Please note during the next seven weeks the homily time at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, NY will be devoted to a renewed understanding of and appreciation for various parts of the Roman Catholic Liturgy. These sermons are being planned to help the parish prepare for worship according to the new Roman Missal beginning on the first Sunday of Advent. Next week’s topic: “Listening to the Word of God.”
27 Sunday Ordinary time – October 2, 2011 – Preparing to Worship
During a visit to Paris years ago I went to a Russian Orthodox church for the Vigil of the Resurrection. The tiny church was packed. There were no chairs so everyone stood. Hundreds of tapered candles flickered in a cloud of fragrant incense. Innumerable icons surrounded us amidst the chants of the clergy and choir who were just steps away. The atmosphere was other worldly; heavenly I suppose. I watched as two elderly women rushed into this holy place, passed right in front of the archpriests as if they weren’t there, to greet their friends on the other side of the church. No one seemed to mind. I learned in that moment that human connections are sometimes more important than even Godly ones.
Two months from now, on the first Sunday of Advent, the last Sunday of November, our church will begin using a new translation for the celebration of the Mass, as it appears in a new Roman Missal. While most of the media has focussed on the debate surrounding the new texts, the language of the Catholic liturgy involves much more than words. When we do it well together it is a performance of ministry, music and movement, scripture, song and silence, communion and commitment to social action.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was the first document promulgated at the Vatican Two Council back in 1963, almost 50 years ago! Many of us remember some of the teachings, others may have forgotten them or never heard of them or never wanted to hear them. Still others weren’t even born! The main teaching was that the Liturgy, the Mass, is not a private act of the priest or any individual but the work of the whole church, a sacrament of unity. We worship in response to the invitation from God to join Jesus Christ, son of God, in offering ourselves to God and to one another. Because of our baptisms, we are called to participate in this liturgy fully and actively, not just here in this church, but to carry our prayer out to the world we live in.
This renewed understanding of the liturgy led to the development of different ministries carried out by all members of the priesthood, ordained or not. All of those opportunities to minister are available here in our parish to the extent possible. There is one ministry that is not yet fully developed or understood in just about every Catholic community. It is the ministry of the assembly. A common perception is that certain members of the community prepare to serve the rest of us (e.g., readers, musicians, singers, acolytes, servers, communion ministers). But what about the rest of us? What do we do to get ready for the liturgy of the Word and Eucharist each week? Do we just show up, sometimes out of habit, looking for a miracle, curiously waiting to see and hear something happen, something that will inspire us? Or does worship involve preparation by all of us?
One way to prepare for Mass is to find a few moments in our busy schedules is to check out and think about the gospel reading for the following Sunday. Households with little children (I admit I really don’t have any experience of households with little children!) and young adults might discuss who Jesus was and what he did. Another way to prepare is to carry out at least one good work in the community to do something for someone else, a group or individual. The second reading today reminded us to continue to do what we were taught to do. That is the way the vineyard of God will produce good fruit.
The liturgy is a remembrance of Jesus Christ and how we embrace or identify with that life. It is God’s gift to us and our gift to one another. Doing something during the week will give us something to celebrate when we finally gather in this church. The liturgy can be thought of as the completion of a week as well as the beginning of one.
We have to admit, preparation before Mass starts here at St. Vincent’s, the church is, well, quite different from other parishes! Perhaps, cacophonous is the right word. Friends are visiting with one another. All ministries are tending to their tasks. The choir and musicians are warming up. Others are preparing the post-liturgy reception. At the same time we recognize strangers because all people are welcome in our church.
What’s missing? I hear some people say they would like a little more quiet time. The new missal reminds us to create an atmosphere of contemplation in the church, to help us settle down, to reflect on what we are about to do together — worship God in a sacred place. As we continue to be hospitable to one another, to visit with one another before Mass and take care of those last minute preparations, how can we manage to create a more quiet and prayerful atmosphere in church before and during the Liturgy? How can we be still long enough to let God speak to us?
The women in that Russian Orthodox church knew something in their hearts, something that no missal or catechism can teach. They came to worship God on a holy night, in a splendid church building, according to an ancient and rich liturgical tradition. Although our liturgy is not the same as the Orthodox Liturgy we also worship as a group. Those women did not forget that they were part of a community of diverse families, friends and strangers, all members of God’s vineyard, God’s household. Perhaps that is what we might remember above all else as we prepare to worship God with a new Missal.