The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Priest’s Prayer Before Communion

Do you ever put your preparation for something off until the last minute?  I’ve definitely been one of those people at times.  Sometimes I’m very good about preparing for something, like buying a greeting card for someone weeks before the card is given to them.  But other times, I find myself picking the greeting card up on the way to the destination, and hastily signing it in my car before going in to deliver the card!  (To my loving parents who are no doubt reading this, I would never do that for you…)  So yes, there’s some last minute preparation involved, but it’s good to know that every other priest in the world who celebrates Mass is like me in some way!

The prayers for this week are the “last minute preparations” that the priest prays before communion.  Sometimes we think of these last minute things as being bad, but in this case, the content of the prayers is wonderful!

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,

who by the will of the Father

and the work of the Holy Spirit,

through your Death gave life to the world,

free me by this, your most Holy Body and Blood,

from all my sins and from every evil;

keep me always faithful to your commandments,

and never let me be parted from you.

May the receiving of your Body and Blood,

Lord Jesus Christ,

not bring me to judgment and condemnation,

but through your loving mercy

be for me protection in mind and body

and a healing remedy.

The first version of the prayer especially focuses on true freedom – the freedom from sin, the freedom to be able to do what we ought, and the freedom to be able to love.  When we’re really free, the commandments and rules no longer seem to shackle us, but become a joy.  Parts of this prayer even remind me of the words of Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

It’s real freedom that allows us to receive Holy Communion worthily, in a state of grace.  Sometimes people are turned off by this teaching, or think that it excludes people.  But really, it’s a teaching that’s sole purpose is to help people reach greater unity!  The Eucharist calls us to communion, and that communion comes when we are free to enter into that relationship with God.  But if we’re living our lives contrary to that relationship in a grave or serious way, we’re not really open to communion, and if you think about it, represent quite the opposite.

It’s important to seek out that freedom that these prayers call to our attention, most especially through the Sacrament of Confession (or Penance, or Reconciliation – whatever the kids are calling it these days!), which at All Saints is on Tuesday and Saturday evenings.  When we humble ourselves, and try to reorder our lives to the love of God and his commandments, we allow ourselves to enter into that communion with God, and we pray for the grace never to be parted from him!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Commixtio

If you look around All Saints on an average Sunday, you might be surprised by the variety of people that you’ll find.  We’ve got older and younger folks, several different ethnicities, lots of different backgrounds, and, yes, even a few Cubs fans.  And just think, that’s just one church in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which is just one diocese in the United States, which is just one country in the universal Church!  Being so different and so diverse, it’s amazing at times that the Church survives!

The Catechism reminds us that the Church is the “sacrament of unity, namely, the holy people united and organized under the authority of the bishops.  Therefore, Therefore, liturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the Church. They manifest it, and have effects upon it.” (1140)  Basically, when we celebrate Mass, the Eucharist is both the sign and the cause of our unity as a Church.

Today’s “secret prayer” doesn’t teach us about this as much as the action that accompanies it does.  While the community prays the Agnus Dei or “Lamb of God”, the priest breaks off a small portion of the host and drops it in the chalice, saying, “May this mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.”

Originally, this action derives from the practice of the commixtio in the earliest days of the Church in Rome.  On Sundays, the Pope would celebrate the central Mass in Rome, and then send small particles of the Eucharist to the priests at the other churches in Rome.  As you can imagine, there were a lot fewer of them at that time.  Then, at the Sunday Mass of those parishes, the particle (called the fermentum) was brought forward and mixed with the Eucharist consecrated at that Mass.  It was a sign of the unity of that parish with the larger Church.

When we perform this action today, the particle is obviously not airmailed to All Saints, but the practice that remains reminds us of the unity that we have with the larger Church, brought about by the Eucharist.  Sometimes we celebrate the fact that we can pull of that unity so much so that it’s easy for us to forget what it is that unites us – ultimately, the love of God, given to us in the most perfect way in the Eucharist.  Through it, we’re united in faith, united in what we believe about the Eucharist, united in the fact that we are branches of the one vine of Christ, and united in our complete dependence on him for eternal life, as the prayer says.

