How My Grandparents Helped Me Appreciate Mass Again
Christmas Eve Mass hadn’t even begun, and I was already getting annoyed.
It was because of the choir, which was treating the congregation to some Christmas carols before the actual Mass started. It was a way of punishing the people who arrived early, is what it was. I don’t have a sufficient grasp of musical terminology to describe how truly terrible the choir was, but there was a point where the choir director was wailing the second verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” while the rest of the choir was singing the first verse — and nobody corrected. “That’s offensive,” my brother whispered to me. “Not bad — offensive.” He knows how to read sheet music, so I believe him.
It’d been a while since I’d been to Mass, but it was Christmas, and I was due. It’s still a family tradition to go on Christmas Eve, and while I could pretend that I only go to make my Mom happy, the truth is the holiday would feel a little bit empty if I didn’t go to Mass.
Not that Mass is all that satisfying. Besides the choir’s shortcomings, I found that a lot of little things were bothering me. Like the incense — I always feel like the priest comes off a little too self-important during that ritual. Or the cultural obliviousness— I’ll never understand why a parish would choose to incorporate German or Latin verses in a community where most people’s first language is Spanish or Vietnamese. Or the insistence on referring to God, who is genderless, as a man. I didn’t write my undergraduate thesis on gender dynamics in the Church for nothing.
What really got me, though, was the homily (i.e. the sermon). It felt so disconnected from the world I live in. That world is currently one in which I attend law school, and am learning to think super practically, and feel hyper-aware of the world’s many problems. And I kept looking to the faces around me, including those in my own family, and wondered why the priest had chosen to keep things so abstract. Why the priest would choose to make a bland Jesus-as-firefighter reference, in that just as the firefighter saves people from a burning building, so does Jesus save. Why the priest did not instead, in his capacity as the spiritual leader of this community, address some contemporary issue — like poverty, violence, or discrimination — that actually affects these people’s daily lives, instead of using a tired metaphor to say that Jesus saves. Maybe the Church should stop focusing so much on the fact that Jesus saves, and instead focus on showing that it understands what people need saving from.
At this point of my internal monologue, I reined in my liberal-arts sensibilities a bit, and remembered that just because something doesn’t change the world doesn’t mean it’s bad. For many Catholics, Mass is good enough as is. That is to say, Mass and Catholicism in general don’t need to be revolutionary or progressive or, honestly, even all that relevant in order to be someone’s life force. It just needs to work for them. After all, most Catholics are just ordinary people trying to navigate life, and religion — its imperfections notwithstanding — is what helps them do just that.
Then, as if on cue, I heard the priest say my grandparents’ names.
Grandma and Grandpa were with us at Mass, which was great because they don’t get around as much as they used to. Life has gotten harder as they’ve gotten older, and it’s been tough on them — to walk with a walker, to not be able to garden or cook, to deal with the unpleasant side-effects of medication after medication. I’ve thought of them a lot in the past couple of months, as I was manhandled by final exams, partly because I have a reminder that pops up on my phone every other week that tells me to call them. The past few times it’s popped up, I’ve felt so busy and overwhelmed that I would just dismiss the reminder and feel guilty about it, a sequence which is super cliché among twentysomething grandchildren.
The priest had said my grandparents’ names during the intercessions, which is when he’ll lift something up in prayer, and the congregation will respond by saying “Lord, hear our prayer.” It’s a very simple prayer, but when the priest said my grandparents’ names, and the congregation responded in unison, I realized that this is why people go to Mass. This is what it meant for a community to lift each other up. This is why people deal with or don’t care about the horrible choir or the slow-to-change Church or the incense. Being a Catholic means your community is praying for you. It means people you don’t even know, and maybe people you don’t care to know, have your back and are saying “Lord, hear our prayer,” after the priest prays for your health and well-being. My grandparents have been members of that parish for 40 years, and I imagine hearing all those voices in a place that is so much a part of them meant the world.
I didn’t enjoy Christmas Eve Mass, but for the first time in a long time, I appreciated it. One thing I found ironic: During his homily, the priest said that at Christmastime, family and friends are “nice and all,” but they really mean nothing if we don’t also acknowledge that “we’ve been saved” by God.
Later on, that same priest’s prayer for my grandparents reminded me that if God’s saving anybody, she’s probably using family and friends to make it happen.