Full, Active Participation: 7 Ways To Connect More Deeply With Sunday Mass

Priest beginning Holy Communion in front of a full church. Rows of pews are filled with people standing.
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

“I get nothing out of Mass.” How many times have we heard someone utter this dilemma?

Depending on my mood, my mind bounces to one of these thoughts:

⦁ Yes, sometimes I feel the same way.

⦁ Hello? You get out of things what you put into them.

⦁ A silent prayer: ‘Lord, help this person who is seeking you.’

Just like the ebb and flow of emotions, spiritual ups and downs surrounding Mass are a reality. Here are seven ways to get the most out of Mass.

1. Behold the crucifix

I’ll never forget the look of horror on my 5-year-old niece’s face when she saw a crucifix for the first time. She’d never been inside a Catholic church, yet, there she was, face-to-face with a life-sized, blood-paint-covered crucifix in the chapel where she and her family had come for my daughter’s baptism.

Many of us are desensitized to the agony of the crucifixion. Because its semblance hangs over us every Sunday at Mass, we hardly notice or think about it.

As a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, I locate the crucifix whenever I step into church, whether it be my local parish or some out-of-town parish. While I make a sign of the cross, with my finger moist with holy water, I behold Jesus on the cross. It’s my form of greeting to the one — the beginning, the end. It’s the least I can do before I start rattling off my needs and intentions.

I’m glad I show up at Mass to honor him, even if it’s for just one hour.

RELATED: Catholic Mass Isn’t What I Thought It Would Be; It’s So Much More

2. Pray

A second way to get more from Mass is to pray before going, rather than waiting until you get there.

This sounds obvious, but I’m surprised by how many times I think I pray, but instead jump straight to my own answers or assumptions. My spiritual director is a broken record whenever I ask a question or solicit advice. “Did you pray?” she asks. Of course I did! Why do you think I’m here?

Upon reflection, I realize often that I did not actively ask God for help or guidance with a particular situation. And if I did ask, then I may have missed listening for his answer. Instead, I made assumptions or filled in the blanks with my own past experiences.

A prayer from the heart, sincerely asking God for help, means waiting, watching, and listening for the move of the Holy Spirit. As divine guidance is most often found in the Word of God, reading Scripture to discern God’s still, small voice is wise.

Many churches have study groups that gather to discuss the upcoming Sunday’s readings. Participating in such a group means the readings feel warmed up and worn in, not stiff like new leather, come Sunday.

RELATED: Lectio Divina: A Beginner’s Guide

3. Refine your search criteria

A storytelling archetype is where a hero embarks on a journey to seek a coveted prize or to save lives in peril. In the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy goes on a journey to find home, along with the lion who is looking for courage, the scarecrow who wants a brain, and the tin man who desires a heart. Everyone is searching for something different.

What are we searching for in Mass? Is it an inspiring homily? When history tells me not to expect a particular homilist to wow me, I sit up straighter and maybe even close my eyes. I listen more attentively, actively clinging to every word of the priest or deacon (even repeating every word in my head) to squeeze out God’s message for me for the day. Sometimes, just a word or two can speak to a question I had asked the Lord.

Is it a fresh perspective on an all-too-familiar reading? Rather than applying my same old understanding, I search for new interpretations. After Mass, I ask my family what they got out of the readings or homily. Quite often, if I get distracted by a “been there, heard that” reading, their insights help to salvage something from my wandering mind.

Is it music? Rather than going to Mass at your regular time and place, try searching for a different Mass that has a gospel choir, folk choir, or Life Teen band, and sing! Or check out a Latin Mass or an Eastern rite liturgy.

As you search for what inspires you, converse with the Lord, asking for help and guidance.

RELATED: ‘Mass Class: Your Questions Answered’ By Father Dave Dwyer

4. Practice discipleship

Getting better at anything requires practice and training. Ask any athlete, musician, or spelling bee winner. Or ask the Bible. St. Paul says, “Run so as to win.” (1 Corinth 9:24)

To win, training is everything. For what are we training?

“ … the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14)

Training requires discipline. The root word of discipline is “disciple.” At many Catholic schools, students are offered the chance to practice discipleship through Mass attendance almost every week, no matter how inconvenient it may be to squeeze it into the curriculum.

Mass is a training ground for increasing stamina to carry one’s cross with joy, and for the attunement to recognizing the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life. (CCC 1324)

On Sunday, don’t give yourself the option to Zoom into Mass with the camera off or to show up in your body with your mind elsewhere. Train whether or not you feel like it by opting in, and being present and actively engaged.

5. Give thanks always

People like to grumble. When I gave up complaining for 40 days during Lent, I realized how much I really do complain.

Yet, the word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving and the meaning doesn’t change because we don’t always feel thankful for it.

God loved his Son, but when Jesus was hanging on the cross, Jesus didn’t feel the love: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Likewise, the Eucharist is a thanksgiving even if we don’t feel grateful for it or about going to Mass.

Our faith was built on secret gatherings to celebrate the Lord’s supper and to spread the Gospel when lives were at risk for gathering to celebrate faith. In many places in our world, lives are still at risk for practicing our faith. But where I live in the U.S., I get to celebrate Mass. A change in perspective is changing my thinking from I have to go to Mass, to I get to go to Mass. On Sunday, let’s proclaim, “Thank you, Lord, that I get to go to Mass today.” If I am not grateful to be there, I ask for the grace to be grateful about getting to go to Mass.

RELATED: Mass Appeal: How the Mass Speaks to Our Five Senses

6. Treat it like it’s your last

I never knew the Mass I attended in March of 2020 would be my last for an unknown period. Because of the pandemic lockdowns, it was my last meal in a sense, not to mention an end to parish community life. If I had known it would be my last Eucharist, I would have appreciated it more. During my time in exile, I longed for this source and summit of the Christian life!

How do I say goodbye to someone who did the most for me — not knowing when or if we will be reunited? I recall the last times I saw my parents without realizing those were the last times I would see them alive. I wish I had one more chance to tell them I loved them.

You never know when the Lord will call you home. This could be our last Mass; only God knows. Make the most out of it.

LISTEN: Why Do We Celebrate Mass Every Day? 

7. Get involved at church

A church feels more like a home when you get to know the people in your community. When I went to a Welcome Weekend and got to know the pains and joys of those I sat with in the pews, I felt the warmth of my Christian community.

When a Bible study group is a part of my schedule, the words from Scripture feel more relevant and alive.

When I served as a lector and had to practice the readings before Mass (so I could pronounce difficult names and places), the readings spoke to me more than they ever had before.

During my stint as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, never did I feel as close to Jesus in the Eucharist as in this ministry.

I’m reminded of the Gospel words: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” (Mark 10:45) When you serve, you get more.

Even priests don’t always feel like celebrating Mass. Thank God they do anyway. The next time getting to Mass feels like a chore, try practicing some of these tips. Don’t expect perfection from yourself, but a bit of effort, a little involvement, and a whole lot of prayer will help reinvigorate your experience of Mass. Most of all, never give up trying because remember, Jesus, the Eternal Lord of all things, hung in there for us until his last dying breath.