Faith in Public Life Series
The Thomas “Mass”
Richard Rohr’s “catholicism”
By Stephanie Block
While Jim Wallis was launching his new political movement to co-opt the Catholic vote, Fr. Richard Rohr was there to co-opt the Catholic faith.
One reporter gushed with enthusiasm over “a very powerful ecumenical Communion service known as the Thomas Mass on Sunday morning. It was a tangible and credible example of what the Holy Spirit can do when allowed to flow through us. When together we sang ‘They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love,’ my heart overflowed with the possibilities. I wondered, what if all our actions as Christians led others to Jesus because they were performed with love rather than with moral judgment, arrogant certitude or required duty? What if we were truly recognized by our genuine love for one another? How much good could be accomplished then?” [Pauline Hovey, “Conference Brings Gospel Message into Public Arena,” Catholic Herald, Diocese of Arlington, 1-19-2006]
What is this Thomas “Mass?”
At the Emerging Worship website for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Office of Theology and Worship, Rev. John Wesley explains his experiences while on sabbatical in Finland. He had earlier met people who were extolling the St. Thomas “Mass” as a European model for postmodern worship, claiming “this worship service was having a significant impact on worship in northern Europe.” Wesley wanted to see for himself.
Since the St. Thomas “Mass” community began in Helsinki, at the Lutheran cathedral, that’s where he headed as part of his sabbatical itinerary. The pastor of the cathedral community had been frustrated by a worship attendance that was only ten percent of church members. “His church was drowning in a sea of Enlightenment rationalism. He did not believe Fins were antagonistic toward God, but they were not being moved by the sterile ritual of the church.” With about forty others, he “wondered… what worship might need to look like were it to speak to the post-enlightenment person.”
The group consisted of persons from Lutheran, Orthodox, Free Church and Pentecostal backgrounds. For a year they met, prayed and allowed the “holy chaos” to work as they discussed and then began to structure a worship service. Each tradition brought gifts from their church to the formative process. Lutherans brought their deep appreciation for ancient worship patterns and order. The Pentecostals brought their love of prayer and their expectation of the Spirit's presence in worship. The Orthodox in the group brought a love of symbolism, a respect for living in the mystery and a tradition of movement that could transform the “frozen chosen” in the pews into a living body.
The group settled on the name St Thomas Mass because of their desire to host a worship service where doubters, like the disciple Thomas, and other sinners could encounter that which was holy in their lives and in the world and could experience the free gift of God's grace.
The first service was held on April 10, 1988 in Helsinki. No one knew what to expect, but over five hundred people came to that first service. Many had been away from the church for a long time. Some were agnostic. Some were from other churches. Some were professors at the university and some called the street their home. No particular age group seemed to be predominant. They were invited to experience God's grace in word, prayer and table. It was the beginning of an experience that has continued to develop and grow in that city and throughout Finland, Germany, Sweden and other parts of northern Europe. In Helsinki St Thomas Mass continues to be celebrated every Sunday evening from 6-8:00 p.m. The average attendance is between eight hundred and a thousand people. [Rev. John P. Wesley, “St Thomas Mass: Ancient, Post-modern Worship,” www.emergingworship.org/st-thomas-mass.htm]
Of course, it wasn’t a real Mass. It was a “creative service… fresh and innovative” planned week-to-week by different ministers and varying groups of about forty to seventy lay people. There’s a list of about two hundred musicians who can be called on to “lead the gathering” in different musical styles - for compensation.
The structure of this worship service is Mass-like at the beginning. There’s an entrance hymn and a large processional of robed clergy and laity, following an “iconic cross.” “A time of confession includes a public confession, the singing of Kyrie, the prayers of two representatives of the congregation offering a more personal confessional prayer and an absolution pronounced by the celebrant. Having experienced the grace of forgiveness a joyful hymn of praise is sung.”
A period of personal prayer and meditation follows, either from the pew or at various altars or stations set up around the sanctuary, after which worshipers are brought back to the Mass-like structure for scripture readings, a sermon, recitation of “a creed” (as opposed to the Creed), offering, Sanctus, a “Eucharistic” consecration, the Lord’s Prayer, a sung Agnus Dei, a “communion…” For a Presbyterian minister, this must have been rich fare, indeed.
Their method of offering communion was to give the communicant a wafer and then pour wine into a small chalice for each person. There were not enough small chalices for the crowd of 800 or so that were there, so a group of volunteers was constantly taking a tray of chalices to the kitchen to wash them and bring them back. It gave a very earthy feel to the table, a sense that you were using something that had a place in someone’s cabinet. It was a very different feel from the plastic cups used in my church each week.
The table is not restricted. No one determines who can come. The celebrant declared that we cannot do for ourselves what God can do for us. The table is a gift to us from God, a sign of God’s grace freely given. It is not earned by right action but by humble and joyful reception. …. modern seekers are more vagabonds or nomads than pilgrims. They don’t seem to have a final destination. Vagabonds don't know how long they’ll stay where they happen to be today. There are those who are searching for something more in life and he believes rituals have a way of conveying or expressing the central focus of one’s life. That is why…the Eucharist is so important. ‘Vagabonds’ attraction and love for the Eucharist underlines the importance of ritual to postmodern culture. Rituals connect microcosm to macrocosm. They connect a creature with the Creator. They connect the past and the present. They connect me with my inner self and psyche, with my neighbor, with all creation. [Ibid.]
“Mass” at the Politics and Spirituality Conference
Fr. Rohr’s “St. Thomas Mass” at the Washington DC Politics and Spirituality Conference had an ordained Catholic priest presiding (Fr. Richard Rohr) and an evangelical minister (Jim Wallis) as “homilist.” Conference materials explained the service’s Helsinki creation by people who: “wanted to create a prayerful service that would again fill their cathedral, but with seekers, searchers, and believers alike. …. After an initial attempt to create an ecumenical and new liturgy, they realized that it basically had the structure of the historic Catholic Mass. It immediately began to spread across Europe, and both Jim Wallis and Richard Rohr have participated in the Thomas Mass in Munich and other cities. The Thomas Mass avoids the usual denominational turf, arguments, and leadership, while still offering a deeply sacramental structure where disparate groups can gather in a faith-filled way. It retrieves the historic meaning of the very word “liturgy” as a collective work of the people. …We will be using elements of grape juice and bread for Communion. ALL are invited and encouraged to partake at the table.” [Thomas Mass Program, available in the post-conference section of Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation website, www.cacradicalgrace.org/conferences/politics/post-conf//Thomas_Mass_Program.pdf ]
One blogger, fresh from the conference experience and breathless with excitement, gushes: “Does nobody else realize the significance of the confluence of Rohr… and Wallis?”
Yes, actually, some of us do. When Father Rohr tells his audience, this time at the September Politics and Spirituality conference in Pasadena, that St. Francis didn’t waste time opposing the Roman Catholic Church, he just “went to the edge of the Church,” practicing “soft prophesy,” he’s talking about himself and what he hopes to accomplish.
When he tells the story of Moses and the burning bush and the Voice telling Moses to confront Pharaoh, he speaks of the “church” of Leviticus and Numbers, “concerned with priestly questions,” as if that were not also given by God. In the false remnant of the burning bush people, who seek the experience of salvation on their own terms, he is mostly speaking of what he, Richard Rohr, seeks.
Unfortunately, as a spiritual midwife - presiding over a play-acting “mass,” offering revisionist scripture, trying to democratize and politicize religion, particularly among fellow Catholics – his gift to the world is only so much “Rohring” ego-vision. That’s pretty miserly for a fellow who might have brought them to God.