The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: A Primer
for Clueless Catholics
A PRIMER for CLUELESS CATHOLICS
What the Mass is NOT
now we should have acquired a fairly clear
idea of what the Most Holy Sacrifice of
the Mass principally IS.
It is no less important for us first be
clear about what the Mass is
NOT, for a good deal of what
the Mass is will
become much more clear if we understand
what the Mass is not.
Most Catholics, as Pope John Paul II noted,
have either lost, or no longer have remembrance
of, the most central aspects of the Mass
and the fault, largely, is not their own.
It is the result of a systemic failure in
Catechesis over the past 40 years. Bishops
whose principal duty, above all other
duties, as "teachers of the faith"
appear to have forgotten, or
have simply relinquished, this absolutely
vital responsibility, relegating it to others
as something of a "less pressing" issue,
failing to see that the "larger" issues
at hand are an immediate and direct
result of this failure.
Doctrine and Dogma vs. Doctrinaire Dissent
Having been pawned off to and eagerly
seized by increasingly doctrinaire and
"progressive" committees who articulated
Catholic teaching not in terms of the genuine
Deposit of Faith, but in terms of social
and political issues largely liberal and
distinctly feminist current or correct
at the time, the concept itself of "doctrine
and dogma" came into disrepute, such that
the words themselves became terms of reproach
and disdain. In fact, "doctrine and dogma"
became the antithesis to endless "enlightened
experiment", which, disdaining doctrinal
certainties as somehow regressive,
eventually came to repudiate them however
catastrophic the results and however detrimental
to the Faith ... and to the faithful.
Indeed, we ourselves are not without blame.
Unwilling to accept, or even to recognize
our own complicity in the matter through
our failure to be "the primary teachers
of our children" as the Church insists
the reproach that we legitimately lay
on the doorsteps of our "Religious Educators"
and Catechists is no less an indictment
of our own irresponsibility. It is profoundly
true, unfortunately, that the Catechists
to whom we entrust our children had themselves
acquired little in the way of authentic
Catholic doctrine from their own
predecessors who themselves were
largely ignorant of the authentic teachings
of the Church and the Deposit of the Faith
... or disagreeing with much of it, deliberately
failed to teach what did not conform to
their own partisan commitment to prevailing
social, sexual, and gender-related issues.
It is equally true that we, as parents,
indeed, as Catholics, have been resolutely
indifferent to learning many of the most
basic tenets of our own Faith.
Our own indifference, together with the
ignorance or the dissent (or both) of the
Catechists and the "professional" Religious
Educators nevertheless remain a
direct consequence of the inexcusable negligence
of the bishops ... to whom Christ entrusted
us as children to a father. The problem
is that the father is remote, indifferent,
and largely absentee. He has washed his
hands of what his children are learning,
and appears indifferent to what they are
being taught. In this sense, the bishop
appears to have taken his cue from the majority
of secular fathers with children in public
education. Uninvolved and ill-informed,
he knows little or nothing of what they
are being taught, however destructive it
may be to the fabric of the family. By the
time the child comes home in confusion because
he has been prompted to question his own
sexual identity the damage has already been
done ... and very often cannot be undone.
"If only I had been more proactive, more
informed, more involved in my sons' or daughter's
education, this terrible situation would
never have occurred." But he laments
too late, and he knows it.
Something very similar occurred within the
seminaries of the Archdiocese of Boston
and at what cost in every way! The negligence
and indifference of the bishops exacted
a terrible and lasting tribute. Just as
it has within the classrooms of virtually
every Catechism class (now known as "Religious
Education" classes being neither in any
So what is the point of all this? We know
little of our Faith, and therefore even
less of the momentous event that occurs
each day at our Altars.
While this may appear an unkind assessment,
it is sadly borne out by the appalling lack
of knowledge of even the most
elementary aspects of the
Catholic Faith by our own children. From
First Penance to Confirmation they are "processed",
grade by grade, to "Confirming" that of
which they know nothing because they have
been taught nothing.
