When in Rome

When I first arrived in Italy, I assumed – like other hungry foreigners before me – that Italian restaurants are basically like American restaurants. You enter the place, sit down, ask for a menu, then proceed to order. And while the results were usually at least “molto buono” with this method, I soon found that my Italian friends followed a different strategy, with very different results. Upon entering, first they would spend a minute (or ten!) amiably chatting with the owner or waiter, after which they would ask what specialties the restaurant offered – and what goods or greens were in season. Often, they wouldn’t even bother with a menu, but would go with whatever dish was most recommended.

In America, where the ‘customer is king,’ it’s all about you and what you want. But that’s not the case in Italy. In Italy (at least traditionally) you are not merely a customer, you are rather a guest. If you want the best food (and the best service!) you must enter with an open mind and the willingness to let yourself be surprised. And by choosing the greens that are in season at the moment, not only will your food be more fresh and higher quality, but you will also find more diversity and variety.

What does any of this have to do with the celebration of the Mass?

It is not an accident that the celebration of the Eucharist is also a meal. It is where we are invited, as guests, to be nourished by the Word of God and by receiving Christ Himself in the Eucharist. The Catholic liturgy also has its seasons – each with its own unique theme and flavor.

Unfortunately, after years or decades of attending the Mass, it is all too easy to become jaded and bored – to fall into complacency and indifference. We have likely heard Christ’s words so many times that we easily forget how radical they truly are. Yet those words – the same words we hear proclaimed each time we go to Mass – totally transformed the lives of his disciples and apostles and changed the world. Why don’t they have the same effect on us? Perhaps it is because we forget to truly listen to them. We are too distracted, too busy, or too focused on ourselves to hear and receive the seeds that Christ the sower wants to plant in our hearts.

Maybe what we need is to flip our paradigm, that is, to approach the liturgy like we would an Italian restaurant. Rather than having the focus on us and on what we want, we might try to approach the Liturgy with humility, openness and receptivity. What does God want to give us, what is he trying to tell us? What I know for certain, is that what Christ does want to give us is precisely what we need the most – whether it be consolation, guidance, or reassurance. He wants to give us nothing less than Himself and to fill us with his very life.

Reflection by Michael Sternhagen, Director of Liturgy