Make the Last Gospel the First Thing You Do After Mass
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (John 1:1-3)
One of the joys I have in my life as a priest who is assigned as a formator and as a theology professor is learning from my students.
This semester, I am blessed to offer two different theological seminars in the field of dogmatic theology, both for Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. The Gregorian allows the seminar professor a tremendous amount of flexibility in what he will offer for his student’s reading and reflection.
In the first seminar that I teach on Monday afternoons — and I must admit, a great benefit for both professor and student is that the language of instruction is English, not Italian! — the class is held at the university itself. I have nine students, all from around the world, from countries like Tanzania, Scotland, England and Croatia. Each of these students is a seminarian — some religious, other diocesan — and each of them comes from radically different experiences of the Church and the world. It is a delight to be their professor and, as we read this semester Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, I am learning what theology is like through an international, yet very Catholic, perspective.
In my Tuesday seminar for the Gregorian, which is held at the Pontifical North American College, I am blessed with 12 students, all seminarians for dioceses throughout the United States and Australia. These men are very, very intelligent, and extremely insightful in their knowledge of philosophy. It is one of my goals to assist these young seminarians, just beginning the study of theology, to make that subtle transition from philosophy, the indispensable handmaid of theology, to theology itself. It is fascinating to see that gradual appreciation that comes in their intellectual formation from a fideism or a rationalism to an understanding of theology and philosophy that I try to glean from Pope Saint John Paul II’s magnificent encyclical, Fides et Ratio (1998). For their readings this semester, we are using Pope Saint John Paul II’s masterpiece, Veritatis Splendor (1993) as the synthesis point, a document which uses wisely and properly the fonts of Divine Revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, that moves so well between all of the different theological disciplines — morals, dogmatics, fundamentals, biblical and patristics.
Some of my students, in their philosophy training at the Catholic University of America, were blessed to have as a professor someone whom I never had nor ever met — Monsignor Robert Sokolowski. I had avidly read Monsignor Sokolowski’s book, The God of Faith and Reason (1982), as a seminarian many years ago as well as his text on Eucharistic Presence (1994), and I personally found them to be seminal in the formation of my own theological method.
Sokolowski has a book entitled Christian Faith & Human Understanding: Studies on the Eucharist, Trinity, and the Human Person (Catholic University of America Press, 2006). I am very grateful to a former student of mine who introduced me to Chapter 6 in this wonderful text, “Praying the Canon of the Mass.” At the end of the chapter, Monsignor Sokolowski writes:
I would like to close these reflections on the prayers of the priest by making a suggestion for thanksgiving after Mass. In the old rite, the prayer called the Placeat and the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel were said toward the end of the Mass, before and after the final blessing and dismissal. This prayer and gospel are not used in the new rite, but they can well be recommended as private prayers of the priest after the Mass is over. In the Placeat the priest prays that the sacrifice he has just offered be pleasing to the Holy Trinity and that it be beneficial for himself and those for whom it was offered. In the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel we recall the preexistence of the Word as God with God, the coming of the Word as life and light for men, the acceptance and rejection of the Word, the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus, and the Incarnation among us. These prayerful and biblical thoughts are appropriate as part of the priest’s thanksgiving after the sacrifice of the Mass and the reception of communion. The fact that they were included in the Mass in the old rite shows that their suitability for the Eucharist was recognized in earlier ages. Using them as prayers of thanksgiving will remind us of the continuity between the old rite of the Mass and the new.(94)
I would like to add to Monsignor Sokolowski’s thoughts and suggest that, for a private prayer of thanksgiving after Mass, that prayerfully praying the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John is appropriate not only for priests, but for all Catholics.
Why was this Gospel read, not just at Christmas Mass as is the case in the current Mass, but indeed at the conclusion of every Mass? I believe it was for one reason — to remind us who have just received the Body of Christ to become, in our words and in our deeds, He whom we have just received. We are called to make incarnate, to make flesh, the Eternal Word who was from the beginning, allowing Him to live in us, just as He did in the spotless, immaculate womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Making a private thanksgiving prayer, reflecting deeply on the mystery of Christ, who is living inside him or her after the reception of Holy Communion, is an essential aspect of the Mass and is one, sadly, that is often forgotten in our parishes today. How quickly some of our parishioners run out of Mass after they have received Holy Communion! How odd it appears in some of our parishes when some parishioners actually stay in the Church after Mass to make a prayer of thanksgiving! We have become, in some churches, all too used to the church being a place of conversation after the conclusion of a Sunday Mass.
A good spiritual practice to encourage in our parishes would be to make an act of thanksgiving to the Lord after Mass. Of course, one can also use the time of silence, which is an essential part of the Mass, the time between the ending of Communion Antiphon (or Communion Hymn) and the praying of the Collect after Communion by the priest who is celebrating the Mass, to kneel down, if we can (or sit quietly), in the realization of what exactly has just occurred to us at that moment of the Mass.
At that moment, with the Lord living in us, we are as close to Heaven as we are ever going to be on this earthly plane of existence. The ultimate gift has been given to us. The Word, who was from the beginning, the One through whom all things were made, the One who is Life, Jesus, is living inside of us.
Jean Jacques Olier, S.S. (1608-1657), the founder of the Sulpicians, expressed this sentiment beautifully. He writes: “O Jesus, living in Mary, come and live in your servants, in the spirit of holiness, in the fullness of your power, in the perfection of your ways, in the truth of your virtues, in the communion of your mysteries. Rule over every adverse power, in your Spirit, for the glory of the Father. Amen.”
When we pray the words of the Prologue, it can powerfully remind us of the reality of what is occurring spiritually (and indeed, even physically) to us. We can be given hope when we pray the words of the Prologue. “And this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The world can be a dark place. There are problems, there are difficulties, there are fears and anxieties, but the Lord is right there with us, our food for the journey. The light has conquered the darkness of our world.
When we pray the words of the Prologue, it can remind us that, just as the Eternal, Incarnate Word came to his own, and was rejected, so too, even by our own families and friends, can be rejected when we try to become he who we receive. This is a painful reality for all too many people today. However, we have confident assurance that the Lord is right there with us, in our midst. “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision, but of God.” In the Holy Eucharist, we are made one Body in Christ.
Consider using the Last Gospel as part of your private meditation after Mass. I am very grateful to my student who introduced me to Monsignor Sokolowski’s essay and for his wisdom concerning many things, especially the Eucharist.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be
through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
but his own peopledid not accept him.
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name,
who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.