So when you look around next time at Church, try not to look sideways at your fellow parishioners wondering which of them are secret Cubs fans, but take the opportunity to thank the Lord for the unity he gives us in the Eucharist, and pray for a greater unity in the Church!

Homily From the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

I’m a bit of a coffee fan, although I don’t drink a ton of it, and I’ve noticed lately a bit of a trend toward two methods of coffee making.  And what’s interesting is that they’re seemingly completely opposite philosophies in making coffee!  On the one hand, you have these Keurig machines.  They have prefabricated containers of a variety of flavors of coffee, from decaffeinated Colombian, to Donut Shop blend, to vanilla and hazelnut and on and on.  You just pop one of these cartridges in, select how much you want, and then it starts shooting out coffee!  It’s really kind of incredible.  And when you make those, you don’t care how it does it, or what’s in it, but you get to pick what you want, and you get results right away!  On the other hand, however, you have the French press.  This is supposedly more refined, but it’s a more difficult process.  It takes time to prepare the grounds – not too fine, and not too coarse – and then you stir in the grounds to some hot water in the press.  But unlike the Keurig, you have to wait, and compared to the instantaneous coffee, four minutes of letting it brew can seem like an eternity.  But those four minutes of waiting, and seemingly doing nothing, are the most important steps in preparing the coffee.  Now, I’m not bashing the Keurig, because they’re a fantastic invention, but given infinite time, most real coffee connoisseurs would probably prefer the French press.

So what does this have to do with anything religious?  Well, it’s Ordinary Time.  And there’s a tendency to see this as a boring time of year, or a time of nothing particularly special.  It’s just…ordinary.  It seems like we’re not doing anything: there’s nothing sparkly or shiny like our Christmas or Easter decorations, there’s no special music like what we just got finished singing, and even the readings for Mass focus on Jesus’ parables and teachings instead of the iconic stories like we hear during the other liturgical seasons.  The tendency can be to see this as a time when nothing is happening.  We want excitement, or at least visible instant results, like the Keurig machine – we get what we want on our measurements and our conditions.  But I think the lesson we’re encouraged to learn is that God doesn’t work that way.  Sure, he needs us to prepare, but then we have to wait while he does the important stuff.  Even though this “ordinary” time seems just so…ordinary, it’s a time for extraordinary grace, with God working in the background amidst the unseen.

Today’s parable is about a farmer who is scattering the seed across his fields.  This farmer doesn’t see how it grows or why, he doesn’t get to pick the quality or the quantity of the yield, but he simply experiences the end result.  When does all the action happen?  It all happens while he’s sleeping, in the unknown, in the unseen, deep within the earth.  And where does the power of growth come from?  Well, the farmer prepares the land and scatters the seed.  He can water, he can put fertilizer out, he can do as much as he wants to prepare, but ultimately, the power of growth of the seed isn’t from the farmer, but from the Creator.  Man does his part, but God is the one who does all the important work.

It’s easy for us to find ourselves in a boring time in our lives, an ordinary time, and wonder why it doesn’t seem like anything special is happening.  And I’m not just talking about the Church’s Ordinary Time, but just a general state in our faith.  Sometimes we’re looking for that feedback, like some feeling during Mass brought about by the music or imagery or the readings.  Sometimes we’re looking for an incredible feeling in our prayer.  When those times come along, they’re incredible, but most of the time, we don’t get those experiences, and so we feel like we’re not getting the results we wanted out of Mass or prayer, and the temptation then, is to see it as a waste of time and stop altogether.

But it’s important to know that our life of union with God doesn’t depend on what we feel.  It doesn’t depend on us at all!  Like the growth that the farmer sees in his field, or like the coffee that steeps in the French press, our spiritual growth doesn’t depend on us, but on something greater – it depends on God himself.  Sure, we need to put in our work – making sure we’re going to Mass consistently, making an effort to pray daily, doing acts of charity for others, inviting Father Grosch over for dinner at your house…  We put ourselves in positions for God tow work in us, but we know we can’t achieve Christian success based solely on our own efforts.  And really, if you think about it, that’s great, because we don’t have to!  God is constantly at work in us.

