As a military nomad, I’ve had both the blessing and the burden of seeing how a wide variety of Catholics act in their parish churches when preparing for Holy Mass.
I can usually tell something about the parish the second I walk in. In some places, there is little evidence that the people have the faintest idea of what is about to happen there; they are busy visiting with each other rather than preparing their minds and hearts to meet the King. In other places I've noticed an almost palpable sense of holiness, and in those places the holiness of the people is infectious.
When the people are more interested in the social aspect of Sunday Mass, I have to resist the urge to remind them that in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the heavens open and the very Son of God becomes physically present to us in the forms of bread and wine. That event is worthy of a bit of contemplation before it begins.
The way the people conduct themselves in preparation for Holy Mass is a good indicator of the spiritual health of that congregation. If they are devout and reverent, you can bet the Holy Mass will be celebrated powerfully and reverently; if they are casual, then the opposite is almost always the case.
This connection between the spiritually reverent and intense worship, and the intense and reverent spirituality in the faithful, was summed up succinctly in the fifth century by Prosper of Aquitaine when he stated the maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi, meaning “the law of worship is the law of belief.” Put another way, “we act as we believe.”
There's a story that often circulates among Catholics that illustrates this point clearly. As all folklore goes, the details change but there's an element of truth. It goes something like this: a Catholic is discussing the Eucharist with a non-Catholic, sometimes a Protestant, sometimes a Muslim, and the Catholic tells the visitor that Catholics believe the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. The other replies, “You can't really believe that, for if you did, how could you ever leave your knees?”
The “element of truth” in the story is the understanding that belief is translated into practice. If we truly believe that it is the Second Person of the Trinity present in the Tabernacle and on the altar, how could we ever pass by without bending a knee to acknowledge our King? How could we ever receive our Lord without making our hearts ready through fasting, confession, and prayer? If we truly believe it, why on earth would be more interested in each other than the One we came to see?
The Catechism teaches that the Eucharist makes present for us events and Persons across space and time:
In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them. In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ's Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. “As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which 'Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed' is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.” (#1363-1364)
Growing up the student of Carmelite sisters in my parish school, we were taught that we were to greet our Lord in prayer when we came for Holy Mass. They taught us our posture, our language, even our dress would reflect our belief in the sacredness of the Mass. As children, we “got” that very clearly. How we act is how we believe. Our parents and the sisters demonstrated by their actions that we were about to enter into something mysterious and powerful, not to be taken lightly: lex orandi, lex credendi in action.
When we arrive for Holy Mass, are we aware that we are entering holy ground? That the very Life of God is physically present? Do we appreciate that in a few short moments, heaven will actually open and we will join saints and angels around the throne singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” not as a metaphor but for real? (cf. Rev 4:8; Heb 12:1).
When “we believe as we pray,” we are entering into the mystery with our whole selves, physically going to meet our King. When we go to meet family or other important persons in our lives, we plan to arrive on time and we don't leave early; we dress in our best clothes; and we give them our full attention. Do we not owe our Lord at least the same courtesy?
Mickey Addison is a career military officer, and has been a catechist at the parish level since 2000. He and his wife have been married for 19 years and they have two children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was previously published on the Rosary Army’s website and is used by permission.