When parishioners are on their way to a parish Mass, they usually are not thinking all that much about what happens at the beginning of Mass. Surveys do point out that regular Mass goers (and I suppose not too regular) like to be welcomed at the door of the parish church. They likewise hope for an inspiring homily, something that truly connects the Scriptures and day-to-day living. And, of course, a primary purpose for coming to Mass is to receive the Lord in Holy Communion.

I suspect very few Mass goers think about the Opening Rites of Mass and yet, the Opening Rites play a very definite role for engaging parishioners and preparing them to fully, consciously and actively celebrate the liturgy. They serve the purpose of guiding parishioners into the sacred space of worship, not just physically, but spiritually. When done well, parishioners are truly prepared to attend to the Word of God being proclaimed and to participate in the Eucharistic celebration as opposed to going to Mass more simply to fulfill an obligation. As I refer to Opening Rites here, I refer to them in a very broad way and not simply when the Entrance Hymn begins for Mass.

To benefit most from the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist requires some preparation that begins at home during the week. People need to make time and space for God somewhere in their lives. This can be a clear challenge for a typical family with the demands of work and involvement in community activities and young children and youth or a family member with special needs. At the same time, it is important to reiterate that there is a need to be prepared in order to receive the Lord. Drawing upon the Gospel image of the Sower and the Seed, the only place where the seed produced good fruit was in the fertile soil. The ground of our spiritual lives must be like fertile soil for the seed of faith to grow and develop within us. Time and space for God each and every day is essential, but it usually requires creativity and sacrifice for it to happen.

Looking more specially to the Opening Rites, the first part actually takes place while at home. It requires a reorientation from weekday patterns to focus on an event on a specific day – Sunday. The event is our worship of God as members of community of faith. We adjust or normal pattern of living in order to prepare specifically to hear the Word of God to be proclaimed at Mass. This helps us to allow the Word to have a greater impact in our lives. There are many resources, both in print and online in which the Sunday readings may be found. The USCCB website has the Sunday readings for the entire year on a calendar on their Homepage, both in English and Spanish. Preparation for an enriching celebration of Mass begins by reading through and reflecting on the Sunday Scriptures and possibly sharing with members of the family what they have read prior to Mass. Doing so helps us to prepare our minds and hearts better to hear what God has to say to us in the Scriptures.

Upon our arrival at the parish church, it is nice to have someone welcome us, possibly in in the parking lot, but certainly at the entrance of the church. There is another side to welcoming, however, that is not relegated solely to those parishioners who have been assigned as Greeters and Ministers of Welcome. As each of us arrives at the church, we can proactively greet others ourselves in the parking lot, at the door of the church and as we enter a pew. The Opening Rites of the Liturgy, in part, are about helping us to recognize that we have gathered as members of the Body of Christ. We can each take a role in assuring the person or persons we meet and with whom we share space in the church, that we want them to be with us and we want to be with them. In the process, strangers can become friends and barriers can be overcome. If there is someone with whom we are alienated for whatever reason, we should recall the Gospel teaching of Jesus to first reconcile before bringing our gift to the altar. After all, to receive Holy Communion is to express not only our unity with the Lord, but also with the members of his Body, the Church.

Up to now, what I have described may seem like a lot of busy activity. Actually, it is. It is why there also needs adequate time prior to the beginning of Mass to allow us to focus on the One we will be giving thanks to and to whom we will be offering our praise. Silence prior to Mass should be included in our preparation to begin the celebration. While it is important to greet others and help each other recognize that we have assembled as a community of faith in Christ, we do so for the purpose of focusing less upon ourselves and more so on God wholeheartedly as a people of faith. Worship is never directed to the gathered community but to the God who sent his only begotten Son to die on a cross and rise from the dead for the salvation of the human race. Taking time silently prior to the beginning of Mass directs our worship properly.

Pope Benedict XVI Emeritus emphasized the importance of silence in his work, The Spirit of the Liturgy:

We are realizing more and more clearly that silence is part of the liturgy. We respond, by singing and praying, to the God who addresses us, but the greater mystery, surpassing all words, summons us to silence. It must, of course, be a silence with content, not just the absence of speech and action. We should expect the liturgy to give us a positive stillness that will restore us. Such stillness…a time of recollection, giving us an inward peace, allowing us to draw breath and rediscover the one thing necessary, which we have forgotten. (Spirit of the Liturgy)

When we can take the time and make the effort truly to prepare for the celebration of the Mass, it is generally more enriching. I say generally, because in the lives of every individual parishioner and parish family “stuff” can happen to interfere with the perfect time of preparation. What I have described is more the ideal to strive for but something that all can work toward. With a bit of effort, the ideal can turn into a valued practice that helps us to appreciate ever so much more deeply, the love of God for us in Christ. As I read somewhere once, “The destiny of the Church is to gather all the human family into the peace of Christ’s love.” We all have an opportunity to be instruments of this destiny.