The Holiest Act of Religion
Know, O Christian, that the Mass is the holiest act of religion. You cannot do anything to glorify God more, nor profit your soul more, than by devoutly assisting at it, and assisting as often as possible.
Saint Peter Julian Eymard (d. 1868) is known today as the Apostle of the Eucharist due to his great love for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. As a founder of religious institutes in his native France, and a proponent of frequent Communion and Eucharistic adoration, his words regarding the Holy Mass are worthy of reflection.
At every Mass we the faithful participate in the very act of our own redemption. Think about that for a moment. Bishop Fulton Sheen reminded us that the Mass is the “crowning act of Christian worship”, and that on the altar the memorial of Our Lord’s Passion is reenacted. We are there, at Calvary, every time we go to Mass. As the priest offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Son to the Father, we are participating by uniting our prayers with his and offering them to God as well.
It is obvious from the widespread decline in Mass attendance over the last four decades that few truly understand this supernatural dimension of the sacred liturgy. Far too many Catholics simply do not know what is happening at Mass. Those of us who regularly write on the subject do so with this unfortunate truth in mind.
Restoring a sense of the sacred, instilling an understanding of the supernatural depth of the Mass, and recognizing that the Mass is indeed the “crowning act of Christian worship” and the “holiest act of religion” is not simply an intellectual undertaking. Catechesis is more than just conveying an idea; it is also experiential knowledge. Ignorance of the Mass is a liturgical failing as much as it is a failing of catechesis. Lex orandi, lex credendi.
As we might imagine, other famous saints of Holy Mother Church have written of the truth and power of the Mass. Saint Francis of Assisi once said:
Man should tremble, the world should quake, all Heaven should be deeply moved when the Son of God appears on the altar in the hands of the priest.
But here’s the question to ask ourselves: Do we tremble? Do we see with the eyes of faith that the Son of God is really there in the hands of the priest? Or is the supernatural truth of the Holy Mass often hidden from our eyes, obstructed by profane innovations and a puritanical minimalism?
The post-conciliar aversion to beauty, to ritual, to sacred music, sacred space, and even to reverence did form a generation of Catholics. Unfortunately, the lesson learned by many from these banal, anthropocentric, liturgies was that the Mass, far from being the holiest act of religion, was something we simply do for ourselves rather than God.
This brings us then to the resurgence of the traditional Mass in recent years, what is often called the Latin Mass, or the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. It stands athwart modernity, embracing beauty and tradition when so many inside and outside the Church have not. Many of the faithful have discovered a manner of worshipping God that transcends a particular era, or culture, or cultural bias. Beauty, silence, consistency, reliability, universality…what is so often absent in society is exactly what we find in the Traditional Latin Mass.
It is important to recall that the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered for four ends: adoration, atonement, thanksgiving, and petition. When we devoutly assist at the sacred liturgy we are fulfilling each of these four. Rediscovering this deeper understanding of our participation at Mass, the idea of truly assisting at Mass, must be taken to consideration.
“You cannot do anything to glorify God more, nor profit your soul more, than by devoutly assisting at it, and assisting as often as possible.”
It is important to understand what Saint Peter Julian Eymard, a nineteenth century priest, would have meant when he referenced the faithful assisting at Mass. This is not participation as understood in the modern, secular, sense of the word. Nor is it the motion and busy-ness so often found in the post-conciliar liturgy. Rather, the saint is speaking of an interior action on the part of the faithful; something much easier for us to discern the more reverent and traditional the Mass is. It is the difference between being and doing.
Addressing this very subject back in 2008, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments noted:
“This kind of participation in the very action of Christ, the High Priest, requires from us nothing less than an attitude of being totally absorbed in Him…Active participation, thus, is not a giving way to any activism but an integral and total assimilation into the person of Christ who is truly the High Priest of that eternal and uninterrupted celebration of the heavenly liturgy.”
To truly enter into the Mass we must first recognize the supernatural depth of the sacred liturgy. To devoutly assist, we cannot be afraid of the implications. This isn’t a matter of which liturgical functions can be extended to involve the laity; we have to transcend such a remedial understanding of participation. Rather, the ongoing conversation must be about the best way to glorify God and to profit souls.
This conversation is currently underway. May it continue to bear fruit.