(Originally published on Helium April 18, 2013)
There are many criticisms on the internet of the Roman Catholic Mass by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This article defends the Mass.
The two major criticisms of the Mass by Catholics (also called Eucharist by Catholics) are: 1) that it’s boring and 2) that it is no longer in Latin and in the format used before Vatican II.
In response to the criticism that the Mass is boring, the most obvious counter is that worshiping God is not supposed to be fun or entertainment. For all Christians and Jews, worshiping God is a mandate, made explicit in the Ten Commandments. It would be absurd to think that God meant worship to be some kind of entertainment or a “feel good” experience.
Mass is a ritual, handed down through the ages, that interacts with God in a formal way. Mass is not solely an interaction between priest and God but includes everyone present, priest and people alike. If the congregation is paying attention, they will discover Mass is composed of two parts: the introductory matter (called the Liturgy of the Word) or the lessons to be learned from Scripture taken from both the Old and the New Testaments (these readings change daily and are identical all over the world), followed by a homily by the Priest. The homily tries to integrate these readings into a message that can be applied in daily life. Some homilies are better than others. After all, priests are people too.
The second half of Mass is the Eucharistic meal. This is the part where Priest and people enter into a period of worship that is unchanging. This is the part of the Mass where the priest changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. It is the holiest moment of the Mass. It is a profound mystery that is unchanging. Each person puts into this sacrifice whatever they are capable of offering to God. The Mass, therefore, is not what you can get out of it, but what you put into it. If Mass is boring, then there is a lack of understanding of just what the Mass really is.
The second major criticism is from some Catholics who bemoan the change in liturgy that came about after Vatican II. Some parishes have permission to continue with the old form of ritual. For those who miss the old Latin Mass, it can be found. In addition, the Novus Ordo (the new order) is not really new. It was the original Mass celebrated in Greek. (See the Apostolic Fathers especially Justin Martyr)
Criticisms from both Catholics and non-Catholics include a complaint that the same prayers are said over and over again with little or no apparent attention of the meaning by those attending the Mass. Yes, there are four prayers that are said at every Mass (unless the liturgical season eliminates them or if another prayer is substituted.)
The first of these prayers is the Confiteor, a prayer asking for forgiveness for sins at the beginning of Mass, in which the individual admits to having failed to live up to all of God’s teachings and begs to be pardoned. This prayer is often omitted and replaced with the simple “Lord have mercy,” said three times.
The Gloria is a psalm of praise which begins with “Glory to God!” and is indeed a hymn which can be said or sung in praise of God. The Gloria is not said during weekday Masses or during Advent and Lent. One wonders why anyone could possibly criticize the repetition of a song of praise to God. Isn’t that what people of faith do?
After the Gospel is read and the homily is over, the Mass continues with the Credo or statement of what Catholics believe. The Credo was formalized at the First Council of Nicaea as a succinct statement of fundamental Christian belief. In reciting the Credo, the Catholic reaffirms these fundamental beliefs.
Is it wrong to recite a statement of belief at every Mass? After all, some American children still learn to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag which begins the morning ritual at some elementary schools, reaffirming that they are American citizens who uphold the flag which represents the United States and its Constitution upon which the country was founded. If a daily recitation of fundamental American beliefs is not wrong, why would a daily recitation of fundamental Christian beliefs be wrong?
Yes, some simply mouth the words with no understanding, but the words are there to be understood.
The fourth prayer repeated at every Mass is the “Our Father.” Why any Christian would object to the daily recitation of the Our Father is a mystery to most Catholics. After all, this is the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. If the Lord’s Prayer was good enough for the Apostles, why would it be wrong for today’s Christians?
When the criticism is of the repetition of the Eucharistic consecration prayers, then there is a complete misunderstanding of the Catholic Mass. The consecration is at the very heart of the Mass, completely scripture based, in which the wine and wafer are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. This belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is central to Catholicism. It is the most important part of Mass. This is not the time to get up and go to the bathroom or to count the money received at the offertory. There are some who pay no attention whatsoever, and others who find this profound mystery stirs their soul.
Finally, there are those that criticize the Mass because it is a ritual. Indeed it is a solemn ritual as befits the solemnity of what is to happen at the consecration. Worship has always had it rituals whether formal and protracted or brief and less formal. One wonders if the people who criticize the solemn ritual of the Mass also criticize the solemn rituals associated with state funerals or graduation ceremonies – especially at large universities. At graduation there is always the solemn procession of the administration, faculty and graduates in academic gowns and hoods, all with colors designating their status and major degrees. The audience always rises in respect at their entrance and is not seated until after the opening prayer. If formal ritual is acceptable in graduation ceremonies, why would it not be acceptable for worshiping God?
Last, is the constant nagging criticism of the Novus Ordo Mass by some Catholics. They insist that only the old Latin Mass is a “real Mass.” From the time of Constantine, when Christianity was no longer forbidden and punishable, Masses were said in Latin as most of Europe spoke Latin as the common language. I am sure there were people, at that time, who complained that the liturgy they knew and loved that was celebrated in Greek, was now being celebrated in Latin. Personally, I believe God hears our prayers no matter what language we use. And, for most people, understanding what is being said and read in their own language, is a critical first step in participating in the mystery of the Mass.
This criticism is generally rife with emotionalism. No logic or reasoning has any effect.
Criticisms of the Mass, covered briefly here, keep being reiterated. Are the criticisms an attempt to influence the Catholic Church to change its beliefs and forms of worship? Is it an act of venting spleen toward a perceived impenetrable organization? Or is it a sincere belief that Catholics do not know anything at all about worshiping God properly?
Whatever the motives, the Catholic Church has stood the test of time and continues to try to worship God in the best way it knows how.
First Council of Nicaea http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11044a.htm
Early fathers of the church http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/
Novus Ordo http://catholicism.about.com/od/worship/g/Novus_Ordo.htm
Ten commandments http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/command.htm
Eucharistic meal http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/apologetics/ap0092.html
Vatican II http://www.vatican2voice.org/
Our Father http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s2.htm