Altar Server Surrogate

25 Apr

The role of server is integral to the
normal celebration of the Mass (
USCCB).

It’s Monday. I arrive early for the 5:30 p.m. Mass, settle down in a pew to read through the Gospel, and quiet my mind after a busy day.

Prayer, then drifting, eyes wandering over the sanctuary, the big Crucifix, the icons. There’s Fr. Dunkle, lighting candles on the altar – he forgot to light the Paschal candle. Now he’s carrGiacomo_di_Chirico_Ministrantying chalices over to the credence table.

Wait. Father is carrying the chalices and lighting the candles? Where are the altar servers? I’m fully alert now, and moving up to the sanctuary, a quick genuflection, a hand motion to Father – he’s carrying out the Sacramentary now.

“No altar servers, Father?” I ask in a whisper.

He shrugs. “Nope, I guess not.”

That’s very unusual for St. Matt’s. We have superbly trained altar servers at our parish, and at least three are scheduled for every Mass. There’s a nice division of labor as they assist at the altar – the Bell, the Book, and the Cross they call themselves – but if one or two don’t make it for some reason, all the essential jobs can be undertaken by a single server in a pinch.

“Can I help?” I offer as I follow him into the sacristy. I haven’t served Mass for a long time, but after watching my own kids learning the ropes throughout the years, I thought I could handle it.

“That would be good,” he says. “Even just to carry things over from the credence table.”

“Should I wear an alb?”

“No, that’s OK,” he replied. “Let’s go.”

To be Christ’s page at the altar, to serve Him freely there,
Where even the angels falter, bowed low in reverent prayer.

We process out of the sacristy and genuflect toward the tabernacle. Fr. Dunkle walks around and reverences the altar with a kiss, and then we both proceed to the side of the sanctuary. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Let’s see, he’ll need the Sacramentary for the Collect – when do I fetch it? Distracted, not tuned in to the penitential rite. Then I see Father put his hands out in the Orans position: “Let us pray.” Oh, right, that’s my cue. I retrieve the Sacramentary from the niche by the sacristy and stand before Father with the book open on my hands. He prays; we sit; the lector moves to the ambo – calm, quiet, listening.

To touch the throne most holy, to hand the gifts for the feast,
To see Him meekly, lowly, descend at the word of a priest.

First reading, St. Stephen’s trial (think, think, what’s next); Psalm and response (do I need to be remembering anything?); alleluia and acclamation, stand up – the Gospel. I lean toward Father and murmur, “Do you want me to accompany you with a candjohnberchmansle from the altar?” He shakes his head and makes his way over to the lectern. John 6, Bread of Life discourse preliminaries, homily – focus, focus, listen.

Father returns to his seat, pause, then we stand – intercessions. “We pray to the Lord.” Lord, hear our prayer. At the second intercession, I return to that niche for the Sacramentary and the pillow it rests on to prop it open on the altar. After setting it in place, I head over to the credence table – two chalices, paten, linens – and then return to the altar. Corporal open first, right? Which way does it go? The Chi-Rho is upside down – a quick switch and all is well. Chalices in place, paten – Father is done with the intercessions and moving in this direction. The cruets! I forgot the cruets! The priest and I pass each other exchanging grins as I head to the sacristy.

Wine, water – there they are in the mini-fridge, all ready to go. Father is done with the first part of the Offertory – I’m just in time; he turns to me. The stoppers – remove the stoppers. I set the water down on the altar to free up a hand to open the wine cruet, and then I pass it to him. After I unstop the water, we swap cruets – lavabo next. I’m on the wrong side of the altar – should I just walk behind him to the credence table? Father hands the water cruet back to me, and I scoot behind him to make a beeline for the basin and towel – no doubt a liturgical faux pas.

To hear man’s poor petition, to sound the silver bell,
When He in sweet submission, comes down with us to dwell.

After Father dries his hands on the towel, I replace the water and basin on the table, and then return to the side of the altar – prayer over the gifts, Preface dialogue, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.” Holy – Sanctus – Sanctus bells next. We kneel for the Canon, and I put my hand down on the ringer. When do I do these again? I miss the Epiclesis signal, but I get ready for the Minor Elevations – I won’t miss those. EP II: “For this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – hold still.) “Do this in memory of Me.” (Jingle, jingle, jingle – silence them on the carpet.)