Even during those times of dryness when we feel like nothing’s going on, all we’re asked to do is to bring our ordinary self.  God doesn’t need us to be perfect to come here, and he doesn’t need ideal conditions in which to work.  All he asks is that we keep offering that ordinary self as a sacrifice, and God will take care of the extraordinary change – not just for us, but for the things we do as well.  So when we go out to the world – at work, school, the grocery store, the highways – we know that there’s a bigger force at work behind us than just ourselves and our feelings and emotion.  We might even lose the battles, or for you parents, you might think that nothing sticks with your kids, but God is the one making the change, the deep roots, even if they remain unseen until much later.  That’s the power of the Holy Spirit, and that’s the power that we as Christians can take confidence in.

That’s what it means to be a mature Christian.  We do what we can, we provide the coffee grounds, we prepare as best we can.  And we may not see the results instantly, but we confidently allow God to do what work he sees fit to do within us and in others.  As we now approach the altar to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood, let us open ourselves to His grace, and allow him transform the ordinary that we present into what is truly extraordinary.

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Elevations

The next “Secret Prayer” of the Mass is actually not a pre-scripted part of the Mass at all.  It’s actually a devotional prayer, meaning that this particular prayer is not required at all, and you won’t find it written down in any official documents, but it has been practiced for many years, and might be helpful for one’s own participation at Mass.

I want to focus in on the most important part of the Eucharistic prayer, which is obviously (if you’ve been following along on this little trek) the Institution Narrative, when we recount how Jesus took the bread and wine and offered them as his own Body and Blood.  At the elevations of these precious gifts, there’s a little pause, when you might be tempted to think back to what your shopping list looks like or to what snow cone stand you’re planning to take Fr. Grosch.  But in the long history of the Church, there have been a few people who have felt that same temptation, and wanted to focus, so they said these little devotional prayers.

The one to which I was introduced as a seminarian is, at the elevations, the simple prayer, “My Lord and my God!”  This is such a simple, yet profound prayer that speaks volumes.  You probably recognize it from the post-resurrection story of St. Thomas the Apostle’s encounter with Jesus.  This was a man who’s faith was struggling, and who maybe struggled to believe what his friends were telling him – that Jesus was alive.  But then he was presented face-to-face with the truth of Jesus’ presence with him, and he recognized Jesus and spoke those beautiful words, “My Lord and my God!”

Many times, you and I might find ourselves just going through the motions at Mass.  It happens to everyone, even priests!  Maybe we lose focus, or maybe we struggle to believe what it is that the Church is trying to share with us: that the bread and wine are transformed into Jesus’ Body and Blood.  Maybe you’re at a point in your life where God feels so far away.

But whatever we’re feeling or thinking, the elevations of the Eucharist are invitations to refocus.  Especially when joined with this short prayer, they are invitations to place ourselves in the shoes of St. Thomas, or the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or the apostles hidden in the upper room out of fear.  Like all of those figures, we are present in God’s midst, encountering him in a physical way in the Eucharist.

Even if you’re not quite at that point yet, praying this little prayer or a similar one can help to refocus and remind yourself of what’s going on.  I hope that helps!

Homily From Corpus Christi

Like many of you here, I’ve been going to Mass since I was a baby, but I wonder how strange it would be to have no familiarity with the Catholic Church whatsoever, and just walk in.  Imagine that for a second.  You’d probably have no idea what’s going on!  People are standing up and down and genuflecting and kneeling like they just can’t get comfortable in these soft wooden pews.  Music is being played, with the greatest hits from the 1700’s all the way to the 1970’s and up to today.  Some guy is in the front wearing what looks to be a large, ornate poncho.  Sometimes words and phrases are spoken from a language that’s been dead for a out 1000 years.  (Watch what you say, though, because every time somebody says, “Latin’s a dead language,” a seminarian or young priest falls over dead somewhere.)  And you’re in a building that’s aesthetically pleasing and beautiful, but who the heck are all these statues of?  Are they the ones who donated the money to build this thing?

