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The Mass: Preparing to receive the gifts God offers us

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The Eucharist is ‘the source and summit’ of the Christian life” (1324). It also states that “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life” (2177).

So how can we experience the fullness of the spiritual riches available to us by preparing to actively participate in the Mass and keeping holy the Lord’s Day?

The Catholic Voice recently spoke with Father Damien Cook, pastor of St. Philip Neri-Blessed Sacrament Parish in Omaha, who shared his reflections on the Sabbath and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

In this first segment of a series, Father Cook talks about how to prepare ourselves to fully engage in the liturgy and deepen our experience of the Mass.

 

Q. What should people do to prepare themselves for the Mass in order to receive the spiritual riches the Mass offers?

To familiarize yourself with the readings of the Mass beforehand is always important. And in a particular way, for Sunday Mass, there’s always a hidden link. There’s always a reason why the First Reading, the Gospel and the Psalm are the ones that appear. The First Reading and the Psalm have some connection to the Gospel. It’s not just a random selection. There’s long-term thought into what goes into the readings for a particular day and how they relate.

It can be a good exercise, or even a game that could be done with families, to look ahead at the readings, not only pray with them to receive what applies to my life, what God might be speaking to me, but also, to try to see what God wants to offer me in terms of advice or counsel. What’s the connection between the First Reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel? It gets a person engaged with the Mass in a full, active and conscious participation, so you’re ready to receive all of it.

 

Q. What else can people do to prepare themselves?

In the early part of the Mass, the introductory rites of the Mass have two basic components. One is the Penitential Rite, where we think of our sins and acknowledge before God and before everybody around us that we are sinners in need of rescue, in need of Jesus. So really the intention is to be thinking, what are my sins? Why do I need to be here? What is Jesus going to do for me?

The second is when the priest says what’s called the Collect. When he does that opening prayer, the priest will always say, “Let us pray.” And it says in the Missal to pause in silence, so there’s actually a time of quiet to reflect; What are you praying for? For whom are you praying?

Every Mass is an opportunity to pray for somebody. So, when the priest says, “Let us pray,” whether it’s for the world or local needs, or just very individual and personalized (needs), what do I want God, as my shepherd, as my father, as my friend, as my rescuer, to do for me? It’s a chance to pray for a deceased loved one, for some care in the family, but to have an intentionality. So “Let us pray.” For what am I, and for whom am I praying?

(It’s helpful) if people know those two different times where they’re really being engaged so they can consider those two basic questions beforehand. So, when they arrive early, which is something I think is always preferable, you can be in quiet for a little bit to just calm yourself, to sit in peace, but be thinking ahead of what’s going to be asked of you. If we keep those in mind before we even come, it can really set a whole different meaning to the Mass for us.

 

Q. Another form of preparation has always been to fast before receiving the Eucharist, and years ago, that meant fasting from midnight on. Now of course, it’s simply an hour, which is very easy to do. Can you talk about why that’s still an important part of preparing for Mass?

The Lord’s Day, the Sabbath day, is the whole day, but the Mass is that special moment of coming to praise him and receive him. And so, to give up food, even for an hour beforehand, is to make people aware in multiple ways. One, it shows, in a very practical way, that it’s time to get ready. We’re getting ready to go to the Lord. Secondly, I think it was always done in a sense of trying to inspire respect for the Lord and to foster a real physical hunger for him. It’s tying soul and body together, to nurture and create a need for the Lord. There’s a hunger for the Lord. There’s an urgency to come to the Lord.

And now, with just one hour, I don’t think it creates that sense as much, because most people can live without food for an hour. But I think it still is also respect for when I receive Communion, the Lord’s going to come fully into me and I want to create a space, just like I make a throne with my hands to receive him, I also want my interior, not just my soul, but even physically, I want to make up a special throne room for him.

 

Q. So, potentially experiencing physical hunger can connect us to the spiritual realm, recognizing our spiritual needs through physical realities.

I do think that’s the intention. In the old days, on Wednesdays and Fridays, people would also fast. Now we’re not required to fast, although we abstain from meat still on Fridays, but just as a way of attuning the soul and the body to be of one accord, which is that I have a greater need than just the physical needs of this world. But the physical needs are showing me the way to the spiritual needs that I’m aching, I’m hungry for.

 

Q. How do priests prepare to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Certainly, they have to write homilies and must reflect on the readings in order to do that. What else do you, as a priest, do to prepare?

If you look at the Roman Missal and what we’re invited to do, there should be a period of quiet in the sacristy. Oftentimes that’s not the case, but it really should be fostered so that the priests and the other ministers can have a spirit of quiet and prayer and reflection.

To help the priest, there also are special prayers that we pray when we vest, specific prayers that remind us of the spiritual significance, again, external, internal, physical to the spiritual. So, even how you get dressed is meant to be reminding you, as a priest, who you are, but also the significance of all the different virtues you’re praying for, to be holy for the Lord. And there also are, in the Roman Missal, specific prayers for before Mass and after Mass.

In creating a homily, we obviously look at the readings beforehand and pray with the readings, because you want to hear the will of God. So, there is real, intimate prayer. With the Sunday readings, I start looking at those the Tuesday after the Sunday, for the next Sunday. So, every day, praying with those to see what percolates.

Sometimes I get nothing till the last minute. Sometimes I get an idea early on or an inspiration that totally changes by Sunday. Or sometimes it just keeps growing. But, every day of that week, I’m looking at those readings and praying with them to continue to receive, which might lead me to research a little bit, because there’s an idea or something that comes up suddenly, because I’m attuned to the reason, that, “Oh my goodness, that really connects.”

But what you’re always trying to figure out is, Lord, what do you want to say to your people? That’s why I give that same advice to the people. Praying with the readings before any Mass is always going to enhance the experience.