Last July, The Edmonton Journal provided its readers with a lengthy account of the wedding ritual used by an East Indian couple. The couple -- she a Hindu, he a Catholic -- had a double wedding, using the rituals of both faiths.
The newspaper account went into considerable detail describing the many aspects of the Hindu ceremony. The article ended abruptly, however, with this sentence: "The following day, the couple will complete the week's ceremonies . . . in a traditional Catholic ceremony."
The Journal saw no need to describe what took place in the Catholic ceremony. It assumed that its readers knew all about Catholic sacramental rituals and were in no need of further enlightenment.
Some of my own experiences, however, lead me to question that assumption.
A few months before The Journal article appeared, I was having a discussion with a high-school aged Catholic who is a frequent Mass-attender. I made reference to the Gloria in the Mass and he responded, "What's that?"
A month or two prior to that, in another discussion, I spoke with a life-long Catholic about the Consecration at the Mass. His response: "What's the Consecration?"
The Second Vatican Council spoke of the need for "full, conscious and active participation" of the faithful during the Mass. It can be difficult to participate in any meaningful way in the liturgy when you don't have a clue as to what the parts of the Mass are and why they are there. It must all seem like gobbledy-gook with no apparent pattern. No wonder people find the Mass "boring" and drift away from attendance.
Another example. In 1993, The New York Times commissioned a poll and found that more U.S. Catholics believed the Mass to contain "symbolic reminders" of Christ's presence, rather than his real presence. The poll occasioned a lot of hand-wringing and "I told you sos" among Catholics.
In 1996, a national U.S. Catholic publication asked a similar question on another scientific survey. The result was the exact opposite -- the vast majority of Catholics do believe Christ is really present in the Eucharist.
What are we to make of this? Was one of the surveys flawed? Did a lot of religious education occur in the intervening three years to overcome this major gap in Catholics' knowledge about the Eucharist?
My suspicion is that a sizeable number of Catholics have no idea what they believe or what the church teaches on this basic tenet of the faith. A slight change in the phrasing of the question about the nature of the Eucharist may well evoke a different response if people are trying to guess "the right answer."
The selection from the Catechism of the Catholic Church we are examining this week gives a brief overview of the structure of the Mass. It shows how the Mass proceeds from the Liturgy of the Word with readings from the Bible, a homily and some prayers of intercession into the Liturgy of the Eucharist with the presentation of the bread and wine, the Eucharistic Prayer consecrating those elements into Christ's body and blood, and finally Holy Communion.
Some may find even the Catechism's cursory overview of the Mass difficult to understand. That's why we need to find ways to help people understand what takes place throughout the Mass. Indeed, even as we speak, the bishops are contemplating minor revisions to the Mass to make the emphasis on the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist more apparent.
But I'm also inspired by the example of my wife who started attending Mass with me before we were married and before she ever contemplated becoming Catholic herself. Baffled by this perplexing ritual, Nora began following it in the Catholic Book of Worship. She came to understand its structure and much of its richness by persevering week after week in this simple act.
Her effort to understand the Mass was a key step in her ascent of faith. Because she understood the basic nature of the Mass, she could participate meaningfully in it. And because she could participate, she could believe.
As a church, we have a long way to go before achieving full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful. But certainly one step towards that goal would be efforts by ordinary Catholics to use tools already at hand to increase our knowledge of the Mass.
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