My dear sisters
and brothers in Christ:
No person ever wants to be forgotten, even those who wish to live their lives quietly and even, in some instances, prefer anonymity. How many have carved their initials on a tree, scrawled their initials on freshly poured cement! Yes, memory — being remembered — is an intrinsic part of who we are as we recall persons and places that have played an important part in our lives. Depression and loneliness are often the result of those who believe they are forgotten and abandoned. Not only those suffering impoverishment, physical illness or who are away from family, but anyone — regardless of title or status, monetary success or possessions — can feel unwanted.
At the Last Supper on that first Holy Thursday, when changing bread and wine into His very body and blood, Jesus said: “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22: 19). Jesus wants to be physically present to us in every age. He wants to be remembered and desires so deeply to unite His person with our person. This holy season of Lent beckons us to reflect upon our relationship with Jesus and hopefully to fix Jesus firmly in our memories. If we can forget and ignore Jesus, how easy it then becomes to ignore other persons, to become indifferent toward them, develop an attitude of ingratitude, be it family or friends: our parents, brothers and sisters; those we once called friends; co-workers; the poor; sick and ailing relatives or friends homebound, in nursing homes or healthcare facilities. Lent is a time to sharpen our memories and, in so doing, fulfill the commandments to love God and to love our neighbors.
Each month I receive the report on Mass attendance in all the parishes throughout our Diocese. As you can readily understand, daily I also receive multiple reports covering the different areas of diocesan life. Among all these reports, the one reporting on Mass attendance captures my immediate attention as I review the numbers at each of our parishes. We have yet to achieve the numbers attending Mass prior to the COVID pandemic. While sporting events, entertainment venues and other events are returning to previous attendance levels, and in some instances even growing, this is not the situation with diocesan Mass attendance. Some parishes are doing very well, but others have very low attendance. If churches are to remain open and viable, then Mass attendance by the parishioners is essential. There is an old saying: “In a parish a financial problem is a pew problem,” meaning financial instability occurs when people are not in the pews.
“Do this in memory of me.” If we are physically able, in good health, participating in other activities and performing routine daily tasks outside the home, then it is past time to get back to participating in person at Holy Mass, fulfilling our Sunday obligation. The Church has always taught that those seriously ill and incapacitated or who have an exceptional or grave reason are excused from the obligation to be present at weekly Mass. It is rather ironic, that when there were no Saturday vigil Masses and households had fewer cars, Mass attendance was quite high. We now have vigil Masses on Saturday evening and transportation has become more accessible, yet we are at a low point in Mass attendance.
If we have fallen out of the practice of attending weekly Mass, then this Lent is certainly the opportune time to ask, “Why Not?”, while also recalling the words of St. Paul: “For if I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39). And this love reaches its perfection in our worthy reception of Holy Communion at Mass. We must not allow the scandals created by human beings who terribly scarred innocent lives to interfere with our relationship with God. These scandals that have plagued the Church are due to serious human failings, but not the failings of God, Who desires to unite with us through His Son Jesus in Holy Communion in every conceivable circumstance, especially those that are most tragic and can drag us down. In that Eucharist, it is Jesus, who desires to act through our imperfect humanity, to pick us up.
How often I think of our sisters and brothers, who because of sickness, are unable to be among us for Holy Mass. How very much many of them miss the opportunity to be a part of the worshipping community. If God has blessed us with the health and ability to come to His house, why not be present? “Do this in memory of me.”
As we are now engaged in the Eucharistic Revival, I hope every parish has made increasing Mass attendance its first priority and an initiative strongly supported by our Catholic schools, religious-education programs and parish-sponsored athletic events. As I have said on so many occasions at Masses and ceremonies celebrated with our young people, there must be a procession from the desk or the basketball court to the pews in church. As their Bishop, it is my duty to bring this need for faithful participation at Holy Mass each week to our diocesan community.
Together with the Diocesan Bishop, our priests, deacons, religious and those who assist with the preparations for Holy Mass must accept the responsibility to provide for celebrations of the Eucharistic Sacrifice that are solemn, reverent and uplifting, with well-trained lectors and servers, appropriate music embracing the Church’s rich musical tradition, and enriching, substantial and well-prepared homilies. One of the themes emanating from the diocesan phase of the Universal Synod consultations was the desire for Masses that fully reflect its transcendent nature. Indeed, there are young people, young families that hope for a celebration of Holy Mass that rises above the ordinary, daily activities of their lives.
In his homily addressed to the faithful at Holy Mass on the occasion of Italy’s National Eucharistic Congress in Matera, Italy, on September 25, 2022, Pope Francis said the Most Holy Eucharist presents each of us with a challenge: “to adore God and not ourselves, putting Him at the center rather than the vanity of self.” This is the very essence of the holy season of Lent: to place Christ at the center of our lives and make a dwelling for Him by becoming living tabernacles to receive His Eucharistic Presence.
Pope Francis now speaks often of a “Cancel Culture” that negates our history and denies our right for freedom of expression, particularly in places where our sisters and brothers suffer persecution for professing their Catholic faith. But at times, we who are still free, while also facing constant legislative threats to this freedom, can worship God in our churches, but at the same time freely cancel out Our Lord by our indifference to His presence among us. No doubt, this may not be intentional, but as our lives become busy and so preoccupied by other concerns, we can overlook our need to be in communication with God, the need to pray, and yes, the need to cross over the threshold into our parish church.
When we enter the Lord’s home testifying that we believe in Him, as we gaze upon the centrality of the crucifix in the sanctuary recalling love unbounded on Golgotha, remember that Jesus stretched out His arms in sacrificial love on our behalf. This memory gives us hope. Lent, through prayer, contemplation and memory, awakens “the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope.” The purpose of the Church’s liturgical year is continuously to run through her great memories of Christ come alive in our midst through the Sacraments, especially the living presence of Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist so that we “can discern the star of hope” (see Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Seek That Which Is Above, p. 16.).
If it has been a while since you have come to Church, then allow Lent to be your path home, to hear in person, in the very presence of Jesus, those words of hope, of salvation: “Do this in memory of me.”
“God does not come to light in the artificial world of man-made things. So it is all the more necessary for us to leave our workaday world behind and go in search of the breath of creation, in order that we may meet Him and thus find ourselves” (ibid., 156). And there in the midst of all that God has created, we find His own Son on the altar of sacrifice: “Do this in memory.’”
You are remembered in my prayers as we continue our Lenten journey, each of us placing at the foot of the Cross our own crosses with confidence that Jesus never forgets us.
Asking God’s blessings upon you through the intercession of our Mother Mary and our Diocesan Patron, St. John Fisher, I remain
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend
Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester