Monday, May 24, 2010

Our need to respond at Liturgy

What makes a wonderful Mass?

I’d love to take a straw poll after Mass on any given Sunday, and ask people at random this question. I’m quite sure that these could be some of the answers that I could get:
“When the choir blends its voices so beautifully like angels”, or
“When the Lectors proclaim the Word with great clarity”, or
“When preachers give great insights at a well prepared, crafted and delivered homily”, or
“When the servers execute their duties with great pomp and alertness”, or
“When the celebrant sings everything with heartfelt meaning and is on pitch”.

While I am sure that if all of the above happen together at a Mass, it may send some into ecstatic celestial heights, these, unfortunately, do not a wonderful liturgy make. What separates good liturgy from awe-inspiring liturgy literally lies in the mouths of the congregation.

In all that we do, what gives us great delight is when there is a positive response to our actions and overtures. We could be putting up a concert, writing of a book, producing a movie, or inviting friends over for a meal. It makes little sense to act or sing to an empty hall, to write a book which no one will read, let alone buy, make a movie which people simply will not watch, or get a meal ready for friends who will not turn up.

What happens at each Mass has a gravitas of far more import than any of the examples that I just listed. God is coming into our lives in a concrete way. God is offering himself to us over and over again. What God requires of us is to respond adequately and appropriately to this great grace (which saves us), which we do not deserve at all.

When properly understood and celebrated, the entire liturgy becomes a great offer and response flow - of love offered, and love received; of loved received, and love returned. That is what happens between the persons of the Holy Trinity, and our liturgy then becomes a mirroring of that great exchange of love.

Once we see how deep the Mass goes, then we will begin to understand that each gesture, each response, each action well executed and mindfully carried out becomes our return of gratitude and love to the one who is love. And when we are loath to respond with mindfulness, when our response is more timid than throaty, when we prefer to let the choir “perform” than to blend our voices with theirs, we are showing a lukewarm response to God’s offer of love and life.

When I am aware of this as a priest, then I will want to lead my people to as great a response as possible, because that marks fantastic liturgy. I’ll want the choir to be one that is giving their all to God, I’ll hope that the lectors really know how to proclaim and not just read, and I want to ensure that each altar server truly becomes the model participant at each Mass by his singing, opened mouth response and deliberate and mindful gestures.

Sadly, the world today seems to have become far too self-centered for this meaning to take place on a large scale in a church congregation. Dare I hope that an entire congregation deeply understands this? I’m not sure, because there will be many who will say that Mass for them is a ‘me and God’ moment, so “let me speak to God in my heart”. The understanding of the Church’s liturgy, which is public worship, has sadly seemed to be reduced to something personal and private – something that it never was, and never will be.

I used to get very upset as a celebrant to see Catholics who refuse to sing, who won’t respond to prayers, and who are very reticent and withdrawn and cold at Mass. Yet, these could well be the same people who go to rock concerts and show far greater enthusiasm with their response when the singer says “somebody scream!” or “I want to see you jump on the floor!” God, it seems deserves far less response and warmth than a mere mortal who demanded an entrance fee of hundreds of dollars and who thrills albeit momentarily.

Why do I say, “Used to get upset”? Perhaps I am beginning to see that being upset doesn’t make things better. It doesn’t help me to operate out of a mellow space and a compassionate heart. I just hope that I am able to impart, in a lucid and gentle way that we need to adjust our collective response to God’s offer of love and mercy.

Because when we do, heaven happens.


  1. I see every mass as a reunion dinner with not just with our Father but also with my congregation as my family. When we refuse to participate actively in the mass, it is just like we refuse to talk and be part of the family during the reunion dinner. The food may be prepared well, the hosts may be friendly and hospitable, and the house may be cosy, alluding to the well prepared homilies with insights from the priest, choirs with good singing voices, altar boys with appropriate active gestures with great respect, etc. But, the people invited make the great difference. Imagine a dinner where everyone simply keeps quiet and he goes there because he has to go. Now, imagine a dinner where everyone is eager and looks forward to this dinner. Everyone laughs and interacts actively with one another and enjoys the food out of love. Which scenario do we prefer? Sometimes, we complain the mass is boring. Instead of complaining passively, can I try to be more active during the mass by responding well to the liturgy? What is in our hearts is often expressed through our behaviour, action and words.

    The body of Christ is made up of all the people in the church with Christ as our head which explains why mass is never a private worship with God. I think I miss the real meaning of mass if I choose to take it as my private time with God alone. In this way, it may be even more difficult for me to reach out to the others to share God’s love with the others which is our very core mission as a priest since I have been habitually practising this ‘between God and me alone’ relationship during every mass. Love is infinite and I think I belittle God by confining this magnificent Love within myself instead of sharing it with the others. Ironically, love multiplies only through sharing which in turn expands the Kingdom of God. The mass is only meaningful if all of us participate actively with love for God and the congregation. In this way, the liturgy is no longer just cold words to be recited out of obligation which makes the mass boring and dull but will become alive with warmth and love out of our hearts which add colours to the mass. It is just like a guy may think that it is enough for him to keep his love for his lover in his heart. However, how would the lover know that he loves her if he keeps on keeping his love within himself? How can relationship be improved if there is no communication involved between both parties? It takes one to humble oneself before the other to confess and express one’s love for the other through actions and words. Whenever I respond actively during the mass, I choose to humble myself to confess my love for God and the others through my actions and words.

