What is the function of mass? Depending on what generation of Catholic you are (if you are Catholic) the answer to this question will vary.
Some say the function of the mass is evangelization or to build community. The importance is to reach out to others, to make the mass accessible to others. This will shape the direction of the physical components of mass, the smells and bells if you will. There will be an emphasis on cultural fitness of particular properties of the mass.
Some express that mass is primarily the vehicle through which we receive our Lord in Holy Eucharist. Mass is how Jesus comes to us. Confessions will be offered more readily so that there are no obstacles to receiving our Lord in Holy Communion.
In The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Cardinal Ratizinger, we read the mass is what we give to God. It is our duty. As such one attends closely to the rubrics developed through tradition regarding how those smells and bells should be used and ordered.
The mass is also the un-bloody representation of Christ’s crucifixion. Here the mass becomes solace to the suffering. What of the weary Christians in Iraq, fleeing for their lives from the ISIS? They reach the church, crowded, ill, hungry, thirsty. Perhaps they walk farther in looking for a little space to lay down and sleep, longing for a sense of safety. They hear the priest saying mass. Wandering over, they sit, they pray, they offer their hearts, their longing, their anger, their gratitude that they are alive, their desperate prayers for those left behind. The smell of incense lifts their hearts, reminds them that some things are the same now as they were when they had homes. My God, why have you forsaken me? Father forgive them, they know not what they do. Into your hands, o Lord, I commend my spirit.
The mass is all these things and more. This wedding feast of the Lamb cannot be separated and divided up in the function and benefits we receive. I believe it is primarily what we give to God. But what if I believe that because of where I stand culturally? It is the last thought, that mass as a place of comfort for Mary and John on Calvary, that makes me consider that God uses the mass to bring us to him from wherever on the path we may be, personally, communally and culturally.
Yet what we believe we need is not always what we truly need. Of late, I have pursued a conversation on what I believe to be an over-emphasis on the welcoming aspect in liturgical music. In an effort to make mass welcoming, and make the music accessible for those who do not read music, over time sacred music in many local parishes has been dumbed down. The popular mass setting used in this diocese is remarkably similar to the theme of My Little Pony. There seems to be a pathological fear of changing the mass setting because then people won’t know how to sing the ordinaries (as if no one could memorize the words without the music or as if the churches were in chaos before 2011 when our bishop requested the parishes use one of these three settings to help limit confusion with the new translation for parishioners).
What if, here in the American Roman Catholic Church, we do not need the emphasis to be welcoming? What the emphasis on welcoming is really a guise for comfort. Is the concern more that people should feel comfortable?
A growing generation of Catholics seem to long more for truth and the other-worldliness of the mass. Mass takes us from the mundane into Heaven. Here we see the truth. Here is clarity, not the mess of marketing and technology outside the church. We long for architecture that forces us to whisper, because it just seems too sacred (and too ambient) not to. American culture and progress seems, to me, obsessed with comfort. We avoid suffering at all costs. I think perhaps the over-emphasis on making people feel welcome, comfortable, at the expense of art, music, and architecture, at the expense of what we give to God, is a product of the American emphasis on comfort.
In Gothic times the churches were built to make the individual feel small, to direct his eyes to Heaven. I believe the newer generation of Catholics are looking for this. We need this. Here in America, we don’t need more comfort or more gratification. We need to be reminded we are sinners, that we are the pinnacle of creation and image God himself, but that we are terribly ungrateful sinners in need of his mercy. We need to be opened to the greater Church, the suffering Church, the longing Church. We are not home yet. It might help us to be reminded of that.
If we focus on the mass as pointing us to heaven rather than making us feel at home here in our church buildings, people will actually feel more at home. For all our choices and comforts, we are less secure, more depressed more anxious. The call of technology places us in a constant state of the “now,” of trends, of progress. Yet we are all the more unable to focus on the details, we are distracted. It’s difficult to meditate with the hum of technology all around us. We need a place we can step away from it all.
We must be careful to avoid the errors of thinking that comes from our cultural or personal weaknesses. The same can be applied to an overemphasis on outreach, on rubrics, on so many things, but I chose to address this issue of comfort because it seems ubiquitous here in America.
One final thought: as Americans, there is also a particular benefit to owing something to Someone, because we’ve been told for so long that all that matters is what we want and the virtue of rugged individualism, but that is a post for another day.