“All right, I won’t like it, but I’ll do it for your sake.” Thus spoke Father Lou Vallone, Pittsburgh’s most provocative priest, now retired and residing in my parish, about our Easter Sunday evening Mass in 2019, before the pandemic. I’d scheduled it diffidently, because my parish usually has a Sunday evening Mass, though I was uncertain many would want to come to a late Mass on Easter.
Such Masses are not popular with us older priests, who tire more readily and who relish the precious evening without meetings or public duties. We might also miss the choir and the thicker crowds. But every parish ought to take on some burdens of regional service, and this parish, to which I’d just been assigned as pastor, was blessed with many priests to share the sacrifice. I committed to sustaining the 7:00 Sunday night Mass.
It’s not only priests who are tempted to scorn the “Mass of convenience” or the “utility Mass.” The Church of Pittsburgh and many of the older cities of the United States still remember the mid-twentieth century, when our parishes grew exponentially and our elementary schools taught two shifts daily to accommodate the overflowing classrooms.
We may romanticize that glorious past, and so look down on contemporary derogations. If you attend a Saturday evening “anticipated Mass,” you’re trying to get Jesus out of the way, so you can enjoy a Sunday of self-indulgence. If you go to the Sunday night Mass, you’re a slovenly Catholic just barely fulfilling your obligation.
The densely Catholic neighborhoods, sometimes called “Catholic ghettoes,” observed the third commandment strictly: To keep the Lord’s Day holy, shops were closed, mothers prepared big dinners for their families and neighbors, and everyone not wanting a ne’er-do-well reputation took care to be seen at Mass on Sunday morning, dressed in their finest.
We may romanticize that glorious past, and so look down on contemporary derogations. If you attend a Saturday evening “anticipated Mass,” you’re trying to get Jesus out of the way, so you can enjoy a Sunday of self-indulgence. If you show up on Sunday morning in your favorite football jersey, you love the Steelers more than God or neighbor. And if you go to the Sunday night Mass — well, you’re a slovenly Catholic just barely fulfilling your obligation to worship on the Day of the Lord, probably because you frittered away your Sunday and almost too late remembered your duty.
Of course, the attribution of impure motives is often unjust. There, for example, is the healthcare worker in disheveled scrubs, just freed from her weekend shifts and too weary for the chipper formality of Sunday morning, who needs a quieter and less conspicuous Mass before she gets her rest. There’s the father diligently making sure his teenage daughter gets to Mass, because she spent the morning and afternoon playing in a basketball tournament on behalf of her school.
There’s the young couple who take their kids to Mass in two waves, either because one is sick or just because all together are just too much trouble. And there’s the older couple who, afflicted with grave infirmity, might occasionally struggle to stabilize their health or bodies sufficiently to attend Mass. There’s the working couple who like to end the weekend with Mass, to prepare for the coming week.
“Still,” some will object, “wouldn’t it be better to set a higher standard? If we offer only Sunday morning Masses, then folks will be forced to choose: Make the Lord’s Day their priority and conform their personal schedules to the Mass, or fail to do so and be honest with themselves about it. And maybe those who clear the higher bar will set a better example, shine a brighter light for others to follow?”
But no, I don’t think that’s Jesus’ pastoral method. He liked to set high standards, to be sure — “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” — but he was willing to accept that sometimes the seed would not yield a hundredfold, but only sixty- or thirty-fold. Rather than having ninety-nine sheep march in lockstep procession toward green grass and fresh water, he would let them mill about in disarray while the shepherd goes in search of the lost hundredth.
Jesus liked to set high standards, to be sure — “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” — but he was willing to let the ninety-nine sheep mill about in disarray while the shepherd searches for the lost hundredth.
Consider the example of the graduate student, who sleeps every day from 3:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., and drags himself to the late Sunday Mass because he’s still prone to adolescent procrastination. He’s immature, it’s true. But as it happens, he’s not the only such, so over the weeks at the Sunday night Mass he meets other young adults in a similar situation.
One lives at home with her mother and only drags herself to Mass at the end of the day to abate her mother’s nagging. Another young man works long hours even on Sunday, because he’s trying to put money away for the future. Still another young woman came from an unchurched family, but now she’s religiously curious; she has no idea that Sunday night is not the norm.
At first they nod to each other coming in and out of Mass. Then they sit near each other and chat in the pews in a way that would have scandalized their neighbors at the Sunday midmorning Mass. Pretty soon there’s a group of them going out to dinner with each other after Mass. In a few years, some of them will move away, others will get jobs, still others will marry each other.
In each case, they’ll likely stop going to the Sunday night Mass, but while it lasted, that Mass was an important stage in their spiritual, social, and human maturation. Their mutual accompaniment, even in their less-than-ideal social and spiritual niche, was the occasion for mutual aid on the road to salvation.
As the Code of Canon Law famously concludes, the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church. We do not share in Christ’s mission by establishing a fixed lower bar for people to clear before they can be reckoned followers.
Instead, we look for the dynamic which ends in salvation: Is she learning about Jesus and his Church? Is he on the road to repentance and conversion? Are those neophytes maturing in their practice of the faith? Will this husband and wife be able to help each other toward Heaven, however immature their love now seems?
Thus when it comes to Mass: Not everyone needs to be in ties and Sunday hats at the midmorning Mass in order to worship the Lord. Those worshipers may indeed be the most heartwarming or inspiring, and maybe their apparent priorities suggest they also do more than most to help with the mission of Christ and his Church. But the road to salvation is a road, paved not only for the high-performance vehicles, but also for the struggling bicyclists and halfhearted hitchhikers.
It allows for any number of rest-stops and side-trips. Making space for the encumbered and uncertain can mean empowering them also to draw along more people we might not otherwise reach.
This is the second in Fr David’s series on what he calls “pastoral ecology.” The first was Please Don’t Say ‘All Masses Cancelled’: A Parish Priest on Life During the Pandemic.
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