I came across a meditation suggesting to ponder “God requires Catholic Christians to assist at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.” I think what caught my eye was the word assist.
I was surprised by the use of assist rather than attend. Is there any difference between the two? When looking up these words in Merriam-Webster, the results of both their meanings and their roots were a bit unexpected. For me, assist is more of an action word; ready to spring into action when the lead needs support, which is one of the two definitions for the word. I would consider those that perform a specific liturgical function, like an altar server, choir member, and lector would be classified as assisting at Mass, but not the general congregation. Oddly enough, the second definition is, “to be present as a spectator,” which is a far cry from the attitude the Church is calling us to bring to Mass. The etymology of assist has a root which means “to be present near, stand near.“ This is a good definition for our actions at Mass, as we do stand near the presence of Jesus hidden in the mystery of the Eucharist.
Attend would be the word I would choose for those who do not have a specific functional activity at a Mass. Usually I will say, “I need to go to Mass on Sunday morning,” which is one of the definitions of attend. Out of the several definitions for the word, I think I like “to be present with : accompany” as the one that most closely indicates what we do at Mass. We accompany the priest as he dives into the mystery of Jesus in both word and sacrament. Yet the root for the word means “to stretch.” While at first I thought how odd it was that the meaning has changed so much through the centuries, but perhaps originally, one was stretching themselves or their capabilities in order to be present to another person. In some ways, we too, stretch ourselves in order to go to Mass.
Since words matter, I cracked open the Catechism of the Catholic Church to see how it conveyed the requirement for Mass and found this gem:
This describes way more than attending and assisting at Mass. This is a call to worship God with “all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mk 12:30) It also includes that we have not only an obligation, but our Baptism provides us the right in that full participation. For a country that loves its rights, this spiritual right is far more rewarding than any secular one. Once we are baptized, no one can take that right from us; it is only when we turn away from God that we forgo that right. God is always calling us back to communion with Him, ready to bestow His mercy to those who repent and turn towards Him.
I may go to Mass, but I do choose to participate in the responses and singing. While it’s hard not to slip into Mass being a routine activity that we check off on our list of requirements, we are given the opportunity each week to bring our full selves to God. Our beauty and our flaws we present to God, as well as our attention and distractions. While coming and sitting in a pew for Mass may be a first step for some, it is not the level of participation to which we are called. Perhaps the next Mass we attend, we can try to go a bit deeper in giving worship, that is our full selves, to the Triune God who created us to be more than we ourselves could ever imagine.