Finally (*sigh*), that’s it. The rest is all matter, form, and minister – my ancillary duties are more or less complete. I default to interior drift, eyes wandering again, but this time behind the altar, immediately below the huge Crucifix that dominatesmatthewcath our Sanctuary. I look up – the Lord’s feet are right above me, nailed to the wood, bleeding, beautiful. “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him.” I’m transfixed – servers see that every day. The Lord’s Prayer. “Agnus Dei.” Every day our servers have this exceptional perspective on ultimate surrender and mercy. Holy Communion.

No grander mission surely could saints or men enjoy;
No heart should love more purely than yours, my altar boy.

Following the Dismissal, as the congregation recites the Prayer to St. Michael, Fr. Dunkle and I retreat to the Sacristy. “Thanks,” he says simply. “My pleasure,” I reply – who am I kidding? Not so much pleasure, but rather privilege, boon, outlandish extravagance. And pleasure? On the threshold of Calvary? To assist with the wrenching of Heaven down to earth? To drink in so directly unfathomable love?

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered,” Chesterton proclaimed, and “an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” The trifling inconvenience of absent altar servers precipitated a monumental adventure for me. It should be I who does the thanking.
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Of Saints, Suffering, and Scleroderma

19 Apr

853px-titian_-_christ_and_the_good_thief_-_wga22832

In my flesh I complete
what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1.24).

“Hello, Faddah!”

I’m guessing it was probably the first time Pope John Paul II heard that one in the Vatican’s audience hall. It was my sister, Adeline, who was visiting Rome with my mom and dad many years ago. None of them were Catholic at the time, but my pastor had helped them secure an invitation to a general audience. Although my family had tremendous respect for the Pope, they went to the audience mainly as tourists – devout evangelical tourists, to be sure, but tourists all the same.

Following his remarks and a blessing, John Paul made his way down the center aisle, nodding and smiling and embracing the faithful as he went. My sister, right on the center aisle, was distracted as she gathered up belongings. Suddenly she felt a stillness overcome the crowd around her – she turned. The Holy Father was passing and looking directly at her! “I had no idea what to say,” Addie recalls. “The only thing that came to mind was that line from that movie we watched as kids.” She meant Going My Way, and the scene where Tony Scaponi, a neighborhood ruffian, guiltily addresses Fr. Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). “Oh, hello Faddah!” Tony tosses out with a breezy hand gesture, trying to deflect attention from a stolen turkey. My sister inStanley Clements (L) in Going My Way (1944) Rome, suddenly confronted by a pontiff, stole Tony Scaponi’s line, channeling a bit of Allan Sherman in the process. “The Pope paused and smiled,” Addie remembers, “and then he looked at Mom.”

I’m told Mom was crying – weeping openly, if I know my mom – and John Paul reached out to clasp her hands. They were hands gnarled by disease, hardened and bandaged and pockmarked with lesions. Vulnerable, hurting hands, belonging to a vulnerable, hurting invalid who’d prefer they belonged to someone else.

Sclerodactyly is what the docs call it, a thickening of the skin on the fingers. Plus, my mom suffered from Reynaud’s syndrome (acute sensitivity to cold and limited circulation in the extremities) and calcinosis (scattered deposits of calcium in superficial tissues). All of these are common symptoms of scleroderma – a terribly disfiguring autoimmune disease that mainly affects the body’s connective tissues, namely collagen. The immune system goes awry and attempts to fend off nonexistent threats by producing more collagen than necessary. This results in characteristically tough, stiff flesh, especially in the hands and face. In fact, the word “scleroderma” literally means “hard skin,” and my mom had it bad.

My mom’s (and our family’s) journey with scleroderma started back when I was in high school. It was summer, and I was on a church work trip to Voice of Calvary Ministries in Mississippi, working on a farm in rural Mendenhall and rehabbing houses in Jackson. One afternoon I was napping after a long day of yanking out nails and hauling refuse, and I lay on the floor surrounded by fans, hoping for relief from the heat. I woke to someone jostling my arm, and I looked up into the face of a VOCM staffer. “We got a call from Colorado,” he said. “Your mom is sick – real sick. I’m to have you call home.”

I got hold of my dad at Boulder Community Hospital. “She’s OK, Ricky,” he said. “It was a perforated ulcer, and they’re dealing with it. But there’s something else.” I was still a bit groggy from the nap and the heat, and I tried to focus as I heard Dad pass the phone to Mom. “The doctor thinks I have something called scleroderma,” she told me. “It’s why I’m having pain and numbness in my arms, and my fingers are getting so stiff.” She told me not to worry. “Just pray for me, Ricky,” Mom asked. “Pray for healing.”

