“The sky did not fall when we didn’t attend weekly Mass,” commented someone to me about the suspension of the sacraments in the spring of 2020. We could still pray, follow the commandments, and love our neighbor, he continued. Not attending Mass did not change us for the worse.
So what is the big deal about attending at all?
This perspective betrays the damage that secularism has done to religious believers. By demanding that this world be the measure of all things, secularism forces the infinite, the supernatural, and the mysterious into the box of quantifiable measurement. Since we cannot assess directly the financial or societal impact of the Mass, this thinking goes, it has no impact. Moral Christianity—the commandments and the love of neighbor—can be quantified, so we can keep that around, just as the Enlightenment philosophes had desired in their war on faith. But the spiritual side of religion? We, and society, can function just fine without it, so let us leave it.
For decades Catholics have aggressively reacted against this secular worldview because of its deleterious effects on faith, particularly that of the young. And we must continue to fight it. As I detail in Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism, faith, like a flower, grows healthy and strong in the proper environment: a religion-friendly culture where the majority go to church is the proper temperature; the sacraments are the food; convincing religious instruction is the water; and God’s grace is the sunlight.
So for faith, so for flowers: when one or more of these elements is lacking, the likelihood of healthy growth dramatically decreases. The precipitous slide in Catholic religious practice—to say nothing of moral lapses such as societal acceptance of fornication and cohabitation—is sobering proof of how secularity can choke faith like weeds surrounding a singular lily.
When we reduce the Mass, the greatest celebration this side of eternity, to a commodity that is supposed to have calculable value, we have lost our supernatural sight. How can we worship the invisible God and trust that His grace is working in our souls if our chief concern is “what do we get out of Mass?” In saying this, we put ourselves on the other side of St. Paul, who rightly ordered the supernatural before the natural: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:2-3). Only with this perspective can we see the infinite value of the Mass—and what we were missing without it.
If we are honest, for many of us there likely was no substantive difference in our lives, practically speaking, during the suspension of sacraments and then after it. We still tended to the normal features of human living—cooking, cleaning, working, parenting—and we likely did not feel any different doing those things without receiving the Eucharist than if we had. This is not because Mass and the Eucharist do not work. It is because they operate on a plane above the secular world.
Yet, at the same time, many of us also experienced a profound hunger, a longing to participate in Christ’s eternal sacrifice and then to unite with Him in holy communion. Upon our spiritual lives, our souls, our longings, the sky fell without Mass.
Though distinct from the secular world below, the spiritual plane above is not aloof: through the Mass, God’s grace swoops down to transform us from within. Only then, typically at a glacial pace, do we begin to perform our quotidian tasks with more charity, with more holiness, with more patience than we would have without God’s help. There is no formula to compute supernatural grace into natural output, but we know in faith that grace, in fact, perfects nature. Those whom we call saints are living testaments of this reality. But, devoid of faith, we may see the impressive deeds that saints perform without realizing the power source from which they spring.
Our reaction to the months without Mass is also a temperature gauge of our own faith. When St. Francesco Marto, one of the three children to whom the Blessed Mother appeared at Fatima, was confined to bed in illness, he told his cousin that not being able to visit the Blessed Sacrament was his greatest pain.
When St. Philip Neri was confined to bed, he waited impatiently for holy communion to be brought to him: “I have such a desire to see Jesus that I cannot have peace while I wait.”
When St. Catherine of Genoa’s diocese was placed under interdict, depriving her of access to the sacraments, she exclaimed, “If I had to go miles and miles over burning coals in order to receive Jesus, I would say the way was easy, as if I were walking on a carpet of roses.”
We must not evaluate our spiritual lives by secular standards of material production. The goal of our lives is divine intimacy, which is spiritual bliss of an infinite magnitude. The fervor with which we desire this goal indicates how much the secular malaise distorts our vision of the things above.
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