“Good morning and welcome to St. Michael Catholic church. Before Mass begins, we invite you to take a moment to greet those around you.”
I was on vacation at the time I heard these words, and thus totally unfamiliar with the parish until I had searched for local Catholic churches. There wasn’t much choice compared to my options in a densely populated city, but I knew Mass was Mass—the same and just as important in the rural diocese I was visiting as it is in the Archdiocese of Washington (and the rest of the Universal Church). I was excited to experience another faith community as a visitor.
After the cantor made the welcome announcement, the parishioners around me turned and exchanged greetings with their neighbors. While there were a number of familiar faces for them, mine was new. Their eyes lit up when they saw me. I appreciated the parishioner’s hospitality efforts, beginning with the first handshake and smile. As Mass began, I could not help but pick up on the small differences in the celebration of the liturgy: the church was smaller and rounder, there was a piano instead of an organ, the servers were past middle-age, and the priest liked to stroll up and down the aisle during his homily. While it was not exactly what I was used to, the actual worship of God and the spiritual nourishment of the faithful was no less authentic or beneficial. The Word of God was proclaimed in the readings and we received the real Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. We sang hymns, exchanged a sign of peace, and participated in the usual liturgical responses, movements, and postures at the appropriate times.
These experiences may very well be shared by anyone taking a vacation this summer or otherwise visiting another parish. The Mass transcends one’s location or liturgical preferences. It is ultimately the gathering and lifting of prayers of praise, petition, repentance, and thanksgiving to God Who blesses us with His grace and True Presence. In Her wisdom, the Church has laid down guidelines for the celebration of the liturgy that must be adhered to in order to be valid. Without them, the Mass would lose its focus on divine worship and partaking in the Sacred Mysteries. While different parishes and cultures may imbue a different spiritual character in the celebration of the sacraments, the Substance (God) remains the same to unite all the faithful, whoever and wherever they may be. This universality reflects that of the Church, instituted to proclaim Christ to all, especially those outside of His Body.
My experience of welcome at this new church during my vacation reflected that very evangelical mission! One does not have to go far to invite another to share in the Sacred Mysteries—all are invited to enter and re-enter the liturgy, and to do so more deeply than before in order to draw more meaning and grace along one’s spiritual journey.
After that morning’s Mass, the church hosted a hospitality breakfast during which I was continually greeted by other parishioners who expressed amazement that I found my way to join them in the Eucharist at such an early hour—and on a weekday! To some, it was refreshing to see not only a new face, but a young one. They were as happy to greet me and share their experiences as I was to be there and form new ones. Before leaving that church to continue on with the day, the members of the faithful drew strength from their reception of Jesus in the Eucharist and from each other in order to sustain them through the burdens and challenges of their lives.
In welcoming newcomers to the Catholic Church, let us strive to extend the same heartfelt message as our Lord to the wearied disciples after His Passion: “Peace be with you!” Doing so will not only help others benefit from the graces and support offered at your home parish, but will also strengthen and enrich the life of the local church as it endeavors to minister to the world spreading the Gospel message.
Question for Reflection: How does visiting different parishes deepen your understanding of the Mass? Have you ever benefitted from attending Mass in a different location or within a different culture?
I was once told that giving and receiving the Sign of Peace at Mass is founded on giving and receiving forgiveness. As I understood it, whoever was at the other end of that handshake was, by default, forgiving you of all wrongs you may have committed against him or her.
I was a lot younger when I was told this and the idea of exchanging forgiveness for a handshake was pretty appealing. You mean I didn’t have to actually apologize? I just briefly grab the other person’s hand, maybe give a quick hug, and that was it?
More than fifteen years have passed, and I have—hopefully—developed a more mature understanding of what it means to give and receive forgiveness. I haven’t heard of this blank-slate forgiveness handshake ever since. But the idea has stuck with me.
That’s a pretty powerful thing, isn’t it, that we could approach the exchange of peace as God approaches us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation—as an all-encompassing, no-questions-asked offering of forgiveness?
What is it we hear at Mass right before we exchange the Sign of Peace?
“Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles, ‘Peace I leave you, my peace I give you;’ look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will.”
Peace and forgiveness are tightly interwoven; one is inseparable from the other. We’re reminded of this each and every time we go to Mass. We recognize that peace starts from within—that we ourselves are imperfect yet loved by God—and that that very same peace is to be extended to every member of our community. We build peace together, but only if we forgive one another—and ourselves. But it is often all too easy to step out of Mass on Sunday as though you’re entering a separate world; what happened in the chapel stays in the chapel.
If we’re called to be salt for the world, then this cannot be so. The world must see that it is not so—each and every person we encounter must recognize us as a person of peace, a person who is motivated and challenged by a God of peace.
In part, this is why I’m fascinated by faith-based peacebuilding. I spend a lot of my graduate school career researching how a religious imagination can impact the common good, and to me, there are fewer places so powerfully open to the role of faith as peacebuilding.
