“It’s the Mass that matters”

As COVID restrictions loosen their grip on the Church, the life-and-death urgency of the Mass comes into clearer view

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In early 20th-century England, a certain politician railed against English Catholics at a time when they were largely ostracized. His rallying-cry found a ready audience, not only with those sympathetic to the politician’s anti-Catholic position, but also among Catholics themselves. These Catholics turned the politician’s words into a slogan that succinctly expressed the essence of their faith: “It’s the Mass that matters.”

It’s the Mass that matters. How those words have touched a chord in American Catholic hearts over the past year, as so many have found themselves unable to attend Holy Mass. The state of emergency created by the COVID-19 outbreak has made it imprudent, in the judgment of many Church leaders, medical experts, and politicians, to maintain the Sunday Mass obligation. 

Dispensations from the obligation, as well as the necessity of rigorous COVID-induced safety protocols, have combined to keep many Catholics away from Mass for almost a year. Now that some dioceses, including my own Archdiocese of Detroit, are ending the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation (in stages, with important exceptions), the question emerges with new urgency: Will Catholics return to Mass?

I can’t answer that question in this article. What I will attempt is an appeal to Catholic piety, pleading the case of why Catholics should treasure the Mass and attend faithfully whenever it is possible to do so. I would like simply to reflect a bit on the gift of the Mass, the greatest gift we have from God in this life.

This has been an extremely difficult time for Catholics who love and depend on the Mass, which is the “source and summit” of our lives as followers of Christ and members of His Church. But good fruit can come even from such heavy crosses, perhaps especially from our heaviest crosses. And one kind of good fruit we can cultivate now is a renewed love for the Sacrifice of the Mass and a hunger for the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

About twenty years ago, I had the tremendous blessing of visiting Ireland for the first time. Being 100% Irish, I had always wanted to visit the land of my ancestors. And as I was touring the country I was very much impressed by all of the predictable experiences: the graciousness of the Irish people, the beauty of the landscape, the neat stone churches and cobblestone streets, and even a few Irish pubs. But the object that provoked the greatest sense of wonder in me was something I never would have predicted. 

One day, I was touring a village church in County Clare with some Irish relatives of mine, distant cousins. It was the church in which my great-grandmother had been baptized and received her First Holy Communion. In the back of the church they showed me what they described as a “wheelbarrow chapel.” What I saw was a wooden-frame chapel mounted on a platform of about four-feet by eight-feet, with wheels and handles more or less like those of a wheelbarrow.

I had never seen such a thing before, so of course I asked my cousins what the purpose of this unusual chapel was. They told me the story of a time, during the English occupation of Ireland, when the celebration of Mass was strictly forbidden. The penalty for those caught attending Mass was the seizure of their food vouchers. The vouchers were government-issued tickets redeemable for what was the only food available in Ireland at the time. Lose the vouchers, and your family lost its food: a very simple, and very severe, penalty.

But the people of this village, like so many people throughout Ireland, were good enough to treasure spiritual food more than physical food. And so they built the wheelbarrow chapel. Late at night, the people would pull the chapel down to the seaside—the only place that offered even a reasonable degree of secrecy.  There, under the cover of darkness, a local priest would step up into the cramped chapel and celebrate the Mass in sotto voce, a voice so low as to approach a whisper, for the villagers huddled around their tiny new parish church.  

We can only imagine the contrast between the intensity of the prayers of the Mass as they welled up in the hearts of those people and the soft murmuring of their actual voices. And we can only imagine the devotion with which they received the Bread of Life, knowing it was at the risk of losing their only earthly bread.

Stories of celebrating Mass under conditions of persecution are many and riveting.  Persecution was such a regular part of life in the early Church that there was a name used for the hidden nature of the Mass: the disciplina arcani, or “discipline of the secret.”  And this need to “go underground” has been a recurring theme throughout the centuries, even down to our own age in places where practicing the Catholic Faith is forbidden. The late-Jesuit priest Fr. Walter Cizek, who was a prisoner in Soviet prisons and Siberian labor camps for 23 years, from 1940-1963, tells the story of a rare opportunity he had to celebrate Mass while in the Dudinka prison camp.

 In his book With God in Russia, Fr. Cizek writes:

“That first night, they brought us a half liter of soup apiece and two hundred grams of kasha, plus hot water. We wolfed it down.  Then everyone collapsed on the plank bunks like a company of dead men.  After years in prison with little exercise, this first day of hard work had been torture. My muscles were too numb even to ache; every sinew felt like a piece of twine that had been unwound and shredded into string…Toward the end of the first week in Dudinka, Fr. Casper came looking for me in the barracks one night. Some of his Poles had told him there was another priest in the camp. He found me before I had a chance to look him up and asked me if I wanted to say Mass. I was overwhelmed!  My last Mass had been said in Chusovoy more than five years ago. I made arrangements to meet him in his barrack the next morning as soon as the six o’clock signal sounded.

