What do we need to remember when we “come back” to Mass?
Introduction: “The Mass is Never Ended!”
I don’t know if they still do it, but several years ago when I attended Mass at Holy Family Parish in Inverness, Illinois, there was a marvelous moment at the end of the celebration. After communion, the presider offered the post-communion prayer, and then, as in Catholic parishes everywhere, there were a number of announcements about events going on in the parish in the coming week. Then — again, just like any parish — the presider said, “The Lord be with you,” the congregation responded, and he gave the blessing: “May almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” But then something different happened. Rather than the presider saying, “The Mass is ended, go in peace,” the entire congregation cried out strongly and powerfully: “The Mass is never ended, let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord!”
Something similar happened every Sunday at the Anglican church of St. Mary’s in Islington, a neighborhood in London, England, when my friend Graham Kings was pastor there. Right after the final blessing at the Eucharist, the congregation would sing the final hymn, and while they were singing Graham would walk down the center aisle of the church. As he walked, the congregation would turn around to face the large doors at the back of the church. When Graham reached them, he would throw the doors wide open. When the hymn was over, he gestured toward the doors and proclaimed to the people “The Mass is ended, go in peace!”
The people of Holy Family and St. Mary’s were on to something. What they were acting out in a ritual or ceremonial way is really what the Eucharist is all about. It’s not about going to church to make ourselves more “holy.” It’s not about pleasing God (although God is certainly pleased!). It’s not about “tanking up” on grace so we can make it through the week. And it’s certainly not about just fulfilling our duty and avoiding sin. Sure, it is about all of these, of course, but these are not the real point. The point of celebrating Eucharist is much more than all of these reasons.
Over fifteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine said it in a way that probably has never been said better: “When you take communion, you will be told: ‘the body of Christ,’ and you will answer: ‘Amen.’ But you yourselves must form the body of Christ. It is therefore the mystery of yourselves that you are going to receive” (Sermon 272 [PL 38.1246]). We come to Eucharist to be renewed as who we are — God’s special people, the Body of Christ, called to be Christ in our world, called to continue his mission!
Going to Mass Backwards
The best way to see what celebrating Eucharist is about is to realize that we really go to Mass backwards.1 Believe it or not, the most important moment in the Mass is not the sermon or homily; it’s not when we receive communion, and it is not the moment of the consecration — or the “words of institution.” No, the most important moment of our Eucharist together is what the people of Holy Family or St. Mary’s are on to when they said, “The Mass is never ended!” or when Graham Kings threw open the church doors: it is the moment of dismissal, when the community that has been gathered around the table is sent forth into the world. That’s when the Mass is the Mass, “ite, Missa est!” in the Latin version. It’s untranslatable, really, but it means both “go, the Mass is!” and “go, we are sent forth!” This is when, as our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Churches say, the “liturgy after the liturgy” begins.
The Mass “Backwards”
Let’s take a look at the Eucharist from the perspective of its final words and try to understand the Mass “backwards.” If the words of dismissal could be in our minds all through the liturgy, our whole approach to celebrating Eucharist would change.
Actually, we don’t really come to the Eucharist or attend Mass. We’re actually already living the Eucharist in our daily lives. What we really do is come back to the Eucharist…
Actually, we don’t really come to the Eucharist or attend Mass. We’re actually already living the Eucharist in our daily lives. What we really do is come back to the Eucharist, after having been sent out the week, or day, or a few days before. It would be more appropriate, therefore, if the ushers or the ministers of hospitality at the door of the church would say “welcome back!” rather than just “welcome” or “good morning.” We’re coming back to renew our identity as members of Christ’s body, to remember who we are and (a play on words) be re-membered. We have come back not just, as we said before, to fill up on grace so we can get through the day or the week. We’re coming back, as Augustine put it, to say “Amen” to who we are.
Lord have mercy!
So, we gather together, we sing a hymn, and we right away confess our sinfulness. Since we’re coming back from mission we recognize that we have often failed to live the way our baptism has called us to, or to live out the charge we received at our last Eucharist to witness to the life of Jesus and live his vision of the reign of God. In fact, we have not only failed, we have positively done things that have kept selfishness, hate, jealousy and greed alive in our world. We confess “what we have done, and what we have failed to do,” and cry out “Lord, have mercy!”