No healing came deOL-Lady-of-Lourdesspite loads of prayers, not to mention countless doctors and specialists and experimental treatments. You see, there is no healing for scleroderma, but rather only symptom management and “optimizing” one’s quality of life. Mom couldn’t buy that, and she was determined to prove the experts wrong. Acupuncture and biofeedback and herbal remedies led to a trip to China and a world-renowned natural healer. No luck. At one point she considered visiting Oral Roberts’ Prayer Tower in Oklahoma to plead for God’s mercy and a miracle. Even Lourdes wasn’t out of the question – no small thing for my staunchly Presbyterian mother. She had great faith, and she never stopped believing that she’d be completely healed of that nasty disease.

Yet time went on with no relief in sight, and Mom began to express her faith in anger. “Why isn’t he doing something about this,” she’d fiercely exclaim. “What’s taking him so long?” She refused to allow some illness to keep her from her busy life: Typing and clerical work for the high school, playing the piano and organ, caring for her family, home, and beloved pets. In time, though, as her rigid, curved fingers grew increasingly immobile, she had to accept the limitations her condition imposed on her. What’s more, there were indications that the disease was progressing and was beginning to affect her internal organs.

Mom sought out comfort and palliation where she could find it – prayer meetings, support groups, and, of all things, a Benedictine abbey just a couple miles down the road. By the time her scleroderma was becoming a mortal challenge, I had became a Catholic in Chicago, and I would spend a lot of time at St. Walburga’s Abbey on my sojourns home to Boulder. Eventually my mother’s curiosity overcame her anti-Catholic scruples, and she agreed to accompany me to the Abbey every now and then to find out what it was all about.

On one of those occasions, she met Sr. Augustina, a hardy German nun who served as the Abbey’s baker. Sr. Augustina herself was burdened by physical infirmity – a pronounced kyphosis, or curving of the spine, which, combined with her diminutive stature, meant that she could look most adults in the eye only by straining hesaint-walburga-01r neck upward. Nonetheless, Augustina was inevitably cheerful and generous, and if her health bothered her, you’d never know it. Always quick with a wink and a mischievous grin, she was also known to keep bags of her homemade cookies at the ready for distribution to visitors, especially children.

For my mother, Sr. Augustina was an especially welcome relief, and they became friends in no time. It was an odd friendship, I suppose – a cloistered Benedictine nun and a Protestant suburban homemaker. As far as I know, Mom never went to Mass at St. Walburga’s, nor did she participate in the Divine Office or any other formal spiritual exercises. She just went to chat with Sr. Augustina, and the nun would hold my mom’s hands and stroke them. On the surface, they had little in common beyond a shared faith and the experience of physical ailment, but that was plenty. Tears flowed abundantly, as did the prayers I’m sure.

“Almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question ‘why,'” Pope St. John Paul wrote in Salvifici Doloris. “Nevertheless, it often takes time, even a long time, for this answer to begin to be interiorly perceived.” And what are the outlines of that answer? The Pope offered insight that is both compassionate and revolutionary:

It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.

Still, my mom wouldn’t have been interested in the Pope’s insights. All she knew was that she was suffering and afraid and angry at her God. That’s why Sr. Augustina became such a treasured confidant, for her calm, soothing demeanor assured Mom that, even though the disease wasn’t going away, there was still meaning in life – that Mom wasn’t, and would never be, irrelevant. If nothing else, Mom’s reception of the ministrations of others made present the reality of Christ in yet another little corner of the world. And that’s precisely in line with the vision of Pope John Paul who was well aware that the suffering person

feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others, and at the same time seems useless to himself. The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling.

In a way, Sr. AuPope-John-Paul-II-Blesses-015gustina helped my mother – and those around her – to see that God wasn’t in the business of choosing saints to endure hardship. Instead, He allowed hardship in general to help make us all saints and, in so doing, save the world. “Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption,” John Paul notes, “and can share this treasure with others.”

And this treasure-sharing happens even when we resist it and rebel. He’s no idiot, this God we worship. The second Person of the Trinity is intimately familiar with corporeal existence and pain and agony, so He is aware that suffering, physical and otherwise, stinks. Sure, we want to get healed, and He gets that. Saints, though! Saints! We follow a crucified God, so how can we be surprised that suffering is part of what draws us closer to Him. It’s what shapes us into what He would have us become: Holy, despite our flaws and weaknesses, conformed to His likeness through our own versions of His Cross. Crucified! And so, saints!

