Why should anyone attend Mass and pray?
'Fourth Plan' calls Catholics to exercise priestly office by offering up lives at Mass

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  One of the highlights of college sophomore Becky Sommer’s day is spending time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament at Southwest Minnesota State University’s chapel.    (Contributed photo)

One of the highlights of college sophomore Becky Sommer’s day is spending time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament at Southwest Minnesota State University’s chapel. (Contributed photo)

by Sam Patet
The Prairie Catholic / November 2013

NEW ULM – Fall classes at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall couldn’t come soon enough last year for freshman Becky Sommer. The Parkston, S.D., native had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to her new life 175 miles away from home.

One month into the school year, however, her enthusiasm was gone. She was homesick, hadn’t found her core group of friends, and had broken up with her boyfriend. On top of all that, she was still getting used to the academic demands of college, especially since she was double majoring in biology and chemistry.

“All these things came crashing in all at the same time,” she said.

Thankfully by semester’s end, she had gotten used to her new life. Today she keeps herself busy as a member of the biology and environmental awareness clubs, vice president of the honors club, and campus tour guide for prospective students.

You might be surprised, however, by what she said was the most important thing that helped her through that difficult first semester. It wasn’t her friends, her parents, or even the natural course of time, important as these were. Her greatest help was encountering Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, both during the celebration of the Mass and during adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

“I was so drawn to the Mass – to the Eucharist – that I couldn’t stop,” she said. “It was in those moments where I was able to receive the strength to keep going forward.”

The fact that the Eucharist played such an important role for her is even more surprising when one looks at her faith life before then. While she was baptized Catholic, Sommer didn’t attend Mass every Sunday for the first 14 years of her life. Her family grew corn and soybeans, and so when the weather was nice on Sunday mornings, they’d oftentimes stay home to do farm work.

For years, though, she’d been learning at her Wednesday-night religious education classes how important the Mass was. That teaching, combined with her natural curiosity, inspired her as a high school freshman to start attending Mass every week. She kept up the practice the next four years, taking time as well to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and attend Catholic youth rallies and retreats.

Still, she admitted that she didn’t feel like she had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The rallies and retreats “made me aware of my thirst for Christ, but then I would go back and it would be so hard to actually implement it in my high school,” she said. “I desired to truly have a relationship, but I was kind of doing it because I felt like I had to.”

All that began to change at SMSU. As she was adjusting to college life, she started visiting the chapel at the Campus Religious Center. It had a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament and was open for prayer throughout the day.

“In those moments of adoration, whether it be in the tabernacle or exposed in the monstrance, I was able to understand that … the suffering was for a purpose and that Jesus would get me through it,” she said. “My problems weren’t solved instantaneously, by any means. But when I would go the chapel, I would understand that Jesus wasn’t going to leave me.”

Those repeated encounters with Christ were transformative. This year Sommer can’t stop talking about Christ and how much he loves her. She’s vice president of SMSU’s Newman Club (a club for Catholics), leads a Bible study, and makes it to daily Mass once or twice a week.

Transformation into Christ

According to Sr. Myriam Rose Shaffer, a Handmaid of the Heart of Jesus and director of the diocesan Office of Worship, the encounter Sommer had with Christ in the Eucharist isn’t an experience that’s just meant for her. On the contrary, all Catholics can actually encounter Christ – and be transformed by him – when they participate in the Mass.

“I think they (Catholics) … don’t know that they’re even supposed to have a personal encounter with the Lord at Mass,” she said. “If I’ve encountered the Lord, I want to go to Mass because I understand that he’s the source of life for me.”

That’s why she’s happy the “Fourth Plan for Parishes” spends so much time outlining how Catholics can have a personal, transformative encounter with Christ, not only at Mass, but also through prayer, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and Eucharistic adoration.

The “Fourth Plan” teaches that all Catholics, by virtue of their Baptism, are called to imitate Christ in his priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices. Participating in the Mass, praying, and receiving the sacraments fall under the priestly office, in that through them, Catholics offer up their lives to God out of love, just as Christ did on the cross. By doing this, Catholics set out on “the path of radical transformation that Christ outlines in the Sermon on the Mount” (p. 35).

Fr. Aaron Johanneck is associate pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in Sleepy Eye and holds a licentiate in sacred theology, with a specialization in liturgical theology, from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. When the “Plan” talks about being transformed into Christ, it means just that, he said.

“The goal is that when people encounter us and when we love them … they’re encountering not only our love, but above all that they’re encountering the love of Christ,” he said.

Fallen human beings, though, tainted with the effects of Original Sin, can’t do this, he said. “We are not able to love in the way that we’re called to … especially when you get to those hard commandments of the Gospel,” like loving one’s enemies.

That’s why the sacraments, Eucharistic adoration, and personal prayer are so important. They’re the means God uses to transform men and women into other Christs.

Re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice

At the heart of all these means is the Eucharist, “the ‘source and summit’ of our lives as Christians, and therefore also of all the activities in the parish,” the “Plan” says (p. 35). Citing the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the “Plan” teaches that through the Mass, one not only gives fitting worship to God, but one also receives the grace to become more and more like Christ (p. 36).

