Like the many frequent flyers in Fairfield County, I am pleased when my flight arrives on time. Most of us fly because we lead busy lives with tight schedules that include important meetings and events. Thus the importance of the "ontime" arrival . . .
. . . and wouldn't we be upset if flights regularly departed ahead of schedule? Imagine showing up one hour before a flight is scheduled to push back from the gate, only to be told that it had already left. Such a practice would result in heated tempers, broken appointments, missed meetings, and lost time that could be spent.
Stay with me while I make one further observation about flight crews. The crew is responsible for all kinds of preparations before a flight takes off or lands. Sometimes this means dealing with uncooperative or inattentive passengers. It always means doing many tasks quickly and efficiently while keeping safety an uttermost priority.
But I digress. My purpose is not to offer a running commentary on the airlines, but rather to reflect with you on an important pastoral problem - delayed arrivals to, and early departures, from Sunday Mass.
On most weekends, I visit two or three parishes simply to celebrate Mass and to greet parishioners. It's always a joy. But I confess to being surprised by the small number of worshippers when Mass begins. The pastor usually tries to reassure me: "Don't worry, Bishop, the church will be almost full by the time the Gospel is read." And he is right. All through the penitential rite, the opening prayer, and the readings, people are arriving. Like my brother priests, I feel a sense of relief to see people streaming in - just as we feel relief when a delayed flight finally arrives at the gate.
But an "on-time" arrival at Mass is even more important than an "on-time" arrival at the airport. "Why is that?" you may wonder. Because a delayed arrival at Mass means we've missed part of our weekly appointment with Jesus Christ. We've missed the part where we reflect on our lives so that we may join our fellow worshippers in asking God and the Church for forgiveness. We've missed the opening prayer which helps us focus our minds and hearts on the meaning of the Mass. And most importantly, we've missed the proclamation of the Scriptures. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, when the Scriptures are proclaimed, it is Jesus Christ Himself who speaks to us. So when we arrive late, we pass up the potentially life-changing event of really hearing the living Word of God proclaimed and explained, so that we can let it soak into our hearts and change our lives.
If we priests feel a little anxiety at the beginning of Mass, so too, we begin to get a little edgy during the distribution of Holy Communion . . . for we often can't help but notice that some are leaving early. What's wrong with an early departure? It means we've cut short our appointment with Jesus Christ. We've left without pausing long enough to join with our fellow worshippers in giving thanks and praise to the Lord Jesus, whom we have truly received under the appearances of bread and wine. We've not taken the time to marvel at this gift of the Lord's presence and to tell the Lord what is in our hearts. We've missed the chance to say a word of greeting to the clergy and fellow parishioners so that we might truly feel we are a part of the parish, not strangers who occasionally visit.
Here you may wish to register a protest, especially if you are parents with small children or if you are very tired after a busy week: "Bishop, you don't understand how hard it is not to sleep in or to get the family organized for church - especially those family members (of whatever age) who just won't cooperate." When you face such problems, you are like the flight attendant who must face some tough customers and accomplish a multitude of tasks to ensure the flight takes off and arrives on time. So I'm not unsympathetic. My priest secretary often has a hard task in getting me to allow enough travel time as we go from parish to parish on Sunday! But if we're on our way to meet Jesus, the time and trouble are worth it. Arriving on time and staying for the whole Mass is much more important than making sure that the airlines run on time.
It's midway through Lent and it's the Year of the Eucharist. So let me suggest a few practical and timely suggestions:
- If you're missing Mass on Sunday, this is the time to return to the regular practice of the faith. The Mass is more important than anything else you and I do all week. It is our weekly meeting with the Lord who died and rose to save us from our sins. We can't afford to be absent.
- Because the Mass is our weekly meeting with the Lord, we should make it a point to arrive on time and to stay until Mass is over - unless we are truly facing a real emergency.
- May I suggest that we resolve to arrive fifteen minutes before Mass is scheduled to begin so that we can greet fellow parishioners and have a chance to pray privately to the Lord before Mass begins?
Let's take the steps necessary to make our good resolution actually happen. For me, that means leaving the house or office a little earlier. For you it might require other kinds of advance planning - the sort of planning we do when something is really important. Let me add one final observation. We know how frustrated we are when a colleague comes late for an appointment or a leader cuts short a meeting solely for his or her convenience. May we show our love and respect for the Lord and His people by our "on-time" arrivals for Mass and by departing only when Mass is truly completed.
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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