I'm working on a series of posts about how to get the most out of attending Mass. For this post, I just want to lay the groundwork.
I hope, God willing, to walk through the Mass step-by-step and offer advice on how you can use each step to draw you closer to God. Some day I hope to turn this series into a book, but for now, I feel the Lord keeps pushing me to simply make the information available so as many people as possible can get the most out of Mass.
The Value of the Mass
There is no greater worship of God than participating in a Catholic Mass. That is, there is nothing any of us can do that presents anything more valuable to God than a well-offered Catholic Mass.
You might be thinking I’ve been to Mass before. I’ve seen what happens there. How is that so special?
The Catholic Mass is valuable for many reasons, among them:
- It is the only form of New Testament worship that God Himself gave to us: At the Last Supper, Jesus commanded the Apostles to “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) He was commissioning them as His first priests of the New Testament. They were to do what He just did (turn bread and wine into His Body and Blood: “This is my Body”) and do what He was about to do (offer that Body and Blood as a sacrifice to the Father). This is the “worship in spirit and truth” that Jesus spoke of in John 4:24.
- It is a sacrifice that offers to God a victim of infinite worth: Himself. In the Mass, we re-offer Jesus’ one-time sacrifice on the Cross to God the Father.
- We have an infinite font of grace available to us particularly in receiving Holy Communion, for in doing so, Jesus gives His real self to us to eat in the form of bread & wine: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)
Graces Available at Mass
God doesn’t benefit from us offering Him the Mass. He is perfect in Himself, so He cannot improve. Rather, He gave us the Mass for our benefit.
Not only does the Mass offer to God the greatest possible worship, but it also offers to each participant an infinite number of graces. God’s graces are both His abiding presence in our souls—His Life in us (Sanctifying Grace)—and what enables us to do good and avoid what is evil (Actual Graces). Even something as small as choosing to spend some time in prayer we cannot do without God’s grace. Jesus said: “apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
God’s goodness enables us to receive those divine inspirations that help us to come close to God. He helps us to finish off a piece of work with perfection, to accept or perform a particular mortification, or to make an act of faith. He helps us to conquer ourselves, for the love of God, in something we find difficult. These are actual graces, free and transitory gifts from God that affect each soul in their own particular way. What a lot of actual graces we have received each day! What a lot more we will receive so long as we do not close the door of our soul to that silent and most effective action of the Sanctifier!
Through grace, God grants to each man, to each woman, not only the facility to do good, but the very possibility of doing good, because as creatures we are quite unable, with our strength alone, to keep the Commandments, or to do anything at all that is supernaturally good.Fernandez, Fr. Francis. In Conversation With God. Vol. 3, 84.2 (p.550-1)
This is not to say that we don’t have any part in doing good works. There is good on our part in corresponding with grace to do those good works, but they are first and foremost God working through us (His unworthy instruments) to do the good. Imagine, if God wants us to be the light of the world1, that we are all little candles and the flame that makes us shine is His grace. God chooses to make His light glow for the world through us—however imperfect we may be—so that the unlit candles around us may be drawn by our light and catch fire themselves.
Not only do graces allow us to do good works to help other people, but they allow us to do the greatest work: that of drawing close to God. God is constantly offering us graces to cultivate a deeper relationship with Him, to grow that Life of His within us. He especially offers us grace through the Mass. If you want the deepest possible relationship with God, if you want to be as holy as you can be, there is no greater source for this than Holy Mass.
Better Disposition, More Grace
“Well, I’ve been to Mass,” you might say, “why am I not yet a saint?”
