Some people really don't like ritual. Perhaps you are such a person. You think priestly vestments, gold chalices, incense and bells are antiquated and unnecessary to worship. "Do these things really matter?" you ask.
Perhaps your son plays baseball. He's all decked out in his uniform, wears a helmet when he's up to bat, special shoes with cleats, and uses an expensive bat. "Why all the fuss?" I ask. "Why can't he just use a simple stick for a bat and forget all the rest?" In no time, you'll be explaining everything down to the finest details as to why each item is important to the game. I'll be all ears while you tell me that everything he wears, the placement of the base plates, and the rules of the game are very precise.
I can tell that you wouldn't go along with it if the coach decided to substitute plastic bats for the quality, expensive bats, or he decided no one could wear cleats and that the base plates were going to be moved closer together to make things easier for the players. What would happen if the umpire decided the cheerleaders could call the strikes? Realistically, any of these things could happen without actually prohibiting children from playing ball. The fact is that it would no longer be the same game. On the other hand, if you didn't know anything about the authentic game of baseball, it probably wouldn't matter.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass can in no terms be put on the same level as a game. This illustration is simply to help convey the message that all the details of the Mass, as it has been preserved over the centuries, are important. Not one item is without significance. It's highly improbable that most Catholics today know that each traditional sacred vestment the priest wears represents a part of the "armor" he dons as a soldier of Christ (cf. Ephesians 6: 10-17). As he puts on each piece of this special clothing, he's supposed to be praying and recollecting the significance of what he is doing and what he is preparing for.
The number and placement of each candle on or near the altar, the number of altar cloths, and even the altar steps are meant to convey a symbolic meaning. As one begins to understand the depth of meaning and the extreme care taken to ensure reinforcement of theology in all these details, a clearer appreciation for these things is sure to follow. (I'd recommend "The Mass Explained to Children" by Maria Montessori.)
A popular argument today is that these things are not ESSENTIAL to the Mass and are therefore subject to change; temporal and not that important. Some people will say that there is no such thing as the Old Mass or the New Mass, but only THE Mass, which consists of the consecration according to the words instituted by Jesus Christ. In an attempt to justify the controversial New Mass, they use word games explaining that everything surrounding THE Mass is only the "rite of the Mass" or the liturgy, which consists of many non-essentials that should never have been there in the first place.
To such arguments I would reply that something which was the centerpiece of the Church from the beginning, which has for 1500 years been virtually untouched because of its sanctity, can hardly be explained away as non-essential by 20th and 21st century "thoroughly modern" man. For this to make any sense at all would require that even if the Tridentine Mass and all its accouterments could be explained away in such a manner, it would then have to be replaced by something thoroughly essential. Does a Mass stripped of dignity, symbolism, theology and reverence properly glorify God and convey what is essential to the faithful?
Another telling factor in the Church today is the reality that people do not have time to be concerned with the details of ritual. Learning the meaning behind all the different symbols and actions requires time, focus and some effort. If these things don't have some meaning in our individual lives, then they are virtually unimportant. Most of all, if we can focus our time on acquiring the many non-essentials we relentlessly pursue in our culture, we are more than happy to do away with all the so called "non-essentials" of Catholicism.
We've all heard of priests and saints who were forced to offer the Mass secretly for fear of death, or while imprisoned. They did without the so-called "non-essentials" because they were forced to, not because they wanted to. This is a beautiful testimony of faith in the real power and mystery of the Mass, but it doesn't mean the Mass should be downgraded to "emergency level" for all time.
The days are coming when Catholics once again may be forced to offer the Mass in some unknown catacombs, secretly keeping the faith amidst tremendous obstacles. Such times may require Mass on the run, without many of the beautiful symbols and traditions we cherish. Those days are not here yet for most of us. Until then, I will embrace the complete Mass replete with all the splendor, reverence and majesty rightfully associated with such an august rite.
Does it really matter how people dress for Mass? Sparks often fly when this question comes up. I'll admit there was a time when I showed up for Sunday Mass in the modern Church wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes, so I'm not about to cast any stones. However, there's an underlying element surrounding this issue that's worth considering.
Our culture has undergone a change in the way people dress for anything and everything. There was a time, not that long ago, when girls wore dresses to school everyday and young men wore slacks and sweaters. People dressed up for church, thus the phrase, "he wore his Sunday best."
Today, casual is the word in most circles. However, special events usually cause people to wear the appropriate apparel whether it's a suit and tie for a wedding, an elegant dress for a cocktail party, or a business suit for a job interview. People know how to dress when it counts.
It's extremely curious that Sunday Mass has slipped into the "casual zone" for most Catholics today. I don't know anyone personally who would wear blue jeans and a windbreaker to a wedding, but I know lots of people who dress like this for Mass, even the Easter Vigil. No one is trying to be offensive by dressing this way. It has to do with the fact that the Mass is really no big deal to most people these days. And I don't think it's their fault.
I don't like to say it, but the New Order of the Mass has no regal nature, no aura of dignity or majesty to warrant a reaction from the faithful causing them to dress for a special event. The Mass is supposed to be our intimate encounter with Christ in his awesome offering to the Father on our behalf. If a person really understands what is supposed to be happening at the Mass, no matter what rite, he or she will most likely acknowledge the fact by dressing for the occasion.
In practice, however, the "assembly gathering" on Sunday mornings for most Catholics tends towards the common. There's no way to say it nicely, because Paul VI's Mass as it has been handed down to us today is so common that it is oftentimes offensive. I am concerned about the grave disservice this new Mass does to God and man.
Through the Novus Ordo God has been reduced to the most common, "ho-hum" Deity ever. If Christ were to walk into one of these assemblies we'd slap Him on the back and offer Him a donut. How hard it has become to ascertain through this Mass that God's majesty is incomprehensible, that He "dwells in light inaccessible, which no man hath seen, nor can see." "The mind cannot rise to the contemplation of the Deity, whom nothing approaches in sublimity, unless it be entirely disengaged from the senses, and of this, in the present life we are incapable." (Catechism of the Council of Trent, Article I)
While the way we dress isn't essential to our faith, it does say a lot about what we believe or what we've been taught. It doesn't seem logical that any Catholic should take offense at the suggestion that God deserves the best from us and from our priests. Why wouldn't that include the way we dress for what should be the most special event of the week?
The temptation is very real in our day to seek an easy and comfortable lifestyle void of any depth. It has become far too common for Catholics to shy away from a Catholicism which demands anything. In the end, just about everything the Church teaches and practices can be reduced to, "It doesn't really matter."
A recent survey of young adult U.S. Catholics reported by Catholic News Service, shows that a majority of our young people have adopted this motto for themselves. According to the report, young people "strongly prefer a personalized view of the faith instead of the rules of the institutional church." The survey shows that most Catholic young adults think they can be good Catholics while ignoring major teachings of the Church.
This is a horrifying omen for the Church. But at the same time, we shouldn't be very surprised. The effects of the new Catholic mentality are all around us down to the smallest details, as if shouting out, "IT DOESN"T REALLY MATTER!"