The last two weekends I have attended Sunday Mass at two different parishes: the one in Maine I usually attend while on vacation and this past weekend a parish in Cape Cod which I had never attended before. The two experiences were both similar and yet different all of which got me thinking about the experience of attending a Catholic Mass.
If you are a liturgical professional- priest, organist, choir director- you have one set of experiences at Mass; if you are a regular member of the congregation another kind of experience, and if a visitor still another.
In a future column I will talk about the experience of the preside, but today let me focus on my experience as a visitor. In the Maine parish I got there early for 7am Mass. I was welcomed at the door and upon entering found a good number of people present who were completely silent. I sat down in the back and immediately felt at home. I entered into imageless prayer and when Mass began was in a good place. There was no music, the lector was good, the homily well prepared and read. All in all it was a prayerful experience. But then something astonishing happened. I was all the way in the back on the left side of the Church. There must have been 60 people on my side of a church which has three sections. After communion I was in the back and watched as 58 of the people in front of me got up. Because most of them had been close to the altar, I assumed they were going out into the entranceway to prepare for some parish event out in the hall. No, they all just went into the parking lot and got into their cars and drove away! It was far worse than what happens here.
Then last Sunday I went to Church on Cape Cod, again at a 7am Mass with no music. This time I was not welcomed, the Church was also silent and I was able to enter into deep prayer. This time I sat in front. Here, no one left early. The presider could not be heard when he preached, which was a good thing. The homily was well prepared, read but informational and abstract. I tuned out after one minute and at ten minutes started reading the bulletin. At the 12 minute point when a child cried I felt like joining in with him or her. There were two collections and we sat there waiting for both collections to be taken up and presented before the gifts were received. Nonetheless and despite my interior complaining I felt moments of deep prayer and a battle between my interior call to pray and my exterior tendency to be annoyed. All of which makes me wonder what a visiting priest out in the congregation would say about Sunday Mass here at St. Jerome.