The reason why the Mass can do this is because of its connection with the Paschal Mystery (the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ). The Mass isn’t a performance that simply acts out what happened the night of the Last Supper, Fr. Johanneck said. Rather, it’s a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

“The exact same sacrifice that Christ made on the cross is made present to us again on the altar,” he said. “The way that we are present to Christ’s offering in the Mass is really no less real … than the way John the Beloved or Mary were present to Christ on the cross.”

Jesus did this so that the graces he won through the Paschal Mystery could extend to all times and all places. “Every grace that Christ won for us on the cross – the entire power of God – comes to us in the Eucharist,” Sr. Myriam Rose said. The “Plan” affirms this when it says that “from the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us” (p. 36, quoting “Sacrosanctum Concilium”).

“There are so many graces to be gotten from the Mass,” Sommer said. “When I’m able to spend time with the Lord in Mass or in adoration, … he gives me the peace of heart to get through the day and to just make it through the next exam.”

The way one gains access to this grace is by exercising the priestly office of Christ, that is, by offering up one’s life to the Father. The laity “should learn to make an offering of themselves” at the Mass, the “Plan” states, “not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him” (p. 38, quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 apostolic exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis”).

That’s what Sommer tries to do every time she attends Mass. “Jesus gave his entire life for us, and he desires us to give the same thing back to him,” she said. “Every time I go to Mass, I try to lay it all down at the foot of the cross – at the foot of the altar – to just give it to Jesus, to tell him what’s going on in my life.”

She knows, however, that as a fallen, sinful human being, she’ll never be able to give herself completely. Still, that doesn’t stop her from offering what she can. Jesus “asks us to give whatever we can, and he’ll take whatever we can give,” she said.

In fact, it doesn’t really matter that Sommer – or any other human being, for that matter – can’t offer herself up perfectly to God. That’s because when one participates in the Mass, one is participating in Christ’s worship of the Father, Fr. Johanneck said. “Our offerings, no matter how holy we are … are inadequate because God is infinite and we’re not,” he said. “When we unite our offerings to Christ’s, what does God see? He sees Christ’s perfect offering.”

Full and active participation

At every Mass, then, Catholics are called to unite their joys, sufferings, petitions, and love for God with Christ’s sacrifice, re-presented on the altar, Sr. Myriam Rose said. “I should offer him my relationships with those in my family – my responsibilities, for example, as a parent and how those may at times weigh on me,” she said. “I can offer decisions that I’m making in my life and lay those on the altar.”

This, she continued, is primarily what the bishops of Vatican II meant when they wrote that there should be “full and active participation by all the people” at Mass (p. 37, quoting “Sacrosanctum Concilium”). The “Plan” acknowledges that “great strides” have been made in ensuring that the laity are participating at Mass, such as by allowing them to serve as lectors, ushers, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (p. 37; see also p. 5).

But if all the Council meant by “full and active participation” was this, then only a small fraction of the congregation would be participating each week, Sr. Myriam Rose said. What the bishops had in mind, she continued, was that all the laity would be fully and actively participating at every Mass by offering up their lives in union with Christ’s sacrifice.

Prayer deepens fruitfulness of Mass

The “Plan” outlines a number of things the faithful can do to better exercise their priestly office at Mass.

One is to participate in Eucharistic adoration. By adoring Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, one’s gratitude and longing for the Eucharist will increase, the “Plan” says (p. 39).

That’s what happened to Sr. Myriam Rose when she was in college. While she had always believed that the Mass was a powerful event, she wasn’t able to see how it was affecting her life. It wasn’t until she started making an hour of adoration with a group of classmates that her perspective began to change.

“What changed it for me was actually, when I actually realized that the Eucharist wasn’t a thing, that it was a person,” she said. “And I think the honest truth is that didn’t happen for me in Mass; it happened in adoration.”

The “Plan” also encourages Catholics to study the Church’s teachings on the Mass, including Vatican II’s “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” Pope Benedict XVI’s “Sacramentum Caritatis,” and Pope John Paul II’s 2003 encyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia.” By doing this, they will ensure that they “take part (in the Mass) fully aware of what they are doing” (p. 38, quoting “Sacrosanctum Concilium”).

If these activities seem like too much, Sr. Myriam Rose suggested another one that anyone can do: open your heart to the Lord at Mass, regardless of how prepared you feel. “There’s not a whole lot that we have to do on our end, because God has already done it all,” she said. “We just basically have to open our hearts to him, and that is actually a simple thing to do.”

There are several key points during the Mass when one can do this, she said, including when the priest offers up the bread and wine at the offertory, as one receives Holy Communion, and after one receives Holy Communion. She also suggested showing up early to Mass to recollect oneself, as well as spending a few moments after Mass to make a prayer of thanksgiving.

Perhaps, however, the thing can help Catholics the most is knowing that God is at work at every Mass, no matter what one feels or experiences. “Even if my kids were distracting me at Mass, … I still know that actually, objectively, Christ came to me with his power and his grace in that Mass, whether or not I actually felt his presence,” Sr. Myriam Rose said.

One only needs to look at people like Sommer to see that this is the case. Jesus Christ, present in the Holy Eucharist, has transformed her life completely.

“So many people have this thirst for a relationship with Jesus. They want a personal relationship, but they don’t know what that means,” she said. “How much more personal can you get than to receive the Eucharist, to receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord? … If there’s something that you’re missing, the Mass is where you’re going to find it.”