All are welcome at Mass!

Let’s ask ourselves if we have made it clear to those who are cut off from Communion that they are not cut off from the Mass, from the prayer of the Church.

By Chris Sparks

“If we knew the value of the Mass, we would die of joy” — St. John Vianney.

I was in college when I invited my friend Claire to come to the student Mass. She was hesitant initially, not being a practicing Catholic herself, but eventually she gave in and accompanied me to the student chapel.

And there I had a revelation: To the outsider looking in, the Catholic Mass is unpredictable. We who have grown up in the Church know what to expect. Those who have never been before find themselves surrounded by a crowd of people who are all following invisible cues, responding as one with words they’ve clearly got burned into their memories, but that aren’t predictable to the person who’s only ever read the Bible for their Christian formation.

Rollercoaster ride
I handed her the missal, and realized again how unfamiliar it was, how much of its use depends on long familiarity, on knowing what the different parts of the Mass are, which ones remain largely unchanging and which change, and why. 

Further, she didn’t know what she could or could not do in good conscience. She didn’t know which gestures meant worship and which mere prayer. The whole thing was a rollercoaster ride in the dark. 

So far as I know, she never came to Mass again.

Steep threshold
Ever since then, I’ve been aware at how steep the threshold is for someone entering the Catholic Church with no prior experience or formation. Those who enter because God has touched their hearts in a direct and spectacular way have been given an incentive by Heaven to leap every hurdle because they know what they’re getting into in a way even many practicing Catholics do not. 

But for someone who’s just church-shopping or even just trying to give us a fair try — well, there’s plenty to get them tripped up or prevent them from coming all the way in.

All of which adds the tragedy of something I fear we’re neglecting as practicing Catholics.

Is everyone welcome?
We Catholics don’t say nearly often enough that everyone’s welcome at Mass.

Sit with that for a minute. I know it sounds both obvious and also like there’s something slightly wrong with that statement. Ask yourself: Am I clear in my own mind that everyone, including those in scandalous public sin or habitual grave sin, is welcome to attend Mass?

The fact that I have to pause here to make myself clear helps prove we have a problem.

I am not saying that everyone can receive Holy Communion, regardless of marital circumstances, public opposition to the Church, or other such reasons for denying Communion. In recent years, many practicing Catholics have debated the question and defended the Church’s long-standing practice of refusing Communion from politicians and others who publicly oppose binding doctrines on faith and morals, or who are in a public, scandalous state of grave sin. 

Other times, the conversation has surrounded the long-standing practice of closed Communion, where those Christian brothers and sisters of ours who nevertheless do not share our belief in the Real Presence can’t receive Holy Communion, following the guidance of St. Paul (see 1 Cor 11:29).

These are good and important conversations surrounding important practices that honor the sanctity of the Eucharist, but I’m concerned they’ve obscured a crucial truth of our Catholic practice. 

Great public prayer
I am saying that there’s not a soul on earth who is forbidden by any law of the Church from attending Mass. Indeed, the more public the sin, the more scandalous the behavior, the more important it is for them to attend Mass, the great public prayer of the Church!

Of course, some folks who are a danger to themselves or others may only be able to safely be at a private Mass, or a Mass in prison. Of course, not everyone is close to a Mass. The priest shortage the world over helped prompt the Amazonian synod, after all. Of course, people who attend Mass should intend to be reverent, should intend to be respectful even if they don’t believe, and so forth. 

Of course, if people come to demonstrate against Church teaching or demand the change of Church teaching, the parish may take steps to see them removed so they don’t disrupt Mass.

Of course, there are some qualifications — but the essential point stands. 

Sin can cut us off from communion (until we go to Confession or are absolved during Last Rites), but it doesn’t cut us off from Mass.

No one is cut off
We don’t say that nearly often enough. We don’t invite Protestants terrified of anti-Catholic myths, or Jewish people with family histories of persecution, or folks from one of the many, many other religions, fashions, fads, schisms, breakaway bodies, etc. to Mass. We don’t invite the non-practicing consistently, generously, gently, hospitably. 

We don’t make a point of ensuring that we explain what’s going on to those who aren’t familiar with the Mass, or invite those folks whose marriages or romantic arrangements would impede them from receiving Holy Communion. 

We don’t ensure the divorced and remarried know that, even if they have to wait for an annulment to receive Holy Communion, they can and should be attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation no matter what.

No one is cut off from attending Mass.

Now, on the other hand, on some level, I think we do all take it for granted. We assume that the whole world could come to Mass, and assume that they have made a choice if they don’t or won’t attend Mass. 

Advent opportunity
But have we ever invited anyone to Mass? 

Are we really aware of how intimidating it can be for someone who’s never been to Mass to try to follow along? Forgive me, but our missals aren’t user friendly to the newbies, and never have been, especially to those who haven’t been practicing Christians before they darken the door of a Catholic Church.

So as we end this liturgical year and approach Advent, a season where people are more open than usual to making the rounds of Nativity plays, lessons and carols, and other festive events at churches, let’s ask ourselves: Who do we know who, if we asked them right now, would gladly attend Mass with us? Who do we know who probably doesn’t attend Mass because they’ve been made to feel unwelcome? 

Who should we invite “home,” especially on Christmas Day?

Who believes myths and Protestant propaganda about Catholicism, for whom attending Mass could be an enlightening experience?

Now, some folks may not be best suited to Sunday Mass or a Mass with families and lots of noise. Some folks may do best at a daily Mass, or even a private Mass. If you can get a group of Catholics to identify someone who would be helped by attending a private Mass, get together and talk to your pastor. 

See if there’s a day that might work during Ordinary Time or the slow season for your church when the pastor could hold a Mass for the noisy, the mentally or physically ill, or the paranoid non-Catholics, one where whispered explanations and questions could happen without causing scandal to your neighbors in the other pew.

But let’s ask ourselves if we have made it clear to those who are cut off from Communion that they are not cut off from the Mass, from the prayer of the Church.

Pray for me, that I might practice what I preach. I’ll pray for you.

Chris Sparks is Senior Writer/Editor for the Marian Fathers and the author of the Marian Press book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.

Photo by JP Pau on Unsplash.
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