Of late I have been attending the music Mass at St. Anthony’s Chapel. The Arch Street Band and singers join with the congregation in a festive and exuberant celebration of a ritual that has sustained Catholics for centuries. It underscores the celebratory nature of the sacrament at the heart of the faith.
There is usually precious little participation in a rite that over time has become almost routine. The gospel, homily, consecration, and communion are themselves supposed to draw the congregation into an intellectual and emotional response. Too often that fails. The gospel is rote, the homilies are uninspiring, and the participation tends to be more the filling of an obligation than a spiritual experience.
While that may be due in part to people like myself, who fail to fully invest in what has become a duty more than a celebration. But some responsibility rests with priests who fail to even try to inspire with turgid, disorganized, prolonged, and sometimes incoherent sermons. Instead of a short, relevant, meaningful message, many ramble on, unprepared, long after they have lost their audience.
The Mass calls for an intellectual, emotional and spiritual response. A poor sermon does nothing to generate such a reaction. In fact, it does the opposite. The Franciscans at Arch Street normally use that valuable time to convey something meaningful. It is usually brief, direct, and relevant, in that it can be applied to how we live. Done well, it produces the desired reaction.
The music and singing provide a jubilant response to what is supposed to be an uplifting experience. Those present are no longer just witnesses, but active participants in a ritual that is at the center of Catholic devotion, the source of which is a loving God. Love is not a solitary act; it demands action. Singing can be a vivid expression of that intensity, drawing the participants into a deeper appreciation of the joy that can be found in their exercise of shared responsibility.
Organized religion tends now to be out of favor. Many prefer to find their own way to whatever version of spirituality or humanism attracts them. They define their own faiths without the burdens and restraints of institutional limitations. Traditional religions, after all, are hierarchical; they are directed by human beings with the flaws and weaknesses so evident in all institutions. Offended, the disappointed look elsewhere for fulfillment.
That rejection is understandable. Organized religions make mistakes, and, sometimes, grievous errors. Why not seek solace in a purer more personal belief without the distractions of traditional faiths? My answer to that is simple: Human beings organize institutionally as families, tribes, trades, businesses, schools, and governments, etc. That is how we function. The fact that some or all of these institutions fail from time to time is as obvious as the reason for their decline: flawed human beings. Our human nature is easily corrupted; that’s a condition we cannot escape. However, with love, we can learn to identify, understand, correct, and forgive faults in ourselves and others. We can strive to do better.
Within the Catholic Church, the mission of the Franciscans is to help the poor, forgotten, sick, and dispossessed. Love, the paramount virtue, is the one from which all the others flow. Few organizations can match the zeal of the Franciscans in promoting active love. That is nowhere more evident than in the music Mass that draws those present into the joy and fulfillment of service to others.
It is in the joining of our aspirations that we are most productive. It can be as simple as a congregation united for a few moments in melodious prayer or as complicated as organizing programs to help those less fortunate. Either way, it helps to punctuate the task with an occasional “Hallelujah!”
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.