And, of course, God does! We come together wounded, and God’s love heals our wounds. Our actions have made us unworthy to be God’s witnesses, but God’s action of love in our lives makes us whole again, and worthy despite ourselves. Amazing grace! And so (except in Advent and Lent) we sing a hymn of praise: “Glory to God in the highest . . . .”
Let us pray!
We conclude this first part of our celebration (the “Entrance Rite”) with a prayer, recited by the priest who is presiding. It is called the “Opening Prayer,” but originally it was called the “Collect,” because after the priest says “Let us pray,” there is a moment of silence when everyone in the assembly prays silently — and then the priest “collects” them together in his prayer said out loud. Many times this prayer is for ourselves, for deeper faith, for greater love and hope. Other times, though, it is about our mission, and anticipates what we will do when we are sent forth. On the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, for example, we pray that God will “direct our actions according to your good pleasure, that in the name of your beloved Son we may abound in good works.” The current translation of the liturgy is a bit stiff, but the point is mission. In the light of the “sending forth” we are renewing ourselves to continue Jesus’ work in the world.
The Word of the Lord
There’s a hymn that starts out “We come to share our story . . . .”2 This is what we do in the next part of the Mass, the “Liturgy of the Word.” We proclaim sections from our Scriptures and we listen to the homily that tries to break open those Scriptures and relate them to our lives. It’s not always easy, but the Word that we proclaim during our celebration is always “bread for the journey” that we will make when we are sent forth at the end of Mass. The Word calls us out!
The Church has always spoken about the two tables from which we eat at Mass: the “table of the Word” and the “table of the Eucharist.” Our Scriptures were all originally written to help Christians understand their mission. They can still speak to us this way if we listen well, and especially if we have a homilist who can break open the Word in a way that inspires us to live out our baptism.
We continue to “share our story” as we profess the creed after the homily. There are a lot of phrases in the creed that perhaps were more important to Christians of other ages (such as, Jesus is “God from God . . . consubstantial with the Father”). But perhaps more important than the individual words and phrases in the creed is the fact that it is our common faith, and we say it together to declare that we are all “on the same page” as we go forth. We say the creed so often that we forget that it really is the story of our salvation told in a very compressed way. We believe in a God who alone is responsible for our life; in Jesus Christ who “for us and for our salvation” became one of us, died for us, and still lives among us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church which carries out the Lord’s mission.
The outward looking movement of our celebration is very much accented by the Prayers of the Faithful. We have come back to our community with many needs. We have seen the needs of our world, of our community, and of our Church. We listen to the needs of our sisters and brothers who have also come back. We go forth knowing these needs and knowing that God hears our prayer. We go forth with a deeper sensitivity to our world and to our sisters and brothers. We pray, too, for the strength, grace, and courage to continue living God’s mission in our world. In his wonderful book on the mission of lay persons in the world, Gregory Augustine Pierce (who has inspired a lot of what is written here) offers samples of Prayers of the Faithful that we might use at Mass in light of our sending forth at the Mass’s end. Here are a few:
That we might help bring about your kingdom on our jobs by how we perform our work and the example we give to others, we pray to the Lord
That we might help bring about your kingdom in our homes and with our families by how we treat one another, and the generosity we show to our neighbors, and those less fortunate than we are, we pray to the Lord
That we might be sent forth from this Mass as if we had been shot from a cannon to carry out our mission in and to the world, we pray to the Lord.3
Through Your Goodness We Have Received This Bread … This Wine to Offer
We bring bread and wine to the altar, symbols of ourselves, of our hearts. They represent all that we are, all that we have done to witness to God’s love in our world. The amazing thing is that God takes this “fruit of the earth and work of human hands” — ourselves in all our imperfections — and transforms it, and then gives it back to us! What we offer becomes the greatest offering that our human history has ever seen — the offering of Jesus himself on the cross, the offering transformed by God’s Spirit and given new life.
Bread for the Journey
Jesus then transforms us as we eat his body and drink his blood. Jesus is truly present in and through our gifts — substantially present as our official theology would say. But, as I once heard the famous theologian Robert Taft, SJ. say, what is even more amazing is that Jesus becomes present in us: the Eucharist, he said, is not so much about bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ (which it certainly does!), but about you and me becoming the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist is, as the title of an important book speaks of it, the feast of the world’s redemption.4 It is not just about us; it is about what we become: the body of Christ for the sake of others.