My mom, a resolute Calvinist steeped in solid anti-Catholic Masonry, fixed her eyes on the beaming face of a saintly Pope and sobbed. They stood there for a moment, the Vicar of Christ and my ailing Protesting Mom, a tiny, tight circle of revelatory love. No words were exchanged, but the communion I’m told was palpable. Then, the Pope released Mom’s hands, gave her a blessing, and continued on his way.

Mom died within a couple years of that encounter with John Paul, and then the Pope died a couple years after that following his own valiant struggle with chronic illness. Maybe their paths have crossed on the other side – who knows? If so, I couldn’t pick better background music for that moment than the Wesleyan hymn we sang today at Mass:

Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Thanks, Mom, for your example of courage and perseverance. Rest in peace.
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An Uncertain Pilgrimage: Of Mother Jones and Making a Ruckus

12 Apr

MotherJones2

All over the country she had roamed, and wherever she went, the flame of protest had leaped up in the hearts of men; her story was a veritable Odyssey of revolt.

~ Sinclair Lewis

Read more…

Of Catholic Schools, Down Syndrome, and Hospitality

3 Apr

The best portion of a good man’s life are his
little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
~ William Wordsworth

I sat across the table from Miss Retseck, the principal of our parish grade school. It was spring, and we were discussing how I’d manage tuition for my kids the following fall. “You’ll have four Beckers on your hands,” I jested. And then, in passing, I added, “Of chomeourse, if Nicky wasn’t going to the public school, you’d have five.”

“The public school?” Miss Retseck shot back. “Why?”

“Well,” I faltered, “with Nick’s Down syndrome and all, we figured the public school was the best option – you know, for therapy and services.”

Miss Retseck’s eyes narrowed; her reply, solemn. “Why don’t you let us try?”

It was an epiphany. “Alright,” I said after a brief pause. “Sure. Why not?”

Miss Retseck’s sober determination to accommodate Nicky’s special needs was a watershed moment in his life and the life of our family. It cemented our vision for keeping all our children together in Catholic schools as long as we could, and it reinforced our desire to focus on Nicholas’ strengths rather than his perceived deficits.

There’s one more thing that Miss Retseck’s proposition subtly manifested that day: Our school, like our parish, was in the business of welcoming. Parish schools are perpetually strapped, and so it’s always a struggle to provide what better funded institutions take for granted. Nonetheless, Miss Retseck made it perfectly plain to me that Nick could belong at St. Matt’s School and that she’d be committed to his welfare.

Today Nicky is in fourth grade and thriving. With the help of his teachers and Miss Retseck’s successor, Mrs. Clark, we’ve cobbled together a mesh of support services, both in school and out, that has allowed Nicholas to stay at St. Matt’s and pretty much keep up with his class (with certain adjustments here and there). Plus, he couldn’t be in a better cohort – a very special group of boys and girls who’ve become his buddies. Nick sings in the choir, he has a part in the spring play, and he goes to birthday parties with the rest of the gang.

Little did Miss Retseck know what a gift she’d given us that day so long ago – what a legacy she’d initiated, and what a sign of hope she’d created for others as we10402836_10152369753644034_3736989850264125269_nll. In fact, I’d say that Miss Retseck’s request accentuated three different ways that Nicky is a living emblem of what makes our parish – our Church – exceptionally hospitable. Here’s why.

First off, his very presence is a witness. To paraphrase my friend E. Michael Jones, to be a special needs student – to be any kind of student – you must first exist. That may sound strange coming from Nick’s own father, but remember that we live in world that terminates preborn Nickys at a rate upwards of nine out of every 10 diagnosed Down syndrome pregnancies. School children with Down’s are relatively rare these days not because such kids are being barred from educational opportunity so much as they’re being winnowed out of the population altogether.

At St. Matt’s, however, like most Catholic parishes and schools, kids with Down syndrome don’t stick out. Our Nick is not unique, you see, and it’s common to spot several kids with Down’s at Mass on Sunday. They’re visible and beautiful, but not uncommon. Like all the fifteen-passenger vans in the parking lot, the presence of St. Matt’s parishioners with Down syndrome is only extraordinary relative to their scarcity in the wider culture.

