The Mass: Privilege or Sacrifice?

Just saw the following blog post and news story about a teenaged girl, one Margeaux Graham, who had to choose between attending a prestigious program called ‘Girl State’ sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary and fulfilling her Sunday obligation to attend Mass. In sum, the program takes place over a weekend and the only service available on Sunday is an interfaith worship program that ‘the girls collectively put… together to honor all faiths.’ The girl’s mother volunteered to come to Tallahassee (where the program is hosted) and drive her daughter to Mass; in fact, the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More is right across the street from the campus of Florida State University, where the event is held. This offer was rebuffed:  it’s an insurance liability to allow children to leave the program — even with their own parents, apparently. So a friend of Graham’s family, also involved in the American Legion Auxiliary, requested that the program allow a priest to come and celebrate the Mass (concurrent with the interfaith service) for Catholic Girl-State-attendees who wished to participate. That appeal was also denied.

What really irks me, though, is the following statement from Florida ALA officer Robin Briere who is in charge of this program and is herself Roman Catholic:

Only an elite group of young women are given the privilege of attending each year and it is a once in a life-time opportunity [sic] to do so. Along with that privilege comes some sacrifice. They must attend an orientation and for some that means missing a track meet or dance competition and they must remain with the program from beginning till end and sometimes that means missing other important programs throughout the summer and other camps whose dates over-lap ours. And yes, it means girls are unable to go to the church of their choice on Sunday or what ever their day of worship is. I respect her religious beliefs, and certainly I share them as we’re the same faith…. The Catholic religion that I know is not that narrow thinking, but I do respect how she feels….

Briere also notes that she herself is forced to miss Mass on Sunday in order to run the program, but says, “It does not make me any less a Catholic. My faith is stronger than that!” In the blog post and news article you can read other little comments made by Briere that are filled with a regret that verges upon sanctimony over Graham’s decision to blow her chance at attending Girl State. [Yes, that’s right: the girl gave up Girl State for God.]

I think a theological translation of Briere’s position might prove illuminating and salutary at this point. In sum, she thinks it morally permissible and inoffensive to God for a Christian to ignore the divine commandment to keep the Lord’s Day holy if one is presented with a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ that may prove beneficial to the Christian in some earthly way. In fact, it’s at least pathetically imprudent (if not selfishly immoral) for a Christian faced with a choice between the two to prefer participation in the Mass to the ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ [I’m not even going to address the particularity of this case where a nationalistic/civic activity is presumed to outrank a religious one.] Why should Briere pity this poor girl for her folly or cluck at the self-indulgence that prompted Graham to throw away her chance to have this fabulous civic experience?

Because, to Briere, participation in the Mass is an enjoyable privilege that one may (and often should) sacrifice in order to obtain another good. It’s like a track meet or a dance recital or even an afternoon at the swimming pool with some friends. Participating in the Mass reduces to ‘attending the church of [one’s] choice.’ Attending Mass is certainly not anything so crude as an obligation; the Catholic Church is not so ‘narrow thinking’ as go around imposing such rigid and other-worldly obligations on its members. Faith has absolutely nothing to do with… well, with doing anything or with having to do anything. A loving God wouldn’t expect us to choose him over the pursuit of other good things in life; if we wanted to blow him off some Sunday to go learn about government, then he’d be nice about it. He’d understand.

Put that way, Briere’s position should be manifest as what it is: bad theology.

More interesting to me is this. Briere is right about one thing: attending Mass is a privilege. We Catholics should understand our Sunday obligation to attend Mass as something other than a narrow, rigid, and arbitrary stricture that impoverishes our lives of other goods and precludes freedom and growth. Privilege and obligation — how can we hold these two things together?

Instinctively, we know how to do this. Briere knows how to do this. She said it herself: “Along with [any] privilege comes some sacrifice.” We are commanded and obliged to attend Mass because it is a privilege. Not only is it a privilege to gather with other Catholics, hear some Bible verses, pray, sing songs, be conformed to the love of God through participation in the liturgy, and especially to partake of the Supper of the Lamb, but more importantly: it is a privilege to be obliged so to do. The sacrifice of the Mass is essentially Christ’s for us, but it is a sacrifice in which we ourselves, as baptised members of his body, join. We join our submission and obedience to his and we are sent out from Mass as Christ’s body to be the presence of his sacrificial self-giving in the world.

Might we not receive this privilege without being obliged to it? — Certainly, but if it lacked the obligation, the privilege would be diminished and thereby altered. It is union with Christ in obedience and death that makes possible our union with him in everlasting life. Or perhaps that’s a misleading way to put it. It isn’t a matter of ‘reward’ or exchange or quid pro quo, i.e. God is not saying, “If you unite with my Son in obedience unto death, then I’ll let you unite with him in eternal life.”

There is no essential distinction. Our union with Christ in obedience and death is our union with him in life. Eschatologically, yes, but also right here and right now. This disposition of radical obedience, this totalizing obligation unto God, this holocaust of the self is life itself — not because we need to propitiate a tyrannical deity with our groveling and self-flagellating adoration and thus avert his wrath, but because God is Life and is the unstintingly generous giver of life, of himself. Adoration is not the price we pay for services rendered but is part and parcel of receiving a gift freely given. There is no way truly and fully to accept God’s gifts and yet to refrain from praising him because God is the medium of his giving; refusing to render due praise to God is proof positive of a rejection of God and, therefore, a refusal of his gifts. (Non solum non peccemus adorando, sed peccemus non adorando.) Obedience is not about slavish abasement of the self to God and the breaking of one’s will; it is rather the bending of the Beloved’s ear to the Lover’s voice and the opening of the self to God’s lavish giving. We must certainly ‘deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow’ — but on doing so we’ll find that we have ourselves more fully than ever, that the ‘selves’ we’ve forsaken were nothing more than the death-bound fictions of our own self-loathing and despair.

The paradox of the Mass: sacrifice is privilege and privilege is sacrifice. Catholics have a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ every single Sunday. For what other privilege would we sacrifice this?

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