Sunday, June 05, 2016

Full, conscious, and active participation

Dome of St. Thomas of Villanova in Castel
Gandolfo.  Designed by Bernini in 1658.
I went to the 8:30 am Sunday Mass at the church a 100 feet from my front door.  The Church of Saint Thomas of Villanova is like a jewel set in the crown of the crater, you can spot the dome from just about anywhere (useful when navigating home!).  The church was designed by Gian Bernini, who also designed the altar of the cathedra in St. Peter's Basilica, at the request of Pope Alexander VII in 1658.  It's small — there were perhaps 80 people at Mass today and every pew was full — but airy and full of light with its high dome and clerestory windows which at this time of year, at least, perfectly catch the morning sun.

I've been managing Mass in Italian reasonably well, thanks to my Order of Mass in Nine Languages (shout out to Liturgical Press for this resource).  I had left this helpful book behind in my apartment this morning, but figured (correctly) there would be a hymnal with the Order of Mass in it.

One of the lectors went around before Mass began and handed out hymnals with the Order right up front to each of us.  Hurrah.  Ten seconds before Mass began (literally), a sister slipped into the pew next to me, reached over and took my hymnal.  From right in front of me.  She then stashed it on the shelf in front of her. Noooooo.  I need that.  I turn around to check the back table.  Nope, no helpful stack for latecomers.  No easy way to let sister know that I don't know the responses well enough to make them in Italian without that book she is not using.  Short of reaching over and grabbing it back. Which I just can't bring myself to do.

So much for full, conscious and active participation, I thought. Thankfully the Kyrie comes early in the process and (mostly) put an end to my petulance.

The homily was wonderful.  I'm certain of this because the presider was one of the Jesuit astronomers and I have heard him preach at daily Mass at the Specola (in English); he breaks open the Word with evident joy and a delightful thoughtfulness.  That and I managed to catch about 1 sentence in three.

It left me thinking, though, about how we experience liturgy.  Are we aware of how little we grasp, even when we know the responses, where the language is familiar?  Annie Dillard's riff on this in her essay An Expedition to the Poles came floating back:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”


  1. Beautiful post...

  2. "Are we aware..." Powerful question to ask ourselves as we complacently listen to the words of the liturgy and forget the power of Christ to transform our lives and thus our world. Thank you for this post Michelle.

  3. Well, if I had to bump into a few folks, what more spectacular surroundings than those that you are describing? How perfect. I am still finding myself bereft most mornings without PFOs, so a blog encouraging me to gaze upwards is wonderful.

    1. Kate - I am still bereft with PFO, too!