Sunday, May 5, 2019

Congregations: A Sunday Rumination

     The following is taken from Meditations Before Mass by the late Father Romano Guardini:

     When we say that Holy Mass is celebrated “in church,” we are including something more, the congregation. “Congregation,” not merely people. Churchgoers arriving, sitting, or kneeling in pews are not necessarily a congregation; they can be simply a roomful of more or less pious individuals. Congregation is formed only when those individuals are present not only corporally but also spiritually, when they have contacted one another in prayer and step together into the spiritual “space” around them; strictly speaking, when they have first widened and heightened that space by prayer. Then true congregation comes into being, which, along with the building that is its architectural expression, forms the vital church in which the sacred act is accomplished. All this takes place only in stillness; out of stillness grows the real sanctuary. It is important to understand this. Church buildings may be lost or destroyed; then everything depends on whether or not the faithful are capable of forming congregations that erect indestructible “churches” wherever they happen to find themselves, no matter how poor or dreary their quarters. We must learn and practice the art of constructing spiritual cathedrals.

     Father Guardini died in 1968. I don’t know exactly when his book was published; I would guess that it was during the era of the Tridentine or Latin Mass rather than the Novus Ordo Mass that has replaced it. Whatever the case, his statement above resonates with important truths, both explicit and implicit.

     Before my return to the Church I had very specific convictions about proper conduct when at Mass attendance, whether during the ritual or before it begins. To be brief, I believed it to be important that one attempt, in silence, to prepare oneself to receive the Body of Christ at the climax of the rite. These days silence is the last thing anyone should expect from a gathering of American Catholic churchgoers. There’s a considerable amount of conversation, not to say commotion, among the attendees before the opening “Please rise” and the entrance of the celebrant. I strive not to let it distract me, but with limited success.

     Another phenomenon one can observe in many a Catholic parish is the ubiquity of cliques. The clique isn’t just a high-school occurrence. It can develop wherever people gather for any purpose. Even at Mass, people cluster into enduring cliques that stoutly resist penetration by new arrivals. The pervasiveness of this behavior once caused a visiting friend to ask me if my parish had assigned seating. Ponder that.

     Compare these observations to the insights of Father Guardini.

     Christian worship takes many forms. The form dearest to me, the Mass, commemorates the Last Supper, at which Christ instituted the sacrament we call the Eucharist. Inasmuch as the Eucharist is His Body in the form of bread and wine – that’s what we mean by the Transubstantiation – you would think that serious Catholics would show it both inward and outward respect. Sadly, this is less often the case than it should be.

     A fair number of persons, once they’ve received a Host, march directly out of the church. They don’t kneel and commune with the Son of God, Whose flesh they have just consumed. They don’t even return to their pews for the conclusion of the ceremony. No, it’s get out of the nave, get clear of the doors, and above all get out of the parking lot before the mad rush begins. And check the cell phone for incoming texts, of course.

     I can’t see that as worshipful, especially given the gravity of the gift we receive.

     I wrote some time ago about the Christian inversion of the “food chain” that dominates temporal life. I regard its thesis as supremely important. Anyone who hopes to grasp the stunning power of Christ’s Sacrifice of Himself for our sakes could do worse than to meditate on it for a minute or two. The “gods” before God were consumers who demanded to be fed. Some of them demanded human flesh. God demonstrated His singularity by feeding us. The Old Testament tales of manna from heaven were the first manifestations of His nourishing nature; the willing sacrifice of His Son was the climax.

     This isn’t just a matter for silence and solemn prayer. It should inspire awe that eclipses any purely human experience. Why doesn’t it?

     I’ll grant that some people are armored against religious awe. They think themselves “too smart” for such things. Faith, you see, is not for hard-headed realists who can see the world as the tough and merciless son of a bitch it really is. It’s for those of us who “need an imaginary friend” to buttress us against the fear of death. But then, you’d never find their sort inside a church building.

     What about the rest of us? We who believe in the Transubstantiation? We who strive – nominally at least – to meet Jesus’s standards for salvation as He expressed them in His time on Earth? Oughtn’t we to be a tad more respectful than the attendees at an open air picnic or a sporting event? Oughtn’t we to strive to be congregants in Father Guardini’s sense, silent, still, and spiritually unified with those around us?

     It seems worth the effort to me, but it also seems that mine is a minority view.

     I shan’t belabor the point. It will stand on its own.

     May God bless and keep you all.


doubletrouble said...

Find yourself an FSSP parish, or other Extraordinary Form Mass. I returned to the Church in ‘10, after a 40 year absence, but the “community” noise, lack of reverence, sloppy dress, & crappy music in the NO inspired me to find an EF church.
We now attend an FSSP ‘personal parish’ that opened in ‘16, & haven’t looked back. Women are mostly in dresses & veiled, most men are in jackets & ties, & the only real ‘noise’ is from squawking kids (children at Mass!).
It’s a 40+/- minute one way drive for us, but worth it.

milton f said...


Well said, your insight has touched me again. Deeply.

As a convert of only seven years, the Novus Ordo mass is all I have known. So far. Mostly the people in our parish are respectful, quiet, and focused on becoming that congregation, as Father Guardini wrote.

When others are less reverent it has become my practice to focus my prayer on them. This usually helps me through it. The Latin Mass is definitely in our future. Peace.

Bear Claw Chris Lapp said...

Fran I started noticing long ago the tradition I grew up with in church. Not Catholic mind you but I always observed a procession of greeting the minister upon exit after the service. In the last few years and most recently my current minister a very young but excellent one exits the service and is available for greeting in the middle of the open area behind the sanctuary. I generally make it a point to go speak to him but few do as well. Mostly it is as described as you say a rush to the door and I think it is sad we humans do not seek more access with him. I just keep praying and asking for forgiveness. Thanks as always for your writing