Grace comes to us in the degree to which we are open to it. The more we open ourselves to grace, the more we receive. What’s more, the more we receive, the better disposed we are to receive even more grace. “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance.” (Matthew 25:29)
Although Our Lord through his death on the Cross merited an infinite treasury of grace, those graces are not granted to us all at once, and their greater or lesser abundance depends on how we correspond. When we are prepared to say yes to Our Lord in everything, we attract a veritable cascade of gifts. Grace, love for God, inundates us when we are faithful to the small insinuations of grace each day – when we live the heroic minute in the morning and try to give our first thought to God; when we prepare well for Holy Mass and struggle to reject those distractions that try to separate us from what is really important; when we offer up our work…Fernandez, Fr. Francis. In Conversation With God. Vol. 3, 84.3 (p.552)
We can only experience the graces available at Mass to the degree that we are open. “[T]he fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.”2 The more we are open to receiving grace, the more grace we receive. “The Sacraments produce a greater effect proportionately if the dispositions of the recipients are better…”
The ends [purposes, goals] of the Mass that refer directly to God (adoration, praise and thanksgiving, are always produced infallibly and with all their infinite value . . . However, the other ends of the Eucharistic Sacrifice (propitiation and petition), which are for the benefit of the man and are called the “fruits” of the Mass, do not in fact always achieve the fullness of which they are capable. These fruits – of reconciliation with God and of obtaining from him what we ask for from his bounty – could also be of infinite value. They too rest on the merits of Christ. We never receive these fruits to that perfect degree since they are applied to us according to our personal dispositions. The more ardently and intently we take part in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar, the greater application of these fruits of propitiation and petition we shall receive. Christ’s own prayer multiplies the value of our own prayer to the extent that we unite our petitions and atonement to his in the Mass, on the Cross itself.Fernandez, Fr. Francis. In Conversation With God. Vol. 3, 103.1 (p.664-5)
Imagine you are desperately thirsty, but you happen to be swimming in an ocean of the most refreshing water ever. How would you satisfy that thirst? Obviously, you would simply need to open your mouth and drink. Every one of us is thirsty for God’s grace (some realize this thirst better than others). In Mass, we are all immersed in the most abundant font of grace, but we have to dispose ourselves to receive those graces that await us. We have to, as it were, spiritually open our mouths and drink deeply of that ocean.
The Holy Mass is designed in such a way that each element is supposed to help the participants to open themselves to God’s grace. In this series of blog posts, I hope to show their design for helping you receive grace. And help you to learn how to better dispose yourself to receive those graces.3
“Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.”4 Here, I hope to show what you can practically do during each and every Mass to more actively participate and thereby give God more glory and become more disposed to receive grace.
If you wish to participate in the Mass actively, you must follow with your eye, heart and mouth all that happens on the altar. Further, you must pray with the Priest the holy words said by him in the Name of Christ and which Christ says by him. You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens at the altar. When acting in this way you have prayed Holy Mass.Pope St. Pius X
Pope St. Pius X explained the overview in the above quote. In this blog series, I will be attempting to drill into each element in the Mass and describe how you can take advantage of it to let it open your disposition for that deeper life of grace that God wants for you.
Growing up, I knew very little of this. My family went to Mass on most Sundays. I was an altar boy for many years. I could lip-sync the Mass by about 5th grade, so it wasn’t a question of knowing the words and gestures of the Mass. That was easy, but it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I was taught how much more there is beneath the surface. It was as if my spiritual life was like playing in a mud puddle or a kiddie pool my whole life and I suddenly stumbled across the deep end of the pool—only this deep end was an infinite chasm of beauty, goodness, truth, love, and grace.
Early on, God planted a seed of truth. As a young boy, I knew there was something good about going to Mass—something special. Little did I realize just how good and special it is. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but my Grandmother’s example as a Mass-going woman was always something that struck me as good. In junior high, however, I began hearing people talk about how Mass was “boring” or other comments to the effect that Mass was just a useless empty ritual. With my Grandma now deceased, my outlook on Mass was getting weakened. As a freshman in high school, I ended up getting a job at a restaurant and though I stipulated that I wouldn’t work Sunday mornings, they would schedule me for those times anyway. With some encouragement from my mom, I fought it, noting that when I was hired I said each week I had to have off either Saturday evening or Sunday morning (the only Mass times available in my city at the time). Whether I was sick of fighting the schedule and having to ask them to fix it, or I was beginning to enjoy the money I had coming in, etc., my resolve weakened. I began only fighting the times that I was also scheduled to be an altar boy. Then I quit being an altar boy and just let the restaurant schedule me whenever I was needed. No longer regularly attending Sunday Mass, my relationship with God grew stale—not that God grew stale (for He cannot), but that I stagnated. I didn’t realize until later that I had lost Sanctifying Grace (God’s life in my soul).
