When asked why they don't come to church, one of the replies offered by many inactive Catholics (or Catholics that have changed to other denominations) is that they feel "they don't get much out of coming to Mass." This begs the question "What is the purpose of Mass?"
Here we wish to make a distinction between liturgy and worship. One might think liturgy and worship are the same thing but DeSiano makes a distinction that is helpful in understanding how our Masses are to help in our evangelization efforts. In "American Culture and Catholic Parishes" he writes
"Worship is the third element of American religion – here, sharply distinguished from liturgy. Worship is the structured set of events which induce in participants a certain range of feelings. Evangelical congregations are characterized by a “praise ministry” . . We need to notice how differently liturgy functions from worship. Liturgy certainly has its aesthetic and potentially emotional parts, …. But the emotional effect of liturgy is quite secondary… Liturgy has “sober quality that can be open to many feelings. Liturgy does not try to induce a feeling; rather it elaborates a pattern of death-and-resurrection which permits all human experience to find coherence in this broad pattern (3)."
In our society we tend to judge things by what they do for us personally or how they make us feel. In this thinking, it is all about me. However, as Christians, what it does for me is not the most important question. The point of good liturgy is not about feeling good (although we should feel good about it). The point of good liturgy is to help bring us closer to God; to see our lives as a dying and rising with Christ.
Speaking of American faith, DeSiano writes
"American faith now consists primarily of personal experience based on what people feel and what people think they should be feeling . . .So in American religion, allegiance is to the pastor, or to the setting one’s fellow worshippers, but not to a larger concept of church (2)."
Our Catholic Mass is very different from some of the very dynamic worship services offered in other denominations where the music is 'full of energy' and the congregation responds 'amen' to parts of the sermon. Catholics leave the Catholic Church searching for that good feeling. There is nothing wrong with feeling good about worship. But is feeling good really the purpose?
Coming to church is not just about feeling good. There has to be some substance. The world is bigger than just me. Our relationship with God involves our relationship with other people. Church is not just a place we gather to feel good. Church is about community united together in a common liturgy.
Now, I will not disagree that a lot of these churches that are attractive as a "feel good mentality" have some very dynamic preachers and some good teaching about how to live. In fact, some of the preachers are very direct in speaking about the "sins of our times."
Surveys will say young people today are more spiritual than ever but less likely to be religious, following a specific denomination or belonging to an institutional church. To them faith is a matter of their own heart and not for an institution to tell them what to believe. The very fact that we are willing to come to church shows that it is indeed something that helps us.
Faith is indeed ultimately a personal choice. God gives us free will. A personal relationship with Jesus is to always be our goal. But we need to develop that relationship over time. It does not happen in an instant. There can be powerful moments of conversion that radically change our lives but there is always room to deepen our relationship with Jesus.
The purpose of coming to church is not just to make us feel good. The purpose of belonging to a church is to help us deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ. Coming to church should help us, in the long term, make us feel better about ourselves but not in a feel-good sense but rather by helping us to be better people, living our lives as Jesus calls us to.
Our experience of Church should help us "respond to the implicit directions of faith in modern life" (American Faith, 5). Mass isn't about feeling good in the moment but we should be joyous in what we receive at Mass. Regular attendance at Mass should also help us to become better people and feel good about ourselves.
So why don't people feel like they get much out of Mass? Two things come to mind. First, they are looking to feel good more than be good. Secondly, many people really don't understand what goes on at Mass and why. Allow me to present to present a basic summary here (For a more extensive discussion check out "The Roman Catholic Mass Explained.")
There are two principal parts to the Mass; the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Liturgy of the Word, we hear God's Word proclaimed from Sacred Scripture. Then the homilist breaks open the Word in its meaning today. The Liturgy of the Word ends with the Prayer of the Faithful. These prayers don't take an individual approach of me praying for my own personal needs (though we are to offer up our own prayers in our hearts at Mass). Rather, the prayers spoken aloud at Mass are for the needs of God's people as a whole. Again, we are not just individuals but a community of faith gathered together in God's name.
Then, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we recall the sacrifice that Christ offered for us on the Cross, giving up his life for us. The sacrifice of Mass is not a new sacrifice but a making present of the eternal sacrifice Christ made on the Cross. Then we receive Communion to strengthen us to be more Christ-like.
The Mass is to change us in the Word we hear and the Eucharist we receive. That's evangelization; to be changed in a way that deepens our relationship with God. Then, in return we are called to take what we have learned, live it, and share it with others. The greatest difficulty in sharing our faith with others is that we don't know how to talk about our faith (cf. American Culture, DeSiano, 6).
We need homilists who can help us have the words to discuss our faith.. Mass is a beginning of evangelization. We need to read the Bible, to read spiritual works, and to form Small Christian Communities where we can truly begin to share our faith as it impacts our daily lives. We need to educate our people to take what happens in their own lives/experiences and discover how it relates to "he Paschal Mystery of Christ's death and resurrection" (DeSiano, American Culture, 6)
With all of this in mind, the congregation at Mass is not just an audience, listening to a performance. The congregation is to respond to what is heard. The immediate explicit of the Mass parts is a sign of the a deeper response. At the end of the Old Testament readings and the New Testament letters the lector says "The Word of the Lord" and the people respond "Thanks be to God." We are thanking God for the gift of his Word in guiding us how to life. At the end of the gospel the priest or deacon says "The Gospel of the Lord" and the people respond "Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ" giving praise to Jesus for all that he teaches us. We recite our Creed, saying what it is that we belief in. To all of the Eucharistic Prayer the people respond "Amen" saying 'yes, we believe that Jesus gave his life for us and feeds us with his Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine. The Mass ends with a dismissal calling us to go out and love and serve the Lord.
The Mass evangelizes those who come and open themselves to the Lord. In turn, we are called to take it and evangelize the world to be transformed to live as Christ calls us to life. It isn't about feeling good. It's about being good; good by living as Jesus calls us to live.
For Further Reading
DeSiano, Frank, CSP, "American Culture and Catholic Parishes." "Priest as Evangelizer Workshop," Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association," Instructor Rev. Frank DeSiano, CSP. March 2010.
DeSiano, Frank, CSP, "The Mass: Instrument of Evangelization," The Priest, September 2009, Vol. 63 No. 9, pp. 79-86.
DeSiano, Frank, CSP and Kenneth Boyack, CSP, Creating the Evangelizing Parish. New York:Paulist Press. 1993
"For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. " 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12
Renewal of Faith