Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista Gingrich, recently showed up at 11 a.m. Mass at St. Richard Church in Richfield. They arrived without fanfare, deliberately (I’m guessing) showing up a few minutes after Mass had started so they could quietly take a seat without attracting attention. They left with the crowd after the closing song, joining everyone else on the way out — no press, no speeches, no photo-ops, a non-event.
When I mention that the former-speaker and his wife were at St. Richard’s, people say: “Why were they there?”
“Just going to Mass,” I say, and they look puzzled, like that isn’t a sufficient explanation.
Although their celebrity brings their attendance at Mass into focus, the Gingriches weren’t the only visitors on Sunday.
There was another visiting couple at that same Mass, middle-aged and from Cicero, Ill., as they proudly told me on their way into Mass. I’m sure there were probably others visiting as well who had found a Catholic Church to attend Sunday Mass in the middle of their travels.
Last month, it was a group of Girl Scouts who were staying at the WaterPark of America who were brought to the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass by their leaders — a dozen or so well-scrubbed kids from Iowa with three women as leaders.
They were “just” going to Mass.
It made me ask the question: “Why?” Why take the time and energy out of a busy day, in the middle of probably hectic travel, hundreds of miles from home, to find a church, determine the Mass schedule, get properly dressed and show up on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning, “just” to go to Mass.
The Catholic way
When I ask my friends who are Protestant or Jewish if they would find a church or synagogue at which to worship on a weekend while they are traveling, the answer almost universally is “no.” Certainly people of other faith traditions can and do pray alone or in a group while travelling on the Sabbath. But we Catholics seem to be the only ones who have a tradition of finding a church and worshipping with other believers, even in a strange city.
The fact that Catholics do this — the ex-congressman and his wife, the couple from Cicero, the waterpark kids — tells me that we must be doing something very, very right in the church.
Of course, the cynics among us will attribute this behavior to “Catholic guilt,” or a slavish following of the hierarchy or simple habit. Maybe — but from everything I’ve read and heard about former-Speaker Gingrich and Callista Gingrich, I don’t think they are weak-minded pushovers who simply do what they’re told.
The couple from Cicero didn’t strike me that way either. And, anyone who’s got the fortitude to take a dozen 10-to 12-year-old girls to a waterpark for a weekend can stand up to anyone if need be.
No, there’s something more going on, something positive that we’re doing right, something that gets us to search the Internet for a church and schedule our time, even our vacation time, around attending Mass.
Getting it right
Let me suggest that the first answer to the question of why we have this unique desire to worship in community is simply the Eucharist. The Eucharist is fundamentally a community celebration. You can’t experience it fully on your own and, despite the most robust interior prayer life, there is something missing when Sunday goes by and you have not been part of a eucharistic celebration.
But I think there is something more going on here than “just” the sacrament. I think people go out of their way to attend Mass because, on the whole, we Catholics do an excellent job with the liturgy. I know that some reading this will say that’s not so — that they have been to Masses that were poorly prepared and terribly executed. Yes, that does happen.
Most of the time, though, as was the case at St. Richard’s on that Sunday, we get it right. There is a mix of reverence and joy, singing and silence, proclamation and reflection. The fact that throughout the church the same readings are used, the same prayers are said, and the same sacrament is celebrated gives the Mass a familiarity of feel and rhythm that is both engaging and comforting. We feel welcome, even if we’re one-time visitors.
I didn’t get a chance to ask the couple from Cicero, or the waterpark kids, or the Gingriches about their time at St. Richard’s. But I’ll bet they didn’t feel like strangers. I’ll bet they felt like members of the universal body of Christ.
And that’s a big part of the reason that we “just” go to Mass.
Deacon Robert Schnell serves at St. Richard in Richfield.