One Voice, One Heart, One Body, One Mission
We are one in our mission. We are one in voice as we pray the “Our Father,” the prayer that Jesus taught us. This is a missionary prayer because we pray for the coming of the kingdom to which we witness. We are one in heart as we offer each other a sign of peace. Here we wish each other God’s blessing for the coming journey and are reconciled to one another to be more credible witnesses to God’s love and reconciliation. We are one body as we share the one bread and the one cup. What we are doing in the “Communion” part of our Eucharist is getting a glimpse, getting a taste of the world that we are sent forth to witness in our lives and words. We are almost ready for that most important moment: the sending forth!
“Thanks Be to God”? Or “Lord Have Mercy”?
The Prayer after Communion usually consists in praying for our own eternal salvation, having been nourished by Christ’s body and blood. Occasionally, however, it prays for what we should do as we leave our church and begin to live our daily lives once more. On the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, for example, the prayer states, “O God, who have willed that we be partakers in the one bread and the one chalice, grant us, we pray, so to live that, made one in Christ, we may joyfully bear fruit for the salvation of the world.” Or on the twenty-second Sunday we pray: “renewed by this bread from the heavenly table, … that, being the food of charity, it may confirm our hearts and stir us to serve you in our neighbor.”
And then it happens. We are sent forth — in peace, to love and serve the Lord. In God’s peace, the peace we have just experienced and received, to love and serve the Lord by continuing to do what Jesus did in his ministry: to preach, serve, and witness the Reign of God — that great fiesta of abundance, joy, justice, and inclusion. In the Revised Roman Missal which appeared in 2011 in English, the rite offers four options for the dismissal formula. In addition to “Go forth, the Mass is ended” and “Go in peace,” the presider or deacon may choose to say, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” or “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” One could wish that presiders and deacons would choose these last two formulae more often.
What we are doing in the “Communion” part of our Eucharist is getting a glimpse, getting a taste of the world that we are sent forth to witness in our lives and words.
In his book on lay ministry, Gregory Augustine Pierce says a somewhat startling thing. In some ways, he says, it’s amazing that we all respond to the sending forth: “Thanks be to God!” It could almost sound like we’re glad the Mass is ended! (And in a way, that’s a good point, since what’s most important about the Mass is what we do after it). But Pierce says if we really understand what we have been called to do at this most important moment, maybe our best response might be “Lord, have mercy!” or even “No thanks, I’ve tried that, but it didn’t work!” In the end, though, “Thanks be to God!” is the right response, because, as Pierce says, we say it “not that the Mass is ended, but that it has just begun.”5
How Do We Do It?
This is what really happens when we celebrate the Eucharist together. But how do we help the people of our parish to understand it this way? How do we get them to realize that when we celebrate Eucharist we are preparing for, being formed in, and living out the ministry that our baptism calls us to?
One way to do this is to make sure that our celebrations are prepared in such a way that the missionary nature of the Eucharist is always able to be seen and felt. If we work at it, we can get better and better at celebrating Mass through the lens of the dismissal, of “going to Mass backwards.”
We can work first of all at celebrating our liturgies “outside-in.” What this means is that, as we come back to Mass, we bring with us the world — the world in which we witness to the gospel. At the end of Mass, then, when we are sent forth, we have a clearer picture of the world that we continue to serve.
Could the presider begin the liturgy by calling to mind for us some of the reasons why we need to witness to the gospel in our lives? On the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday weekend, for instance, the presider might remind us that we are gathered together to be re-formed into the Body of Christ, where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female” (see Gal 3:28). On a weekend in August, for example, we might recall the bombing of Hiroshima or in September we could remember the September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. Sometimes our presider might suggest that we pray especially at this Mass for the complex issues around immigration that Congress might be going to debate in the coming week, or we might be reminded of a recent tragedy or natural disaster that has taken place. In these days of 2021 there is always the constant reminder of the Covid-19 pandemic and the heroic work of countless doctors, nurses, orderlies, grocery store personnel, sanitation workers, etc. This might lead naturally to a penitential litany that names specific social sins that all of us are guilty of: indifference to the homeless, being too passive in the face of violations of people’s right to life, being careless with the environment, not acting for the common good of our sisters and brothers.
