Our response to Jesus’ eager desire, The Anchor, December 02, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
December 02, 2011

The principle focus of Advent is to prepare us to meet Christ in history, mystery and majesty, to focus on God’s eternal desire for a loving communion with us. We ponder Christ’s first coming in Bethlehem, His second coming at the end of time, and continual coming in the present, all manifestations of God’s eternal desire for communion with us. Like the wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, we are called to respond to these advents with faith-filled movement on our own, going out with lamps full of love to meet Him.

That dynamism of mutual love is at the heart of Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s extraordinary new pastoral letter on the importance of our participation at Mass, which we would be a great Advent meditation for every Catholic (see page 20). Published November 20 and entitled “Jesus’ Eager Desire,” it is a prayerful meditation on Jesus’ words from the Last Supper, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover meal with you,” when Jesus inaugurated the Mass that He commanded us to celebrate in His memory (Lk 22:15, 19). His fervent desire to become the paschal Lamb by which He would nourish us and incorporate us into the new and eternal Passover of His saving passion, death and Resurrection, had no expiration date. Cardinal O’Malley says that the only fitting response to Jesus’ avid desire is for us to have a similar ardor to go out to meet Him in this great Sacrament of His love.

In an introductory section, Cardinal O’Malley noted that, rather than responding in kind to Jesus’ desire, “many Catholics today seem to take the gift of the Sunday Mass for granted” and, “choose to be absent from Mass.” He raised this point not to judge, condemn or guilt-trip, but to invite: “If this is the way that you see your relationship with God, I am grateful that you are reading this letter. … Please know that you are missed.” Even among those who come to Mass on Sundays, however, there are many who do not come with eagerness, perhaps because they, too, do not adequately appreciate the gift of the Mass. Cardinal O’Malley recalled the cry of the martyrs of Abitene (Tunisia) from 303, who out of their faith and eager desire for Christ risked their lives to disobey an imperial edict in order to participate in Sunday Mass. Upon being arrested and sentenced to death, they professed, “Without Sunday, we cannot live.” He went on to say that for nearly two millennia Christians have risked their lives to attend Mass during times of persecution, something that is still occurring in Baghdad and Cairo and other places where Islamofascists attack worshippers during Liturgies, as well as in China where members of the underground Church are arrested, thrown in jail for decades, and often left to starve to death. “We give thanks to God that we do not have to put our lives in jeopardy to attend Mass at our local parish,” Cardinal O’Malley contrasted. “We rejoice that, unlike those in poor areas, we do not have to walk for miles, over hills or on inadequate dirt roads to attend. The vast majority of us can walk safely down the street or make a short drive to arrive at our beloved parish. But the ease, convenience, and legality of the Mass should not cause us ever to lose sight that the Mass is so precious that many of our Catholic brothers and sisters around the world are braving great inconvenience and persecution to receive what we, by God’s love, have available near us.” This example of our brothers and sisters is a witness to us of the value of the Mass and an inducement never to take it for granted.

In a beautiful doctrinal section, Cardinal O’Malley expands upon the eager desire with which we’re called to reciprocate Christ’s. In it he doesn’t present merely the Church’s teaching as catechetical points, but, by focusing on Christian desire rather than Christian knowledge, he seeks to appeal to and ignite the will and affections to act on what we profess and believe. He lists nine different desires built into our participation in Sunday Mass: We desire to respond to God’s loving gift of Himself to us with our loving gift of ourselves to Him. We desire to encounter Christ in the most profound way possible. We desire to gather and pray with our parish family. We desire to strengthen our particular family, praying together so as to stay together. We desire to witness to our faith in Christ present in the midst of a culture that marginalizes God and places so many other Sunday activities ahead of God. We desire to be transformed by Christ. We desire to participate in His victory over death and salvation of the world, by joyfully reliving each Sunday as a “little Easter.”  We desire a foretaste in Heaven, for which our loving communion with God and others in the Mass is a pledge and participation, digesting as it were the “secret of the Resurrection.” And we desire to follow God’s loving guidance and to commit ourselves to deepening our relationship with Him, despite the occasionally bad singing, boring homilies, cantankerous fellow Catholics and other distractions, which we put up with because without Sunday, we, too, cannot live. Cardinal O’Malley did not give an exhaustive catalogue of the holy desires that should motivate our participation in Sunday Mass, but he did clearly open us up to the breadth of blessings that Jesus desires to give us at Mass and to reawaken in us an awareness of our own God-given desire for those blessings.

In the final section of the pastoral letter, Cardinal O’Malley got very practical, with particular suggestions for various groups of the faithful. He mentioned that the new English translation of the Roman Missal is an opportunity to come to know the Mass better, noting, “The more we grow in knowledge of the Mass, the more we are likely to grow in love for the Mass” and pray it better and more beautifully.  To those who have been away from Sunday Mass, he amiably announced, “We want you to know that you are part of our family. We want to assure you that God loves you and waits for you at Sunday Mass. The best place to begin a conversation is by gathering with the family of believers in the worshiping community. … We stand ready to help you.” To his brother priests, he first praised them for their perseverance through recent difficult times, asked them to reflect on ways they could improve their preaching, exhorted them to lead by example as “men and teachers of prayer,” encouraged them to establish “dignified and vibrant” family Masses, and urged them to celebrate “teaching Masses” to help everyone come to understand better the different parts of the Mass. He asked parish pastoral councils and staffs to focus their energy on evangelization and efforts to encourage participation at Sunday Mass, through personal witness and through organized invitation, welcoming, transportation for elderly and infirm, and community-building. He encouraged teachers in Catholic schools and catechetical programs to set the example for students and their families about the centrality of Sunday Mass and to avail themselves of every opportunity to stress the importance of the Mass. He reminded parents that their “good example of faithfulness to Sunday Mass, prayer and moral decency preaches more eloquently than the homily of any priest,” encouraging them to show a contagious love for Sunday Mass and to take an active role in the doctrinal and prayer formation of their children. Finally, he challenged the young to recall that they are not just the future of the Church but an important part of the Church today, enlivening not just the Liturgy but the whole Church by their enthusiastic witness, and urging them to recognize that only Christ can fulfill their deepest desires.

He concluded his letter by stating that the Eucharist is not merely an expression of Jesus’ eager desire but the “fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to be with us until the end of time.” He urged us to respond by rushing to “tell the world that Christ is alive and eagerly desires our family to gather at the Lord’s Table to experience God’s love, to discover our identity as Catholics and to fulfill our mission together.” That will be the natural consequence and fulfillment of our eucharistic desire and wholehearted “amen.”