Because the repeated words are only the outward packaging which carries within it something altogether unique and always exhilaratingly new. By his very nature, God is always New. In Mass He is uniquely present. It is precisely this divine presence which, for those who are aware of it, robs the Mass of any sense of boredom, and makes it new every time. The mystery it celebrates, the mystery of the Lord’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, is the ongoing miracle of the Mass, for it makes these events present. Who could be bored at the Crucifixion? Even the soldiers and the Pharisees weren’t. Who could find routine the rising of Christ from the dead?
I told the Unity Service congregation that this was what I found principally holy in Catholicism, the Mass. As speedily as I reached an answer to the question about Catholicism so did I immediately recognise the answer to the same question about the other denominations. What did I find holy there? In a word, their love of Scripture. I told the congregation that generally non-catholic Christians can run rings round us Catholics when it comes to knowledge and love of the Bible. I explained why. For centuries, with the Mass in Latin, people didn’t understand the readings at Mass and not until the 1950’s, with the advent of the Ronald Knox translation of the Scriptures, did Catholics have a vernacular Bible they could trust. Since the reform of the Liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, the Church has increased the Scripture we listen to at Mass by over 33%, but it will take a few more generations before we are as familiar with the Scriptures as our separated brothers and sisters are. And, maybe, we could take yet another leaf out of their book and start reading the Sacred Scriptures at home!
That, in essence was my sermon; but, as I said, it was only at the end of the service that I thought of other things I should have included. As I stood in the porch saying goodbye to the people and directing them to the refreshments kindly laid on by the Friends of Stella Maris, circumstances reminded me of all I should have said. The service over, the final hymn sung, yet the congregation didn’t move. They sat or knelt still for at least two or three minutes. It was so reverent, so respectful. I compared it to the usual stampede which signifies the end of our Holy Masses. I should have praised their reverence. Something else we could well learn from our separated brethren!
And, to tell the truth, the Catholic situation is actually worse. It is not just the rush to get out, but the fact that so many people will not even wait for the Mass to finish before they exit. Some people come and go by taxi and if the Mass is running late then, of course, they have to leave. But the majority of those who actually make a habit of leaving before the Mass is finished have no such reason.
I will be honest with you, it upsets me deeply. I stand at the altar or at my chair on the sanctuary and watch people streaming out immediately the distribution of Holy Communion is finished. This is paying no compliment to God, nor to the Mass, nor to the priest nor to our fellow worshippers.
No compliment to God. Let’s put it this way: Imagine Peter, half way through the Last Supper getting up and saying to the Lord, Excuse me, Sir, but I’ve had enough of this, I prefer my wife’s cooking! Or James: Excuse me, Sir, but I’m staying at the Imperial. Their supper starts before yours finishes, so I’m off. On the whole I think I prefer their micro-waved grub to your spiritual Stuff. And, anyway, I have already paid for it – yours is free! Just Imagine!
No compliment to the Mass. The Mass is the most sacred activity in the entire Universe, the most important thing any human being can ever do,a story-line that has eternal relevance. But, Excuse me, but I most go, Coronation Street is starting.
No compliment to the priest. How does he feel when he sees half the guests leaving before the party is over. And yes, the Mass is a party, the greatest party ever thrown, the Supper of the Lamb, to which you have been personally invited. Never ever forget this: to attend Mass is your personal response to a personal invitation from the Lord. Without that personal invitation you would never attend, would not be able to. Imagine being personally invited to your best friend’s party, a party which means everything to him, and you walking out half way through, without so much as a by your leave. What on earth would your friend think of you, or your priest, or your Friend and Brother?
No Compliment to the Church. The Mass is the communal celebration of God’s love, when we gather together as a community, as a family, to be with the Lord and to be with one another precisely as his family: to be with the Lord who has called us out of darkness into his own wonderful light, who has adopted us as his children and brought us into his own family circle which is the Church. Is it not an affront to the community, to your fellow Catholics, as well as to the Lord, to walk out on them?
So, let us all seriously reconsider our attitude to the Mass, to the Holy Mass, God’s greatest gift to us.
And, of course, the other thing we can learn from our non catholic friends is how to sing! Heavens above! The Unity Service congregation, a congregation of about a third of what we muster on a Sunday morning, produced decibels at least four times the volume of ours. Why can’t we sing like that? I think we could, if we tried. Last Saturday, for example, at the organless evening Mass, I asked the congregation to take their hymn books with them as they came out to receive Holy Communion and to sing the once popular Pete Seeger hymn, Come my Brothers . As far as I saw, no one took their hymnbook apart from Terry Davies, and almost no one apart from him sang. Terry did a solo, and a very good one too! And, generally, many Catholics do not even bother to open their hymn books, let alone sing the hymn! Why, O why? To tell you the truth, I’ve no idea! Hymns are prayers. St Augustine tells us that to sing a hymn is to pray twice!
So much for our very successful Unity Service last Wednesday. And if it has been the occasion for teaching us some timely lessons, then thanks be to God for it.
God bless, Fr Antony
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