    Fr Luke, thank you for all your blog entries so far. They have been helpful for me to do deeper reflection and keep on reviewing my relationship with God and others and different aspects of my life. Continue to be a blessing to the others. God bless.

    With Love,
    God's child

  2. Dear Fr Luke,

    Thank you for making OLSS come alive again...Together with Fr JJ & Fr Noel, you have somehow made us respect our reverence to our Lord - we are more observant when serving at mass as a extra-ordinary communion minister or a lector or even just attending mass. I thank you for laying certain principles down firmly like meetings ending at 9.30pm and being very objective when we meet for a purpose - it brings out some mutual respect for one's well being no matter what the occassion upholds. I appreciate every effort in bringing out the best in each individual...with God's grace, we can learn to perfect in giving ourselves at mass when we remain focused at all times...God loves you too... mat.

  3. Dear Father Luke,

    Do not feel discourage. You are doing very well. Your enthusiasm has influenced some. You are still new and may not know that there is improvement. It takes time for people to open up and to accept change. Traditionally, Mass was celebrated in a solemn and well behaved manner and parishioners were used to response in a very gentle and quiet manner. You must have heard wardens complaining that people covers their face when consuming the Host so much so that wardens do not know if the Host is being consumed or still in their palm. And some parishioners still insist on receiving communion on their tongue.
    Believe me; it can be awkward to response with enthusiasm at mass because people are watching especially if you are one who does not have a good voice and most of the time sing out of tune. One has to be thick-skinned and brave. Pray for the Holy Spirit to touch every parishioner. I believe that with the Holy Spirit in us, we can be thick-skinned and courageous.
    You may like to get help from the various ministries. At least 10% of our parishioners are involved in the church ministries. Get them to set the example for other to emulate. And ask them to bring home the message to their family members and encourage their family members to do the same and to pass the same request to their friends and friend’s friends. When a few candles are lighted and passed on, the whole church will eventually be lighted in an astounding state.
    God Bless.

  4. Fr Luke, I like your insight about the Mass as the " mirroring of the great exchange of love of the Trinity..." This could very well be the best reason /cause for participation in the Mass for we are called to be 'in the image of the triune God' and I believe that it includes this movement/interaction which is both vertical (ie we & God) and also lateral/horizontal ( ie among members of the congregation. This makes of the Mass , a fluid movement of love. I like this imagery very much.
    The other point I would like to make is that though the Church's liturgy is public worship - it needs individuals to come together to make this offer of public worship and we do come in all shapes, sizes, needs...the whole baggage....we also come in the hope that as the body of Christ, our individual needs will be more easily heard when offered up in unison - so as one part of me is in and with the community in worship, I also sometimes find myself very aware of being a " cog in the wheel" type of feeling - part of the group and yet unerringly "apart".

  5. "Why do I say, “Used to get upset”? Perhaps I am beginning to see that being upset doesn’t make things better. It doesn’t help me to operate out of a mellow space and a compassionate heart. I just hope that I am able to impart, in a lucid and gentle way that we need to adjust our collective response to God’s offer of love and mercy."

    I like this very much. I sure that you will touch/reach/change many more people this way. Your lack of indifference to these things I've always appreciated now the method is right too. God love you (as you are wont to say)

  6. hi frLuke, (for me) Mass is the platform where i meet and converse with our Lord,so every response is and should be(answered)recited thoughtfully.

    Very often it is at the Creed and the Our Father that i am "forced" into a murmur, @ times silence, not wanting to compete or run after the rattling.

  7. I know I should be grateful at mass…

    The fact that I am able to participate in mass is already a great mercy shown to me by God.

    In the midst of the crying baby, the scantily dressed lady, the slipper man, the rowdy child and the fondling couple were seated many “Jesus” who were praying as one Body of Christ. Indeed, I was blessed by their presence.

    At times, I entered the church still straining my oars and fighting the winds and turmoil in my life, I didn’t even realize the Word of God had passed me by. For these times, I seek solace in God to understand my confusion and fear. At times, I was straining my ears and fighting anger because the preacher had obviously not prepared his homily. “Where is the respect due to me”? For these times, I seek God’s gift of compassion and humility. “Father had been busy tending to his flock”, I told myself.

    I sat in the pew with my sins and burden. And Jesus beckoned me to bring all these to him in exchange for his body and blood. There was such indescribable love – to have received the Eucharist and to walk back towards my pew with joy, love and hope in the heart.

    Hence, seeing lukewarm priests celebrate mass has always been my gripe. How can we be present to the Presence when the celebrant is not present? Your blog speaks of the congregation needing to be in unison with the celebrant as one body thanking God, which I agree totally. But I think as much as we lay people need to hear your message, I believe priests too need to hear this. If only priests know how much energy we feed off them in our own pursuit of holiness. If only they fully understand that they are the physical manifestation of God’s love and mercy when they stand in front of the altar and when they are giving out the Holy Communion.

    Fr Luke, thank you so much for always being mindful of what it means to celebrate mass. Thank you for always taking the pain to craft out a good homily so that we can live life anchored by His Word. More than this is your making visible the Divine Presence when you celebrate mass. Because of your reverence towards liturgy, Christ comes alive! Your pauses and deliberations at words and actions highlighted the joyful solemness of this occasion. Of course, your singing is always a bonus (smiles)!

    I know I should be grateful at mass……but I pray for more priests like you to help me along the way.