When you think about what we’re doing here in that way, it’s pretty out of the ordinary, right?  But really, that’s exactly the point!  It is different from everything else we do.  The music isn’t something we hear on the radio; it’s sacred music.  The chalices on the altar aren’t cups; they’re sacred vessels.  The clothes that I’m wearing aren’t just to keep me warm on those chilly 96-degree St. Louis afternoons; they’re sacred vestments.  And this church isn’t just filled with things that look nice on the walls; they’re sacred art.  You see, when we walk into the doors of this church, we’re leaving the ho-hum world of our daily lives and entering into a heavenly place, a place where, just for a few moments, the lines between heaven and earth become a little blurred.

Why do we need all this stuff?  Why do we surround ourselves with all these things?  Jesus even reminds us over and over again that “The Kingdom of God is within you.”  And the most important thing that God asks of us is a contrite heart, just like Psalm 51 tells us.  The essence of our faith is something interior.  It’s that interior gift of our hearts, the interior and sincere acceptance of Jesus as our Lord and Savior.  But…if that faith is really alive, it’s something external as well.  The internal acceptance of the truth revealed to us leads to a radically profound external effect.  So while we internally profess our faith, we express it externally.

Now think about how tough that is to do!  Think about all that God promises us, and all that is asked of us.  Yes, we’re told things like “I am with you always, even until the end of the age,” which are beautiful and comforting at times, but sometimes the truth is that we don’t feel like he’s with us.  How do we know?  Is it a little tingle in the stomach?  Is it a burning sensation in our gut?  What does it feel like that God is with us?  So much of our faith is about the internal, but we’re external people!  We like to see, and feel, and taste, and touch.  But of course, who knows that better than the one who created us in the first place?  And in some sense, that’s why we celebrate today.  We celebrate the fact that the Lord’s fidelity, his love, his grace, his promise, is given to us in the real and true presence of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Let me be clear about this: the Eucharist that we receive is truly the Body and Blood of Christ.  It’s not a symbol, it’s not a spiritual presence, and it’s not a pious platitude.  The Church has always believed and taught, even from the very beginning, that it is the flesh and blood of Christ.  But there’s a catch.  It’s kind of tricky because we can see and touch and taste it, we can sense the Eucharist externally, but it looks, feels, and tastes like bread.  We have our external senses, but we need our internal ones as well.  If the Eucharist were simply an external thing, there’d be no substance to what we do here.  It would be boring, like a scientific observation you write down on paper.  It would be like a husband buying his wife a beautiful diamond necklace, and then saying, “Here.”  See, we need to sense the Eucharist with the eyes of faith, with the hands of confidence, with the mouth of trust – not a trust of what our senses tell us, but of the presence of the Lord.

In that way, the Eucharist is the most perfect gift God could ever give us – a perfect mix of the internal and the external.  And when we receive this gift and comprehend it even in the most basic level, it transforms everything else that we do – we realize what all our externals have been trying to tell us all along – that we’re in the presence of the sacred.  The chalice is sacred because of what it holds.  The windows and artwork are sacred because of what they remind us of.  The actions of genuflecting, kneeling, even sitting are sacred because they aren’t done for each other, but for our King.  Even the picnic going on outside becomes more than some fundraiser or an opportunity to waste money (for you parents), but a celebration flowing from the fact that God keeps his promise to be with us always.  What we do here is not just a meal, not just a celebration, not just a community.  It is a physical and spiritual encounter with the only Son of God.

Brothers and sisters, today’s feast is a great opportunity to push ourselves to go deeper.  It’s an opportunity for us to ask ourselves why we’re here, what we come for, and to reflect on the answer that the Church gives us today – that we come to worship the Lord who makes his presence known to us in the most intimate and real of ways.  May we be able to respond to him in faith from our hearts, and to express that faith in our words and actions.

Homily From the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Seriously?!? C’mon LOST.

“It’s pretty much the same as everything else.”  That’s what a lot of people out there have to say about Christianity.  A lot of people out there will tell us that all religions are pretty much the same.  Now I’m a huge fan of the television series Lost, and I was pretty disappointed when that’s how they ended the show – that pretty much all religions just sort of get you to the same point.  It’s considered tolerant, or even open-minded to think this way.  But as most of us know, there’s something peculiar about Christianity.  I mean, how many religions do you know that include aerobics classes in the liturgy (kneel, sit, stand, genuflect, kneel, stand)?  Or how many religions out there do you find in which we consciously and intentionally spreads ashes all over our faces once a year?  Or how many other religions do you know that make such a huge deal of having huge gatherings where everyone gets together to feast on fried fish?  Or how many places do you find that give freebie, like it’s Palm Sunday at church and the first 250 fans 10 and older receive a free palm featuring your favorite passion narrative?  You see, there is something different about Christianity.  But it isn’t these things I listed here.

