Why do the things we do at Mass matter?

Neon Music Sign by Nevit [Stock.Xchng]
A few years ago, I was giving a workshop on how parishes could improve their liturgy. A man in the back row stood up and told us all that we were wasting our time. As long as we had a validly ordained priest who was consecrating the Body and Blood of Jesus, that was all that mattered. That should be good enough for anybody, he thought.

I was raised Catholic, so I can see his point. In Catholic grade school, we were taught that the moment of consecration was the moment Jesus became really and truly present on the altar. It was a miracle that we all believed in—and that I still believe in.

But if the consecration is all that matters, you have to wonder why we bother with all the rest of the Mass. Why not just have a priest say the words of consecration and cut out all the excess?

Or to ask the question differently, why do the things we do at Mass matter?

What we do at Mass matters because the way we pray changes the world. I know that’s a pretty bold statement, but it’s true. When the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, it’s not just the things on the altar that are changed. We are also changed. And when we then go out into the world, as people changed to be more one with Christ and more like Christ, we cause more change to happen in our neighborhoods, our schools, our businesses, and our families. When we celebrate liturgy well, there are four general things that get changed.

1. People become less individualistic

Liturgy that follows good ritual principles invites and even requires active participation on the part of those in the room. Liturgy is like symphony. It requires lots of players who are paying attention even when they are not “on.” To make the symphony work, everyone has to pull their own weight. You can’t just sit there. You have to keep time, pay attention to the flow, and come in at the right time without missing a beat. At that moment when it is time to sound your note, the entire symphony depends upon you.

Liturgy works exactly the same way. Knowing that the success of the liturgy hinges on you as much as on everyone else in the room is bracing. And it transforms people who really get it.

2. People will take God off the pedestal

People who try to pray by themselves—or who don’t pray at all—make stuff up about God. They tend to make God into either a bully or a distant Father who isn’t around very much. When people say they don’t “believe” in God, it’s usually the God they made up that they don’t believe in. Or, at the other extreme, some people work so hard at trying to get God’s attention or stay on God’s good side that they go overboard with devotions and pietistic practices and generally become annoying to the people around them.

God isn’t like anything we can make up. St. John (and lots of other saints) tells us that God is love. Think of someone you truly love and who truly loves you. That person doesn’t bully you. You don’t have to work for that person’s attention. You don’t have to worry that he or she is going to fall out of love. When we are worshiping with others who also love God, we experience firsthand all the many ways that God loves us. And that’s just life-changing.

3. People will become more enthusiastic

A couple of years ago, I was meeting a friend for a drink in downtown San José. At the time, the San José Sharks were in the National Hockey League playoffs. I’m not much of a hockey fan, so I wasn’t really aware they were playing on the day and time of my meeting. I did notice the game was on in the bar when I walked in, but we got a table pretty far away from the TV. Ten or twenty minutes after we sat down, the place erupted in cheers. I almost cheered myself, just because everybody else was cheering. It was contagious.

Good liturgy is like that. You can walk in on a Sunday, expecting to be bored, not really caring, and you get caught up in the passion. You are changed by the enthusiasm of those around you. You become a cheerleader yourself.

4. People will get justice

This is the most important benefit of well-celebrated liturgy. The reason Christ becomes present in the liturgy and the reason Christ became present in the world in the first place was to proclaim good news to the poor. The essential message of Christ is that the oppressed will be set free. In the liturgy, we hear that message and rehearse that message with each other. The liturgy changes us into agents for justice. And then we go out into the world and live in a way that makes the world a more just place.

How to make all this really work

What we’re going to look at in the next four topics is how to shape the experience of Sunday liturgy so all four of these things happen: People become less individualistic, they take God off the pedestal, they become more enthusiastic, and they cause the world to be a more just place. Some of the things we need to do will be simple and some will be difficult. Some might happen sooner than others. But there is no time to start like the present.