“The men in Fr. Casper’s barrack were mostly Poles. They revered him as a priest, protected him, and he tried to say Mass for them at least once a week.  They made the Mass wine for him out of raisins…the altar breads from flour ‘appropriated’ in the kitchen. My chalice that morning was a whiskey glass, the paten to hold the host was a gold disc from a pocket watch. But my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described.” 

Today, in an age when many people are tempted to prefer flashy church services with very obvious emotional outreach, now is a good time for us to see with fresh eyes the beauty and the genius of the Mass, in which the most powerful mysteries of God are communicated to mere mortals, by means of a ritual beautiful enough to be fittingly celebrated in the majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica, but also simple enough to be celebrated in a wooden chapel mounted on a wheelbarrow on the beaches of Ireland; a ritual grand enough to be celebrated by hundreds of thousands of people at every World Youth Day, but also brief enough to be memorized, so that devout priests could write the prayers down from memory and celebrate with only a few huddled prisoners in a Soviet labor camp; a ritual contemporary enough to be celebrated in each of our parish churches, in situations normally free of any palpable tension, but also traditional enough that we do—in substance—the very same thing done 2,000 years ago by Our Lord, on that night of unspeakable tension, when He would be betrayed by one of His best friends, the night before He would die for us.

“Do this in memory of me,” Jesus told His apostles that night. And the gift, mystery, and the duty of the Mass first entrusted to the apostles has been handed down from generation to generation of Catholics ever since, down to our own day. Each Sunday, we have the inestimable privilege to gather not merely to remember what Jesus did, but to do what He did. And we “do this” in the kind of remembrance of Him that makes Him present to us once again–present in a way that is more perfect, more complete than any other way we find Jesus present in our world. It is what Pope St. John Paul II has called the presence of Jesus par excellence in our world.

In our time, of course, we face, not the swords or guns of persecutors, not the fear of capture or starvation, but only a little inconvenience, the need to give up just a little time: sacrifices so small that those who have been persecuted would certainly pray, and perhaps would even weep, for us if they knew how easily our generation is distracted from what is essential.

Yet in this past year we have faced an acute suffering, a deprivation the likes of which none of us who are lifelong Americans have ever known. Public Masses were for a time suspended, and we were invited to fast, and pray, and to discover once again the riches of divine grace we have too often taken for granted. Even when public Masses were restored, it was only with very limited capacities and severe safety measures. 

Taking all of these existential circumstances into account, our devotion to the Holy Sacrifice and hunger for the Bread of Life should become all-the-stronger. We who under the ordinary circumstances of our lives enjoy the privilege of celebrating Holy Mass in peace and freedom must reject any temptation to use words like “boring” to describe it! 

As Catholics return to the regular blessing and duty of participating in Holy Mass, we must never again think of other things as more important. Rather, our hearts ought to burn with thanksgiving for the awesome gift of celebrating Mass, of receiving Jesus’ Body and Blood, and, to use the words of St. Paul, of proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes, the death that, at every Catholic altar, brings us new life.


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About Fr. Charles Fox 65 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren, MI.

10 Comments

  1. When Jesus said do this in memory of me no mention of how often we his followers should celebrate what has become the mass. After all Jesus was celebrating the annual pass over feast something he had done man and boy. Surly that was or is a hint to how often we should celebrate the mass. As for Jesus telling Peter to build my church ageing no instructions where laid out or guide line on how the church would evolve. It’s through mans greed and selfish ways that the church is where it is now .

    • There was no need to mention “how often” as it was understood that Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, had replaced the old Sabbath with a new Sabbath—the Day of Resurrection, or what the early Fathers often called “the Eighth Day”. The Acts of the Apostles indicates quite clearly that the early Christians met for the “breaking of bread” on “the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7; cf 1 Cor 16:2, Acts 2:42), that is, Sunday.

    • 1.COMMANDMENT TO KEEP HOLY THE SABBATH.(CHRISTANS GO TO MASS ON SUNDAY 7TH DAY OF WEEK)
      JEWS EVERY WEEK STARTS FRIDAY AT SUNDOWN.
      2.JESUS TOOK THE OCCASSION OF PASSOVER (NO LAMB SERVED AT THE LAST SUPPER) TO MAKE GOD’S FINAL COVENANT WITH MAN.”DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME….CHECKOUT COVENANT THEOLOGY.
      3.READ DEAD SEA SROLLS ESSENE’S STRUCTURE SEGUE FROM JUDAISM TO CHRISTIANTY HOW THE CHURCH EVOLVES.
      4.KEYS TO PETER SYNOPTIC GOSPELS PASSING AUTHORTY. CAN BE REFERENCED IN THE OLD TESTAMENT IN BELIEVE IT IS ISAIAH BUT I AM NOT SURE.CHECK IT OUT. ROOTS OF CHRISTIANITY COME FROM JUDAISM.

