There is a story told of an Anglican priest who surveyed the substantial congregation which had turned up for the Evening Service on Harvest Sunday (it was some years ago when they still did). Marching up to the tabernacle and opening the door, he said loudly, “Take a look at that lot, Lord, you won’t see them again until next year! ” Once we thought of this occasional attendance as an Anglican phenomenon, but a new generation of Catholics has abandoned weekly Mass attendance. They still bring their children for baptism and for First Holy Communion – sitting doggedly through the priest’s lectures about going to Mass every Sunday – and they were probably there for one of the Christmas Masses. I begin to wonder whether we needed to invent ‘Back to Church Sunday’ (in October isn’t it?) when the time that many Catholics come back to church is Christmas. Furthermore, it is increasingly the case that those who are not Catholics, but want to begin Christmas in church, will go to the nearest, which may well be a Catholic Church.
In my experience the Catholic Church in the UK does not handle this very well. Historically, it is used to putting on ‘Masses for Catholics’ and in the past churches were built where they were needed for the Catholic population. They were often functional, and not very beautiful. Surprisingly, not much changed with the Second Vatican Council. A great deal was written about how to present the new liturgy, and a great deal of money was spent re-ordering the buildings. And music! Lots of it was written – simple to the point of banality – and still not sung by 90% of the congregation.
The temptation is just to assume that this provision of Mass for the masses will do at Christmas. The people will come because it’s Christmas, and the Catechists will lay on something for the ‘kiddies’ to do, and the adults will look at their shoes while Father has a dig about ‘Christmas only Catholics’ … but will they come back next year? Guilt (not a strong emotion for most Catholics nowadays) is not enough – and what we present in our liturgy, our preaching, our welcome – and yes, even our carefully worded Communion discipline – must seek to move, challenge, and thrill, if we are to use the evangelistic pull of Christmas. The imperative of evangelisation demands that we use Christmas to bring them to Mass next week – not next Christmas!
It is three years since I left the Church of England and was received into the Catholic Church. In that time I have experienced and taken part in three “Catholic Christmases” – all different. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on individual celebrations, and so I make some general points, both positive and negative, in the hope that this will assist us all in reflecting on how we celebrate Christmas in church.
PLANNING BEGINS IN JANUARY
Before the end of this month bring together everyone in the congregation who has had a hand in the Christmas celebrations: welcomers, children’s workers, musicians, servers and so on. Work out together what was good, what could be improved and what went wrong. Encourage a discerning attitude which welcomes back those who have lapsed, does not judge them harshly, but also longs to see them coming every Sunday to Mass. Make a list of key things for next Christmas, agree a date to meet again, and ask if there is any follow-up of families and individuals which could be done right away.
TIMING OF CHRISTMAS SERVICES FOR YOUR AREA
With fewer priests and smaller congregations there may well be decisions made about when and where Christmas Masses are to be celebrated. But the principle of subsidiarity means that these should be made as close to the parish as possible. It has been suggested that the days of the Midnight Mass are numbered, but if so this may have more to do with the age of the clergy, than the presence of drunks, which seems to me to have diminished over the years. (The number of drunks rather than the age of the clergy, sadly!) My own theory is that, if churches are combined, it is better to have the same time at each church for as far into the future as possible. Regular members of the congregation may be able to work out that this year St Gertrude’s is a 5pm, Immaculate Heart at 8 pm and St Philomena’s at 9 am Christmas morning – but THINK VISITOR AND STRANGER AND LAPSED … when it all changes around next year they will be standing at the door of a locked and dark church.
‘VIGIL’ OR ‘MIDNIGHT’ – THEY ARE DIFFERENT
More and more the so-called ‘Midnight Mass’ seems to be combined with the ‘Vigil’ Mass. But the ‘feel’ of these two is different. Many more children are likely to come to the earlier Mass: the ‘Midnight’ has a more ‘grown-up’ feel to it. The music is going to be different, and you should consider a full team of servers and incense at the Mass during the night. There is also the question of readings for those set for the Vigil really do not tell the Christmas story: those for Midnight do, and the Mass of the Day (when children and families may well be present) has the profound meditation by St John as its Gospel. Not for one minute am I suggesting ‘dumbing down’, but rather awareness of who lives in your area – not just Catholics – and who will be present at which of the Masses. ‘Midnight Mass’ doesn’t have to begin at Midnight, as the title ‘Mass during the Night’ in the Missal makes clear. 9 pm might be a good time allowing people to get buses and ‘tubes home – and if anyone comments you can always say that it is Midnight in Bethlehem!