The prime example of how Christianity is different from all other religions is that great mystery that we celebrate today – the Most Holy Trinity.  Only Christianity grasps that concept of the inner nature of God.  It’s true that other religions come close in some areas.  The ancient pagans were reaching out for something special, something beyond themselves.  Judaism introduced us to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and taught us of the covenant that we have with him.  Islam acknowledges the fact that Jesus was a great teacher and prophet.  Even an atheist connects to God, whether they realize it or not, in doing good works for others and seeking to be good.  But the fact that God is three in one – three distinct divine persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but one divine nature (God) – that is one of most important things that makes our faith different.  This isn’t something that we’ve come up with on our own, and it’s certainly not something that we should lord over others, but its something that our almighty God has revealed about Himself to us out of love, something which the Church has slowly and painstakingly unfolded over about two thousand years!

So how do we describe it?  It’s really tough for us to think about the Trinity, isn’t it?  We tried for two thousand years to explain the trinity to people, and many times, they just look at us with a confused look, as if to think “What were they serving at that Donut Sunday of yours?”  St. Patrick ran into that, when he was trying to explain the Trinity to the people of Ireland, so what did he do?  He said that the Trinity is like a shamrock – three distinct leaves, but all one shamrock.  Another example that a friend of mine gave me was that the Trinity is like a washing machine – You have the agitator, the…well you get the point.  The truth is that we try so hard to picture in our minds how this great mystery is possible, and we constantly come up short.  But the best analogy, the best way that we can imagine what the Trinity is like, is the image of the family.  In a family, you have multiple, distinct people – a Mother, a Father, and little Susie, let’s say.  They are all three distinct people, but they are one family, a single unit.  And what is it that binds them together as a family?  Well of course, it is the bonds of love.  A deep, abiding, life-generating, and self-giving love.  It is the love between the members that make them inseparable, that bind them together and make them one.  In the same way, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, although they are three distinct persons, are bound together in love.  Because that’s what God is – love.

Rublev’s icon of the Most Holy Trinity

God is love.  That’s become such a common phrase these days.  In high school, we used to say that if you didn’t know the answer to a question on a theology exam, you could just say “God is love,” and you’d have about a 78% chance of getting the answer correct.  But it’s so true.  For some other religions in the world, they start with man’s quest for God – they have the idea that religion is man’s attempt to connect somehow with the divine.  But the thing that sets us Christians apart, is that our faith isn’t our quest for God, but rather God’s quest for us.  Every action of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is motivated by love.  God created the world – for us.  God rescued us from slavery in Egypt.  God sent the Son, the second person of the Trinity, for us, to redeem us and to give us eternal life.  And, as we remember last Sunday, God sent the Holy Spirit to us, to guide us and help us bring his love to others.  In all three persons of the Trinity, God shows us who he is, and what he’s about, but the most important thing that he reveals to us is love.  Not power, not justice, not transcendence, not perfect knowledge, but love.  And that is why today is important.

So when we hear today in the Gospel that we are to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” we’re being invited to share in God’s mission – the mission of the Father, the mission of the Son, and the mission of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus isn’t just telling us to bring people into this ritual or into some intellectual concept that we made up.  He’s not just telling us to put seats in the pews.  What he’s asking us is to bring people into a relationship with a God who’s very essence, very being, is a relationship.

And so as we reflect on the great mystery of the Trinity today, mindful of the ways that God has revealed himself to us in our relationship with him, I think the question we need to ask ourselves is “Can people tell that I’m in a relationship with God?  What is it that makes me different as a Christian?  How am I called to invite others into that relationship with God?”  Thankful for that gift of love that God gives us, let us go forth, bringing others to that relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and make the Trinity real for others.