Another way Nicky is an emblem of hospitality is how he is cared for – how he is valued as he is. As I mentioned earlier, he’s got a great bunch of pals who include him and watch out for him. Maybe they’re vaguely aware that Nicky has special needs – that he wears orthotics and goes to therapy – but, well, that’s just Nicky! For whatever reason, this particular bunch of school children intuitively recognizes that everybody has weaknesses, everybody needs extra help now and then, and so they make room for everybody – “duh!” they’d undoubtedly add. christ_washing

Did Nick luck out? Did he just happen to wind up in a class of unusually kind classmates? Maybe, but there’s more at work here I think. For one thing, remember that this is a parish where Down syndrome is unremarkable – a community already oriented to a fundamental hospitality. The kids have heard the Church’s pro-life message and they’ve internalized the Culture of Life in a radical way. Moreover, I’m convinced they’re imitating their parents in this regard as well as their teachers, who have demonstrated a tremendous flexibility in ensuring that Nicholas is an integrated member of his learning community.

Sure, they have to make accommodations for him, and it’s always a challenge to figure out how much we ought to expect from him compared to the bulk of his class, but the teachers are always willing to try – just like Miss Retseck promised. Nick might not acquire the same set of skills and knowledge as his peers – or at least not at the same rate. That’s OK, because he is constantly being pushed to grow and progress – to flourish along with all the other students at St. Matt’s. What more could we ask for?

Finally, there’s this: Nick’s gentle and simple bearing naturally invites charity, and people cheerfully respond. This was captured in a very moving way at last night’s Holy Thursday liturgy where Nicky had the honor of participating in the foot washing ceremony.

Following the homily, as Monsignor put on his apron, we took our seats on the benches set up in the 10928204_10204792867834664_4231497712542858075_nsanctuary. “Do I take off my shoe now?” Nicky whispered.

“Yes, son,” I replied. “Your sock, too.”

After Monsignor washed and dried my foot, he turned his attention to Nick. “Thank you for who you are and what you bring to our parish,” the alter Christus murmured as he knelt before us. “You always make me smile.”

And that was it. Monsignor moved on, Nicky grinned and scanned the congregation to make eye contact with mom, and we returned to our seats. No grand revelation, no spotlight, but rather a little encounter that contributed to the overall swamp of goodness that we splash around in at St. Matt’s.

It was also an illustration of what Pope Francis asserted when he said that “we all have a duty to do good.” Continuing, he said:

If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much.

Do good, yes, and also receive good, humbly and graciously. That’s easier said than done in a society bent on maximizing self-reliance and minimizing dependency. The more we do it, however, the more we smooth over the rough edges that persist all around us, and the world becomes all that more inhabitable.

Lots of life, room for weakness, and opportunities for goodnesslittle opportunities, small gestures of kindness, both given and received. That’s our school in a nutshell, and I’ll bet that characterizes your parish and school as well. They’re incubators of love, and thus microcosms of the Church, don’t you think?

And just the kind of place you’d expect to find somebody like my Nicky.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Christmas Movies for Annunciation Day

25 Mar

san-domenico-annunciation

Lent is a favourable time for letting Christ serve us so that we in turn may become more like him. This happens whenever we hear the word of God and receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

There we become what we receive: the Body of Christ.

~ Pope Francis

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Of Brother Klaus, Asceticism, and Eating Disorders

20 Mar

brother klaus

My Lord and my God, remove far from me whatever keeps me from you.

My Lord and my God, confer upon me whatever enables me to reach you.

My Lord and my God, free me from self and make me wholly yours.

 ~ St. Nicholas of Flüe

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Put Down the Missalette Already!

15 Mar

Songwriters put notes on paper.
That’s not music. You make the music.
~ Guitarist Tommy Tedesco of The Wrecking Crew

Let’s say dreams come true, and I get to see Van Morrison in concert somewhere, somehow, some day. Aw, man, Van-Morrisonit would be so great – a once in a lifetime opportunity! I doubt I’d sleep the night before, and I’d be checking on my ticket every hour or so – to see if it was still there, still real.

Then, the moment would arrive: I’m there in the audience, the instruments are tuning; the microphones are getting the “check, check, one, two” treatment – and it begins. Van kicks off the first song…

…and I drop my eyes to some wireless gadget in my lap, Google the lyrics, and read along as Van is singing on stage.

Right? Noooo, of course not! I’d soak it all in – a total immersion, listening to and watching a great songwriter give voice to his own compositions, himself, in person! They’re songs I mostly know already by heart anyway, but even if I didn’t, why would I waste that exquisite privilege by reading along?

That’s what I think of when I go to church and see folks with their noses in the missalettes – those little booklets in the pew that contain all the readings and parts of the Mass. Worse still is when their eyes are glued to iPhones or other gadgets as they follow along on apps while the lector drones on pointlessly up front.

