Why We Gather

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Column by Father Jonathan Dickson

Quite often I hear some version of the following question:  “If I live a good life, if I ‘talk to God’, and if I do my best to be good to my fellow man, why do I need to go to Mass?”  In this article I would like to offer a pastoral reflection on this question.  While doing so, I will hold it in the context of worship in general as I maintain the Catholic nature of St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy while also acknowledging that we are a community made up of many different faith backgrounds.  In order to do this and keep the reflection relatively short, I would like to focus simply on what I am going to call the first mystery of the Mass or any worship service for that matter, the gathering.  We do not arrive at worship accidentally.  The very gathering itself is a mystery.  A mystery as Abbot Jeremy Driscoll writes, “Is something we bump into that puts us in touch with a divine reality.”   Every week since the beginning of last school year I have the amazing opportunity to celebrate Mass with the faculty and students at SJCA.  Every Thursday around 9:30, we put the academic day on hold and Roughly 150 of us gather in the student life center to worship God and celebrate the presence of Jesus Christ among us. This all begins in the mystery of the gathering.  Pardon the long quote, but in my opinion Alexander Schmemann sums it up as well as anyone in the following:

The Journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave indeed, their life in this present and concreate world, and whether they have to drive fifteen miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place, an act which is the very condition of everything else that is to happen.  For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God.  They have been individuals…  And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very “world” with them and to be more than what they were:  a new community a new life.

The faculty and staff of St. Joseph’s come from different homes, distances, backgrounds, family dynamics, and when the bell rings they leave their particular class.  They come together in community as the Student Life Center is transformed into a space for an encounter with the risen Lord.  Schmemann introduces us to the mystery of what it means to be Church (Greek: ekklesia) “called out together,” and this is the first part of the mystery of the Mass/worship.  We must go beyond the cynical mindset that suggests that this is just another happening, or another coincidence.  When we begin to dare to embrace that this is not coincidental at all, we will begin to understand why the Mass is essential to our lives, or why gathering together for worship is essential to our lives.  It pulls us out of our individual selves and into a community with shared pains, struggles, heartaches, and joys, and reorients the self, now part of the greater community to God.  God draws us into worship, we do not take ourselves.  When I process into the Mass every Thursday at St. Joseph’s, I see this community.  I see a community filled with tremendous similarities as well as vast differences.  I see individual faces that have gathered in the recognition that participation in the community allows them the opportunity to be much larger than themselves, even if not consciously aware of it.  Gathering together to worship reminds us first of our total dependence on God, and then secondly of the mutual responsibility that each of us has to the community and the community has to us.   The gathering on Thursday for the celebration of the Mass reminds us of this deep bond we have with God which is manifest in the bond we have with each other.  For this period of time we engage in what is called a liminal or threshold experience.  While we are still on earth we at the same time enter the Kingdom of Heaven as we are reminded of what Jesus says in Mathew 18:20, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”  Because we are a Catholic school, the “privileged” form of this gathering is the Mass.  However, this does not diminish the fact that the entire community, regardless of faith backgrounds, gathers together in worship.  We offer praise to God and he returns grace.  This grace empowers each individual and at the same time the community as a whole to live out our role in God’s Kingdom.  Right worship informs all that we do from our individual morality to our charity towards our neighbor.  Our role in the Kingdom is an extension of our experience in worship.  St. Joseph’s, like communities all over the world, gathers in worship at the Mass in solidarity so that we may extend that solidarity to the community at large.  It is a privilege and an honor…

Father Jonathan Dickson is the Parochial Vicar at Our Lady of Victory Parish in State College, Chaplain at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, and Diocesan Director of Ongoing Formation for the Clergy.