I came across the following blog over the festive season (warning: it is full of obscenity and one casual blasphemy) which is written by some guy in New York City, and deals with the difficulties and embarrassments of going to Mass at Christmas, from the point of view of a person who only goes to Mass twice a year, at Christmas and Easter.
People who only very rarely go to Mass must find their annual or biennial trip to Church alienating and confusing: as the blogger makes clear, they do not know when to stand, sit or kneel, and they do not know how to join in the prayers. Believe it or not, the clergy have noticed this, and we really do need to get a grip on this problem.
Evangelicals, of whom I know a few, are charged with the task of getting people to come to faith in the Lord and to read the Bible and to take part in worship. Catholics are charged with trying to do all these things as well, but above all get people to frequent the sacraments, which means, above all, going to Mass. But the problem remains: the people we might most want to come to Church – the lapsed, the semi-practising, or those who are hitherto unchurched, the sort of people who may well turn up at Christmas but not during the year – are the very people who may find the Mass both intimidating and hard to comprehend.
So, what should one do? I think a certain amount of direction from the priest may well be the answer when he senses that he has a congregation unfamiliar with the liturgy. (This happens at funerals, too.) It might be a good thing for the priest to tell people to stand, sit and kneel as appropriate, and also to give guidance about how to come up to Communion. It might also be a good idea to announce the hymns.
But I think the idea of having lengthy instructions from a layperson giving a running commentary on the Mass is to be avoided. There are two reasons for this: the first is that it lengthens proceedings, sometimes interminably; and the second is that the liturgy has to be allowed to speak for itself. People need to see the liturgy and hear it directly, not through the medium of a commentary, which may well merely create another layer of mental fog.
As for not knowing the prayers (and this is something that has come to the fore with the new translation) it may be best to have pew cards with the Order of Mass on them, and make sure that regular members of the congretation ensure that visitors get hold of a copy.
Finally, the most important thing is to have a sermon that hits the spot: something accessible, pitched correctly at this particular sort of congregation, which is so different to the usual Sunday congregation. This means, essentially, a sermon aimed at the semi-believer, or even the unbeliever. The sermon should assume the curiosity and goodwill of the congregation, and a familiarity with the Christmas story, but not much more. Luckily the feast of Christmas provides us with a great deal of good material.
One last thing: it is always good for the priest to welcome people into the Church and assure them of his pleasure at seeing them, even if they only come once a year. As Saint Francis de Sales so rightly teaches, one catches more souls with a single drop of honey that with a whole barrel of vinegar. It is also worth noting that a Christmas congregation will contains many non-Catholics, and even non-Christians, as this is the one time a year when non-Catholic spouses accompany their Catholic families to Church.
One comforting thought on which to end – at least everyone, whatever their religious practice, still knows all the Carols. That is one area where faith and culture have not parted company yet.