It’s like every college student’s worst nightmare: A professor that flashes one PowerPoint slide after another, reading them word for word. Then, as if to purposely add insult to injury, he’ll sometimes pass out lecture notes with the slides already on them. Torture.

“The readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone,” the General Instruction explains, “for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy.” Catch that? Listened to, not scanned, not perused. In the liturgy, the Word of God is meant to be uttered and received. Here’s more from the General Instruction:

When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel.

The lector thus becomChurch-Pulpites another alter Christus, parallel to the priest who will confect the Eucharist and give us Jesus to eat. Dei Verbum makes this parallel quite explicit by insisting that in the Mass, the Church “unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.”

So the lector’s job really is a vital one, but we treat it as if it were purely functional – a task that is required by the rubrics, yet largely irrelevant since we have the text so readily available, usually right there in the pew. “A reading from the First Letter of…,” the lector begins, which ought to put us on the edge of our seats. It’s Christ himself, after all, announcing his Word – the Logos, his very divine Self, enunciated for us, for me!

And yet, what’s our typical response? “Ho-hum (*yawn*), maybe I’ll grab the missalette and read along.”

That’s wacko.

Don’t get me wrong: Reading Scripture for ourselves isn’t bad, and the Church has never asserted anything even close to that – despite the lingering anti-Catholic canard to the contrary. Indeed, there’s no question Gutenberg did all of Christendom a huge favor by inventing the printingannunciation-mid press and making the Bible easily and universally obtainable. Yet personal Bible reading ought to be reserved to times outside of Mass, and particularly around Mass – like, for example, a family coming together to read the Gospel before church, or reflecting on it at home afterwards.

When we’re at Mass, however, we should skip the missalette altogether lest we fall into what is essentially a Protestant approach to the Liturgy of the Word. In keeping with the Reformation precept that everyone should interpret the Bible for himself, many Protestants bring their own Bibles to church and read along as the Scriptures are read. It’s as if they’re checking up on the reader’s accuracy and precision – almost like rabbis peering over the shoulder of a young boy reading the Torah at his bar mitzvah. But if we’re reading, we’re not really listening, and the Liturgy of the Word becomes just another cerebral exercise instead of an incarnated, holistic epiphany.

Sacred Scripture was meant to be received aurally in the liturgy, in the same way that classic iconography depicts the Blessed Mother receiving the Word of GoXIR404562d via a dove entering her ear. In fact, we call that blessed event the Annunciation because it was St. Gabriel’s “announcement” that itself realized the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception. “Come and gaze upon this marvelous feat,” St. Athanasius attests, “the woman conceives through the hearing of her ears!” We’re called to do the same during the readings at Mass: To imitate Our Lady in receiving the Lord through hearing a proclamation, much as her cousin Elizabeth “received” an encounter with Jesus the moment she heard Mary’s greeting at the Visitation.

And the missalettes? Should we ditch them outright? I wouldn’t go that far, for there are circumstances when they do come in handy – and are even necessary. For instance, those who are hearing impaired have to rely on missalettes when there are no sign language interpreters or amplification devices available. Plus, let’s face it, sometimes it’s not easy to understand certain lectors, even if you want to. I know for myself that if I’m up front reading, and I see folks reaching for their missalettes, I automatically assume that I’m doing a lousy job – that my “proclamation” is not “audible and intelligible” as the Catechism says it should be.

Still, I probably shouldn’t be so hard on myself, because I know that many of us grab the missalette and open it up out of habit, regardless of how good the lector is. What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that we should break that habit, and experience the Liturgy of the Word as it was mehandicappedant to be experienced: Through our ears.

Think of it this way: When you go to your local library branch with an armful of books and videos to return, do you ever hip-bump the blue handicapped button and wait for the door to open automatically – even though you’re not handicapped? I know I do, and that’s not so bad, right? But here’s the bad part: It’s now a habit for me, even when I don’t have an armful of books. Yup, it’s true, I’ll whack that blue button out of sheer laziness, especially if I have a contingent of kids with me. What ought to be an extraordinary, occasional use of an assistive device has become ordinary and routine.

This Lent, why not add to your fasting regimen by abstaining from missalette use completely and trust your lectors to convey the Word of God to you. By the time Easter rolls around, I’m guessing you won’t go back, for you’ll have discovered how much more you can get out of Mass when you truly “hear, contemplate, and do in the celebration” (CCC 1101).
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