Putting Sunday Mass First

Just a week after the awful earthquake in Haiti last January, I was able to visit that suffering island. I was especially eager to meet our 300 Catholic Relief Services staff members who continue the 60-year presence of CRS in that impoverished country. As you can imagine, they were exhausted, emotionally drained, mourning the huge losses and on the brink of discouragement. My visit with them was moving.

As I got ready to leave them that Saturday afternoon, I asked if there were anything else I could do for them. A young woman raised her hand. I expected her to ask for more medicine, tents, drinking water, food and workers. Perhaps, I thought, she would beg me to "get the message out" here at home about the agony of Haiti.

Instead, all she asked was, "Can a priest say Mass for us tomorrow, on Sunday?"

Can you imagine? What a tremendous inspiration she was! In the midst of all the horror, from out of her exhaustion and helplessness, she simply wanted Sunday Mass!

Think about it: she realistically knew that, without the grace of the Eucharist, without God’s help, she would be useless. All over Port-au-Prince she was seeing the dying of Jesus on the cross. She knew she needed the Mass—the renewal of the dying and rising of Jesus—more than ever!

By now you know I’m "hung up" on Sunday Mass. To be sure, we’ve got problems galore in the Church. You don’t need me to enumerate them—just turn on TV or buy a newspaper.

We won’t be able to do anything about them if we do not put first things first. "Seek first the Kingdom of God…" as Jesus exhorted us.

That means, on the first day of the week, the day of His Resurrection, we long for the same grace that tearful CRS worker in Haiti desired: Sunday Mass.

Those many of you who are faithful to Sunday, and even weekday Mass know that during this glorious Easter season we often have our readings from episodes in the Gospel when Jesus, just risen from the dead, visits with His disciples, and also from the Acts of the Apostles recounting the earliest days of the Church.

Notice (like last Sunday’s Gospel) that Jesus very often appears to His friends at a meal. He eats with them! He breaks bread with them!

Guess what? That’s the Eucharist! Jesus was doing again what He had done on the night before He died, Holy Thursday, at His Last Supper.

Recall that, in the early Church, what distinguished the first followers of Jesus was that they faithfully came together every Sunday to pray, hear His word and "break bread."

There it is again! Sunday Mass!

People ask me all the time, "What’s the major problem in the Church today?"

They’re hoping for a juicy answer. They’re disappointed when I reply, "Two-thirds of our Catholic people no longer attend Mass every Sunday."

Not long ago, the board of trustees of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., of which I am a member, heard a young priest from China share his appreciation for the chance to have studied at the university. He had finished his doctorate and was eager to get back home to China.

Mind you, things for the Church in China are far from rosy. "Where will you live?" we asked the young priest.

"I don’t know," he replied.

"Does your bishop have an assignment for you?" we inquired.

"My bishop is in jail," he somberly responded.

"So what will you do?" we wondered aloud.

"I will offer Mass," the young Chinese priest smilingly replied. "I will visit villages and celebrate Mass in barns, around kitchen tables, in garages, in fields and the people will come. They will risk harassment and arrest, but they will come. They will come to Mass because they realize it makes them Catholic, it sustains and strengthens them. They will come to Mass…"

And we don’t…

See you at Mass!