The congregation looked a little light for a recent 9:30 Mass, but that was before the tour bus arrived.
Just as the choir began to sing and the ministers started down the aisle, a wave of humanity started pouring into the narthex. At our church we call that phenomenon “the tour bus.’’
When the celebrant and I reached our places in the sanctuary and turned to face the church, people were still coming in.
How can it be, I wondered that so many people happen to be late for Mass on the same sunny Sunday morning?
But I had recently read a book on mathematical probability, and one of the things I read implied that because there are so many Masses celebrated on every Sunday, sooner or later, at one of those Masses, a bunch of people are going to show up late.
While I watched those folks who had been delayed by probability, I recalled that when I was a kid the conventional wisdom was that being late for Mass meant arriving after the celebrant had read the Gospel passage.
That was one of those rules that people sometimes make up and then apply as though it had been handed down to Moses – on the same order as the rule invented by college students to the effect that they can leave class if their instructor is more ten minutes late.
I suppose it is also related to the notion that once you have received communion you are free to go – an idea, of course, that has nothing to do with mathematical probability and everything to do with personal choice.
An assistant pastor in my home parish would often hang out in the narthex during Masses he wasn’t celebrating. When folks left before the end of the liturgy, he would make some remark to them: “Got an appointment?” “Late for breakfast?”
At the time, I thought that was funny, but in my dotage I have reevaluated it, and I have realized that the priest’s approach may have sent the wrong message if it implied that people should stay until the end of Mass because —well, because they should.
A more constructive approach might have been to examine what there was about the preaching and the catechesis and the ministries — about every aspect of life in the parish — that wasn’t making people come to Mass on time and stay to the final blessing because they wanted to, not because they should.
It is easy to rationalize the habitual or even deliberate latecomers and the early departures by saying, “Well, at least they were here.’’
But why where they here, and what did they take away with them?
And it’s reasonable to ask if the difference between those who don’t want the whole experience and those who don’t come at all isn’t only a matter of degree.
Clearly, for both groups, other gods are more compelling than the God who gave his only son so that they might have life and share it with others.
And, to carry the logic a step further, I wonder how tenuous is the Church’s hold on those who, for now, do come on time and stay till the end but don’t see the connection between that experience and their daily lives.
This is fodder for the new evangelization in which, Pope Francis has emphasized, all of us Catholics are called to participate.
Acting in a thoughtful and collaborative way, we all have the opportunity to help Catholic people see in us the joy that comes not just from attending Mass but from being a part of a community that is reinvigorated by encountering God in his word and in the Eucharist and by carrying the Gospel out the doors of the church and living it every day in acts of compassion, charity, and justice.
Deacon Paolino ministers at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Whitehouse Station.