I think we all know the reality. All we have to do is look around us and we pretty quickly realize that the majority of Catholics don’t go to church. As a matter of fact, less than 35% of Catholics claim that they go to church regularly. 35%, let’s just be honest, that is terrible. Any other business at 35% participation would shut down and go home.
As a priest I oftentimes meet people who have a deep faith, or some level of faith, but for one reason or another are not going to church. The two most common reasons people give me for not going to church are very simple. One, it’s boring, two I don’t seem to get anything out of it. They claim they don’t leave feeling changed or inspired. I understand those feelings. The reality is, if I didn’t know what the mass was or why I went to Mass I’m not so sure I would be going either.
Even for those of us who go. How many of the 35% go simply because it’s the right thing to do or it because it’s a part of their weekly routine? How many Catholics actually know why they go to Church? Why are you here? There are all kinds of reasons that can bring us here and whatever they are, they are good. But I dare say today, there is a challenge to each and every one of us to step back and ask ourselves what is this thing the Mass. After all it’s clouded in all kinds of mystery. Why do we offer the Mass.
The reality is, Jesus gave us the Mass. In the year 155 AD, just about 120 years after Jesus died, a Christian, Justin the Martyr writes down exactly what happens at the Mass and it looks almost exactly like we still celebrate today. He tells us they begin by reading from the scriptures, then the presider gives an exhortation or teaching. He then says the gifts of bread and wine as well as contributions for the poor are brought forward. Then the priest takes the bread and breaks it, he takes the wine and he offers it with those same words “do this in remembrance of me.”
Now if you remember your history, you’ll remember that the year 313 is one of the big years in human history. 313 is the year the Edict of Millan was issued, when the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Until 313 it was illegal to be a Christian. Christian’s weren’t going to Church in buildings like this. Christians were going underground into the catacombs. They were hiding in people’s homes to celebrate on Sunday. There was no organized structure where they could get instruction from the top down about exactly how they are supposed to say Mass. Yet after 313, when Christianity becomes legalized and they start celebrating publicly, we recognize that Christians from as far as India in the east and Spain in the west are celebrating in the same fashion. Yes, there is some difference in their prayers, but they all have the same structure. They gather, the read the scriptures (different scriptures in different places), again they hear the homily, the gifts are brought forward, the bread and the wine are offered. They spoke different languages in different places, some of their extemporaneous prayers were different, but they are celebrating in the exact same way and in the most important moment they hear the exact same words.
Clearly, they learned it from someone. Clearly it was important enough for them, even in the face of death, to make sure they got it right. Where did they hear it from? Well they heard it from Jesus Christ. Open the bible, John 6:53, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have eternal life.” That’s is pretty clear from Jesus. This disturbed the followers of Jesus. As a matter of fact, we are told that many of them turned around and start to walk away. So, what does Jesus do? He doubles down, he says it again “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you cannot have eternal life.” He doesn’t say, “hold on. Come back. Let me explain.” He doesn’t tell not to worry because He is only speaking figuratively. No, he doubles down.
Believe what you want, but I think if we are Christians, we have to believe that Jesus says what He means. He is very clear. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you cannot have eternal life.” Do you really think this same Jesus, who we know loves us beyond what we can ever imagine, would tell us we have to do something in order to live with Him forever in heaven and then not give it to us? Of course not.
We know that He offers us His essential flesh and blood every time we come to Mass. If we open our bibles, we are told that on the night He was betrayed He celebrated the Passover with His disciples, the Last Supper. He takes the bread; He breaks it and gives it to them and says “do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise, He takes the cup of wine, blesses it, says “this is my blood” and gives them the command to “do this in memory of me.” If we are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ and Jesus, Himself, gives us a command it only seems right that we follow that command without hesitation and without question. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
In just a moment, the bread and the wine will be brought forward. We will take the bread, we will offer it and using those same words as Jesus Christ we will do it in remembrance. My friends, that is the beauty of the Mass. Jesus died once and for all for each of us. Jesus came to save us, He doesn’t have to do it again, but every time we come to the Mass, we get to be transformed to the foot of the cross. You and I are invited to participate in Jesus’ sacrifice. He can do it on His own, He’s God. But isn’t it better that we participate? Isn’t it better that we come and allow ourselves to be transformed by that saving action of Jesus Christ?
My friends, you and I need to understand what the Mass is so that we can challenge our brothers and sisters who aren’t here to come. It’s pretty simple, Jesus tells us if we want to heaven we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Jesus gives us a command that we are to take the bread, take the wine and say the prayers He said and do it in remembrance of Him. If we love someone it seems like we’d want them to get that message. Certainly, the Mass continues to be a perpetual mystery, but as we come to understand what it is and our reason for going we can bring others with us. I think St. John Vianney was right when he said “if we truly understood the Mass we would die of joy.” Why, because we are given the opportunity to receive Jesus Christ Himself, we are given the opportunity, to participate in Christ’s saving action in our life. We are given the opportunity to receive the one thing Jesus tells us in the scriptures that we need for eternal life.
 CARA, Recent Published Estimates of the Percentage of U.S. Catholics Attending Mass Weekly. Available at, https://cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/frstats/massattendweek.pdf
 Justin Martyr, The First Apology available at https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/fathers/view.cfm?recnum=1610
 Luke 22:19-20
 Attributed to St. John Vianney