When I was in my early twenties, I listened to a lot of evangelical Christian music. If a group was a Dove Award recipient, I had their CD. I went to as many concerts as I could afford. On Sunday mornings, our Protestant worship services loosely followed the pattern of a Christian concert. We judged our Sunday mornings by the special music performance and the pastor’s homiletics. We based our assessment of sermon and song on how closely they matched their professional counterparts in the big leagues: TV evangelists and Dove Award recipients.
One of the first things an outsider notices about the Catholic Mass is that there is nothing performance-based about it. It’s all about prayer. Everything is a prayer. By design, true prayer is God-focused.
Paragraph #2559 of the Catechism tells us that humility is the foundation of prayer. We come to God humbly, like the beggar. We do not come to Him from our own great heights. We come to Him out of need. We come to Him out of love.
Self is eclipsed by God - or perhaps more accurately, self is absorbed by God. Everything is rendered to God, for God.
Emptied of self, we are ready to receive all of Christ.
These truths are most sublimely actualized when we pray the Mass. Although the cantors are as gifted as any I encountered in my previous walk as an Evangelical, Catholic cantors don’t even try to play by the same rules as their Protestant counterparts. You don’t get the feeling that you are at a concert. You never feel like you should have paid for a ticket and surrendered it at the door.
The cantor is there for one reason: to help us pray the Mass with reverence and great devotion. And the homily doesn’t mimic the message of a self-help guru. The priest or deacon can’t just pick a text at random and run with it. He is called to help us enter into Sacred Scripture and come to a fuller understanding of 2000 years of Church teaching.
In a word, these cantors and musicians, servers and lectors, deacons and priests are all servants.
They are not performers.
One would think that a person might have to sacrifice a lot to be Catholic. One might expect the Mass to be extremely boring – stripped of all the hype. One might wonder why there aren’t more Catholics seeking out mega-churches and claiming their own seats in the auditorium.
For that matter, why would those born and raised beyond the embrace of Mother Church – those who believe they are free to choose any place of worship without guilt – why would they ever deliberately walk away from the performance-style worship of other faith communities and be content with the Catholic Mass?
The answer is almost the same for every convert. In the Mass, heaven touches earth, and we receive the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
The pinnacle moment of my year is the Liturgy of the Eucharist at Easter Vigil. I do not say this lightly. No kidding, it is the best Saturday night of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if heaven itself opened up, and I could see angels turning toward the altar. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the saints weeping for joy right along with the rest of us.
And it isn’t just the priest praying the Mass that pierces my soul. I would willing trade all my albums, tapes, and CDs just to listen to the cantor’s voice as she sings the Litany of Saints on that same night.
But there’s more. Doesn’t it get to you when you see a little child hold the prayer book while the parish priest leads the faithful? Really, can you think of anything sweeter than how that little one looks up to the priest and waits for him to close the cover - how the child quietly walks back to his seat and waits patiently for the moment he is needed next?
Even that little child knows that it isn’t about him. It is about helping the people to pray.
That’s powerful stuff. In moments like that I realize how the Church has preserved the proper meaning of worship. Even with all the changes in technology, all the big screens and sound systems, even with the stage-centered, entertainment-based Christianity that mimics some American Idol episode - for two thousand years, the Catholic Church has remained holy. Christ-centered.
This is the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
And there is no performance anywhere in this country of entertainers and gifted speakers that can match the beauty and glory of the Divine Liturgy.