This absence of what authentically constitutes
Catholic doctrine has created
a vacuum in the Mass. We celebrate
it and really do not know why. Most often
we appear, really, to be celebrating
The True, the Untrue, and the Absurd
In this vacuum, it comes as no surprise
that certain things practiced or left
undone things that have become part and
parcel of our experience at Mass really
have no place there. This can be
a stinging realization. No one likes being
told that they behave badly or without understanding
that what they have long practiced and
what has been long condoned and even encouraged,
In this respect we all lack humility.
We do not like being "wrong".
Nevertheless, it remains the case that some
things are true
and others are not
however this vies with or offends our
largely democratically evolved sensitivities
that would hold the true to be what best
suits the most or the many, or, perhaps
better yet, what is least offensive to them.
This notion pleases us.
No one is wrong. In fact, nothing
is wrong. And if nothing is wrong, nothing,
eo ipso, is intrinsically right.
We have the best of all possible worlds.
Truth, absurdity, contradiction all are
concomitant, but ultimately lesser issues.
We wish to get along. And we do
so by "going along".
In fact, the most certain formula for contention,
for not "getting along", is to
insist that 2+2=4 and not another number
of our choosing. Our insistence
that the sum of this simple equation is
4, and cannot be 5,
is surprisingly fraught with deep implications,
for it means that
the world is not arbitrary at least the
world of numbers, and with the world of
numbers, the world of matter as susceptible
to quantification of any meaningful sort.
If we pay for two apples and receive one,
we are not indifferent to it.
But there is an inherent tyranny in equations
of this sort, and, in fact, in any physical
phenomena construed in terms of "laws",
in other words, as sequences or configurations
that do, because they cannot, admit of exceptions.
We are both constrained and confined by
them. People do not like mathematics, not
because it is abstruse, but because it admits
of definitive and unequivocal answers. There
are correct and there are incorrect
answers. There are right answers and there
are wrong answers and this infuriates
us. There is no latitude. We cannot fake
the right answer. And that burns us.
It provokes us because it violates our freedom.
It constrains our will. Do you doubt it?
State something categorically ... and a
hand will immediately rise to challenge
it. We esteem this. It is part and parcel
of our democratic patrimony and our allegiance
to it even at the cost of reason. The
will to dissent, has, in the West,
come to verge upon the pathological such
that the unwillingness to dissent
has come to acquire a pathology of its own:
"What?", we are asked incredulously, "You
do not question? What is wrong
If we are honest, however, we will admit
that often our challenge has little to do
with a genuine questioning at all, but is
an expression of a contention with our will
which we perceive threatened by being deprived
of its freedom to choose otherwise. Dostoyevsky,
in his famous "Notes from Underground",
stated it more succinctly:
"To me, 2 plus 2 making four is sheer insolence".
Would that the Moon were Green Cheese
However much it may pique us, however undemocratic
or "incorrect" it may be, it nevertheless
remains that some things are
the case, and some things are not; some
things are right
and some things are wrong that some things
are true and some things are not irrespective
of their pleasing or displeasing us. We
cannot make them other than they are simply
because they do not, and intrinsically cannot,
comply with our will or conform to our sensitivities.
However much we will a triangle
to have four sides, it will remain, withal,
a three-sided figure. There is, in short,
an ontological intolerance that is indifferent
to our desiderations and if there is one
thing that we will not tolerate,
it is intolerance ...
Absurdity may perplex us, but it does not
offend us. Truth offends us. It
vies with our will and is not amenable to
it ... especially when it does not accord
with our will.
So what does that have to do with the Moon
as green cheese and the Mass as the Sacrifice
It is a prologue to some
things that are, and some things that are
not despite our wishing them to be otherwise.
Let us look at some of these things in the
way of the Mass and what
it is NOT (in order to
understand what it really is):
MASS IS NOT:
A musical ("The employment of the
piano is forbidden in Church, as is
also that of noisy or frivolous
instruments such as drums, cymbals,
bells, and the like" 1
A talent show
Your gift to God in an act
of personal munificence and sacrifice
for which God should be grateful..