  2. I wish I could be encouraging. Our churches in NY were allowed limited attendance reopening this past summer, after months of closure. Our attendance at my church since re-opening has been sparse. This is due to covid fears, not capacity. Our church which seats 800 under normal circumstances sometimes has only 75 people attending a Sunday Mass. Our Diocese has not yet re-established the Sunday obligation. I wonder, when they do, if it will make a difference in how many come to Mass, or if it is too late to claim how important the Mass is to one’s soul?? Doubtless covid spread and the resultant lawsuits is their fear of asserting obligation to attend. This is understandable on the one hand. However the Bishops are then making the choice that your bodily health is more important than your soul. It is a sad state of affairs, and I find myself wishing our Bishops had more courage to speak the truth.

  3. The people in our parish, a Latin Mass, Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest parish, would have to be kept away with razor wire, but even at that, they’d come and stand outside until the wire was gone. Where deep devotion is inspired, we cannot bear to be without the Bread of Life, without our dear Lord, living within us. To be without the Holy Eucharist is to spiritually starve to death!

  4. Liturgy [Mass], the activity of the human community relating to God, has existed from the beginning of history, in different forms and under various names. The Greek word liturgy means “people’s work”, and implies that human activity directed towards the Divine, is supreme and work par excellence. The absolute holiness of God and His love for humanity wounded by sin laid out the broad parameters of this activity: prayer with dialogue, sacrificial worship and thanksgiving, followed by reconciliation and communion filled with peace.
    Ever since Our Lord Jesus Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the Cross and His Supper in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, when He gave the commandment “Do this in memory of Me”, this saving mystery has enabled earth to reach and touch heaven. Christ’s followers will continue to memorialize, renew and assimilate it to the end of time. In isolated monasteries, in humble parish churches, in magnificent cathedrals, and in other places thousands of Liturgies are celebrated daily throughout Christendom from the Mediterranean to Alaska, and Patagonia to the Mediterranean. Millions of faithful Christians attend these Liturgies every Sunday, to recharge their spirits and obtain grace for their journey toward the heavenly home. In the annual cycles of the Church calendar, Sundays are repeated along with other feasts that commemorate sacred persons and events, culminating in Easter – the feast of feasts commemorating Our Lord’s glorious Resurrection.
    The Divine or Holy Liturgy is lex orandi of the Church’s faith, her central act of worship and the most exalted of the seven sacraments. It is the source and summit of Christian life as well as the main channel of grace for humanity. The inexhaustible richness of Liturgy is expressed by many names, each name reflecting some particular aspect and characteristic. At various times and in different places Liturgy has been called: Breaking of Bread, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist or giving thanks, Synaxis, Offering or Sacrifice, Oblation, Kurbono or Gift, Kadosh or Holy, the Service, Communion, and Mass. With good reason Liturgy has also been called “artistic and musical masterpiece of civilization”. To an extent, this is also true of a church building, the normal setting of Liturgy, which is ideally a sacred functional symbol of timeless form and proportion, with its interior space containing the altar, rail/iconostas, and icons-statues depicting sacred persons and events from the beginning of creation to the glorification in heaven – the illustrated Creed.

    – St. Maximilian Kolbe, Polish Roman Catholic Church, Mississauga http://kolbe.ca 19.10.2014.

  5. Hebrews 10:1-2
    For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can NEVER with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.
    For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins.
    Hebrews 10:9-12
    The said he (Jesus), Lo, I come to do thy will O God.
    He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.
    By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ ONCE FOR ALL.
    And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can NEVER take away sins:
    But this man (Jesus), after he had offered one sacrifice for sins FOR EVER, sat down on the right hand of God;
    Hebrews 10:18
    Now where remission of these is, there is NO MORE OFFERING for sin.

    (emphasis, and parentheticals are mine)

    Jesus was not (and is not) sacrificed every week for the payment of sins…this is contrary to the Word of God. Jesus is NO LONGER on the cross! He is Risen and His position is at the right hand of God! True followers of Jesus Christ rejoice in the Victory he won at Calvary…there is NO MORE going back to that cross to be re-sacrificed.

    Not sure how I ended up on this webpage, as I have never been here before. And when I do read articles at other websites, I am not a “commenter”. But…. I was impressed to comment on this article. So much more Scripture could be recited.

    Psalm 119:105 Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
    John 8:32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
    John 17:17 Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth.
    John 14:6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

    Jesus is the Word, is the Truth, and there is no other way to God the Father!
    Please seek for the truth in HIS WORD.

    • “Jesus was not (and is not) sacrificed every week for the payment of sins… there is NO MORE going back to that cross to be re-sacrificed.”

      Quite right. And nobody here has articulated any such belief–except for you. But you (apparently) misunderstand and misrepresent Catholic teaching. Christ died once, but power, graces, and reality of that perfect sacrifice continue. Which is why the Catholic Church believes, as expressed in the Catechism, that the Eucharist is “The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering. The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, ‘sacrifice of praise,’ spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used, since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.”

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