How to recover a sense of the sacred at Mass

How to recover a sense of the sacred at Mass

Bishop Arthur Serratelli

In the 17th century, Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, rejected the philosophical traditions of Aristotle and the Scholastics. For Descartes, the very fact that we think is the proof that we exist. Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. He rejected the use of his senses as the basis for knowledge. In so doing, he wounded the unity between mind and body found in classical philosophy.

Over the course of time, the wound has widened. The spiritual and the material have drifted apart.The sacred and the secular are clearly divided.

Living in our world, we breathe the toxic air that surrounds us. Even within the most sacred precincts of the church, we witness a loss of the sense of the sacred.

With the enthusiasm that followed the Second Vatican Council, there was a well- intentioned effort to make the liturgy modern. It became commonplace to say that the liturgy had to be relevant to the worshipper. Old songs were jettisoned. The guitar replaced the organ. Some priests even began to walk down the road of liturgical innovation, only to discover it was a dead end.And all the while, the awareness of entering into something sacred that has been given to us from above and draws us out of ourselves and into the mystery of God was gone.

Teaching about the Mass began to emphasise the community. The Mass was seen as a community meal.It was something everyone did together.Lost was the notion of sacrifice. Lost the awesome mystery of the Eucharist as Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The priest was no longer seen as specially consecrated. He was no different from the laity. With all of this, a profound loss of the sacred.

No single factor can account for the decline in Mass attendance, Church marriages, baptisms and funerals in the last years.But most certainly, the loss of the sense of the sacred has had a major impact.

Walk into any church today before Mass and you will notice that the silence that should embrace those who stand in God's House is gone.Even the church is no longer a sacred place. Gathering for Mass sometimes becomes as noisy as gathering for any other social event.

The Second Vatican Council began the liturgical reform with the hope of reinvigorating a sense of the Presence of God who comes to meet us in love. Two generations after the Council, we are still searching for a deeper sense of the sacred in our liturgy. We now realise some of the ways in which this can be accomplished. It is good to look at a few of these.

Certain settings demand their own particular etiquette. Dress at a wedding reception differs from dress at a sports event. Conversation in a bar is louder than in a funeral home. The more we realise we are coming into the Presence of God in church, the more respectful and reverent our whole person becomes. Chewing gum in Church, loud talking, beach attire and immodest dress simply do not belong!

In church, we need to cultivate a sense of God who is present to us. This is why we are called to observe moments of silence. Both before Mass begins and during Mass. Liturgy is much more than our joining together. It is our opening ourselves to God. By our singing and praying, we respond to the God who addresses us in liturgy. A constant torrent of words and songs filling every empty space in the liturgy does not leave the heart the space it needs to rest quietly in the Divine Presence.

We are not just spirit when we pray. We pray in our total reality as body and spirit. And so, to recapture the sense of the sacred, therefore, we need to express our reverence through our body language. The norms of the liturgy wisely have us stand in prayer at certain moments, sit in attentive listening to the readings, and kneel in reverent adoration during the solemn prayer of consecration. These norms are not arbitrary nor are they left to the discretion of any individual celebrant.

Creativity is not an authentic rule for celebrating the Church's liturgy. In many cases, it humanises the liturgy and draws attention from God to the celebrant. The priest is merely the servant of the liturgy, not its creator or centre.

Today it has become commonplace at the end of the liturgy to recite a litany of gratitude for all those who, in some way or another, have made the celebration beautiful. No doubt there is a way to express gratitude at the end of Mass. But is it possible that each time applause breaks out in the liturgy at the end of the Mass for someone's contribution, we lapse into seeing the Mass as a human achievement?

Sometimes even during the Mass after someone has sung a beautiful hymn, there is spontaneous applause. At such a moment, does not the real meaning of liturgy lapse into some kind human entertainment?

We can recapture more and more the sense of the sacred, the more we allow the liturgy to be what it is. A gift from God that allows God to speak and act in our life. A gift that draws us out of ourselves and out of time into the eternal life of God even now.

Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli is the bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, USA. The above edited text from two related columns is reprinted here with the permission of 'The Beacon', newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, in which these columns were first published.

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