After a few years of that downward spiral, I eventually allowed God’s constant draw to act on me. As a junior in high school, I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and not long after I started waking up from my spiritual slumber. That summer, my dad invited me to work for him in his silkscreen printing business instead of the restaurant—and he said I could set my own hours. The former suggestion was music to my ears—not only was I able to get out of that restaurant, but I was going to be able to work with my dad! I didn’t realize it until much later, but the latter suggestion was subtly even more moving. As he suggested that I could make my own schedule, the thought popped into my head5 that I could start going to Mass again and that Grandma would like that. I gladly accepted his offer and performed most of my work on weekdays after school, so I would have open weekends both. This way, I could have fun on my days off, but I could also attend Mass on Sundays. Shortly thereafter, I attended a retreat with my Catholic school classmates, during which God moved me to resolve to never miss Mass again without a serious reason.
On my first weekend staying at college, I decided to attend St. Luke’s Church, right across the street from the school—very convenient, I thought. As I walked in, something seemed off to me. There was no holy water, no crucifix, and no Tabernacle. It all seemed somewhat familiar, but eerily different… lacking. It wasn’t until I walked out that reality dawned on me. The sign read St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. This experience, though humbling, taught me to recognize the difference between the Catholic Mass and Protestant services. It gave me an appreciation of the Mass even though I didn’t know what made up the distinction. At that time it was more felt than understood. I later found a Catholic Church and continued to attend, though my real understanding and development didn’t occur until a few years after college.
Moving forward, I was helped in my appreciation of the Mass and the spiritual life through retreats, World Youth Day, Confession, reading books and internet articles about Catholicism, and hearing Catholic talks. Through talking with Protestant friends, and trying to answer their questions, I got interested in studying Catholicism. It began with looking up Purgatory and landing on Catholic.com. This opened my eyes to realize that I was totally wrong with what I thought Purgatory was and here were biblical and historical reasons why we believed in Purgatory. Wait… if I was wrong on Purgatory. What else don’t I know? And why do we believe all of those things? I began to see how little I knew about Catholicism, despite a Pre-K through High School Catholic education. I particularly remember reading the page on the Eucharist and having many light bulbs suddenly glow in my head. So the bread and wine literally become Jesus! That’s why we have a Tabernacle, and why it’s gold, and why we genuflect (and we genuflect toward Jesus inside it, not the cross, the altar, or [as I’ve seen some do—and I probably did at some point] the wall). It took me back to my second grade First Communion prep class when our teacher tried to describe for us that “it still looks, feels, tastes like bread, but it’s actually Jesus..” and it all made sense now.
One specific talk was given by Fr. Joseph Fessio (founder of Ignatius Press) on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s (then-Pope Benedict XVI’s) book The Spirit of the Liturgy. In it, he described how the Mass isn’t just a gathering to hear the Bible readings and be fed the Eucharist, but in the Mass, we step outside of time and are put at the foot of the cross as Jesus offers Himself to the Father, and the priest leads us as we all re-offer Jesus’ one-time sacrifice. This was the key that I was missing to be able to understand what we are doing at Mass. Now knowing these things, Mass has transformed from a simple ritual into an ever-deepening experience of God’s presence.
I hope this series will help you experience the same type of ever-deepening understanding of and appreciation for what God offers each of us in the Catholic Mass.
Some Notes on the Blog Series
Throughout the rest of this series, I will be walking through a typical Sunday Mass and breaking each piece into a few categories:
- What – This category will be familiar to all Church-going Catholics. It’s the surface-level of what you see and do at Mass.
- Why – This category takes the next step by giving reasons why each “what” is done. Without the why, the what becomes empty ritual. This is something we Catholics are often accused of, so these whys will be good points to study to help you grasp the deeper meaning of the Mass.
- Going Deeper – This category takes a step beyond why and into how–how to take advantage of this piece of the Mass and tap into that infinite font of grace.
- Others – Extra categories will be added to help color the commentary with stories from my experience, extra pointers, or other anecdotes.
- “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1128
- N.B. Not all Masses are offered well. Often one might find that the particular priest offering a given Mass might fail to choose the best options for disposing people to receive the most graces, but that is a theme for an entirely different blog series. Thankfully, even in poorly offered Masses, great graces are still available.
This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. (CCC 1228)
Here, I will concentrate on what the average layperson in the pew can do to improve his/her reception of grace.
- Sacrosanctum Concilium 14
- As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to learn that this is often how God speaks to me.