Wednesday 18 June 2014

Missing Mass with the Pope

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Santa Maria di Trastevere, Rome.

Kyrk þerinne watȝ non ȝete,         No church building was there [in heaven]
Chapel ne temple þat euer watȝ set.   Nor was chapel or temple ever set there.
– Pearl

This month I am at the Vatican Observatory just outside Rome, helping with their biannual summer school, about which I will probably write an article when it is finished. In the meantime, one of the many benefits of the school is its relative proximity to the Eternal City, which I visited on Pentecost Sunday. I was greeted at the bus stop by fellow Canadian, Fr. Michael Czerny, S.J., who lives a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Basilica. We had originally intended to attend the mass at the basilica, but due to a mix-up in our scheduling, it had already started by the time I arrived. So instead, we went to a small chapel in the Jesuit curia a couple of blocks away and the two of us celebrated mass there.

Through the window of the chapel, we could hear the mass at St. Peter’s taking place during our own more modest service. Somewhat fittingly, ours began during their Veni Sancte Spiritus sequence, and finished close to the great Amen. In the end, I was not disappointed to be missing the mass with the Pope. A mass is a mass, whether it be in a tiny chapel with two friends in the Lord or a huge basilica with thousands of pilgrims. (And besides, we got to see Francis when we popped out afterwards to St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus.)

During the mass, I recalled the scene in John’s Gospel when the Samaritan woman at the well asks Jesus whether God is to be worshipped on the holy mountain of Samaria or on the holy mountain of Jerusalem. He responds:
Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (Jn. 4:21–24)
This Scripture was meaningful on several levels. First, Jesus speaks about worshipping the Father in the Spirit, which is the gift the Church received at Pentecost, whose anniversary we were commemorating. Second, he explains that true worship in the Spirit is no longer attached to a specific place, whether it be Samaria or Judea. How fitting then, that not only was God being worshipped at St. Peter’s—Rome’s functional equivalent of the “mountain of Jerusalem”—but also in a small room a few blocks away, together with Christians all around the world, far from any mountain.

Third, Jesus says that salvation is from the Jews. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles on Pentecost, there is a list of places from which Jewish pilgrims have come to observe the great feast. One of those places was Rome. In his homily, Fr. Michael explained that those pilgrims would have lived in Trastevere, a neighbourhood not too far from the Vatican. In other words, some of the Roman Jews present at Pentecost who heard Peter and the apostles preaching would have returned home to this very neighbourhood and begun a Christian community. Here in Rome, salvation came directly from the Jews.

After luncheon with Fr. Michael in his community, I walked down along the Tiber to visit the Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere. In a sense, it is the parish of the first Roman Christians, even if the actual building—which is one of the oldest in Rome—does not quite date to that primitive community. The basilica was cool and not too crowded, and I remained there for half an hour or so. Jesus taught that true worship is in Spirit and truth, but he did not say that concrete places are of absolutely no importance: of course they are. In that very church the Father has been worshipped in Spirit and truth for nearly 1800 years, and it is awesome to be in a place where that is the case. But the same Spirit blows where he will, and cannot be contained even by a venerable basilica in the first Christian neighbourhood of Rome. For if we arrive as pilgrims, it is only so that we can be blown out again, rejuvenated in the Spirit.


  1. I dunno what's up, but that link at the end sends me to the Staples website. Perhaps this is a deeply spiritual message beyond my ken?

    1. Well, the Spirit does blow where he will, but not sure if He meant to blow you all the way to the Staples website! There was a typo in the hyperlink: eway instead of biblegateway which I've just fixed.

  2. The centralization of Rome has been one of the biggest problems in articulating a broad Catholicity suggested by the text quoted above regarding worshipping in Spirit and truth. Pope Francis is doing a good job articulating his role as Bishop of Rome. But given how Rome has centralized authority for translations, ordination practices (e.g. ordaining married men requires permission from Rome not the local Church's bishop), the dismantling of Bishops conference as consensus builders for local practice, it is hard to see how the modern Church is living out the New Testament gospel in its ecclesiology.

    1. Sorry for not responding to this comment earlier—I've been travelling recently!

      I don't want to comment on what degree of centralisation is appropriate in the Latin Church for an authentic living of the Gospel, as this is beyond my competence and a complex (but important) issue. (And there are, of course, distinct centres for the other Catholic Churches in communion with Rome, which is another part of the equation that we often forget in the West.)

      What exactly is meant by "broad" here? That is, in what sense is it necessary to qualify the word "catholic", which already carries the meaning of universality?

      Further, Jesus is just as concerned with right worship in the quote as he is with the catholicity of worshippers. There's more going on here than a call to worship in many geographical places. So I'm not sure if the issue of the structure of Church government fully addresses this gospel passage.