The Prayers of the Faithful can be very helpful in this regard. They could also be an occasion to pray for strength and courage to live our Christian life worthily. One possibility is to have a kind of “open microphone” opportunity on a regular basis (e.g. once a month) when people can bring very special and personal intentions to the community for their prayer. If these prayers could be tied into the presentation of the gifts there would be a chance to connect what we do in the “Liturgy of the Word” to the “Liturgy of the Eucharist.”
Another way to make the liturgy more conscious of the world “outside” is in the liturgical environment. Customs from the cultures of the people in the parish could be incorporated, like the use of incense in Vietnamese culture, or the use of gestures like bowing instead of genuflecting. The presider could honor various cultures by wearing vestments that reflect them — Kinte cloth stoles, a chasuble emblazoned with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or altar linens made from cloth woven in the Philippines. Language is always key: a community can learn responses in various languages and sing hymns in the languages of the people that make up the parish. “Misa del Mundo” is a setting of the unchanging parts of the Mass (Lord Have Mercy, Gloria, Holy, Holy and Lamb of God) in which we sing in many different languages.
When you begin to “go to Mass backwards,” one of the things you see more and more clearly is that the Eucharist itself is a missionary act. First of all, and maybe this is simply obvious, all the components of the Mass are always that we ourselves are evangelized. It might be a phrase from the Collect that challenges or consoles or fortifies us; or it might be one of the readings. We might designate some part of the collection to help a particular cause or outreach ministry in the parish, and announce where that amount is going each week. Or it might be a deep experience of going to communion with everyone else and getting a glimpse of “the depth of the riches” that God has in store for all people (See Rom 11:33; 1Cor 2:9).
But besides our own evangelization, the Eucharist can be an occasion to evangelize others. At every one of our celebrations there are visitors. Practically everything we do at Mass can encourage or discourage these visitors: the way they are greeted when they enter the church; the way people around them make them feel welcome; the way the music is chosen, the choir performed, and the community sings; the way the homilist connects the readings to people’s lives; the sincerity of people as they pray together or are silent during the Eucharistic Prayer. The great twentieth century spiritual writer Thomas Merton wrote that part of his conversion process was seeing a young woman at prayer in a church that he once visited while he was searching for God. No one knows her name, and she probably didn’t know that she was being observed. But her sincerity was a major factor in Merton coming to God, and his conversion in turn affected tens of thousands of people during his lifetime. What we do inside the walls of the church can have a lot of impact on those who are or come from outside!
Is This Happening Anywhere?
So, there are lots of things that can be done to help people see the connection between Eucharist and mission. But are there any examples where liturgy and mission are affecting each other on a regular basis? The answer is yes and there are many examples!
Several years ago, I read about Good Shepherd Parish in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.7 Hanging in the church were seven banners that represent the basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching. One proclaimed the importance of the option for the poor; another called people to community; one emphasized the dignity of work; other banners called attention to the Church’s position on the right of workers, and the care of creation. You could hardly attend Mass at Good Shepherd without seeing these banners, and, of course, this was deliberate! The parish website made the connection between liturgy and the Church’s mission of social justice explicit: “We believe that a commitment to social justice is as much a part of being Catholic as the Eucharist is, and we think it’s time to bring involvement in social justice back to the center of parish life.”
In the Denver suburb of Arvada, I read, Spirit of Christ Catholic Community has identified itself as a “stewardship community” which contributed 14% of its collection every Sunday to the poor in various parts of the world: for digging wells in Nicaragua, for orphans with HIV AIDS in Africa, for the people who are homeless in the parish’s nearby neighborhoods.8 Members of the parish participated as well in a program that they call “Southern Exposure”: groups of parishioners have traveled to Mexico and have built hundreds of homes for poor residents there. Much of this commitment to mission and social justice must have come from the fact that some 800 parishioners meet weekly to discuss the Sunday readings and draw their implications for daily life. Says former pastor Fr. Robert Kinkel: “everything we do is presented as flowing directly from the Eucharist; the connection is in the homilies, the intercessions, the music.” Fr. Kinkel spoke of the Eucharist as “the Body of Christ celebrating the Body of Christ.”
