By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published July 8, 2010
Talk about a spiritual shot in the arm! Whenever we visit our friends in Greenville, S.C., we go to Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The sanctuary is stunningly beautiful, and the Mass is celebrated in a picture-perfect way. There is the stirring scent of incense, plus what sounds like angels singing in the choir loft.
By contrast, when we visit relatives in Florida and attend Mass there, so much seems wrong. There are no kneelers, for one thing, and the wall hangings are tacky. Now it would be tempting to say “Well, if things at Mass aren’t up to my high standards, I’m staying home.” Tempting, but quite wrong.
The Eucharist is the same, whether the setting is a bare-bones chapel in the poorest part of town or the Vatican itself. The Eucharist is the same because Jesus is the same. And, let’s face it: Jesus didn’t demand that things be perfect before he ministered to people. In fact, the Gospels overflow with imperfections of every stripe, such as demon-possessed people, lepers with oozing sores and every variety of sin.
As we walk up to the altar to receive Jesus, we also are flawed. On some days, we may be feeling distressed and dreary, while on others, our faith may be lagging. But despite our faults, Jesus is still there. Catholic writer J.R.R. Tolkien emphasized in a letter to his son that “The only cure for sagging … faith is Communion …” and advised receiving the Eucharist seven days a week. His advice is not surprising, coming from a man who was intensely dedicated to his faith. But what is surprising is what came next in the letter.
Tolkien suggested that his son seek out “a snuffling or gabbling priest” plus a church “full of the usual bourgeois crowd.” This crowd, said Tolkien, might consist of children who were ill- behaved and adults dressed far too casually. As he put it, “It will be just the same (or better…) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.”
Tolkien believed these circumstances would help his son spiritually. There is something very humbling about realizing that God doesn’t just love the “devout and decorous” folks, but everyone. That includes the folks in designer clothes, but also those who wear the bargain-basement specials. He loves children who are well-behaved, but also those who are rambunctious. Tolkien took his own advice. You see, he lived at a time when all Masses were in Latin, and when that changed, he was devastated. Still, he humbled himself and never stopped going to Mass.
Of course, it is vital for parishes to strive for liturgy that is as beautiful and dignified as possible. After all, Jesus Christ himself is present on the altar, and we want to give him our best. But demanding absolute perfection among the congregation is like telling the Lord: “I will only receive you if all my conditions are met.” For some folks, these conditions might mean that men must don fine suits and women must wear dresses. For others, perfection might dictate that babies are shuffled out the moment they emit the first squeak.
In fact, though, if you look at the real world today, you’ll discover Catholics who will risk anything to get to Mass—even their lives. In some countries, people go to Mass despite bomb threats against their parish—and I doubt they complain if some men aren’t wearing ties. Many Catholics go to Mass after storms have nearly destroyed their church—and surely they don’t care if a baby is bawling.
Catholics will risk anything to get to Mass because we know who is on the altar. We know he came into a warped world and died a dreadful death out of love for us. And even if everything comes crashing down around us, we will go to Mass. Because, at heart, we will do anything to get to Jesus Christ.
Artwork by Jef Murray. The Murrays are parishioners at St. Thomas More in Decatur. Readers may write them at email@example.com.