Sometimes I feel like I’m just going through the motions at Mass. I know this is wrong, but I’m not sure how to change it

by Father Mattew Kraemer

“Just showing up for Mass is a very good start, but it is also right to desire to go deeper.” –Father Matthew Kraemer

We know that all important tasks go better if we have our heart in them. When we love something, we do it with greater ease and find more fulfillment. But this is the goal, not the beginning. The reader of New Earth who submitted this question should not be discouraged. Just showing up for Mass is a very good start, but it is also right to desire to go deeper. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) provides a key to unlocking a more profound participation in the Mass: “In the celebration of Mass the faithful form a holy people, a people of God’s own possession and a royal Priesthood, so that they may give thanks to God and offer the unblemished sacrificial Victim not only by means of the hands of the Priest but also together with him and so that they may learn to offer their very selves” (paragraph 95).

The driving force of the reforms of Vatican II was to increase the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy. They were not to be “mute and silent spectators,” but true participants in the mystery of Christ. This has been well implemented on the external level; the faithful are very accustomed to saying the responses, singing the songs, and making the liturgical gestures, but the internal level of this participation—the involvement of the heart, the offering of oneself—seems to be lagging behind. This isn’t a criticism so much as pointing out an age-old difficulty. It is a human temptation to live on a shallow level, and Jesus, knowing this, summons and enables us to “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4).

How may we learn to offer ourselves, along with the sacrifice of Christ, at Mass? First, we should dispose ourselves to receive Jesus who gives himself to us at Mass. The initiative is always his. “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Jesus loves us first, and then asks us to love him and others in return. He teaches us how to make a gift of ourselves by first giving himself for us.

What are practical ways to dispose ourselves to receive Christ in the liturgy? First of all, we must cultivate silence. We live in a hectic world that is filled with noise, busyness, and distraction. We need space to transition from our duties in the world into the celebration of the divine mysteries. We should always take a few minutes before Mass to prepare ourselves in quiet prayer (priests should do this too!). During this prayer, we should call to mind what will take place: Christ himself makes his sacrifice present on the altar. We can also gather up the cares and preoccupations of the day and be prepared to offer them to the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

Silence gives us space to listen and receive, and we should continue to do this throughout the Mass. What did we hear in the prayers, the songs, the readings, the priest’s homily? What is God saying to me? It is a good idea for the priest to pause for a brief period of silence after the homily (GIRM 66) to allow us to interiorize what we have heard, or, if we have been distracted, to regroup and enter back into prayer. It is also an opportunity to respond to the Lord: “Thank you for loving me,” or “thank you for showing me your goodness,” or, “I am totally distracted, burdened, and can’t see or hear you. Please come close and help me.” It is also appropriate that there would be a period of silence after the reception of the Holy Communion (GIRM 88). Often there is singing during the distribution of communion, but it should be directed towards the peace and tranquility that is found in communion with Christ. Eventually the singing should pass into silence that is not rushed or anxious but a time to rest and dialogue with the Lord before going back into the world.

Ultimately it is Jesus who moves us beyond “just going through the motions” at Mass. He is the one who invites us to share in his life—to be with him as he dies on the cross, to witness his resurrection, and to go out to share that Good News with others. He gives us this gift through the liturgy, and it can be received just as it is by saying the responses, singing, making the liturgical gestures, and hearing the prayers. If we allow him, little by little he brings our hearts into harmony with our voices, so that we can say with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Father Kraemer serves as the Secretary to the Bishop, Master of Ceremonies, Vice Chancellor, and Director of Liturgy for the Diocese of Fargo.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.