If the words of dismissal could be in our minds all through the liturgy, our whole approach to celebrating Eucharist would change.
In the St. Giles Family Mass Community in Oak Park, Illinois (where I regularly preside on Sundays), I remember a woman coming up to the “open microphone” at the prayers of the faithful one Sunday. She talked about how her own participation in the weekly Mass at St. Giles had changed her, calling her to commit herself to taking many trips to Tanzania to bring legal assistance to poor people there. “You can’t be a part of this community,” she said, “and remain unchanged.”
In urban Chicago, St. Sabina parish is very clear about the connection between worship and mission. The parish defines itself as a “Word-based, Bible teaching African-American Catholic Church that believes in the power of praise and worship. … a spiritual hospital where all are welcome and invited to ‘taste and see the goodness of the Lord.’”9 While the music and worship style at St. Sabina’s is legendary around Chicago and, indeed, across the country, the parishioners’ aim is to take worship outside the walls of its beautiful church and live Christian life in neighborhoods polluted with liquor, cigarette ads, drug traffic, and violence. The parish has also developed housing for senior citizens in the area and provides loans for the development of small businesses. All of this flows from its vibrant liturgical celebrations.
In the largely Mexican-American parish of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the pews in the church are arranged in a horseshoe-shape around the altar, so everyone can see each other as the community celebrates Eucharist. Before Mass the eucharistic ministers act as ministers of hospitality, welcoming everyone who arrives with smiles and hearty handshakes. The prayers of the faithful consciously focus on needs and issues beyond the parish itself, and eucharistic worship spills over into the formation of a Pax Christi group (an organization devoted to promoting world peace) and membership in Albuquerque Interfaith (an organization which sponsors informal conversations among people of various faith traditions and gets people working together). There are many more examples.
Papal Teaching, the Eucharist and Mission
In his Apostolic Letter at the beginning of the Year of the Eucharist in 2001, Pope John Paul II wrote forcefully that “the encounter with Christ, constantly intensified and deepened in the Eucharist, issues in the Church and in every Christian an urgent summons to testimony and evangelization” (Mane nobiscum Domine 24). To celebrate Eucharist, in other words, is to prepare for, be formed for, and be engaged in mission. Pope John Paul’s letter is an extended reflection on the gospel of Luke’s story of the two disciples journeying to Emmaus, meeting the “stranger” Jesus, and finally recognizing him in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:13-35). Having recognized him, however, they immediately and spontaneously hurried back to Jerusalem to tell their companions the good news.
In his own letter on the Eucharist, Pope Benedict XVI writes in a similar way: “We cannot approach the eucharistic table without being drawn into the mission which, beginning in the very heart of God, is meant to reach all people (Sacramentum caritatis 84). On June 14, 2020, on the feast of Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord, Pope Francis said that “The Eucharist satisfies our hunger for material things and kindles our desire to serve. It raises us from our comfortable and lazy lifestyle and reminds us that we are not only mouths to be fed, but also his hands, to be used to help feed others.”
This is what happens in the Eucharist whenever we celebrate it, or at least this is what should happen in a community that has recognized itself as a witness to the “Fiesta of God’s Reign” and to Christians who understand the reality of their baptism. For those who “go to Mass backwards,” the Mass is never ended! We go forth to bring and witness to God’s peace, God’s shalom, in our world.
1 For these reflections I am greatly indebted to the work of Gregory Augustine Pierce, The Mass Is Never Ended: Rediscovering Our Mission to Transform the World (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2007), especially pp. 37-62.
2 Song of the Body of Christ/Canción del Cuerpo de Cristo, 1989 Gia Publications.
3 Gregory Augustine Pierce, The Mass Is Never Ended: Rediscovering Our Mission to Transform the World (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2007), pg 51.
4 Cf. John Koenig, The Feast of the World’s Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission (Trinity Press International, 2000).
5 Gregory Augustine Pierce, The Mass Is Never Ended: Rediscovering Our Mission to Transform the World, pg 61.
6 In these paragraphs I have been inspired by a book by Lutheran liturgists: Inside Out: Worship in an Age of Misson, ed. Thomas H. Schattauer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999). See also Roger Schroeder’s and my development of these ideas in our Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 362-66.
7 Some of the following examples appear in Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices (New York / Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001).
9 From the Saint Sabina website