“The celebrant for today’s Mass is Father _________. Please stand and greet your neighbor.”
These can be words of controversy. Proponents emphasize the importance of community and hospitality. Their opponents claim that it shouldn’t take place during the Sacred Liturgy.
Previous generations boasted of ethnic parishes and parish-sponsored dances. Today, we still find parish festivals. The parish has been and continues to be a source of friendship and fellowship. But what exactly is the relationship between community amongst ourselves and the Mass? After all, as some are right to point out – our attention at Mass focuses on the liturgy, the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, in a way that transcends us Mass participants and centers us on Christ.
Mass isn’t for socializing and shaking hands, but the desire for belonging often drives us to choose a specific parish. Yes, many people choose a parish based on liturgy, but people also desire a good community. I have a hard time imagining someone desiring to attend a parish where they don’t feel welcome. It’s the rare person who enjoys being a mere number in the crowd of faces. As Catholics, we want both liturgy and community.
These desires to both feel at home and have a strong community aren’t entirely out of place. In fact, the Mass is a communal event: it’s the public work of the universal Church. You don’t worship God alone as an individual at Mass – it’s the one Church, the one community that worships God. Thus, desires for belonging to a community aren’t impediments to entering into the liturgy. In fact, they can help us understand the liturgy. They remind us that we aren’t a number in the sea of Mass attendees – we are a part of the one Church that offers fitting worship.
Cardinal Ratzinger comments on this in his Introduction to Christianity:
Communion with the Lord in the Eucharist leads necessarily to the communion of the converted, who all eat one and the same bread, to become in it ‘one body’ (1 Cor 10:17) and, indeed, ‘one single new man’ (cf Eph 2:15).
Parish festivals and dances aren’t the foundations of our community. Instead, by being united to the Lord we are united to one another. The liturgy turns the we into a one. It prompts the faithful to live together and help each other live the Christian life in the present day. And we assist one another by forming relationships in a healthy environment. The coffee and donuts, as good as they are, aren’t the source of our unity – they are simply the living out of our unity.
The liturgy and social activities don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they must be placed in their proper order. Without the liturgy, the church becomes a community center. With the liturgy, the faces in the crowd become a community. Parish events, welcoming others, and feeling at home remind us that we are a communion, not because of these events but because of Christ.
Image: The Catholic Mass, Fyodor Bronnikov