“Christ is risen! Alleluia!
You there! You in the back row yawning. Yeah, I’m talking to you. You’re not listening to my homily are you? Can’t you just pretend to listen? Or at least cover your mouth when you yawn? You’re not hearing a word I say. I suspect you’re not even paying attention to the prayers of the Mass. Why? Because you’re in your own little world, that’s why.”
I must admit, I’ve come dangerously close beginning a homily that way, and I pray age doesn’t weaken my resolve to be a Christian gentleman in the pulpit.
In charity, I can fairly easily surmise the reasons for the many self-absorbed distractions during Mass. Marital problems; a chronic sense of being trapped with no way out; nobody who bothers to understand; stuck in a low-paying dead-end career; a pressure-cooker job leaving little time to tend to a family; feeling degraded and hopeless after losing gainful employment; unruly kids, bad grades, adolescent insolence, drug and alcohol abuse. If these are the excuses for being completely distracted or bored or impatient during Mass, I suppose there’s room for slack. Priestly exuberance from the pulpit under such circumstances can be hard to stomach.
But in case you haven’t noticed, priests are people too. And I suspect most folks give little thought to our disappointments and distractions. (I wouldn’t, if I were you.) My frustrations are garden-variety clerical, if you must know. As with any bureaucracy, the officials of the Church’s many departments have little sense of the burden they individually place on pastors. (No single rain drop believes it is blame for a flood, and all that.) So during the Chrism Mass before Easter I noticed a couple of actors who were the cause of a good deal of recent discomfiture. They were among the dozens of clergy assembled around the altar. Some of them caused me grief; and I caused others grief (but in my case—ahem—for the right reasons). Frankly, my aggravation momentarily spiked (I’m sure you know the feeling when cultivating grievances) and I briefly entertained the possibility of slipping out lest I be ill disposed to receive Communion. It never came to that, though, because my distraction was replaced by the recovery of a long lost memory. I hope it was grace.
Years ago as a layman on a business trip to New Orleans I used to attend weekday evening Mass after work at the cathedral in the French Quarter. One day I stumbled across a Hollywood movie set outside the church for a Civil War scene. I noticed a genuine Hollywood starlet smoking a cigarette between takes surrounded by many extras. I managed to attend Mass despite the obstruction. The next day, after Mass, I walked across the street to a corner pub and ordered a beer. I asked the bartender if his business had increased because of the Hollywood shoot. He said the place was packed. The starlet was very gracious, patronized the place and then quickly departed without a fuss. He added, however, that many of the Hollywood extras pretended to be big shots, running up a big bar tab and taking off without paying the bill. When I later saw the Civil War movie on television I found myself momentarily distracted by the memory of those Hollywood extras. Curiously, for me the movie became more real and interesting.
The Masses I offer with many priests (the liturgical “gala” events like the Chrism Mass and ordinations) are something like that movie production. The movie extras outside of the production can be distractions, to be sure. And the distractions can intensify when they give evidence they think of themselves as the stars of the show. (It’s so easy to do nowadays, now that we priests generally offer Mass facing the people.) They’re not, of course. Everyone—including priests and bishop—is pretty much a “Hollywood extra,” albeit with their respective, often leading, roles. But there is only one Star of the Show: Jesus Christ Who has conquered death for us and for all time. That fact became the solution to my distraction, that realization restored my appreciation of the sacred words and actions of the Mass.
In our own ways and worries we are all part of a great cosmic sacred enterprise called the Catholic Faith that moves with many zigzags through history as we search for the holy certainties of life that will allay our anxieties, give meaning to our existence and bring us safely home. Saints and sinners alike—you and I, with all our problems and all our sins—make up the extraordinary “movie production” that promises the most glorious of endings if we stick close to Him. This is the reason we celebrate the sacred liturgy with one another and for one another, working hard to break out of our self-absorbed prisons. This is the Mass, a drama truly beautiful and wonderful to behold.
So from one Hollywood extra to another, I say again, He is risen! Alleluia! Happy Easter.
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