A friend of mine went to Catholic schools all the way through high school. He relates that wearing uniforms caused him to be a bit creative in his expressions of self (and ultimately, his teen-age rebellion). With every shred of clothing pretty well dictated by his uniform, his only route of free expression was…his socks. He developed a wardrobe of outlandish footwear, appropriate for all occasions.
Today he’s a lawyer and a devout Catholic and appreciates the lessons that uniformity of appearance and the discipline of order left him. He’s still very capable of making a dictated format his very own, whether it is the required lawyer’s suit or a brief to the court. And he still wears socks that are half a bead off of plumb.
I’ve been struck that it must be a little like that for priests as they celebrate mass. The words are familiar and unchanging, there is little room for improvisation, and yet, there is a need to somehow make it a personal expression of faith. And they do, to a man.
One priest I know, at his daily homilies, speaks quietly, fluidly, without notes, and with lowered eyes, as though he were reading his sermon from the inside of his lids. Another, robust and enthusiastic, literally pushes up his sleeves before preaching or celebrating. One retired priest dramatically lowers and slows his voice when speaking the Lord’s name so that you can’t miss the fact that he’s talking about Jesus. With another, I look forward to his unfailing, lilting emphasis on “protect” just before the doxology and the peace. Different men, different deliveries, the same mass.
It is one of the things I cherish about my Catholic faith. Rather than becoming stale and predictable, as many of my non-Catholic friends think, the familiarity of the words frees me to participate and grow in a way that perpetually novel worship doesn’t. I know what’s coming next, and I know the form and I can concentrate on what it really means, either following the external cues or responding to something deeper, inside.
Nowhere was that more evident than when I attended mass in the west of Ireland, in the Aran Islands, one of those spots where English is spoken only grudgingly and Irish is the lingual coin of the realm. I walked from the little village bed-and-breakfast to St. Brigid’s church and took a seat. For the next hour I understood only a few words: “Gloucester, Massachusetts,” ‘The Perfect Storm,” and, when I received, “Corp an Criost.”
To this day, I would give worlds to know what that homily was about, but I had not a single doubt about the rest of it. Listening to a familiar worship in an unfamiliar tongue gave an added sense of mystery, not a bad thing given that I was there to experience and receive the mysterious presence of Christ. Thinking about the English that I had internalized by this time as the musical Irish words rose and fell around me, I thought about them in different ways.
How truly catholic our worship is. The order of the mass was the same, but it had an indelible Irish stamp on it. It was clear I was an outsider in culture, but not in worship.
I was accepted as part of the family, going about the family business on a family day with the Father. And like a distant cousin coming to visit, knowing the family traditions gave me instant entry and comfort. And a little like those same distant cousins, after mass, I was left to my own devices once again. Like many American Catholic churches, there was no one particularly engaging there—no one took particular notice of me or welcomed me or inquired after my health. (this really is something Catholics should work on). Then again, it wasn’t about me—it was about Him.
The worship had to come from within me this time. I had to bring more than just my physical presence to the mass in order to participate, and it was an astonishing experience to find that I could so easily do so. I began to realize then just how it might be possible to make a spiritual communion when apart from the mass. All I had to do was remember from deep inside the experience of receiving my Saviour, and open myself to Christ’s presence, and He would come: one more way to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, whenever and wherever I need to. And now when I do, the image I bring up in my mind is the interior of an old stone church on Inismor.