I was out of town a few weekends ago at one of those youth sports extravaganzas, in Reno, Nevada. Between games, my son and I found a Catholic Church and went to Mass.
Now, I like to go to parishes that I’ve never visited, or even heard of, because it gives me a sense of the universality of our Church, and the different ways that parishes make the Sunday experience special. Or not.
Well, at this particular Mass, the choir began singing and my heart sank. It seemed that many of the choir members didn’t really know the song. They were not in sync with one another, and sang with little passion. Unsurprisingly, no one in the church seemed to know the song – I certainly didn’t – so few people were singing with the choir. I thought to myself, why can’t we Catholics do a better job at music? This is such a sad way to begin the Mass.
And then, about a half hour later, something happened that surprised me. During the singing of the “Holy, Holy, Holy” the choir suddenly improved. A few minutes later, when singing “The Lamb of God,” they were even better. And then it dawned on me that they were quite good at singing the parts of the Mass that they knew well. And it made such a difference in the overall tone in the church. When it came time for the end of Mass, because it was Memorial Day, the choir sent people out of the church to the tune of O Beautiful. They sang with great passion, as did most of the parishioners.
The lessons in all this became immediately clear. First, Mass deserves excellence. When we settle for something less, it feels incongruous, and it hurts. Jesus is present in the Eucharist, and so we should be honoring that miracle in the most excellent way possible. Whether we do something grand or something simple seems less important than doing it really well. In those situations when we choose to do something grand, we need to do it with excellence. That requires a lot of practice and effort. If we can’t find the time to practice or make that effort, then let’s do what we’re comfortable with, and do it with passion.
I think the same can be said for homilies. When I go to daily Mass, I’m always amazed at the clarity of the homilies I hear. They are usually delivered with passion and simplicity, and in a way that allows me to remember the main point. Contrast that with weekend Masses, when so many wonderful priests feel compelled to speak longer. Often, those homilies tend to drift from one topic to another, and I’m left at the end struggling to remember what the key message was. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a longer homily, as long as the message is clear and the people sitting in the pews are following along.
Now, I’m sure that when a music director decides on music or a pastor thinks about his homily, they feel a sense of pressure to do something new and maybe even a little sophisticated. I understand that. But it’s probably worth considering that the person sitting in the pew prefers, and is inspired by, passion and simple beauty. After all, the Eucharist is the Eucharist. Perhaps our first priority as parishes should be to make the Mass as beautiful as possible without distracting people from the heart of it all.