Next action

The next topic in this course will be e-mailed to you in a few days. In the meantime, pray over the readings for this coming Sunday, before you go to Mass. Ask yourself, what is the message the Lord is trying to give me, at this time, right now in my life. Then pay attention at Mass to everything that affirms that message.


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10 to “Why do the things we do at Mass matter?”


  1. I really liked this first part of this course…your example is clear so people can relate.
    I am looking forward to the next part. Thank you.

  2. David hitch says:

    Nick, in the first sentence you have very succintly described the attitude of so many parishioners. I hope that if we take seriously implemently the Roman Missal we will take the time to help people take the time to understand why the things we do at Mass do matter. We should have done it with the Council years ago, but it still can happen.

  3. Hi Nick,
    Wonderful article and right on target because of the succinct and ‘real’ examples you give. Just a comment on your item number 2. If I shared this with others in my parish, they would not ‘get’ your title and would rather be put off by it. They would object to a ‘teaching’ that I was suggesting that God was not to be adored and worshiped. Humbly I suggest that the title might be more onpoint if it was “Who’s your God”, or using a reference to myths or childhood fantasies.
    Thanks ‘from the field’ . . .Vicki Hawkins

    • Nick says:

      Hi Vicki. Thanks so much for your support and for your suggestion. I’m going to seriously consider another title for number 2. However, it was meant to be a little provocative, so I might leave it as is. I’d love to hear what other readers think. Maybe it is a little too provocative? Readers, chime in!

      • Terry Burrows says:

        I think it is the conversation between the ‘theology from below (incarnational)’ God and the theology from above (transcendent)’ God that is in reference here. As long as you catechize, it is good to catch people’s attention. Of course God is to be worshiped and adored – but if we also forget God came among us, we might forget how immediately present God is at all times. In reading scripture you don’t see Jesus on a lot of pedestals.

      • Erin Foord says:

        Nick, great article! I agree to changing the titles only, not the content. You state, “When we celebrate liturgy well, there are four general things that get changed.” The liturgy is so awesome and efficacious on so many levels, and you are going to present 4 major elements that capture that awesomeness. I would make all the titles positive. For instance item 1. People become MORE communal minded and accepting of themselves and others. 2. People deepen and personalize a more intimate relationship with God. 3. is fine. 4. People experience greater freedom for themselves and for others. Again, great job!

        • Nick says:

          Hi Erin. Thanks so much for your supportive comments and your terrific suggestions! I hope you enjoy the rest of the course.

  4. Deacon John Ashmore says:

    At our parish we are working very hard to help people understand the liturgy. We have been trying a variety ways to encourage people to read the readings before they come to mass. One is we have purchased copies of the Living With Christ missal and distributed them out to our membership. When I am given the opportunity to preach that missal is in my hand and I jokingly send them home with a home work assingment with one of the quesitons. Each week when we have parish meetings we begin with the Gospel reading for the up coming week and our pastor brings a not pad and jokes that he is writing his homily as we reflect on the readings. There is something in connecting with others when someone hears (with permission)thier permission as part of the homily. Here is the key we are providing programs as a parish to help our membership understand scripture.

    Nick is ther a way that this course could be posted on our web site to encourage our parish members to learn about our liturgy?

    • Nick says:

      Hi Deacon John. It sounds like you are doing a great job in your parish! I think it is terrific that your pastor uses the reflection you do at your parish meetings as inspiration for his homily.

      I’d love for you to offer this course to your parishioners. You can just post this link on your website to send them to the sign-up form:
      http://www.faithfieldguide.com/about/make-mass-more-meaningful/

      If you’d prefer to have the HTML code for the sign-up form to post on your site, send me an e-mail, and I’ll get it to you!

  5. bobbi battagllia says:

    I would like to Forward this first section of the course to a friend who cannot take the course herself . We would like to discuss this at our 4th day meeting of a Cursillo group. I have found that the course will not Forward. I am using a MAC to a MAC. Is there anything I can do to Forward this?

    thank you for your help,
    Bobbi Battaglia



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