The Month of the Saints. All during the month of November we remember the Communion of Saints: the Saints in Heaven, the Holy Souls in Purgatory, and the Church on Earth (you and me). Nowhere is this communion, or unity, made more apparent than at every Holy Mass, as Christ descends to our altar in the Eucharist, and the Communion of Saints comes together to worship Him.
Last Sunday we read from the Book of Revelation how the saints in heaven worship God: “I had a vision of a great multitude…They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes…. All the angels stood around the throne…They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed: ‘Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving…be to our God forever and ever. Amen.’” Similar descriptions of the heavenly liturgy are found throughout the Book of Revelation, including the description of the heavenly wedding feast of the Lamb (Christ) and His Bride (the Church). We also find similar allusions throughout the Scriptures, including in today’s Second Reading from Hebrews: “Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf.”
Every Holy Mass is a participation in this heavenly worship. Therefore, no Mass is a merely earthly activity, much less the activity of one congregation, but is taken up into heavenly realities, especially with the sense of wonder, awe and reverence, that are really at the heart of the meaning of the words “worship” and “liturgy.”
It has always been my goal to promote this sense of worship in my priesthood. Not because it is my preference, but because it is the amazing reality we are celebrating. I have always been encouraged in this by the writings of the popes, especially Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Although Pope Frances has not written much about the liturgy, the man he put in charge of liturgy, Cardinal Robert Sarah, tells us: “When…Pope Francis, asked me to accept the ministry…[he]…was clear… ‘I want you to continue the good work in the liturgy begun by Pope Benedict XVI.’”
So I encourage you, during this month of the Communion of Saints, to especially consider how you participate in Holy Mass. Ask yourself: “Do I actively and fully participate in Mass, by my focusing my whole being (as much as I humanly can) on Christ? Do I pray and sing reverently, realizing I am praying and singing with the angels and saints? Do I reverently join in the common gestures of the Mass, standing bowing and kneeling at the prescribed times [“the angels stood… They prostrated themselves…”]?
I have to say, I am very proud of our parish because I think we celebrate the liturgy very reverently. But we can always improve—always striving for heavenly perfection. Not to become a group of unthinking automatons, but to humbly unite ourselves to the will of Christ, the tradition of the Church and the reverence of the saints and angels.
Clarifications. Sometimes I notice some confusion with regard to certain gestures at Mass. Let me offer some brief clarifications:
— Bowing. During the Mass, from the opening greeting until the consecration of the Body of Christ, we bow at the waist toward the altar (not to the tabernacle, as is our inclination—see below). We also bow at the waist during the Creed at the line, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” Likewise, we bow our heads slightly whenever the name of Jesus, Mary, or the saint of the day are said, or when the three Divine persons are named together (i.e., “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”).
— Genuflecting. We genuflect (touch our right knee to the ground and then rise) at various times during Mass. Note, the priest and ministers genuflect to Our Lord in the tabernacle at the beginning of Mass, but from then until the consecration, do not genuflect, but instead bow to the altar. This is because, although our Lord is present in the tabernacle (which we acknowledge by the opening genuflection), in the current form of Mass the Church asks us to move into an anticipatory mode, waiting for the Lord to come to the altar at the consecration before we genuflect again. In the meantime we bow to the empty altar as a sign of this anticipated arrival. (I have never been completely comfortable not genuflecting to Our Lord in the tabernacle, so I once sought clarification from the Vatican’s liturgy office; they understood my concern but confirmed my understanding.)
But note that after the consecration the priest no longer bows to the altar but begins to genuflect to the Host on the altar, and as he reposes the Host in the tabernacle. The people should generally do the same, although during the reception of Holy Communion they are allowed to receive either standing (after making some sign of reverence, e.g., bow of the head or body, genuflecting) or kneeling.
Moreover, it is the universal and ancient Catholic custom that outside of Mass we genuflect to Our Lord in the tabernacle whenever we approach or cross in front of it. Outside of Mass we should never merely bow toward the tabernacle, unless of course you are physically unable to genuflect.
Hands. Some people have asked what they should do with their hands during Mass. Generally speaking, you are free to do what you are comfortable with. But consider the example of the norms for altar servers: when sitting, hands are rested on the knees; when kneeling, standing or genuflecting hands are folded palm to palm (not with interlaced fingers).
Some ask if they can hold their hands extended when they pray at Mass. This is not specifically prohibited, but it is not the Catholic custom and would seem to be imprudent, especially when the priest is praying with hands extended (orans), since this is a symbol that he is praying as the priest of the Mass, in the name of Christ and the people.
Some ask if it’s okay for the congregation to hold hands during the Our Father as a sign of unity. However well-intended, this is not allowed, since the priest and servers are not permitted to join them, thus nullifying the sign of unity. (Note: although I do not encourage it, in this age when family is so under attack, I understand and do not object when families or engaged couples hold hands.)
Elections. The election results last week were a mixed bag for Christians. Many pro-life/pro-family candidates were [re-]elected to the Virginia senate and house, but I was saddened to see that there was a net gain of only one pro-parental-rights member of the Fairfax Public School Board. Congratulations to Tom Wilson (son of our parishioners Dave and Mary Wilson) who won a seat on the board. We keep working and praying.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles