Author’s Note: The following post explores elements of personal tragedy and the corresponding experience of grief and prayer. It has a hopeful-ish ending, but a disclaimer seemed fitting. It’s also longer than my other posts.
Growing up, two things rarely changed at Sunday Mass: our pew and our cantor. My family always went to the Mass at which my dad was singing. That meant we got to sit with him in the front pew of the section all the way to the right. It never got old. If he was on his game, his resounding baritone voice would make all the little old ladies cry; if he wasn’t, it was fun to laugh at him for missing notes or messing up words. Regardless of whether I was moved to prayer or laughter, sitting in that front-right pew always seemed so sacred: it was the place from which Dad could give service to the Church; it was the place from which we as family met the Living God in Word and Sacrament.
Since my father passed away in 2009, however, I do not think any of us have been able to look at that pew–much less sit in it–without being reminded of the great loss we have experienced. What once symbolized a great routine and tradition of ours now invokes a sense of sorrow and incompleteness.
Catholic Liturgy has never been a stranger to this sense of order and routine (nor, occasionally, to its rupture). Its prayers, gestures, and postures can be found prescribed in a book. Its readings follow cycles which trace the life of Jesus, the life of Israel and the life of the Church. For the faithful, the weekliness of the Sunday obligation offers a rhythm to prayer and regularity to the process of community formation.
The fun thing about the Sunday obligation (which cannot be said for many ecclesial concepts) is that most people actually have feelings about it. Some think it’s rubbish. Some obey it under penalty of eternal hellfire. Some think it’s pretty decent so long as it doesn’t conflict with travel soccer or piano lessons.
When I think about it, however, I’m just grateful it exists. After my father passed away, I returned to my university deeply unsure of my decision to leave my mother for an entire semester. I thought particularly about how hard Sundays would be. For years we had encountered God in this particular way and in that particular pew. Now it represented both our well-founded doubts about God and our reluctance to worship him. How could my mom return to that pattern of prayer? How could she bring herself to re-enter that church so loaded with memory? Even more simply — if she found the strength to go, with whom would she sit?
The primary answers to these questions have everything to do with the grace of God and the unmatchable bravery of my mother. Those of you who know her know I need not say much more; those who do not, I encourage you to read the book my brother and I will one day write. Thinking about the questions in a broader scheme, however, I think their answers have everything to do with the Sunday obligation.
As much as my family thought sitting in that front-right pew was a pattern of prayer belonging to us, in fact it was a pattern constituted by and belonging to the Church. That particular spot–and our sitting in it–meant nothing if it were not in the context of something bigger. Even as we were sitting with friends and family on Sunday mornings, what we never noticed was the simplest realization of all: We were always sitting with the Church.
As that unsure semester wore on, one of the few spiritual consolations I received came in the form of stories–stories mom would tell of this truth being lived out, even if we could not name it as we can now. Not just her (amazing) friends, but even acquaintances from our parish: they would sit with her, offer her their shoulders and their kind words. They were unafraid of her grief and her tears, unafraid to embrace the harshness of life as it entered into the realm of their worship.
In the Apostolic Letter Dies Domini (On the Day of Lord), Pope John Paul told us, “If believers are not to be overwhelmed, they must be able to count on the support of the Christian community…They must be convinced that it is crucially important…that they should come together with others on Sundays to celebrate the Passover of the Lord.”* Our presence at Sunday Worship is never inconsequential. We are all grievers, doubters, searchers, and sinners: people who ought to be overwhelmed at the prospect of communing with the Living God. We all deserve to know someone will be there on Sunday, praying with us, sharing in the whope of Jesus’ Resurrection amidst the trials we all must face.
I can never thank enough those who sat with my mom at Mass during those months I was away, whether they sat right next to her or were just in church on a given Sunday. They helped her find a new pew, they helped her find hope, they showed her how unafraid God’s love could be. She, on the other hand, has now taken to practicing this ministry herself, recently blowing me off to accompany a friend who is trying to return to the Church! It was a strange day–the day my mom did not want to go to church with me, but it reminded me just how important and crucial a person’s presence is.
That is why we as a Church claim that Sunday is an obligation, not just an opportunity. It is a statement about the great agency and responsibility we possess when we enter the doors of our churches. For we are not merely called on Sundays to sit in a church, but to sit with the Church and as the Church. We are called to be there for one another, to ask and grant forgiveness, to be a sign of comfort for those who mourn and struggle to believe. John Paul wrote that “Sunday is the ceaseless foretelling of life without end which renews the hope of Christians and encourages them on their way.”** But it can only be so if we are there to make it so.
* Dies Domini 48
** Dies Domini 26