Sunday, February 5, 2012

Are Some Masses Better than Others?

As a Catholic, it is hard to travel much—attending Masses celebrated by priests you have never seen or heard, in churches you can’t find without GPS—before eventually facing the question: What makes one Mass better than another? Then comes another question on its heels: Is that first question even a question a Catholic should ask?

Last weekend, I wrote about going to Mass at a church in Sarasota, Florida, and of the sense I had of being an old dog learning new tricks. I wrote:

“I have settled comfortably into the Old World ambiance, liturgical rhythm, traditional music, and strict but caring pastorship and preaching of our parish church north of Boston, and I enjoy the fellowship of my kindly but not always demonstrative fellow parishioners. Everything, seemingly, about the Sarasota church, parish community, and liturgy is strikingly different.”

Despite many surface differences from my home-parish experience, I came down on the side of “liking” last week’s Sarasota Mass, largely because of the powerful presence of the celebrant. But should I even be talking about “liking” a Mass? And is it presumptuous to rate priests on scales of power, presence, or some other quality? Holiness? What’s holiness?

Last night, Katie and I attended a vigil Mass at another church here in Florida. We agreed over dinner afterward that the experience was distinctly different than the previous week’s and in some ways more satisfying. Why was that?

I think there is a simple answer. Everything at a Catholic Mass should serve to focus one’s attention on the liturgy and the Eucharist. Anything that distracts one’s attention is counterproductive. The most distracting occurrence during Sunday Mass at my home parish typically is the cry of a baby, and you know what Jesus said about little children. At last weekend’s Mass, I realize now, there were several distractions:

First, the church (I almost wrote theatre) is designed “in the round.” The altar is centrally located, raised on a three-step dais. The congregation sits on three-sides-plus, spilling into the area “behind the altar” where the priest’s chair is located beneath a crucifix.

To me this is a violation of sacred space. When the priest becomes one of the crowd, he is somehow diminished.

This layout is doubly distracting because, in a church with such an interior design, congregants become part of the show for each other (another theatre reference). A woman on one side of the altar may notice that a woman on the other side is wearing a similar dress, and I gather that vanity is a vice not restricted to women: I wrote last week, maybe I even snarked, about several men wearing white pants.

By contrast, at this weekend’s Mass, the church had a relatively traditional floorplan. There are smaller seating areas on either side of the transept, as in many cathedrals even, but these areas do not cross over into or surround the sanctuary.

Second, last week’s Mass featured an exceptionally talented music director, a pianist and organist who jumped from one keyboard to another, sometimes in the middle of a piece. The placement of piano and organ virtually at the edge of the dais, however, and closer to the altar than the seated priest himself, was exceptionally distracting, and as a result, and really through no fault of his own, the musician’s talent and energy served as further distraction.

By contrast, as we entered before Mass last evening, a harpist was playing a Celtic tune. Then she moved to the piano and taught us the psalm response. Then she led us through the hymns and readings, prompting us gently where necessary. Positioned to the right of sanctuary, she may have been a distraction for that smaller number seated in the right transept. But for the majority in the apse, where Katie and I sat, she was a non-event—exactly what I wanted her to be.

Third and finally, last weekend’s Mass ended with a lengthy calendar of social events. Last night’s Mass ended with a letter from Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, Florida, about the recent HHS healthcare mandate. While this was a one-time occurrence, and while liberal Catholics may object to this injection of a “conservative” point of view into the Mass, my experience listening to the letter last night told me something else.

My attention was riveted and so, it seemed, was everyone else’s. You could hear a pin drop and, I imagined, with many angels on it.

Can a priest be distracting? Sure, particularly to the extent that he himself is distracted. But as a relatively new convert, I try to remind myself that a priest is a priest, and the Mass is the Mass. It’s the stuff around them that makes it more or less difficult paying attention.


  1. If you attend a Traditional Latin Mass, you will find that is will be fairly similar wherever you go (even in other countries). It has a very strong focus on the Liturgy and the Eucharist.

  2. There is no such entity as a "liberal" Catholic. Liberalism and conservatism are political labels not terms in reference to the universal Church in union with Rome. If anyone disagrees with the Bishop's statement, then the correct term for them would be someone who is in need of repentance and education.

  3. my parents were liberal catholics, sent me to catholic school, went to mass on sunday and holy days of obligation, we said the rosary, had statues and holy pictures in our home, but when Roe vs Wade came up my folks were strangely silence. They were pro-choice and until my daughter told me years later I never knew. Yes there are liberal catholics but in my folks case most didn't know where they stood.

  4. It is always the things around one that distracts, talking people, bad music, etc. However, Jesus is always present and opening ones heart to what is taking place on the altar will place everything else in the background. However, I always sit in the front pew so that distractions will be minimal and I can focus entirely on the Mass. There are priests who are so closely aligned with Christ that the Holy Spirit appears to literaly flow out from them. That does make a difference. The biggest factor is how open our heart is to receiving the graces the Lord has for us. Mass is the single, most exciting, most amazing, experience we can have on this earth. All of heaven comes down to us. Jesus himself comes into us. Wow! Even the driest Mass with the most distractions is better than an hour spent anywhere else.


  6. Flp 2,6-11 it's a good thing that the priest diminishes himself.

  7. Ever attended an Eastern Divine LIturgy?

    This is the best.

  8. Thanks for all the comments. Some short answers:
    Andrea G: Agreed.
    Jack: No, but I'd like to know more.
    Nan and Tap: I agree with both of you but maybe you should talk.
    Psalm 63: You said it better than I could.
    Caroline: And you too.
    Francisco: I gather you are quoting Philippians, but I know what I meant. Yes, if the priest is truly humble he is closer to Christ. But he is still Christ, and you and I are not.

    1. My issue is with what you wrote, not with her story. My parents sent me to Catholic schools (praise God) but did not practice the faith because they were married outside the Church. I am thankful to God for what they DID do and for Tap's parents too. My point is people that do not accept the teachings of the Church should not be labeled "liberal"-this gives the terrible illusion that it is possible to "Pick and choose" what we as Catholics want to believe--which is of course impossible. The Catholic Church is not a political organization where one needs to "find their place on the spectrum" and decide which truths they will accept. You are either a faithful Catholic or you are not...there is no "liberal" or "conservative."

  9. Well said, Nan. I agree completely.

  10. If you're still in Sarasota, Christ the King Catholic church is a lovely parish staffed by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. You can enjoy the Traditional Mass 7 days a week.

  11. Christ The King Church is Sarasota is the place to go....

  12. To my way of thinking, it is a matter of semantics. A "liberal catholic" is the same thing as an unfaithful catholic, a "cafeteria catholic", etc. In other words it is someone who does not believe in the full deposit of the faith. I wonder why they don't just leave the church and join other like minded dissenters.


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