A liturgical and linguistic laboratory
A mere remembrance of something
done long ago
A mere ritual, albeit a very ancient
None of the above is even remotely connected
to the Mass. To better understand this,
imagine the following scenario:
Jesus Christ, hanging on the Cross, is being
crucified before you. He is dying! His hair
is matted with blood from the Crown of Thorns
and His face is bruised from the blows of
the Roman soldiers and covered with spit
from all who mock Him. He is disrobed and
open to shame. Even as the blood continues
to issue from too many lacerations to count
from the Scourging at the Pillar an hour
before and the nails hold fast against the
flesh yielding under the weight of the cruciform
Figure, He is crying out in agony to His
Father. Mary, His Mother, is standing before
Him crying inconsolably, and would crumple
to the ground were she not borne up by John
and Mary Magdalene. They are weeping uncontrollably,
too. All around, pious women are weeping
and wailing, men are sobbing and jeering.
It is a scene of utter desolation, unfathomable
sorrow, a torrent of tears and a torrent
Have you grasped the scene? THIS is what
is being enacted before you at the Most
Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Now we arrive.
The electric guitars are plugged in, the
drum and trap set are being set up, and
the piano is being tuned. The acoustic guitars
are being strummed aimlessly, and the flute
trills sporadically in the background. There
is chattering intermingled with laughter
among the musicians. They are preparing
to entertain the sobbing women, the raging
men, and the indifferent spectators looking
on. The entertainment is about to begin
and Cat Stevens' (now a Muslim), "Morning
has Broken" is the song that will first
greet us on Calvary after the MC of the
musicians cordially welcomes us to the Crucifixion.
Throughout the Mass they will compete with
Jesus Christ on the Cross for our attention
and adulation, calling us away from the
Cross that we made of our sins for the Son
of God to hang upon, to their virtuosity
as singers, guitarists, or piano players.
They will entertain us.
But we are a restless audience, and demand
more than music during this drama. We want
comedy, too. The priest accommodates us,
demonstrating his own virtuosity as an entertainer.
He had stood briefly at the Altar by the
Cross, but is now eager to leave the summit
of Golgotha altogether and to walk among
his audience. He leaves the Sanctuary of
suffering and walks the aisles and avenues
of the spectators, much in the manner of
talk show hosts trying to garner the attention
of the people for himself. What better way
than comedy? And he is well provisioned
with anecdotes and jokes ... some rather
"sly" and just slightly "off-color" ("what
a rascal!" we smile, as insiders of the
joke with him).
There may be a "question and answer session"
in the style of successful television hosts,
but the point is to make you feel terribly
good about yourself, and him despite what
is going on in the background, on that sad
summit that he quickly left and where Christ
still hangs. With the "punch-line" the skit
ends, sometimes vaguely connected with what
is going on with Christ, or something He
said prior to His being raised on the Cross.
Still restless, the audience is once again
entertained by the musicians, and they remain
once the Crucifixion has been consummated
and Christ is dead on the Cross ... awaiting
our applause which we extend them despite
a sense of terrible incongruity with all
that has happened in the background and
from which we had been constantly pulled
away ... lest we see or understand the consequences
of our sins ... and the magnitude of Christ's
love for us.
An impolite assessment, to be sure. But
a very accurate assessment ... nevertheless.
There are, of course, many other things
that the Mass is not.
These are merely the more salient among
them, for they are, very likely, what we
encounter most often before, during,
and after Mass, in the trivializing of the
most momentous act in history
that unfolds before us.
It is true that we cannot fully comprehend
what the the Mass is
We can, however, clearly grasp what it is
not ... even if we would have it otherwise.
What we have learned today:
The Most Holy Sacrifice of the
Mass is the occasion
of the utmost reverence.
It is Holy Ground, and we stand, really
and truly, before Christ crucified.
Christ has died on the Cross ... and
we have died with Him. And because we
have died with Him, we will also rise
with Him ... not in applause ... but
in the Resurrection.
END OF SERIES
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1 Pope St. Pius X
1903, Encyclical Tra le Sollecitudini:
Instruction on Sacred Music
Suggested reading (video commentary)