The Teaching Mass: To know the Mass is to love it

By Fr. Tim Shillcox | Special to The Compass | February 23, 2017

Priest’s presentation explores ‘what we bring to the Mass and what we get from it’

Serving in Chicago, local clerics enjoyed a story from a big, suburban parish: The pastor, coming up the aisle during the Entrance Song, was “futzing” with the cordless microphone, which he didn’t think was working. He reverenced the altar, went to the chair and said: “There’s something wrong with this thing!” The assembly responded, not missing a beat: “And also with you!” (It was before the current Roman Missal.)

Familiarity had bred boredom, if not contempt, as God’s people “wandered, lost, into the dreary desert sand of dead habit” (Rabindranath Tagore). Not an uncommon situation in Catholic circles.

Norbertine Fr. Tim Shillcox offers a “Teaching Mass” Jan. 9 at the Xavier Fine Arts Theatre in Appleton. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

Having benefitted permanently from attendance at a “Teaching Mass” during a retreat in my 20s, I’ve tried to share this benefit of understanding and appreciation for the rich, multi-layered power of the Mass by repeating this ministry in parishes, RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) programs and school settings. Folks seem surprised and delighted at a session which clarifies “why we do what we do” in this “Main Event” of the church’s life.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Nov. 22, 1963) declares Sunday Mass to be the “source and summit” of our Life in Christ” (#10).

Here we are formed and united in the Paschal Mystery — Jesus’ way of life (as a humble servant); death (serenely full of confidence and expectation); and glorious resurrection! Here we get the strength to live and die like him! Here, we most look like him — the church — welcoming all, announcing, mercy, healing, good news and hope that “does not disappoint.”  (Rom 5:5)

The format for the Teaching Mass is simple, like demonstrations in my work as an art instructor: We slow it down and take it apart, to dissect, explain and analyze its various parts — “by the numbers”:

  • Two main parts: Liturgy of the Word and Eucharist.
  • Three contexts from which the Mass emerges: A feast (Passover Supper), a sacrifice (Calvary), a sacrament (in memory of Jesus).
  • Three vestments: Alb (baptismal garment of every Christian), stole (sign of the church’s commission to serve) and chasuble (“little house” — a garment of welcome, compassion and hospitality.
  • Four focal points where Christ is found: Altar, pulpit, chair (ministry) and nave (Assembly).
  • Five books: Ordo (directions), Roman Missal (“playbook”), Lectionary, Book of Gospels and hymnal.
  • Seven supporting ministries: Hospitality, environment, sacristan, music, acolyte, lector, extraordinary minister of holy Eucharist.

It’s also helpful in explaining the Mass to think of it as a conversation. Of course, this means both speaking and listening.

So we need to identify all the participants: God speaks; we listen. We speak; God listens. The priest speaks to God on the church’s behalf; the church responds. Priest and people speak to God, to each other. Christ speaks through the voice of deacon or priest, or “in the person of Christ” at the Institution narrative.

Once, at Our Lady of Lourdes in De Pere, we spread this “Teaching Mass” format over three weekends, accompanied by bulletin notes; it would go too long otherwise. The first weekend covered background and “by the numbers.” Second weekend covered the Liturgy of the Word. The third weekend focused on the Eucharist.

A “running commentary” was inserted to help explain and call attention “as we go” to the rich details, deep meaning and profound reality of Christ’s abiding presence with us in this pre-eminent act of worship.

This “ministry” works well with schools, RCIA and retreat groups. I have seen it “jump start” parish energy around Mass. In a single session, it would be good to allow 90 minutes (about half the time of a Packer game).

It’s all material which priests receive in seminary training and reflect on often, since we celebrate the Mass frequently. Perhaps your parish priest would be delighted to be asked to plan and offer this experience in your community or cluster?

A frequent excuse folks give for not coming to Mass is: “I don’t get anything out of it.” Perhaps, more honestly, it’s realizing that to celebrate the Mass asks us to give everything we have, and are — to offer our body and blood and life, with Jesus, in that holy-communion-building, sin-forgiving, death-conquering sacrifice! Maybe folks are scared away?

But, truth be told: the Mass offers so much more than we can give, or, get anywhere else: God’s Eternal Word, speaking in pertinent and living ways to our experiences, the good example and shared faith of a multi-generational assembly, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the Real Presence of Jesus’ Body (our strength to live the Gospel) and his Blood (mercy for when we fall short)! The only way to “lose” is not to show up!

Fr. Shillcox, a member of the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré (Norbertines), is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in De Pere.

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