I am very curious about, and fascinated by, non-Catholic Christian churches. I would like to witness Eastern Orthodox, Methodist, Presbyterian and other religious services. I have a deep respect for all our Christian brethren (and sistren). So I always find myself looking at the notices and signs on non-Catholic churches.
One thing that really strikes me is the infrequency of services in many Protestant churches. I sometimes assumed this was because of the scarcity of Protestant worshippers in Ireland (and, sad to say, England as well). But when I went to America I saw enormous Protestant churches, obviously well-attended and prosperous, that did not seem to have services any more frequently.
I understand that there are, to a certain extent, historical reasons for it. I do realize that, in some strands of Anglicanism at least, infrequency of communion was considered commendably dry and anti-Papistical, and held to show a fitting reverence for the Eucharist, along with an appreciation of our own unworthiness to receive it. And doubtless the infrequency of services followed the infrequency of communion.
But it seems so deeply unsatisfying to me. Is there such a thing as religious "DNA", so to speak? Have I absorbed a Catholic sensibility in my schooling and childhood, even though I was not brought to Mass weekly, never mind daily? Simply by entering Catholic churches, reading Catholic books, and being around other Catholics, have I developed a set of Romish responses and instincts, that govern my attitudes even when I don't think them out consciously?
I am lucky enough to work in a university with a campus church, so I have the opportunity to attend daily lunch-time Mass. As it works out, I often don't make it, because our lunch-breaks are staggered to ensure a continual presence on the service desks. This week I didn't make it at all. But I go when I can, and I'm always eager to go.
I don't want to sound holy. I often get bored at Mass. I think about other things. I think about what I'm going to eat for lunch afterwards. I think about all sorts of profane matters, hard as I try to keep my attention focused on the liturgy. I get frustrated with rambling and banal homilies, and chide myself for it. I groan at bad hymns. I prefer a short and understated Mass to an elaborate and drawn out Mass. I sometimes feel bad for not being one of those people who remains to pray for a considerable time after the final blessing.
And yet...the day seems so much better if I have been to Mass. It's not something I have to force myself to do. It's not a drudge.
Even if I can't get to Mass myself, I love the thought that the Mass is happening. It's an immensely comforting and cheering and fulfilling thought. And the reflection that Catholic Mass is always being celebrated somewhere in the world is nothing short of exhilarating.
I think it comes down to the recognition that something real happens at the Mass. It is not a reminder, not an aid to contemplation, but an enactment. I do my best to participate mentally, but how well I succeed makes no difference to the transcendental Reality of the sacrament. It's not something that happens "in my heart". It happens in very truth.
I am always bemused when people (knowing I am a Catholic) ask me if I believe in Transubstantiation and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. I'd feel like a fool if I didn't. The famous words of Flannery O'Connor-- "If it's a symbol, to hell with it"-- seems all that can be said, all that has to be said. The Real Presence seems to me to be the absolute lynchpin of the Catholic sacramental, incarnational and ecclesial system.
Sometimes I don't receive the Eucharist. Today I didn't. I think I have been excessively scrupulous in the past, but if am seriously concerned that I may be taking it unworthily, I refrain. Still, that doesn't stop me from feeling that it's all about the Eucharist, and that I am there because of the Eucharist, even if I don't receive it myself on that occasion.
I think the Catholic appetite for Mass has to do, not only with the recognition that something real happens there, but with an almost visceral commitment to the idea of Tradition. "And they were persevering in the doctrine of the Apostles, and in the communication of the breaking of bread, and in prayers." There is probably no aspect of Catholic teaching that seems more convincing or more sublime to me than Tradition.
When I was a child, I was a big fan of Transformers, the franchise of toys and comics and cartoons that was big in the eighties (and still continues). You probably know of them; they were plastic robots that could transform into various vehicles, robotic dinosaurs, and other forms. There were two factions, the Autobots (goodies) and the Decepticons (baddies). Whoever was leader of the Autobots at any one time carried the Matrix of Leadership in his chest cavity. The Matrix was a kind of energy globe that the leader consulted at times of crisis, and that had various other awesome powers. It contained the spirits of all the leaders that had held it previously.
Well, the idea of the Matrix of Leadership captivated me, in the same way that the idea of Catholic Tradition captivates me. Catholic Tradition (I hope and trust I am not departing from orthodoxy here) seems to be something that cannot be reduced to the teachings of the Popes or the formulas of Ecumenical Councils or the proper interpretation of the Bible. It is something living. It is the prayerful and lived discernment of the People of God in an unbroken relay over centuries. And it is perhaps captured best in that beautiful phrase from St. Luke, "Mary pondered all these things in her heart".
So I feel that every Mass, just as much as the deliberations of theologians and pontifical councils, is a scene of the organic and mysterious unfolding and handing on of Tradition over the centuries.
I hope it doesn't seem like I'm bashing Protestants, or any non-Catholic Christians, with this post. It just seems fascinating to me that theology, far from being an abstruse and irrelevant subject, can have such a huge influence on our daily lives and decisions.