Yesterday morning a dear friend sent me a link to a televised Mass from a Catholic church in Ireland, which she’d tuned into by chance, because she wanted me to see how the Mass had started. She knows me well, and she knows that the way in which Catholic Masses traditionally begin (verbally acknowledging that we are sinners, symbolically beating our breasts as a sign of penance and admission of sinfulness, and then asking for God’s forgiveness: “I have greatly sinned…through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault…“) is something that I would like to see changed.
It’s not a matter of fanciful personal preference or whim, rebellion against doctrine, condemnation of tradition or of the Church as a whole. It’s much simpler than that. It’s that it’s not the truth of what I hear God saying to me in my heart and soul. And, no matter how many times I’m told differently, or who is doing the telling, God’s message to me never changes. What I hear is: “I want you to see yourselves as I see you. I want you to understand that you are created in my image…and that I am pure Love“.
The driving force behind my passionate wish to see the wording of the Mass changed is that words have power and, as the central celebration of the Catholic Faith, the regular repetition of these words at the start of each Mass reinforces an internal image that we are sinners and not that we are living, human containers of God’s Love.
Of all the beautiful places I’ve visited on the Camino de Santiago (and I’ve walked it several times), the site of the oldest church on the entire route, in the tiny mountainous village of O Cebreiro, has long been a place of special signnificance for me…and for many others, I’ve discovered. I’ve had a number of truly memorable visits, including sleeping on the stone bench outside the church in August 2021 – on the night of the Perseides meteor shower – because the village was full of pilgrims and there was no room at any of the hostels. But it’s the experiences I’ve had in the church that are most memorable and that stay with me.
In 2016 I worked as a volunteer for a month at a pilgrim hostel near to O Cebreiro and would regularly climb up to the village via its beautiful mountain path, and then sit in the church silently, because of its incredible sense of peace. I’ve had several interesting moments of clarity there when, using the silence to listen, answers to things that had been troubling me suddenly came.
But it was only really this year that the priest at the church made any impression on me, and he made it by the way in which he started the pilgrim Mass. He began, not by asking us to acknowledge that we are sinners, but, rather, by reminding us that God is Love. He told us that we are each individual, miraculous creations and containers of that divine Love, and that our purpose in life is to recognise and share that Love, as brothers and sisters of the same human family, in the way we live our lives. It was a Mass that filled me with hope and inspiration…the very things that Jesus did his best to fill us with in the message that he brought…and it made me believe, if just for a moment, that a change in focus is not only necessary but also possible within the Catholic Church as a whole.
I thought, at the time, it was an isolated example; an inspired priest with enough courage to do what his heart called him to do, to touch the hearts of a specialised, visiting congregation. And then, my friend sent me the video of the Irish Mass this morning…and this is how the priest began:
“Normally we begin Mass by remembering our unworthiness or our sinfulness, but I think today the first line from the reading of the Hebrews gives us a different perspective, it says ‘God would not be so unjust as to forget all you have done and the love that you have for his name.’ So I think today we should remind ourselves of the love that we have for our Lord, and of the good we have done, because God also acknowledges our goodness“.
And the small but thoughtful gesture of my friend, in sending me the link to this Mass, reminded me once again that anything and everything is possible, when the Spirit of God’s Love is on the move and at work…
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. …”1 Corinthians 13:13