Saturday, November 04, 2006

What? No Big Mass?

In photos released by the Vatican on November 2nd, Pope Benedict is seen in the Vatican grottoes, praying at the tombs of his predecessors St. Peter, Pius XII, Paul VI, and John Paul I. St. Peter's Basilica is open to the public from 7am to 6pm (really at about 5:30 the ushers start politely "encouraging" you to head towards the door), and the Holy Father's visit began at 6pm and was called a "private" visit in the Vatican's daily press bulletin. If you ever get to St. Peter's Basilica, do not forget to head downstairs to this level of the basilica (look for the signs that say "Le Grotte Vaticane - I Tombi dei Papi"). Remember, in the month of November it's a great thing to make a visit to a cemetery, not only the graves of those we knew while they were alive, but all the deceased.

When most parishes add an extra Mass for All-Souls Day, one could ask why didn't Pope Benedict didn't have a public Mass on November 2nd? All Souls Day technically ranks as a Feast, certainly not too shabby, but less than the day before, All Saints Day, which is a Solemnity and a Holy Day of Obligation. Many people, however, invert the order (not unlike the way Christmas Eve has totally eclipsed Christmas Day in the hearts of many of the laity). They miss the Holy Day of Obligation and go all-out for All Souls. The fact that the Pope does not have a "public" event on All Souls Day (unlike the day before) reinforces the fact that it's a day for private prayer and remembrance of the dead. Now don't get me wrong. I love a good shmaltzy, overly-pious Catholic devotion (and a visit to a cemetery on All Souls Day certainly has the potential for that) as much as the next Young Fogey. But our outward expressions of piety are always meant to be the result of our inner devotion, and not a substitute.

Pope John Paul hit this topic in his 2003 Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. In Chapter Four, he explains that we call the Eucharist "Holy Communion" for a good reason; that before we can participate in the visible dimension of receiving the Eucharist, there is a "presupposition" that the invisible dimension of communion already exists (paragraph 35). In other words, I don't receive the Eucharist with the hope that it'll make me believe in the Church's teachings; I first make the inward union with (in Latin, "cum union") Christ and His Church, and then I reinforce that with an outward expression of that unity (paragraphs 36 & 38). And if, upon reflection, I know that there are some sins that I have committed which constricted the flow of communion between myself and the Church, then in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Church has given me the means to "declog the arteries" and resume normal blood flow (paragraph 37). To receive Holy Communion without this inner "submission" to Jesus Christ and His Church vaguely resembles the couple living together without marriage: they enjoy the outward expressions of union without first making the inner commitment. But I digressed...

This morning, reinforcing our understanding that November is a whole month to remember the dead, Pope Benedict celebrated the annual Mass at St. Peter's Basilica to pray for the Cardinals and Bishops who have died in the previous year. A few years ago (2003) I was privileged to attend this Mass and help with the distribution of Holy Communion. A friend who is now a Priest of my diocese was a student at the North American College, told me "You've GOT to do this (assist at a Papal Mass) once in your life!", and got me the pass to help. Lots of things made it special: A front row seat just behind Bernini's baldachino and the main altar, a great view (and my last in-person sighting) of Pope John Paul II, and the Mass celebrated by Cardinal Ratzinger. But what made it extra-special was a fact that I totally forgot until I looked through the booklet they give you with the names of all the prelates who died during the past year: among them was the Bishop that ordained me to the Priesthood. I hope Bp. Breen was happy that two of the ten men he ordained were present at that Mass.

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