But as a Catholic, I often ask myself: What does my faith tradition offer in this great interreligious effort?
I do not claim to be an expert—I’ve barely scratched the surface of the literature. But in my research I keep coming back to the role of ritual. There is power in ritual, in repetition, in coming together as a community to grapple with the unknowable from the nitty-grittiness of our lived reality.
Those of all religious traditions can attest to this. Certainly, a brief look at tragedies over the last several months will reveal faith communities of all varieties gathering to mourn, to pray, to remember.
When we come together before God in community ready and willing to grapple with mysteries divine and unknown, we must necessarily come together ready to forgive, ready to build peace. How can we allow the People of God—gathered in Christ’s name—to stand and pray together and do anything less?
And yet, we know that so often that all-important Sign of Peace is reduced to something perfunctory, half-hearted, something my younger self might find appealing. I know I’m guilty of this more often than not. How many unrelated, far-from-peaceful thoughts are on my mind as I spin around in my chair in the chapel and shake the hands of strangers?
Peace and forgiveness can begin with the Sign of Peace. But they don’t end there. That first step out of the chapel is not a step away from that Sign of Peace, but a further entering into it.
Ritual is powerful, and there are few rituals quite so unique in the spiritual tools offered to build a more peaceful world than the Mass.
What, then, do we bring to the altar in our own prayer? How do we use rituals of all kinds to build peace, to extend and receive forgiveness? A good piece of Scripture for our reflection might be Matthew 5:23-24:
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
“Man, I can’t believe I saw the pope today! THE. POPE.” Everywhere I turn, I’m encountering men and women, young and old, believers and nonbelievers who are still in shock, electrified from the day’s events. And what a day it’s been! Months after the initial announcement, after countless preparations, programs, and prayers, Pope Francis was welcomed to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception overlooking the campus of The Catholic University of America. During his homily, Pope Francis called the church to rejoice, to proclaim the Good News to all and to step out of complacency and apathy. "Something deep within us invites us to rejoice and tells us not to settle for placebos which simply keep us comfortable," he said. It’s an experience people following the papal visit won’t soon forget, especially with all the coverage by global news outlets and social media alike. And yet, what will these people take away from the message of the Holy Father? Are they overjoyed to have been in his presence? Will they use the experience as a springboard to launch a new evangelization? Are they simply thrilled to post pope photos on social media in pursuit of as many “likes” and affirmations as possible? Are they annoyed because of the inconveniences brought about from having such a high level of security screen a crowd of tens of thousands of onlookers? What will the world remember from such an event?
“Peace be with you,” the Pope had greeted the crowds, an invitation to set aside any and all of the worries, the disappointments, the troubles, and the restlessness burdening each and every one of those attending the Mass. This may not be one of the famous one-liners of Pope Francis the media picked up on as they ran commentary, but those words have been recorded in Sacred Scripture thousands of years ago and continue to be repeated countlessly each and every day around the world. How necessary is it for us to recognize this great greeting of blessing and to appreciate the call for us to focus on God and His infinite love for us!
While the headlines will tell of Pope Francis’incredible addresses to the United Nations and a joint session of Congress for sure, the Holy Father isn’t as overly impressed by these displays of power. The only power he is awed by is that which radiates from the Cross and which resides perpetually in every tabernacle, which contains our Lord Jesus Christ present in the Most Holy Eucharist. The most incredible action then occurs at every Mass celebrated around the world--
and Pope Francis isn’t the first or only person to perform such a deed!
To those who find the Mass to be boring or unnecessary in their spiritual lives, Pope Francis reminds them that:
“The Eucharist is not a private prayer or a beautiful spiritual exercise, it is not a simple commemoration of what Jesus did at the Last Supper…[T]he Eucharist is Jesus himself who gives himself entirely to us. Nourishing ourselves of Him and abiding in Him through Eucharistic Communion, if we do so with faith,transforms our life, transforms it into a gift to God and to our brothers and sisters. Nourishing ourselves of that ‘Bread of Life’means entering into harmony with the heart of Christ, assimilating his choices, his thoughts, his behaviour. It means entering into a dynamism of love and becoming people of peace, people of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of sharing in solidarity. The very things that Jesus did.”
The Eucharist is meant for every person, every nation, and the entire world! Similarly, Jesus is as truly and substantially present on the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome as on the east portico of the National Shrine here in DC or on the altar in my high school’s chapel in Lincroft, New Jersey.
The mission of the Vicar of Christ, then, is to increase our faith and to bear witness to the love of our Lord and Savior. The Apostolic Visit to our nation is surely a tremendous and needed blessing: the faithful are united in the joy of the visit and are called to share this joy in their everyday lives and encounters with others. The Love realized in the Real Presence is the same which inspires and moves each of us to bring all, no matter their circumstances, to embrace and take part in this Love within the Universal Church.