by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In my last column for 2011, I wrote about the centrality of friendship with Jesus Christ as the core and foundation of our Catholic faith.
I mentioned my challenge to our Catholic school presidents and principals to strive to foster in every Catholic school student a strong personal relationship with Jesus and a love for his spouse, the church.
I want to begin the new year by reflecting on the second part of that challenge — fostering in our Catholic young people a love for the church. In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul challenges men to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25). We cannot really love Jesus and fail to love the church — the spouse whom he cherishes so deeply.
Christianity is a team sport. It is not something that we can live completely by ourselves. Jesus did not reveal or give himself to individuals, but to a community of believers. To be a disciple of Jesus, we must live and celebrate our faith in community.
Central to the life of the community of believers — the church — is our prayer together, the liturgy. Jesus gave a mandate to his disciples to remember him in the breaking of the bread, and he promised to make himself uniquely present to them through the sacrament of his body and blood. The Eucharist is the heart of Catholic spirituality.
Loving the spouse of Jesus, the church, involves recognizing that despite the failures of its members — bishops, priests and laity — Jesus offers us unique opportunities to meet him through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. Each Mass affords the chance to have a profound encounter with Jesus.
Our primary motivation to participate in Mass each Sunday should not and cannot be what we receive from the Mass. In the Decalogue, God commanded the Israelites to keep holy the Sabbath. The early Christian community moved the Sabbath to Sunday — the day of the Resurrection. Central to celebrating Sunday for the early Christians was fulfilling the command of Jesus to participate in the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist.
Our primary reason for participating in Mass each Sunday must be to fulfill the command of God to keep holy the Lord’s day and to fulfill the mandate of Jesus to “keep memory of him” by celebrating the Eucharist. Simply put, we go to Mass every Sunday because God, who has given us everything, asked us to do so.
Once we have the right motivation, then our attitude toward Mass will change. We will no longer be going to Mass expecting to be entertained, but wanting to give God the one small thing that he has asked from us. Of course, God does not ask us to keep holy the Lord’s day and to gather for the Eucharist because Our Lord needs us to do this. God asks us to follow these simple commands because they are good for us — because we need to do them.
Two people can go to the same football game. One person, who knows nothing about football — does not understand its rules or strategies — can be totally bored. Another person, who is a true fan and knows everything about the intricacies of the sport, can see the same game and find it to be a most thrilling experience.
To receive all that the Lord desires to give us through the Eucharist, we must prepare ourselves for Mass. The single most important thing that we can do to prepare ourselves for Sunday Mass is to read prayerfully the readings before we come to the Eucharist.
The Lord desires to speak to us each week at Mass. The Eucharist is not primarily for us to tell God everything that we think the Lord should know about us. The Eucharist is much more about listening to what God desires to speak to our hearts.
For married couples and families, reading together the readings for the next Sunday sometime during the previous week is an excellent way for each member of the family to discover what God is saying to them. Allowing each member of the family to express what they found to be most significant in the readings is a wonderful way to prepare for Mass.
Reading at least the Gospel several times on our own will also enrich our experience of the Eucharist. Pondering the readings during a weekly visit to a eucharistic adoration chapel will help the Mass come alive for us. Identify what sentence or phrase seems particularly to speak to you at this moment of your life. Continue to pray over that phrase or sentence throughout the week and notice how it will enrich the way you listen to the readings and the homily at Sunday Mass.
Matthew Kelly, the popular Catholic writer and inspirational speaker, in his book, “Rediscover Catholicism,” has one simple suggestion for how to improve the way we experience Mass. He suggests in your prayer before Mass to ask God: Show me one way in this Mass that I can become a better version of myself this week! With this question in mind, Kelly suggests that we listen to the words of the music, the readings and the prayer texts.
In his own experience, Kelly says that the things that are revealed to him are usually simple, but also important — e.g., 1) avoid using negative humor; or 2) cherish your wife; or 3) take time to be grateful; or 4) give the Lord what you have been holding back. Kelly actually keeps a Mass journal in which he records the one thing that the Lord is asking him to do that week. After keeping such a journal for several years, he finds it an interesting written record of the development of his spiritual life.
The best way that we can help ourselves and help our children fall in love with the bride of Jesus, the church, is to develop a love for what is at the center of the life of the church — the Eucharist. If we love the Eucharist, if we love going to Mass, we will deepen our love for the church that makes the Eucharist possible.
Next week, I will continue this reflection on how to enrich our experience of Sunday Mass. Stay tuned!