PREPARING THE CHURCH
Try to achieve what they call nowadays the ‘wow factor’. The decoration of the church must be simple, unified and with maximum effect. Make sure that access to the Crib is easy, that there are candle stands and prayers provided, and that it is low enough for the children to see it at their level.
A single Christmas tree as large as you can afford, is effective in the sanctuary with white lights, and then either red bows, red swags, or gold/silver balls. Don’t mix colours, and keep this theme of red and dark green throughout the building. It’s the one time when artificial flowers work: try combining red silk carnations or roses with dark green laurel or pine. No other colours, and no plastic daffodils!!
If at all possible candlelight the church. There is nothing like it for creating the atmosphere of Christmas. If you can’t then get the electrician in some months before to put dimmers on the lighting. If that is beyond you, then just don’t put all the lights on – especially if they are fluorescent.
If the children have done art work during Advent, display it by all means, but don’t stick it to the altar. It looks tacky.
WHAT WILL THEY FIND WHEN THEY STEP INSIDE?
Do remember that the times of Christmas Masses need to be obvious – just telling the congregation on Advent 4 that it’s the same as last year won’t do. Spend some money on a decent poster outside the church, and also make sure that you use your main and most obvious entrance – not a side door which only the faithful know about.
The stewards must welcome with a smile and a few words. This is not the time for conversations with their friends. Include some children among the welcomers; they are usually very good at it. Try to stop early arrivals packing out the back seats: it’s nerves and custom. Regular mass attenders must not sit at the back. This forces occasionals to sit at the front and embarrasses them (especially if they are late). Create an atmosphere of reverent expectation. This is where the low lighting helps, and carol singing or a tape/CD as people arrive. Make sure that the regulars don’t chat, and that all is ready an hour before so that no-one is rushing around before the Mass begins. Don’t let the stewards sit down until well into the Mass. They must be there for the latecomers, and help them to seats especially if the church is very full.
MASS AND MUSIC
Take the time to prepare and print off an order of service. Remember, even those brought up as Catholics will probably not be familiar with the most recent translation. If the children are going to do a presentation, have it at the beginning or end, and not too long! Actions are symbols are more important than words. Traditional carols are what people expect to sing, and if you have a good organist and choir, do make sure that the Mass setting is congregational. An offertory motet or at Communion, by all means, but not in place of the people’s singing. The organ associates itself in most people’s minds with Christmas: and I may be old-fashioned but carols with a ‘beat’ accompanied by the band just doesn’t do it for me. If you are fortunate and have a good organ and organist, all is well. If not, see if you can pay one over Christmas. But you’ll need to spend some time with him or her: the organist who could accompany the liturgy well is a disappearing breed.
Let’s hope that in a few years time the chant settings from the missal will be second nature for Catholics. Kneeling for the Incarnatus: almost always goes wrong, people miss it, the ‘regulars’ just carry on reciting, and the visitors wonder what on earth is happening. Make it spectacular, with the celebrant and servers coming, in good time, to the foot of the altar (like the Extraordinary Form) from the chair. As soon as (and it has to be quick) you get to the point, the organist plays a fanfare (only about 10 bars) to cover the kneeling, then all recite the Incarnatus – organist straight in with another fanfare to cover the standing up – and the Creed continues. Believe me, it does work.
The priest must find time to prepare: and the shorter it is the more time it takes to prepare. Don’t waste the opportunity of a full church. Preach from the heart, but don’t waffle on basking in the sound of your own voice. To make every word tell you will almost certainly need to write down, or to memorise what you are going to say. Tell the people about God’s love for them, shown to us in his Son who comes to live among us and to die for us. Ask them if they will make a response in their own lives to such wonderful love. You can’t say more than this.
There will be lots of people there who haven’t been to Mass since last year. Should we say anything? Yes: but don’t nag. In the service order print a simple note at the Offertory, reminding people that Holy Communion is received as a precious gift and sign of unity within the Church. Non-Catholics and those Catholics who do not come regularly may receive a blessing if they wish at the time of Communion. If you read this out, resist elaborating or apologising, and leave the rest to God and his mercy.
AT THE END
Make sure that some of the stewards are at the door to give out to everyone a simple card. This will be overprinted with the times of Sunday Mass, and a space to fill out name and address for those who wish to make/remake contact with the Church. Do not give these out with the service orders which will be left in the pews or the table at the back. Hand them out personally, at the door. The priest is there to greet everyone, and not to get into discussions about whether the date of the next Pastoral Council meeting in February!