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Cultivating Our Personal Relationship with Jesus in Ritual

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 10, 2023

Jesus teaches: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:28-30) We encounter Jesus at Mass, above all in Holy Communion, and He sends us forth to proclaim the Gospel and live His Commandments.

Mass attendance (along with abstaining from unnecessary works that hinder worship) fulfills the core of the obligation of the Third Commandment—“Keep holy the Sabbath.” The Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday celebrations fulfill and replace the Jewish Saturday Sabbath. The Liturgy of the Word fulfills and replaces synagogue worship. The unbloody re-presentation of the one Sacrifice of Jesus in the Liturgy of the Eucharist fulfills and replaces the Temple of Sacrifice (cf. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Spirit of the Liturgy”).

Our appreciation of ritual remains a part of our psychological makeup. Presidents swear in public officials with their hands on the Bible. The solemnity of the anonymous soldier at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has an exquisite appeal and directs attention to the ultimate sacrifice in service to the country. The “the changing of the guard” ritual ensures the job gets done. The ceremonies of the Mass also ensure we fulfill our holy obligation to worship the Blessed Trinity acceptably.

Habitual practices—such as genuflections, the Sign of the Cross, and expressions of reverence—free us to direct our minds to the sacred action of the Mass. These gestures prepare us to receive the Real Presence with devotion and enter into a holy conversation with the Lord, Heart to heart, however brief.

We cannot immediately fully grasp this wonderful and terrible mystery. A powerful and noble movie like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ may have a praiseworthy emotional appeal of devotion. But repeated viewings cannot satisfy the hungry heart. The daily and weekly repetition of the ritual of the Mass brings a serious Catholic deeper into the sacred mystery.

Yet some secretly feel the ritual of the Mass discourages the personal relationship that Jesus desires and that our real encounter takes place in private prayer. Some see the required externalities such as genuflecting, bowing our heads, reciting prayers, and receiving Communion in the prescribed way as superficial distractions. Indeed, our mindless and slothful encounters with the risen Lord are discouraging! Practicing Catholics attend Mass every Sunday and holy day, and many priests offer over 500 Masses every year. We know our holiness falls desperately short. We continually need to recalibrate our spiritual attitude toward Mass. The Mass is the source and summit of all prayer.

A devout Catholic family man once asked his pastor, “Father, aside from Sunday Mass, are you doing anything this weekend?” Another elderly lady scolded the same priest, “All you do is prance around the altar and never visit your people.” (Note to self: Don’t prance.) In defense of most priests, many people are unaware of the regular schedules that keep their priests gainfully employed, and Sunday and weekday Mass form the center of their lives.

The rejection of the importance of ritual has dangerous spiritual effects. Priests are susceptible to the narcissistic allure of the stand-up entertainer. The Mass becomes a vehicle of entertainment rather than profound prayer expressed in ritual. Although there is room for a discreet clever quip from the pulpit, the Mass is a solemn re-presentation of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.

So it is helpful to consider habitual Eucharistic practices that at once reverence the Lord and focus our attention on the sacred mysteries. Here are a few considerations:

  • Come to Mass in time to make a brief preparation. Dress respectfully and modestly.
  • Rambunctious children and traffic often complicate matters. But habitual tardiness is a problem. We all need the Penitential Rite.
  • Genuflect (as your bones permit) before sitting in the pew.
  • Spend a few moments in preparatory prayer, and ask God for the grace of holy awareness.
  • Recite the prayers in a reverent rhythm avoiding excesses.
  • Use the prescribed gestures: the Sign of the Cross, standing, kneeling, and sitting.
  • Prepare to hear the Gospel by crossing in the purification of the forehead (mind), lips (speech), and heart (love and affection).
  • Gaze on the elevated Host and Chalice and silently pray with Saint Thomas the Apostle, “My Lord and my God.”
  • Receive Communion with reverence. The preferred method is on the tongue, although the Church permits Communion in the hand (since the days of Pope Paul VI).
  • Make a sign of reverence (bow of the head, for example) before receiving, when the priest distributes Communion as you stand—or kneel in reverence when receiving at the Communion rail.
  • The Sign of the Cross is an exorcism before the reception of Communion, not after (although we need not be doctrinaire).
  • Respond “Amen” to the priest’s “Body of Christ.” The response ratifies the Covenant we receive from Jesus. (In the Old Mass, the priest responds on behalf of the communicant, emphasizing God’s grace.)
  • When receiving in the hand, receive with one hand under the other. Do not grab, snatch, or distrust the priest with the elevator motion that guarantees an unholy and unsanitary collision.
  • When receiving on the tongue, tilt your head gently, extend a moistened tongue, and allow the priest to deliver the Host. Trust the priest to supply the Host in a sanitary way. Avoid lunging or failing to extend your tongue. Keeping your eyes closed as you extend a moistened tongue helps with stability.
  • Immediately consume the Host. Never turn around with the Host in your hand.
  • If the priest needs to make a special delivery to the pews, give Jesus the right of way. Hold your position in reverence.
  • Return to your pew for silent prayer. Closed eyes help avoid distractions, although gazing at sacred images may help.

It takes a lifetime and beyond for us to appreciate the mystery of the Mass and our tender encounter with Jesus. Habitual reverent gestures of ritual and prayerful demeanor prepare us to meet His Majesty in time and eternity.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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