Among the many beautiful churches in St. Louis, the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales must be listed near the top. In fact, the Oratory earned the title of the most beautiful church in the county in 2017 by the Art & Liturgy blog. Living within driving distance of St. Louis, I was waiting for a chance to witness the beauty in person. That opportunity came during a Wednesday-afternoon Low Mass. I had no idea what a Low Mass was at the time, but that gave me one more reason to make the journey.
The Oratory was spectacular. Driving through the city, I could see the 300-foot spire from many blocks away. The massive Gothic structure dwarfed the row houses in the surrounding neighborhood. Inside were ornate stained glass windows, statues and painting of the saints, and an exquisite high altar. The towering nave reminded me of the great medieval churches I had visited in Europe.
After admiring the art and architecture, I found a seat in the back, anxious to find out what a Low Mass is. My attention was shifting back and forth between the intricate mosaics and the worshipers entering the pews. I was surprised that most of people were of my generation, with a slew of children in tow. This was already a different experience from my typical daily Mass, when my attendance decreases the average age by a decade or two. The women all put veils on their heads, which I had thought was merely a relic of the past I had read about in books.
Finally, a couple of vestured men appeared and began to set up for Mass. Just about when I started wondering why the setup was taking so long, everyone stood up, and it was apparent that we were into the gospel reading! I started listening more closely from my spot way in the back, but the little I heard from the priest with his back to me was hardly recognizable.
As I followed the rest of the congregation into kneeling, standing, and the Our Father, the mass began to feel more comfortable. Then my heart sped up as the communion line started to form, and I noticed the use of the communion rail. I had never received communion on the tongue, but it was clear that I was about to learn. My prayer was answered, as I did not let our Blessed Lord drop during reception of the Sacred Host.
Then Mass ended as inconspicuously as it had begun, and everyone filed out the doors, with the ladies piling the veils back up neatly. I followed the crowd and genuflected on my way out of the pew.
As I walked out to my car, trying to make sense of what happened, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What was the point of all that? I could not understand a word of what the priest said. No readings that I could hear, no homily, not even any hymns or prayers of the faithful…”
Being ignorant of the Low Mass at the time, I have since learned that it is a spoken form of the traditional Latin Mass (TLM). In contrast, a Solemn High Mass is a sung TLM. Many of the other artifacts of the Mass were completely new to me, having been born after the Novus Ordo had saturated the Catholic world. Aside from the Latin, ad orientem and communion on the tongue at a communion rail were both new to me.
This Mass was celebrated by the Institute of Christ the King (ICK). The ICK is a relatively young religious order of priests dedicated to preserving and spreading traditional Catholic teachings and the traditional forms of the Mass. In St. Louis, the order has made its home in the beautiful St. Francis de Sales in 2005 and is currently overseeing its renovations.
Back to my Wednesday experience, I was walking back to my car, still scratching my head for the for the purpose of the previous half-hour. Then I stopped dead in my tracks, and it hit me as if I had just walked straight into one of the towering columns: “The Mass is not about what I get out of it. Rather, it is about offering sacrifice as an act of worship!”
While I had heard the lines before about “priesthood of all believers” and “sacrificial nature of the Mass” and “offering our intentions along with the priest,” that was merely a shadowy idea of what I was doing at the Mass. But after this beautiful TLM in which I understood nothing, it became crystal-clear to me that my presence and intentions were nevertheless efficacious and touched by grace.
In addition to the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Mass is also a sacrifice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states this in section 1368:
In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value.
This is the essence of the Mass.
This is why we show up every Sunday.
This is our act of worship.
Quality of the music, inspiration of the homily, and beauty of the sanctuary are all good things and have their appropriate place in the liturgy. However, once all of this was stripped away, I was finally able to see the true purpose and beauty of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The beauty of a church made by the hands of men led me to visit St. Francis de Sales. But I left with a profound appreciation of a liturgy made by the divine.