Why Were They Wowed?

There was recently a special jubilee mass for the local diocesan religious order at our Cathedral in St. Augustine. I was unable to attend because of travel, but everyone was eager to tell me about it on my return. And their praise for the mass, for the music, for the preaching – for every aspect of the service was unrestrained and uniform. This was surprising because this praise came from all over the “liturgical spectrum.” It didn’t seem to matter whether they were Traditional Latin Mass diehards or somewhat warm and fuzzy 80s music fans. All reports were glowing. When I saw the program, I was even more surprised. The music was the usual “greatest hits” with an up-tempo, slightly jazzy mass setting and ballad-like hymns. It was definitely nothing special. The celebrant and the homilist were local – nice enough, but not distinguished.

So why were they all so excited?

After thinking long and hard, I decided there were two factors at play here. The first, and most important, is that everyone was there because it was a specific celebration. They shared a common purpose in their attendance, in their intention, in their focus. Another way of putting this would be to say that they were all looking in the same direction. The second factor served to amplify the first. The cathedral was packed. It was filled with people who were all there with a common purpose.

And therein lay the secret to the happiness: a common purpose and a critical mass (no pun intended).

Compare this to the average Sunday Mass in the parish. Even if the church is full, is the common purpose there? Despite over 40 years of exhortations to be joyful participants, recent surveys disclosed a wide range of reasons for those bodies in the pews. From “it’s just what we do” to “recharging my batteries,” it’s a mixed bag that’s very personal and subjective. But we can’t have a special event every week. And no, you can’t build unity of intention with “faux community” gestures such as warming up the crowd with a call and response opening or demanding that everyone introduce themselves to their near neighbors in the pews or raise their hands if they’re visiting from out of town.

Instead it’s about real liturgical catechesis – teaching about worship, transcendence, immanence, thanksgiving, and the power of salvation history. And it’s about a celebration of the Mass that by language, gesture and music reflects the depth of those mysteries. If we were all on board, all agreed that there was nothing to equal God’s remarkable redemption and the amazing gift of the Eucharist – every Mass would dazzle us.

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About Mary Jane Ballou

Mary Jane Ballou’s life in sacred music began in a children’s choir at the age of three. Instrumental music waited until her piano lessons started in primary school. And her music life remains a joyous pairing of sacred vocal music and the instrumental repertoire of Spain, Ireland, and Scotland.

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